Wednesday 28 August 2019

Bury FC Expelled From The EFL: Why Our Football Clubs Need Protecting

If you were to explain to someone why you supported a football club, how would you do it? How can you covey the feelings that connect you to your club? Why you spend copious amounts of time and money following a football team around the country for (often) very little reward?

As of the 27th August 2019, Bury FC have been expelled from The Football League after 125 years of membership – and I defy anyone watching, listening or reading the outpouring of emotions from their supporters to not understand why they supported their football club. Because, as I find myself repeating progressively as time goes on, watching football is about more than just watching football.

It’s difficult to comprehend why this has happened – we know how it’s happened; the club couldn’tprove to the EFL that they had sufficient funds to see them through the season, and proposed takeover deals collapsed or didn’t have enough time to go through – but it’s hard for me to understand why a succession of club custodians (and the EFL) has allowed Bury to get into this state.

Ever since the club was served notice of their possible expulsion, one word has been a constant in the national and local news coverage – community. It can be easy to forget in the times we live in (where the cost of transfer fees and the wages of players are thrown in our faces through television and the internet), that football clubs are supposed to represent a town, the people sat in the seats, a collective ideal, even. Football clubs should not represent the avarice of businesses and amateurish penny pinchers. Sadly, many have forgotten that.

Bury FC: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Money has always been difficult to come by for Bury – living on the doorstep of two of English football’s biggest clubs tends to cut into the number of supporters and sponsorships you can get. So already, money is scarce; investments need to be thought out intelligently and preferably, backed up with a safety net. Over the years, they haven’t had this – getting into financial struggles that have threatened but not, seen them go out of existence as a Football League club. Until now.

The problem for clubs further down the pyramid is that there is a lack of interest from investors who a) know what they’re doing, b) have genuine intentions and c), have the money to put their plans into place. This is where the league needs to step in to protect these clubs – one of the more alarming facts to stem from this sorry mess was Bury owner, Steve Dale’s, business record. Out of the 51 businesses he had involvement with 43 have beenliquidated. Now I appreciate that the EFL were under pressure at the time to sort a deal for Bury out (Dale purchased the debt-ridden club from Stewart Day for £1), but based on that evidence alone, he should have never passed ‘the owner and directors test’ – you can get a good picture of his record by simply looking online.

So what can the EFL do? It needs to realise the true value of clubs. It needs to put in place new legislation to prevent things like high-interest loans from beingtaken out on football grounds. It needs a new way of deciding whether the guardians (because that’s what they are) have it within them to look after the club. It needs to find a way to have more supporter or local council involvement at board level to protect these community assets.

The Effect Football Has On The Local Community

Community assets are precisely what our football clubs are. Visualise what’s around the ground of your local club – there’s likely a plethora of shops, chippys, pubs, restaurants, hotels, etc. Even if your local ground is in the middle of nowhere, people will visit your town just to see a football match, perhaps even for the weekend – it may be the only reason that most visitors have in coming to your locality. So the local economy, people’s jobs and livelihoods are majorly impacted by the standing of the local football club.

Community is about families too. The busy lives we live may mean that we don’t see each other that often – football gives us that opportunity to get together and be a family. Family isn’t just about blood ties, either – football provides the means for mates, who have known each other for years, to get together to enjoy a common hobby and have a laugh. People can make new friends with those who they sit near – some people even fall in love after meeting at the football. Our clubs are the home for the family it has created and without them, our towns and lives would be poorer without them. This is why the EFL needs to put those changes in place to protect them.

My last visit to Gigg Lane was in 2015, as part of my ‘doingthe 92’ book project. Back then, things were looking positive for the club – I even commented on how previous owner, Stewart Day, was spending money, bringing in signings that would get them to League One and beyond. Oh dear.

As I was reading back at what I had experienced that day, this particular section seems somewhat poignant in the circumstances: 

As I take my seat in the main stand, the PA tells us that a man at the game today is celebrating his 100th birthday (even he wasn’t born when they won the FA Cup) - in comparison, the (supporter) mascot is 5 years old. For me this is what some people who criticise the game don’t get about football - clubs like Bury are very-much rooted into their local communities, catering for all people, some of whom are 95 years apart. All we’ve heard in the last few weeks is about new television deals and high ticket prices, clubs like Bury show that football is for families, for everyone. 

