By Conor Turner
During our previous articles, we highlighted the story behind Raynes Park Vale, their importance in the community as well as the experience of our first stages of pre-season as players. In this piece, we move on to one of the foundations behind every non-league football club, the club’s home ground.
Sitting a stone’s throw away from the home of The Wimbledon Championships, the club’s proximity to London is second to none. The club’s location should mean access to more fans, more funds and better players. Unfortunately, at least two of these have been all but absent over the last decade. As mentioned in previous articles, Raynes Park Vale’s primary income sources are bar and gate receipts. With the low average attendances in the recent past, this begs the question – where did it go wrong?
What are the forces at play in Raynes Park Vale’s successes and failures?
Well, for starters, they play in the ninth tier of English football. To your average Sunday League player, it’s a good standard, but not so much when compared to the Premier League. With Premier League TV rights and many EFL constituents launching their own streaming services, the professional game is as accessible as ever.
Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of non-leagues appeal to the masses. Raynes Park Vale are also competing against tens of other London based non-league teams and 12 London-based professional clubs. There is a plethora of macro-factors contributing to the club’s low attendance, but what can the club control?
The lack of financial resources has severely impacted the ground, and it shows. Opposition teams have often taken turns in describing the locker rooms and pitch. “Decrepit”, “ramshackle” and many more ungracious terms have been said, and, well, who can blame them? As soon as you step onto the pitch you immediately notice the slope, which in fact exceeds two metres from one corner to another. This feature has become notorious of the ground and is usually the butt of the jokes for the opposition.
This is further made worse by the pitch’s poor drainage. At a stage in the prior season, a match had been abandoned due to foot-deep trough being left by a cherry picker that had come to repair a floodlight. As if the muddy ground and rickety stand weren’t insatiable enough, see-through fences parade around the pitch, make paying the Â£6 entry fee pointless.
What it means to be involved in non-league football
Being generous, the ground can at least be described as unique. The players are well aware of the poor facilities, but it appears to be worn as a badge of honour. Psychologically, they know the opposition wonâ€™t be up for it. Not a lot of teams want to play there on a cold Tuesday night in December. The players know itâ€™s an unfathomable ground for most, but itâ€™s their unfathomable ground. This makes it incredibly beneficial for grabbing points and itâ€™s what makes Raynes Park Vale FC so unique.
The slope, the battered stand, the tiny changing rooms and the see-through fences epitomise what non-league football is all about. Thatâ€™s the reason many of the players have been at the club for nearly a decade; their love for the beautiful game. Such an attitude is refreshing to see, especially in the ever-increasing commercial nature of football.
The scene has been set, and it’s clear that it has not been smooth sailing for the club and their ground. In 2013, thieves climbed the 30-foot floodlights to steal the lead cables. In 2014, Raynes Park Vale suffered an arson attack destroying one of the changing rooms (See picture below).
Finally, in 2018, the club’s lawnmower was taken hostage by a local groundsman, following an overdue payment. The club was nearly kicked out the league altogether in 2019 when they failed a pitch inspection. The only reason they survived these setbacks were key contributions from the community, including a local building company who volunteered and got the pitch back up to a suitable standard.
They published a recent video on some of the most memorable tales on their Youtube channel recently, should you be more interested.
The springboard into a more successful future
The COVID-19 pandemic has given the non-league club time to gather impetus to really try to push the club forward. Streams of volunteers have given up their time and grafted at the club to make improvements. The whole clubhouse has had a makeover with a new carpet, new tiles in the shower, new toilets and a new bar fitted with new draft taps. All completed by the dedication and sacrifices of the chairman, players, volunteers and key sponsors.
A five-year plan has also been devised to improve the club. Taking key steps to try and progress the club on the pitch as well as ensuring the right capital is committed to the ground. Some of these steps are as simple as enhancing the profile of Raynes Park Vale through social media, the community and better marketing. Some of the more complex steps include reaching greater sustainability through better financial management and establishing key sponsor relationships.
Despite the club’s situation, the dedicated and generous persons associated with the club are genuinely trying to make a difference. To see people use it as a time to try make good out of a 9th division football club is refreshing. Especially amidst a once-in-a-lifetime virus pandemic where the very nature of humanity has been threatened.
It’s at the very grassroots of the modern game where the essence of passion, dedication and impact can be seen. Non-league football doesn’t mean attending a home fixture in your season ticket seat every two weeks. Instead, it means football is at the forefront of your everyday life. Volunteering after work and remote Tuesday night fixtures in towns with no railways are some of the common aspects to the game. With this said, non-league never change. Raynes Park Vale never change.