On Saturday 11th April I was present at Maidenhead United’s York Road ground in Berkshire for Hayes & Yeading United v Bath City in the Conference South. It was a great day for football – the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the weather was mildly warm. At the risk of sounding poetic, it didn’t get much better than that.
While watching the two sides warm up, I was approached by a Bath fan who saw my Hayes & Yeading scarf. We talked about the recent financial plight of Hayes & Yeading and also the current debts of his beloved Bath. He then said something that has stuck with me ever since. “We prefer to come and watch this level of football than the Premier League. It’s affordable and we don’t feel so alienated from the players.”
Now, just to be clear, my footballing loyalties are and always will be with Chelsea. I’m not a Johnny-cum-lately and have been there since before I could walk thanks to my Dad’s influence. However, as the game has become more expensive for the man in the street to watch, season tickets are available only after sitting on a waiting list for what seems like eternity, and kickoffs are evermore arranged around TV schedules. Add to that the fact you can’t even stand up anymore and that most clubs get their best support away from home now, and you start to get a feeling of discontent among many fans.
And so I have taken to watching more and more local non-league football. I also love the fact I can go out with £20 in my pocket, stand on the terraces, buy a programme, eat (catering which tends to be better than league grounds), have a beer and still have change in my pocket.
Non-league is nothing new to me. Whenever my Dad and I were not at Stamford Bridge in the 80’s and 90’s, we were at my local non-league side, Kingstonian, in Surrey. Over the years, things have changed, we’ve moved away from the area and I have developed a healthy affection for Hayes & Yeading United of the Conference South. That pretty much stems back to the days of the old Hayes FC playing at Church Road and punching above their weight in the Conference for so many years. I always felt as a kid there was something romantic about a football ground being so close to the airport. I guess that stuck with me.
The club sold its Church Road stadium to property developers back in 2011 and has used much of that money to redevelop Yeading’s old ground (the club was formed after an amalgamation of Hayes and Yeading), the Warren. The club was still playing in the Blue Square Premier (Vauxhall Conference to any old skool readers out there) when they left Church Road and so needed a ground share at a suitably equipped venue. With the lack of local Premier-standard grounds available, it was decided that a move to Woking’s Kingfield Stadium, some 20 miles away in Surrey, was the best solution.
The club began to fall into major financial difficulties as a result of a struggling side and declining fan base. Understandably, many of the local fans in Hayes were finding it more and more difficult to justify the journey south. 20 miles may not sound a lot, but factor in a trip on the vast car park that is the M25, during rush hour for evening games, and it becomes easier to understand.
Relegation to the Conference South became reality at the end of the first season in Woking, with the following season not going much better (17th place finish in the Conference South), the third and final season at Woking was the ultimate let down. Only Hereford United going out of business prevented the club losing its place in the Conference South in 2013-14, which otherwise would’ve meant another relegation, this time to the Ryman Premier Division.
This season saw Hayes start positively with a better vibe around the club. A move of grounds from Woking to Maidenhead in Berkshire proved to be a God send. A short trip on the M4 or on the First Great Western line from Hayes & Harlington meant crowds steadily improved to between 200-300 on average, up from the 100-200 and sometimes lower the club ended with in Woking. However, at £1,000 per game for stadium rental and with building work on the Warren stopping again, the club was in dire straits on and off the field.
A 19th place finish this campaign saw the club survive relegation again, this by 12 points. Former Republic of Ireland, Sporting Lisbon and Liverpool defender, Phil Babb, departed after less than 2 seasons in charge and was replaced by the long-serving Tristan Hunt. Hunt has previously been the Assistant Manager under Phil Babb and also involved with the club’s youth academy. He steadied the ship that saw the side go unbeaten in his first three games in charge, winning at Sutton United and at home to fellow strugglers, Farnborough Town, before earning a point against bottom side Staines Town. In fact, the side went on to win a further 2 games before the close of the campaign, meaning safety.
Safety this season also came in a different form. With rent to Maidenhead United not being paid on time, the club were close to not being allowed to play at York Road. Fortunately the club’s chairman, Tony O’Driscoll, has managed to perform an outright miracle by securing around £300,000 to allow the club to play next season, recommence ground building works and go out and tie players to contracts for the 2015-16 season. But thanks also need to go to all the tireless volunteers and staff at the club, many of whom have reportedly gone without wages for long periods, to help securing the club’s future.
Today was also the Ryman Premier Division Playoff Final between Hendon and Margate at Harrow Borough FC in Middlesex. I decided to take a trip along and saw Margate triumph 1-0 for promotion to the Conference South and games against Hayes & Yeading next season. But Hendon are yet another example of a club which has lost its stadium and has been forced to groundshare to maintain it’s survival in the semi-professional echelons of the English game.
I am not expecting this article to be well-read, but for those who do take time out to skim this, I hope it helps to raise awareness of the plight of many non-league clubs in our country. Those who rely on volunteers to keep the turnstiles ticking over, man the car parks, sell the programmes and raffle tickets etc. Without them all, our game has no future at grassroots level. So the next time your side are away from home, you can’t get a ticket or you find yourself at a loose end, pop down to your local non-league ground and give them some support. You might just might see a future star or two and become hooked on the experience…
PS: For those interested, you can visit the Hayes & Yeading United official website here.