Thursday, 25 November 2010

Supermarine Go Ballistic.....

……….ColU are atrocious. Ok, so it's been done before. But a win for the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup might send the Sunday newspaper headline writers into a similar frenzy this weekend.

Swindon Supermarine F.C. is a community, fan run club, still in its infancy, yet it nearly didn’t start this season. Established in 1992 following a merger between two local clubs, Supermarine F.C. and Swindon Athletic F.C., both of which were struggling financially, they took Athletic's place in the Hellenic League Premier Division. After winning the Hellenic League championship in 1996-97, they missed out  on promotion due to ground requirements. Although a second championship success in 2000–01 saw them accepted into the Southern League.

The step up was tough and it was a difficult first few seasons, but reaching 2 successive play offs culminated in promotion to the Southern League Premier Division in 2006–07, which is where they find themselves now. In a season of firsts they have reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time, setting a new record attendance en route, and on Saturday they travel to the Weston Homes Community Stadium for a Second Round tie against Colchester United.

Leigh Moore and his family have been involved with the club for all of his 23 years. His parents took over the running of the club in 1987, until his father stood down in the summer.

“The club has been run by a small group of supporters for 20 years and that is continuing again now with additional new faces and whilst there continues to be a reliance on such a small number of people the club future is always very uncertain. Actually the way the club is run hasn’t changed, it has always been run by fans and not ‘owned’ by anyone. It is a membership based organisation and all of the previous members are still involved, it just has different people around the committee table. The ground is owned by a limited company made up of the local business men and previous committee members.

The difference now is that the supporters on the committee now are linked to the club through family connections, with sons and grandsons playing in the team which I’m sure will have its own challenges and benefits.”

Despite establishing themselves in the Zamaretto (Southern) Premier League, things were tough and over the Summer a cash injection was required to keep the club going and there was a clear requirement to be vocal about the need for support.

“When you look at some other non-league clubs they are operating with huge debts. The club were just not prepared to go into another season without the assurances that at least a proportion of the money needed to run the team would be there.”

“This cup run has meant that the immediate need to go and find that extra income has been eased but the club are still working hard to secure sponsorship which will help with long term financial sustainability.”

“The new committee members worked very hard over the summer to bring in a few new sponsors, including the naming of the webs Wood Stadium, and this coupled with the cup run means they all have smiles on their faces and quite rightly so.”

With £6,750 of TV money and half the gate receipts from Saturday's game added to the increased attendances in earlier rounds there has been a significant financial boost to the club. A club record 1,159 saw the first round tie against Eastwood Town. Unfortunately, the cup run support hasn’t yet been converted into an increase in league attendance figures, with average attendances down from 181 last year to 146 this is the bread and butter of financial survival.

With a league fixture backlog before the winter there is a danger that clubs find themselves 6 or 7 games behind which results on 2/3 games a week, which is a tough ask for any club at any level. It also impacts on crowd levels which hits even harder in non-league as Leigh explains; "Last season we lost 9 Saturday games to bad weather all of which got rearranged to midweek’s, which represented a huge loss of revenue yet the costs and wages still have to be paid."  The loss to Lowestoft in the F.A. Trophy last week, however disappointing, may ease that burden.

With such low crowds, the committee has to be innovative in how they market the club, both to local business and the potential fan base. Being close to the M4 Swindon is an easy commute to many towns and cities with Championship or Premier league clubs that makes attracting support difficult. Notwithstanding the fact that the area is also a hot bed of Rugby.

Initiatives have included a £5 ticket offer for season ticket holders of Premier League of League clubs and working up a close relationship with their football league neighbours. That means it's a relationship built on respect, more than a rivalry with Swindon Town F.C. and that first round record crowd was almost certainly boosted by a number of Town fans.

“In the past the club has benefited from some major sponsorship deals from one or two individuals who have been friends of the club and have wanted to help out. Due to the place we as a country find ourselves economically, these type of sponsorship deals at this level will probably never be replicated.”

“What it has meant is that the club has had to look for as many sponsors as possible but in much smaller amounts. We have to look at the ground and the club as a formula one car, if there is a space it can be sponsored.” A visit to the club website confirms this is the case with a wall of sponsors’ ads greeting you, prior to entering the club site.

“The small hardcore of supporters have also been great with things such as pound a point, sponsor a seat, weekly match predictor and all these little things add up.”

As do the numbers travelling to Colchester, expected to be more than double their league average gate. “When we got through people were talking about 500+ but I think for a club of our size 250+ would be a fantastic achievement. However many we take I’m sure we will make lots of noise and enjoy the day.”