Whatever happens to the club from here (the likelihood is that, without any re-admittance into the EFL, they will be wound up), I hope (I know) the supporters will group together and give the town a football club again. In the meantime, English football has got a lot to do to ensure that nothing like this happens again – the work starts now.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Atherton Collieries vs. Warrington Town

After missing out on Atherton Collieries’ historic friendly against Saudi Arabian giants, Al-Ittihad the other week, the next best thing would be for me to attend their next historic match – Colls’ first (home) game at the 7th level of English football. So I did.
Atherton Collieries Football Club - Alder House - Skuna StadiumWith the Northern Premier League starting the weekend just gone, Colls’ reportedly put in a spirited performance to draw their opening Premier Division match 2-2 at Ashton United (Ashton-under-Lyne, by the way – not Ashton-in-Makerfield near me, where I saw the annual Joseph’s Goal Charity game at Ashton Town FC in May).

I’m catching the train from work; I’m lucky (?) enough to make a living in Wigan’s town centre, so the train stations are just a short hop away. The closest train to kick-off is due to set off for the 12-minute journey at 6:57pm, so after leaving work at 5:30, I nip to The Moon Under Water to treat myself to some jackbit – a ‘tuna and cheese Panini’ – the crème de la crème of the Wetherspoons menu.

Located barely a 10-minute walk away from Atherton station, Alder House (currently known as ‘The Skuna Stadium’ for sponsorship reasons) is neatly located behind the tightly-packed streets. On approach to the ground, I can hear the speaker booming out pre-match music; I wouldn’t like to live here – especially if I didn’t like football. Then again, I wouldn’t like to live right next to any football stadium – I enjoy the journey to the ground because, for me, the match starts as soon as you leave the front door of your house. That trip to the ground could be a 15 minute walk or a 5-hour cross-country drive or train trip; your destination is the stadium but so many thoughts and feelings, laughs and pints can be experienced along the way. Football is more than just what happens in the 90-odd minutes.

Atherton Collieries sum up the true spirit of a community football club.  Formed by local miners in 1916 as a means of providing those involved with the war effort some activity outside of work, the nationalisation of the mines in 1947 saw the club gifted to the town of Atherton.  To reflect their history, the club has kept the ‘Collieries’ suffix – being a fan of history and tradition myself (especially if it places a unquie spin on a club and its supporter base), I think that’s brilliant. Since then, they have continued to progress in local leagues, coming into prominence in recent years as they've won promotions from the 10th tier to the 7th in just 5 years.  Notably, current Wigan Athletic winger Anthony Pilkington spent some time here before leaving for Stockport, then Norwich City (playing in the Premier League for them) and Cardiff City.

Today’s opponents, Warrington Town, are highly-fancied this season; missing out on promotion last term, due to the restructuring of non-league which saw a confusing ‘Super Play-Offs’ introduced. Despite winning the Northern Premier League play-offs (normally meaning winning a place in the National League North), they had to face Southern League play-off winners, Kings Lynn. Sadly, they lost the final (played at their home ground) 2-3 after extra-time.

They’re an ambitious club, with designs on eventually reaching The Football League. When you consider that Warrington is one of the largest towns in the country without a Football League side (the Borough has a population of >200,000), the potential is there to grow a substantially-sized Football League club. Another great thing about football though, is that it can be a great leveller, making a mockery of such ‘advantages’ and having these two teams playing in the same league (Atherton has a population of just over 20,000, by the way).

Atherton Colls - Alder Street - Skuna Stadium

With Bolton Wanderers’ midweek game against Doncaster being called off (the club were concerned about the welfare of their youth players, who have had to step up to play for the first-team due to their ongoing financial issues), Colls’ were offering Bolton supporters free entry to tonight’s match. There’s a few of them knocking about as I walk in – their Bolton club gear no doubt being worn in pride and defiance, despite the situation their club is in. I nearly got my Wigan season ticket out as a joke/to potentially gain free entry – then again, with many of the Colls’ committee members apparently being Bolton fans, they may have charged me more.

As I've not attended a non-league game for a while (only the tightly-governed professional matches), I forget about the novelty of bringing a beer out to the side of the pitch. My first port-of-call once through the turnstile is to Colls' clubhouse – and I see that sponsors Skuna make beer, so I get a pint of their ‘Smooth craft beer’. Not bad.

