Saturday 14th,  March 2020. That date hangs around in my mind right now as it was the last time that I got to see a football match, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the best. My club Alsager Town were beaten 3-0 at home to Cammell Laird 1907 in front of a crowd of 100+, one of our better gates this season, with the result dumping us into the relegation zone for the first time this campaign with just ten games to go.

A month later, the country is in Coronavirus lockdown, and football at Steps 3-7 of the English football pyramid has been abandoned and the 2019/20 season declared null and void. That game against Cammell Laird 1907 didn’t happen, and neither did the preceding twenty-seven league games. These are strange and unprecedented times.

The decision made by the FA to expunge the season’s results from the record books has probably done Alsager Town a favour in one sense: we are no longer facing a relegation battle. But in another, it has left us facing a different kind of battle, one of simply surviving, as we try to deal with the bills coming in without any regular sources of income.

Alsager Town – the Bullets, the club’s nickname coming from the former Royal Ordnance Factory that was located at Radway Green on the edge of the town – play their football at Step 6 of the football pyramid in First Division South of the North West Counties Football League. The club has been in and around this level for more than twenty years having outgrown local leagues.

I am a Trustee and Vice Chairman of the club, having arrived with colleagues in 2011 having previously been with the now-defunct Biddulph Victoria where I’d worked with Alsager Town’s two other Trustees. Our Chairman at Alsager is Terry Greer who managed Biddulph Victoria before becoming the club’s Chairman. Terry is a local semi-pro legend, who has been in the game for almost forty years, winning twenty-nine trophies as a manager. He was also responsible for bringing Port Vale’s record goalscorer Tom Pope into the game, blooding him at Biddulph and selling him to Crewe Alexandra.

When we arrived at Wood Park – the Bullets’ home – we inherited a bit of a financial mess, and the club’s facilities were in need of some TLC. But the most important thing that we inherited was a team of committed, incredibly loyal and hard-working volunteers who have been the heart and soul of the club for many years. As far as I see it, part of my role at the club is to try and help make their lives easier.

The end of the football season may bring a period of respite for the players, but that’s certainly not the case for the club’s volunteers, and indeed, it can be as busy as it ever is during the season. The playing surface needs attention. Routine maintenance and renovation projects go ahead. Pre-season training and fixtures are planned and arranged. And all this at a time when the club’s income dries up for a period; we don’t sell thousands of season tickets at Alsager Town.

Our first pre-season at Wood Park was the most eventful yet, and I hope that we never have to go through another like it. After spending a couple of months renovating the changing rooms and clubhouse, we were almost ready for the start of our pre-season fixtures, and the first was scheduled for a Tuesday evening early in July, with Stafford Rangers the visitors to Wood Park. I will never forget the call I received from Terry on the morning of the day of the game. I was at work, about to go into an important meeting when my phone rang.

 

“Hiya Terry, alright?”

“Well, no, not really”

“Why what’s wrong?”

“We had a fire last night; it completely destroyed the changing rooms and clubhouse”

 

The fire left the club on the verge of going out of business, just a few months after our arrival. Everyone at the club was devastated, not least our gang of volunteers that had grafted solidly for a couple of months to get the club ready for the new season. However, within a few months, we were back on track. Once again, the club’s band of volunteers stepped up to the plate, the Trustees pulled in a few favours, the local authority – Cheshire East Council – were tremendous, as were the Cheshire FA and the North West Counties Football League.

We played all of our fixtures away from home until November, by which time – thanks to donations and pro-bono efforts from building contractors and suppliers – we had replaced the changing rooms which allowed us to host home games once more. And twelve months later, we had a brand-new clubhouse thanks to a substantial grant from the Football Foundation and fundraising by the Trustees and members. This was the football family in action. Clearly, we wouldn’t have wanted it to happen this way, but the fire proved to be a blessing in disguise in that we ended up with better facilities than when we arrived. However, the disruption that it caused put our plans to develop the club some years. Money that was earmarked for other things went into the renewal projects.

And then a couple of seasons later, we were relegated from the Premier Division to the First, which is where we find ourselves today. So it’s fair to say we’ve had some ups and downs. And there are almost permanent challenges when running a small semi-pro club. Firstly and most importantly, clubs like ours are wholly reliant on the goodwill and loyalty of its Trustees and volunteers; they would not be able to function without them, and in our case, it is fair to say ours saved the club back in 2011.

Money will always be a big factor, even at our level. Players expect to be paid, and it’s no coincidence that the clubs with the bigger budgets are the ones that tend to do better on the pitch. We have to raise around £50,000 each season to keep the club going, but we manage a tight ship at Wood Park based on our Chairman’s very simple rule: we don’t spend more than we bring in. Maybe that’s something that the professional game might wish to consider?

We always have issues relating to a high turnover of players and managers. Alsager Town doesn’t put players on contracts, as that brings a whole host of issues that a club of our size simply doesn’t need. But this means that players are fairly free to move around, and often do for the smallest reason, such as being offered an extra £5 a week elsewhere, or they want to play for a club where they have friends. In addition, players will often follow a manager.

When Terry first took the reins, the manager in charge at the time resigned, and the whole first-team squad followed him; the next day, the club had a Cheshire Senior Cup tie away at Altrincham, one of the big names of non-league football. Terry had to take charge and fielded a team made up of players from our youth section, none of whom Terry had met before, and who had never played this standard of football. Altrincham beat the very young Alsager team 12-1, the club’s record defeat.

During our relegation campaign of 2015/16, we registered around 90 players during the course of the season, and we probably aren’t far off this season. Both of those seasons saw a change of manager who wanted to bring in new faces.