Leigh is the man behind the SupermarineFC twitter account of which I am now one of 395 followers. He describes social media as "ideal for getting people to talk about the club even if they don’t pay to walk through the gate. Creating an awareness of the club both in and outside of Swindon is important and it is definitely putting us on the map more nationally." This has included getting good luck messages retweeted by both TV presenter Gabby Logan and Bolton's Kevin Davies.

With main match highlights on ITV on Saturday night that exposure will continue to reach a much wider audience and an upset might even put them in the running for the F.A.'s new Ronnie Radford trophy. If however Colchester succeed, as most would expect, this cup run will have left Swindon Supermarine with a much stronger base to move forward, both financially and in terms of big match experience. Hopefully, this will help them grow and progress up the non-league pyramid. 
As Leigh says; “From a fan’s perspective our objective over the next 5 years must be to continue to strive for financial sustainability and improve the support base. The club has grown rapidly in the last 15 years and has reached a level now where there is a need for it to become more and more professional. A big part of that will be having a fan base that truly warrants a club at this level of football”.
I for one wish them all the best in achieving it. If hard work, endeavour and initiative are rewarded they surely will.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Top Dons with Dignity

Sunday's FA Cup draw produced a potential FA Cup tie that every right minded football fan, with every respect to those supporters of Stevenage Borough and Ebbsfleet United, would want to see. I also suspect that, outside the 8,000 or so followers of MK Dons, there is one result that most football people would like to see, should it happen. Yet it is a match that should have never had the remotest chance of taking place. Because what happened back in 2002 should never have been allowed to happen and, god-willing, a match like it will never happen again.

It is hard not to dredge up the horror story behind the arrival of professional football in Milton Keynes. The simple facts are that Milton Keynes had a team (Milton Keynes City FC), just like Stevenage did, like Burton did, just like Morecambe did. And the way for them to achieve league football was the hard way, on the pitch, by being successful, just like Stevenage and Burton. Having a big urban conurbation doesn't justify the need to have a league team, you have to earn it by winning football matches.

It may also require a reasonable level of investment to achieve it, take the example of Max Griggs and Rushden & Diamonds. Unwilling to invest money in a long term project, the "entrepreneur" Pete Winkelman and his consortium looked for an opportunity to buy and relocate an existing league club. This was something unheard of in English football and several clubs were considered, but the willingness of Charles Koppel to relinquish the loss making club he bought from Sam Hammam meant that the Wimbledon fans were sold down the river.The gutless F.A. have continued to vindicate their decision to allow Franchise FC to exist, by playing England Under 21 qualifiers there and then promoting Stadium MK to the list of potential 2018 venues. It makes you assume that they have not seen the white elephant stadiums left in Japan and Korea, where they were selected/built in areas where local teams have neither the stature or the support to justify the magnificent legacy left to them? The stadium:mk is generally two thirds empty every week to watch League One football and that is before an extra tier and an extra 10,000 seats are added. Never mind the further development and growth in capacity required to meet host city requirements.

Despite supposed objections from the F.A. and Football League, the door was left open for Koppel to appeal to an arbitration panel and then an independent commission. Wimbledon FC were playing in Milton Keynes within 18 months. Senior F.A. big-wigs bemoaned the decision, yet they were as culpable as any to the creation of MK Dons and the desecration of football.

The blurb on the 2018 bid website makes me nauseous, referring to the "vision and willingness to think differently that in 2004 saw Milton Keynes become England's newest football city with the formation of the MK Dons" and great play made of the infrastructure and transport links that seemingly compensate for a complete lack of sporting heritage, never mind football heritage.

Whilst the publicity hungry Winkelman has sought the media glare to promote his new franchise, AFC Wimbledon have quietly covered themselves in glory since their inception with little fuss or attention seeking. Joining the Combined Counties League (the same level of the football pyramid as the South Midlands League - which housed Milton Keynes City prior to their collapse following the franchise's arrival) they held trials on a local playing field to establish a squad for their first friendly against Sutton. Although they have benefited from a level of support that any other new start teams can only dream of, their rise through 4 tiers of the football pyramid over the next 7 years was a fantastic achievement. Sitting atop the Conference table as I type, they have a level of popularity amongst the everyday football fan that Wimbledon F.C. struggled to ever achieve - even when winning the F.A. Cup.

The only real issue that has arisen in the last 8 years related to apparent annoyance at their sharing of Kingstonian's Kingsmeadow stadium. However, when financially stricken  Kingstonian's administrators sold the ground to businessmen, it was AFC who arranged the borrowing of funds to buy back the ground and preserve a future not just for them, but Kingstonian as well. After all, the ambition to return to the Borough of Merton, something that was denied their predecessors, still burns strong. Given what they have achieved the borough council should be doing everything in their power to reward perseverance, effort and success and provide the opportunity for a true community club to have a home in its community.