Speaking of sponsorship; Lupine Travel, a Wigan travel firm that’s known for its rather ‘off the beaten track’ tours, is sponsoring Colls’ training kit this season. With their Wigan-Pyongyang tour for next year booked up already, they have offered one from Atherton too – holidaymakers can take in a Colls’ game before embarking on the train journey that goes from Atherton to Wigan, London to Paris, across Western Europe to the East, through to China and eventually, North Korea . Like the Wigan trip, it sold out very quickly – but don’t worry if you’re intrigued as Lupine are running another tour from nearby Hag Fold after they (controversially, in my opinion), won a Twitter poll over my local Wigan train stop, Pemberton.

Atherton to Pyongyang - Lupine Travel - North Korea Tour

Whilst there are spots of rain in the air, I go and sit in the small stand by the entrance side of the ground. There’s another covered stand on the other side, with the rest of the ground open to the elements – Warrington have brought plenty of support and they’ve stood behind one of the goals, singing and banging a drum. The crowd immediately around me are a good mix of ages – from young kids with their replica shirts to an old lady sat next to me with her black-and-white Colls’ scarf on – again, summing up the community aspect of Colls’ and non-league football in general. It’s whilst sat here that I spot Lupine’s VISIT IRAQ advertisement hoarding behind one of the goals – apparently it's one of their more popular destinations. I just hope the net the ad sits behind will be the destination for some good goals tonight!

The two teams walk out to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – through a rather extravagant Fly Emirates­­-branded retractable tunnel. It’s (obviously/probably) been donated to the club – and it does make me laugh as they don’t really need it. It doesn't even match up with the door to the changing rooms – the players even have to walk up some steps to get to them!

Colls’ start well; a shot from all of 25 yards hits the post, rebounding out to an attacker whose resulting header went just wide. Warrington took this as a warning and quickly endeavoured to take control of the ball – they seem very adept at switching the play from defence to attack quickly, leaving their opponents chasing shadows.

Warrington take the lead around the 25th minute; a quick exchange of passes sees an attacker with a sight of goal, but before he can act upon it, he’s clipped and the referee blows up and points to the spot. The penalty was neatly converted past ex-Wigan youth keeper Theo Roberts – and just 3 minutes later, he was picking the ball out of the net again when Tony Gray headed home. “He’s bald but he doesn’t care, Tony, Tony Gray’ sing the Warrington contingent about their striker.

Atherton Collieries vs. Warrington Town - August 2019

Colls’ waste a decent chance when a free-kick is crossed high into the Warrington penalty area and with a free header, the attacker doesn’t even get it on target. They were quickly punished – a thunderous strike from outside the Colls penalty area puts the visitors three goals up. Hard lesson to learn for the Premier League newbies here. “You’re just a bus stop in Wigan” sing the visiting supporters – bit harsh; they’re a train stop at least.

With the rains starting to come down hard during half-time, I was glad that I was able to nip for a cup of tea just before the break – I’m now snugly sat back in the stand whilst much of the 645 crowd are getting soaked. Some Warrington supporters come to sit in the stand just before the start of the second half, one of whom waxes lyrical about the size of the crowd that’s turned up – this sort of crowd would be decent for the National League North, let alone this division below it.

Warrington grab a fourth after an hour played, putting the game to bed – moments after Roberts made a great double-save, the ball was whipped back in and headed home. It’s just a question of ‘how many they’ll get’ now.

Or is it?

Colls’ haul themselves back into the game with two quick-fire goals – first a header from a corner sees the ball power into the top corner of the net and then a clumsy trip allows Gareth Peet to step up and smash home a penalty. The Colls supporters are buoyed now; shouting on their side, whilst those Warrington supporters sat nearby, are audibly nervous.

The match turns into a great watch in the last quarter as both sides are pushing for the next, crucial goal – I’m that invested, I decide to get involved. The ball is kicked out near us and bounces on the concrete. Despite the Warrington supporters pleas of ‘take your time’, I move quicker than The Flash to fag the ball and chuck it back to the Colls’ left-back. If they DO come back from this, I’ve played my part.

Into the last 10 minutes and Colls come within a whisker of getting their third – a shot from outside the area (visibly) rattles the post. You sense that was their last chance to set up a barnstorming finish – and it was. Warrington held on for a win that they (their supporters, anyway) probably thought they had wrapped up at half-time. They nearly didn’t.

