The English game is about so much more than the fine-tuned millionaires playing in the top division, and the culture of the sport in this country is both rooted in and a product of the fact that so many of us will watch football anytime, anywhere. Danny Baker often says that the football supporter will pull up at a red light in his or her car and, if there happens to be a football match going on nearby, will watch for a few seconds. In all likelihood, we'll even make a split-second decision and pick a team to support.
As a football nation it's a real source of pride that we turn out of a Saturday afternoon to watch matches to a depth other countries can only imagine. Non-league is a difficult existence for many clubs but as supporters we can - and do - get our fix anywhere. Non-league football is down to earth, vibrant and real. Sure, you won't find Wayne Rooney or Leo Messi there, but the players work hard and take a huge amount of pride in what they're doing. More importantly, the clubs at that level are much loved in their communities and they need our support to maintain that.
Back in December, Tooting & Mitcham United (yes, them again) midfielder turned left-back Jamie Byatt sustained a nasty cruciate knee ligament injury while playing for the club. These injuries happen all the time, but at Ryman Premier League level they pose the same problems as they would for you or me. Byatt is a self-employed scaffolder and the father of a baby girl born in February. Because of his injury he is out of action during the working day as well as in his football career and is currently receiving a small amount of money from club insurance and statutory sick pay.
Having been told that his knee operation would not take place for another four months on the NHS, the former Kingstonian and Met Police man took out a loan in order to secure a private operation in nine days' time. That's not to play football - he won't be doing that at all this year - it's to get himself back to work and start supporting his young family. These are the real problems faced by footballers in non-league and they are not problems the likes of Jamie Byatt would face were it not for their participation in the game.
And now, on to the heartwarming bit. Saturday was a wonderful day for Tooting. On the pitch, the Terrors rode a Simon Parker goal and a double from goalscoring phenomenon Paul Vines all the way to an unexpected but emphatic 3-1 win over runaway leaders Dartford. On the sidelines, TMUFC director of football and matchday operations Nigel Wood had organised a whip-round for Byatt and collected £775 on the day (the figure is now nudging £1,000 which is a huge contribution towards Byatt's costs), a remarkable gesture from the supporters with whom the player is clearly very popular.
Byatt went out of his way to thank the supporters online through Wood, and also spoke to the local press to express his thanks. I'll be chucking in a tenner next time I get down to Imperial Fields (which I'll be doing a whole lot of next season, by the way) and I wish Jamie all the best in his recovery. Hopefully we'll see him back on the field as soon after Christmas as possible.
This is what non-league football is all about. It's about real people, their stories and their passions. Jamie Byatt's a pretty good example of that and it's no surprise to see the fans on the Bog End helping him out.