This measured approach to running the club has continued with the club's official response to the cup draw; "Most people know the way that Milton Keynes obtained their football club. It was wrong then and it is still wrong now, which makes this fixture very painful for us. However, when we entered the FA Cup we understood that this might happen and we will go about our business professionally and complete the fixture. But we would have preferred that it hadn’t happened. We have no further comment to make at the moment."

The hurt is still there. I know it would be for me if it was my club. So in keeping their counsel and avoiding emotive responses, they can leave it to the rest of the footballing world to say it for them. I only hope that ITV, who have already committed to showing the 2nd Round tie - regardless of replays, do the club justice should they find themselves at Kingsmeadow on the 27th November. AFC Wimbledon have regained their club's history and retained a level of dignity others would do well to follow.

I have to say I hope that the best teams win their respective replays and if the second round match-up is Ebbsflett vs Stevenage, then so be it. After all, if this match doesn't take place this year, it cannot be long before AFC Wimbledon take their rightful place back in the football league. Hopefully, they would then be a season away from the opportunity to beat Franchise FC twice a season. Maybe, with a drop in form for the other lot they could face each other in League 2 next season. Here's hoping.......   

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Bale Should Make Hay

Gareth Bale is a talented footballer, of that there is no doubt. His form at the end of last season was excellent and this season he has picked up where he left off, as if the Summer and the World Cup never happened. There are many of us who wished it never happened! His play this season has been truly electric, with pace, an ability to beat a full back and goals. However, to read the papers and listen to the media pundits over the last 24 hours you would have thought the second football coming had been born in Cardiff, 21 years ago. The same pundits who were questioning his Spurs future 12 months ago, were placing him in exalted company, alongside Messi, Xavi et al.

As a 17 year old making his debut for Southampton it was clear that he was not just a great prospect. An athletic full back, with a great touch, a pinpoint cross and an eye for goal. Within 13 months he was moving to Spurs in a deal worth up to £10m, but a series of injuries blighted his Spurs career and Assou-Ekoto, a pretty average full back was keeping him out of the side. He got his chance when Assou-Ekoto, picked up an injury but even Harry Redknapp doubted his ability to step up having flattered to deceive in his few opportunities to date.

Although he came in at full back, his defensive game was not strong and that could be argued to still be the case. He certainly benefited from having the opposing full back occupied by the winger in front to allow him to bomb forward and find space. His attacking ability and flair gained recognition and deflection away from his defensive frailties. Now given a more advanced role, his blistering pace has given opposing full backs nightmares, but not all. Ask any Manchester United fan how effective he was up against Rafael or and Everton fan as to how he fared with Phil Neville.

Much has been made of his play against Maicon in the Champions League victory over Internazionale. Maicon, widely regarded as a great full back, has been described as being "devoured" and "destroyed" by Bale in various European papers. Yet people seem to forget that Maicon, like Bale, is a better attacking full back than a defensive one. Many players will struggle to cope with a ball pushed past them and Bale's blistering pace, not just the Brazilian.

The media have lined up to heap praise on him, not least Sky who saw Bale's personal performance and Spurs' victory as a justification for their continuing promotion "of the best league in the World".  And after all Spurs only finished fourth and just look at them go!  The sycophantic stupidity dragged on into the post match interviews where Geoff Shreeves slavered over Bale and asked Rafael Van Der Vaart if he had ever seen a player like that before. That will be Van Der Vaart who plays for the Netherlands, alongside Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder, who played at Ajax alongside Ibrahimovic and at Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka amongst others. I think he might have Geoff....

Even respected journalists have rolled out the superlatives for him. At this stage the superlatives should be for the performances, not so much so for the player. He is playing brilliantly, but back in January he was linked with a loan move out of White Hart Lane and warming the bench. A journalist I have respect for Patrick Barclay was tweeting effusive praise for Bale on Tuesday night - "Gareth Bale is the best player in the world (except Xavi, of course). And really pleasant human being. Can he remain so? Messi good example". He subsequently, following query, rephrased his tweet. After all 140 words are sometimes not enough to fully convey your message, even for a Times' journalist. "Am just saying Bale is second best in world at this moment. That's all. It keeps changing. Beauty of football." And at that point I started to agree with him. 

Bale is a good player. Right now, at this moment, he is one of the most in-form players in the world. He could be a great player. It's an over-used phrase, but form is temporary, class is permanent. Bale needs to take the adulation he is currently receiving, enjoy it and use it to spur (excuse the pun) himself on to further success. In post-match interviews he comes across as a level headed and quiet person. Let's hope under the increased media scrutiny he remains that way. Let us not forget that, despite being around for 5 years, he is only 21 years old. An opportunity for greatness presents itself rarely and by going about his business as he is now, that could be bestowed on Bale. But all in good time.