By Simon Wright
Think not what a football club can do for you but rather what can you do for a football club. This message was a little shocking to supporters of the former Hereford United FC. Edgar Street regulars are accustomed to having a professional staff to do all the heavy lifting. But the brutal truth is if Shire folk – and exiled fans– wanted a Hereford FC then we’d all have to muck in. We do have a handful of paid staff, who all put in far many more hours than they are paid for but volunteers have to pick up most of the day to day tasks; Ticket sales, turnstile operating, stewarding, running a club shop. Sounds familiar?
As an exile with other responsibilities plus a Premier League club to endure, I thought I could best contribute by selling stuff before home matches. Also frustrated by the lack of information, I started to research details for away games – Ground Guides – and share them. Virtually every away ground is unknown territory. What is a Sporting Khalsa? Where do Continental Star play, do Shepshed really play at Butthole Lane and is spirit required at Dunkirk? (A Sikh owned community club, Rushall, Yes and Yes – we needed a 93rd minute winner). I quickly learnt that the best way to gather information is to visit the ground. The internet age is never likely to percolate through to Step 5. The Highgate Chairman’s face was a picture when I rolled up in my Hereford top just one hour after the fixtures were released.
Last season was relatively straightforward for me as no ground was more than 50 miles from my house. I made lots of recce visits and these were eye-openers. Yes, Midland Football League grounds are modest but, my aren’t the volunteers marvellous? There is always a warm welcome for a curious visitor despite their workloads, no petty obstacles, no “git orf my land” attitude. This was a revelation to me, having been previously immersed in the mutually suspicious world of professional football.
As the season reached a climax, we were regularly taking 1,000 supporters to away games. There was heightened interest in do’s and don’ts on the road. The club programme featured a version of Ground Guides which fits within programme conventions. Meanwhile our revived fanzine Talking Bull had a variant guide which is more earthy and strongly flavoured. Sort of prose garlic if you like.
Finishing as top dog in Step 5 bought Hereford an entry pass to the Southern League South and West. Higher level, same questions. Bishops Cleeve was surely a new member of Fishermens Friends and where do Paulton Rovers play? Given the distances involved from my Black Country base, I had to ask other exiles to do some of the visiting. I told them “Just turn up unannounced on a Friday or a Saturday at a new ground, you’ll be fine. Works for me.”
Those words almost came back to haunt me on a warm June Saturday. We’d just completed a Norwegian cruise and landed back at Southampton. AFC Totton was my first target which all went well. And then onto Winchester FC.
My sat nav sent me left, right, left, right, move it all about through a Winchester housing estate which didn’t look the best. It appeared to be sending me towards a “civic amenity” site. There can’t be a football club down here, thought I, wondering whether my electronic aide needed more flying lessons. But the sat nav was spot on as I quickly realised in a green belt nirvana.
But Winchester’s main gate was locked and with massive hedges all around, my prospects of even grabbing a few photographs didn’t look good. I was not happy as I have a 100% success access rate on a Saturday. I headed down a delightful green alley and came across a preserved tree which was jolly nice but there was no alternative entrance. Determined not to give up, I shuffled around to the other side of the ground, dodging the traffic flow to the egg chasers. Rugby is not my game, can you tell?
I was not feeling the vibe of hope when, to the left of what turned out to the clubhouse, I discovered a side gate. Better still two club volunteers Dave and Sally, “the entire volunteer workforce” (I assume they weren’t serious) were in action. Whew! They were ever so pleasant and acted as if Hereford supporters visiting the club was a weekly occurrence. Perhaps I was marginally more interesting than weeding?
Dave, Sally and then Chairman Paul were most happy to answer my endless questions … and responded with a few of their own. I was happy to clarify some perceptions about Hereford supporters. Paul kindly escorted me around the clubhouse. The defibulator caught my eye as did the tent in the middle of the visitors dressing room, which I was assured isn’t a regular feature. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a club bar which doubles up as a day nursery but why not.
Everyone at Winchester was so helpful and what a lovely location to play in! Our fanzine later received 750 words plus photographs, the club programme 500 mainly different words with more illustrations plus – a new feature – I contributed to an audio feature on Winchester for our radio internet station Radio Hereford FC. I hope my words really encourage our supporters to travel to the Denplan and we promise, as ever, to be noisy. Us followers of phoenix clubs need to stick together.
This article was supplied to Winchester FC ahead of the weekend fixture, but for some reason was not published.