But we’ve had some good players at the club in our time. Walsall striker Josh Gordon had a short spell with the Bullets netting a number of times. Full-back Cohen Bramall made the headlines back in 2017 when he signed for Arsenal from Hednesford Town; three years prior he had a spell with Alsager Town. Things didn’t work out for Cohen at Arsenal, but he’s still in the professional game at Colchester United.

Our big success story though is Crewe Alexandra midfielder Ryan Wintle, who has been described as the best box-to-box midfielder in League Two. Ryan joined Alsager Town as a seventeen-year-old kid during the 2014/15 season and quickly settled into the first team alongside one of the side’s older heads, Pete Heler. Ryan made twenty-five appearances and scored eight goals, and it probably would’ve been more if he hadn’t been spotted by Crewe.

We’d taken a young player on loan from Crewe, and to be honest, he wasn’t handling the cut and thrust of the non-league game very well, and so for a cup tie with AFC Liverpool, he was left on the bench. Predictably, a representative from his parent club turned up to watch the game and enquire as to how he was progressing. He was sent on as a second-half substitute by which time the representative had left!

A few days later, our Chairman Terry received a call from Crewe to say that they’d be interested in taking a look at our young midfielder Ryan Wintle. After a short trial, Ryan signed for Crewe for a small fee, making his debut for the club the following season. He’s since gone on to establish himself as a key member of Crewe’s side and was an ever-present last season.

Of course, we’ve had players make the opposite journey, from the pro game down to us. Among those that have pulled on the black and white shirt during our time at the club are former Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Watford full-back Neil Cox, former Port Vale midfielder Andy Porter, former Tottenham Hotspur and Portsmouth winger Andy Turner who has twice managed the club, and most recently former Crewe Alexandra, Burnley and Northern Ireland forward Steve Jones, who will be player/coach at the club whenever football resumes.

Prior to our arrival, former Port Vale players Dean Stokes and Michael Walsh graced the turf at Wood Park, as did Karl Robinson, now manager of Oxford United. And thanks to Terry, we maintain good links with the rest of the local non-league clubs, and through him and the head of our youth section, good links with the pro game. Former Burnley goalkeeper Brian Jensen – now goalkeeping coach at Shrewsbury Town – occasionally coaches our goalkeepers, and before last Christmas, we hosted a youth training day, run by Manchester United’s assistant manager Mike Phelan.

These links with the pro game help with fundraising, and we have hosted sportsman’s evenings with the likes of Lou Macari, Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence, Dean Saunders, Terry Conroy, Mark Crossley, George Berry, John Rudge and Brian Little, while we occasionally secure pre-season fixtures with Port Vale and Crewe Alexandra.

People often tell us that we’re mad doing what we do. Terry is retired, yet the Chairman’s role is virtually a full-time job. Terry has done virtually every job going at the club, including managing the first team. I work full-time, though I’m self-employed which brings some flexibility, and so the jobs I do are more limited. That said, I produce and edit the matchday programme, which can be challenging if you get three homes games in a week (which has happened), while I also focus on fundraising, which is equally challenging, and I have also manned the gate.

And it gets harder each season. Bureaucracy is constantly on the rise. Those who volunteer with the club are getting older. While money is getting tighter to mention. But it gives you a real sense of achievement, of giving something back. That you are helping to keep something alive. And these last nine years have given me some great memories and funnies that I’ll never forget.

During an FA Cup tie with Athersley Recreation, their travelling fans kept chanting “we hate ducks, we hate ducks, we hate ducks” which had me baffled. It turned out that their local rivals were Shaw Lane Aquaforce whose nickname was the Ducks, and ironically, we played them in the next round after beating Athersley. During the same game, their supporters banged away on the back of the stand, making a right old racket. And after a while, we had a visit from a lady who lives next to the ground to complain that her husband was working nights and he couldn’t sleep, and she demanded that Terry shut them up. So Terry strolled around and asked the travelling contingent if they could refrain from their banging. And they did. And as Terry walked away, the piped up with their loudest chant yet: “we’re not banging anymore…” The lady’s husband eventually gave up trying to get some rest and instead came and watched the game. You don’t get that at Old Trafford.

And last summer’s search for a new manager was interesting, to say the least. After Andy Turner left the club for a second time, we had a healthy number of applicants and decided to interview six candidates. One of the candidates was – I’d say – in his mid-twenties, and in his interview made all sorts of claims about what he’d been a part of as a coach at our level, and that he’d spoken to Andy Turner about the club and the job. Of course, we were going to do our due diligence. I spoke to Andy who’d never heard of him, and neither had the clubs he claimed he’d coached at. Was he an X-Box manager?

But the second interview of that week saw us face-to-face with a candidate that had had fourteen UK top forty singles and represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, and had managed in the Polish third tier, the Pacific island of Guam, and in the fourth tier of the MLS. We didn’t appoint either. Again, you don’t get that at Old Trafford.

Despite things being tough at Step 6, I have loved every minute of it, although I’ve had my moments. My son – who is six – has been coming with me for a few years now, and he loves it too, but I guess that may be down to the fuss that everyone makes of him rather than what we do on the pitch. I’ve enjoyed the football, I have learnt a lot, and most importantly I’ve met some wonderful people and built some great friendships.

For anyone despondent with the professional game, there is footballing life outside of the top four divisions. There are hundreds of clubs, most run by volunteers for the love of the game, where you can see a game at an affordable price. There will be one near you. At Alsager Town, admission, a programme, a pie and a pint would set you back around twelve quid. When the crisis that has enveloped us is over, clubs like ours will need as much help as they can get. People talk about supporting their local club; why check out your real local club?