The Tropic Of Ruislip: An Afternoon Out With Wealdstone FC
For our very last Non-League Day related story, David Bauckham travelled up to Middlesex for the Ryman League Premier Division match between Wealdstone and Bury Town.
I was once asked by someone to explain this “football pyramid thing” that I kept banging on about and it was only then, as a follower of non-League football for many years, that it dawned on me that there are many football fans out there who have little or no idea that the Pyramid even exists, let alone what it is all about. These will invariably be supporters of clubs at the apex of the Pyramid, in other words Premier League and Championship clubs. For example ask the average Manchester United or Chelsea fan about the Isthmian League and they will look at you as if you’ve just grown another head. These were the very fans at whom Non League Day was aimed.
Although the analogy of the pyramid is a good one, it rather gives the impression that the whole structure is clearly visible, just like the Egyptian pyramids. The truth however, is that this pyramid is covered in dense overgrowth, with only the top – Premier and Football League – sticking out. Therefore it is necessary to hack away that overgrowth and expose the non-League that lies beneath. A further analogy might be a well-kept garden in summer. It’s all too easy to be beguiled by the lush turf whilst not being really aware of what is going on below the surface: in all the various layers that have been laid down over many years and that are necessary for that turf to flourish. This is where one will find the roots, and the micro-organisms that make everything else work the way it does. To my mind, this is what ‘real’ football is all about and lies at the very heart of Non League Day.
To mark the second NLD I was keen to visit what might be considered an ‘iconic’ non-League club. OK, it’s a term that is over-used but as non-League clubs go it’s fair to say that Wealdstone certainly tick a number of boxes. Not only was the club briefly the leading non-League club in England, by virtue of an historic Conference [then the Gola League] and FA Trophy ‘double’ in 1982; it also spawned the likes of Stuart Pearce, Vinnie Jones, and Jermaine Beckford all of whom began their senior careers with the Stones. If that wasn’t enough, add the record of three undefeated Wembley finals; participation in the first televised broadcast of a football match at Barnet; and the first live FA Cup television broadcasts vs. Edgware Town, and Colchester United in 1949.
Talk to anyone involved at Wealdstone however, and they are more concerned about the future than any illustrious past, and certainly the Club’s more recent history is one of survival and search for a new ground to call its own. Originally founded in 1899 and then reformed in 1908, up until the outbreak of the Great War the club played on no fewer than eleven different grounds, but 1922 moved into what was to become its spiritual home, Lower Mead. In 1991 however, the ground was controversially sold to Tesco from which the club received very little. Plans to move the club to Willesdon Stadium came to nothing and the loss of Lower Mead led to a 17 year itinerant existence with ground-shares at Watford, Yeading, Edgware Town and Northwood, with the club losing huge amounts of money during the two seasons at Watford.
In early 2008 however, the club was able to acquire a majority shareholding in Ruislip Manor Sports and Social Club, the sports club that owned the lease to the Grosvenor Vale stadium, then used by Ruislip Manor FC and also by Wealdstone’s Youth Team. With Ruislip Manor vacating the ground due to the dire situation of the Social Club, the Stones decided to take on a short lease at ‘The Vale’ and develop it as their new home ground. I’d last visited The Vale about five years earlier and on entering the ground, it was clear that although the fabric hadn’t changed too much, it was now a lot tidier and … this may sound odd … ‘happier’. Whereas the ‘old’ ground was tired and worn, in the old black and white of Ruislip Manor; the ‘new’ Vale had been spruced up considerably and now sported the royal blue livery of Wealdstone. Thankfully some of the old curiosities remained. After all, there can’t be many football grounds with an old WW2 gun turret in the far corner, used at one time to guard the nearby Northolt Aerodrome. Just one of those wonderful idiosyncrasies that grace many a non-League ground.
Before kick-off in the Ryman-sponsored Isthmian League Premier Division clash against visitors Bury Town I spoke with Press Officer Nick DuGard: “We’ve spent many many years trying to build our own ground. There have been so many ups and downs: a real roller-coaster ride.” Nick also emphasised the sense of community that underpins not only Wealdstone, but so many non-League clubs: “I’ve grown up with a lot of people that are still here, since they were knee-high. It’s the sense of involvement; the sense of being together and not just turning up and going home… that little bit of extra commitment to the cause.” Across the other side of the ground, another younger figure caught my eye, entering the ground carrying all sorts of paraphernalia; then exiting before returning with even more. This it transpired was Adam Edwards, who has jointly run the ‘Wealdstone Megastore’ for the past four years. Edwards’ involvement however, extends back far longer as a third generation supporter taken to his first Wealdstone match at age of just six months, some thirty years earlier.
The ‘mega’ in ‘Megastore’ relates to its vast array of merchandise rather than actual storage space, hence the repeated trips to the car-park for unloading. As Adam explained with tongue firmly in cheek: “The ‘Megastore Distribution Centre’ is run from my loft, and my spare room, and my living room, and my wife hates it.” “The one thing I didn’t realise when we volunteered to this was the amount of old programmes that people would donate; I’ve got 15,000 in my loft.” Adam’s wife may hate it but the Megastore does nevertheless raise valuable funds for the Supporters’ Club, which in turn donates it to the Football Club as and when required: “We sell all over the world; basically name a place, we send it there.” When not running the Megastore and his own business in London, Adam, like many other Stones supporters is proud of his involvement in developing The Vale: “Losing our ground made us appreciate, being homeless for 17 years, how important a ground is. So as soon as this ground became available there were people down here every single week. I couldn’t tell you anything about laying paths but if someone just gave me a shovel, I’d do it.”
As for the game itself, well the Stones came from behind to record a comfortable 3-1 win over their Suffolk rivals; their first win of the season in fact following three draws and a miserable home defeat at the hands of Wingate & Finchley. But the acid test for Non League Day was what those visiting fans from other local professional clubs made of their experience. After the final whistle, below the strains of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground singing ‘Venus in Furs’ over the PA system I chatted to four Watford season ticket holders who had been enticed along: “Everyone knows each other: the Chairman knows the programme seller, and he knows the captain. You wouldn’t get that at Watford; it’s very close-knit.” “It’s cheap and cheerful; you get what you pay for.” Would they be coming back, though? “Definitely… the football’s not as bad as people make out and I’m definitely not going up to Middlesbrough this season!”
You can follow David on Twitter here, and there is a full set of photographs from his trip to this match here. The rest of his photographs can be seen here. Highlights of the match between Wealdstone and Bury Town are available here.
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