Atherton Colls 2 Warrington Town 4 - Scoreboard

On the way back to the station, I reflect on Colls’ performance, although seeming nervous at times, they did show promise. They played one of the promotion favourites tonight, after all, so a first half hiding off them shouldn't be that much of concern (more of a 'welcome lesson'). Everything I’ve experienced at the ground tonight was impressive and I hope Colls can establish themselves at this level and grow even more. 

I’m just hoping the train I’m on stops in Wigan and not North Korea; I’ve got work and more tuna-and-cheese Panini’s to eat tomorrow. 

Atherton Collieries 2

Warrington Town 4

Attendance: 645

Friday 2 August 2019

The New Football Season Cometh

Crusty The Pie - Wigan Athletic Mascot
As I’m writing this, the ‘start’ of The Football League and National League season is barely 15 hours
away (I say ‘start’, as Luton Town and Middlesbrough have just played out an enthralling 3-3 draw, live on the telly).

Nevertheless, in a few short hours, near enough a million people will be winging their way to football grounds across the country, walking, driving, catching the coach, train or tram. Supporters everywhere will be going out for the first time in their new replica shirts; singles, couples, families and mates.

Whilst on their way, they may stop off at a favourite pub, café, restaurant, shop, food stall, ice cream van (it has been warm!); supporting the businesses and communities that surround a football club. Chats will be had about the game, their hopes for the season aired, as dreams of success are created. The more technological fans will be taking photos of themselves, others, the scenes around the ground, posting them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for everyone to know that the football season is back.

On arriving at their destination and before they take up their seat/spot, friends who haven’t seen each other since May will shake each other by the hand again, swapping stories of their summer. Pints will be sunk and pies will ate – as they await for the drama to unfold on the pitch.

The two teams will come out to applause that probably won’t be as loud for the rest of the season – those clapping are doing it enthusiastically after missing being at a game for so long. Then everyone will settle down to watch; all the new players and the old ones too. New managers playing new tactics, the old managers playing their usual ones – or perhaps something new. The opening game, especially, will be a dull affair or an exciting end-to-end slugfest – and we’ll love it either way. Perhaps there’ll even be a number of goalmouth scrambles to get excited about as well?

This is what the start of the season is for many of us, and we can’t wait!

Crusty The Pie – The Football Mascot We Didn’t Know We Needed, But Got

Just to rope in the name of this blog (again), it would be amiss of me not to celebrate my own team’s novel approach to supporter engagement (and marketing in general) for the new season. Crusty The Pie, the brand-new Wigan Athletic mascot, has been a social media sensation today. Covered on the BBC Sport website, Sky News, ESPN, even NBC in the States, Wigan’s perceived love of pies led to a club competition that saw two children create an amphomorphic pie, complete with his own kit that has ‘Crusty 8 The Pie’ on the back!

I must admit that I was slightly unnerved at first – as ever, I worry about how the decisions taken by the club would be perceived by the wider football community. Would it make the club look backward? No, the vast majority of people loved it – pies and football go hand-in-hand for some supporters and so you could say that Crusty is seen as an embodiment of what being a football supporter is about.

One of the reasons why I do get worried about this kind of thing, is that the 'Wigan is famous for pies' stereotype is born out of a reputation that has been manufactured – yes, we do have many independent bakeries and chain outlets selling the culinary delight, but so do many other towns in the North of England.

The ‘Pie Eaters’ moniker was created during the events of the 1926 general strike when Wigan miners were starved back to work, whilst their colleagues in Leigh, and other nearby towns, stayed put (easy to do so, when you’ve food to eat). Brilliantly, this furthering of the myth helps to get one over on those who tried to shame the town; as we take the name for ourselves, creating a culture which has ultimately seen Wigan’s children create a football mascot with!

From a marketing standpoint, it’s a genius move – the aforementioned news outlets have had tens of thousands of people liking, sharing and commentating on the story. There’s no real negatives to it – after all, it’s a mascot designed by kids, for kids – any adults getting upset over it should have think again, to be honest. As a (literal) Pie Eater, I’m just hoping the quality of the actual pies at the ground improves!

So here’s to a great season of repartee, entertainment, pints and pies – I’ll be kicking off mine tomorrow, with my season of groundhopping also starting very soon.