Mike Bayly went to meet a football club that is potentially at the start of a journey up through the divisions.
Non-League supporters are the Bill Brysons of the football world. Whereas a trip to most Football League grounds comes packaged with the familiarity of large urban conurbations, the grass roots experience can lead a man (and for the sake of parity one had better add ‘woman’) into the wilds of the British provinces. In some cases, the journey takes on greater significance than the match itself, particularly when left to the vagaries of public transport. Anyone who has ventured out to the isolated backwaters of Woodford United armed with just a bus pass will know how Odysseus felt in Homer’s Odyssey.
There are myriad towns and villages scattered across the county where association football is the only tourist board; the early qualifying stages of the FA cup are a potential goldmine of unchartered exploration, throwing up salivating away days to places such as Walsham Le Willows, Bugbrooke St Michaels or Thurnby Nirvana. It is safe to assume that pending work or family ties, these are places one would rarely venture to, yet marching into unchartered territory remains the elixir of football culture.
Unfamiliarity breeds excitement; as John Sullivan once observed, who needs another trip to Buckingham Palace when you can go for a walkabout in Croydon? The Cambridgeshire town of St Neots represents another of those small English settlements that most people will have never even heard of, let alone visited. Situated on the East Coast Main Line about an hour north of Kings Cross, it boasts a growing population of around 25,000 making it the biggest dwelling in the county after the cities of Cambridge and Peterborough. To the east of the town, a huge housing complex called “Love’s Farm” is under construction which will comprise over 1250 homes and a school once finished. Presumably shops, supermarkets and oxymoronic ‘family fun pubs’ will follow suit.
In the middle of this artificially created community, flanked by corn fields and the local railway station, sits the local football club, St Neots Town FC. And here begins one of football’s more intriguing modern stories. Formed in 1879 as plain ‘St Neots’, the club has spent a fairly innocuous existence in the lower reaches of the non-league pyramid. During the 1960s, they joined the United Counties League (UCL) and would remain members (save the odd season) until 1987, when eviction from their ‘Shortsands’ home (the land was sold to a housing developer) eventually saw the club disband. Two seasons later, they reformed in the Huntingdonshire and District Football League with a pitch at Priory Park, rented from the District Council.
In 1992, the Saints signed a forty-year lease on a large site to the east of the town and developed a new ground, Rowley Park. In 1994/95 after a spell of six years absence from senior football they were readmitted to the UCL. In 2008 the club was relocated to a new £6.8M stadium to the north end of the Loves Farm Estate. The project was funded and constructed by development firm Gallagher Estates, who – in an ironic twist – planned to build a huge new housing complex on land that included the club’s former home. In addition to the new stadium is a state of the art full size 3G pitch and capacity to expand facilities as and when required.
Although the new stadium has breathed fresh life into the club, it is only part of a bigger story. Where St Neots Town have really caught the imagination is in their rather eye watering transfer policy. Last season, ex-Aston Villa striker Stefan Moore signed for the club in a reputed five figure transfer deal, which for a club at Step 5 of the National League System was practically unheard of. Other big name players such as Gavin Strachan and Dominic Green arrived creating a team which won the UCL with a league record 105 points, scoring 160 goals.
Inevitably, suspicions started to arise. Was this just the latest in a long line of previously modest clubs who suddenly had ideas way above their station? “We have to live with the big spenders tag but it couldn’t be further from the truth” advised Chairman and owner Mike Kearns, “we did pay considerable money for Stefan Moore, but he is one of the best strikers in non-league football and has helped raise our profile considerably. I would rather point to our manager who is a very astute guy, who knows non-league football and recognises potential. Our back four consists of three eighteen year olds so it isn’t just about going out and buying the best players in the area” Kearns is also keen to illustrate the potential revenue streams from their banqueting rooms and 3G Synthetic Pitches, which have provided training venues for Peterborough United and Hull City.
The club will also host the U17 national team as their base camp for an upcoming three-way mini-tournament. It’s have a very commercially driven business model, but the Chairman sees himself as football supporter rather than a mere business speculator: “I have followed Chelsea and England for over 50 years, but for personal reasons I am no longer able to travel to the games. Instead I did the next best thing – I purchased my own football club. I like to think I am a little different to most club owners: football is my life”. Kearns insists the club must be self financing and will aim to play at the highest level that satisfies this objective. Furthermore, he remains considerably pragmatic: “Right now we are a part time club, and like many part time clubs, we still rely on wonderful people who are prepared to give up their time for the love of the game”.
In some ways this is very reassuring. St Neots believe they can realistically reach Conference South level, but would need a serious review of finances to consider the jump to Conference National. An average gate last season of 375 would put many Step 3 sides to shame, and one could safely project an increase of 50-100 spectators a year (on away support if nothing else) for each promotion gained. Moreover, one only need look at Histon a few miles down the road to show that rapid advancement through the pyramid through can be done. Conversely, they may also be a good advert for what happens when the money runs out.
Although the new stadium is clearly visible as you pull into St Neots station, it is a good fifteen minute walk on foot owing to the lack of footbridge over the railway tracks. As you walk down Station Road and turn left into Cambridge Road, the size of the housing project really hits home, stretching as far as the eye can see in various states of design and completion. Another left turn leads into the heart of the new estate, past billboards displaying genetically blessed cosmopolitan couples lounging on the sofa or engaging in playful pillow fights. This sickeningly wholesome marketing ploy appears to be synonymous with starter homes across the country, to the point where all new developments should come with the caveat “you must be this good looking to live here”. A cursory glance at one of the houses on the way up to the ground showed a young woman in tracksuit top leaning out of her living room window smoking a fag. The advertising world is fooling nobody.
Once inside the new stadium you realise just how fantastic the setup is. A smart seated stand sits on the half-way line, with full length terracing running behind each goal. There is a large well appointed clubhouse, and various food outlets with picnic benches, meaning you can sit outside on a warm day with a pint and watch the football. Thankfully, the stadium manages to avoid the slightly naff prefabricated look which plagues so many new grounds. Clearly it doesn’t have the character of a terrace with weeds growing through it, or a grandstand built in the 1930s, but on the other hand the roof isn’t likely to blow off in a stiff breeze.
Today’s opponents Concord Rangers of the Ryman Premier League have experienced their own share of success in recent years, having played in the Essex Senor League at Step 5 just three years ago. The first thing that stood out was their physical presence, which seemed to concur with a comment overheard last season that Essex teams(the club are based in Canvey Island) are always big and powerful, as if Essex & Suffolk Water were replacing fluoride with creatine in an attempt to create a genetically superior race of human being. Anyone who has seen The Only Way Is Essex might argue that Omega3 would serve a more useful purpose.
St Neot’s pre-season form had been extremely promising, with wins over Corby Town (Conference North), Dagenham & Redbridge (League Two) Chelmsford City (Conference South) and a staggering 8-2 annihilation of last season’s Southern League Central winners Arlesey Town. On paper, Concord probably didn’t pose much of a threat, but on the pitch the gulf in class soon became apparent. Steve King and Richard Halle put the visitors two up inside seven minutes, and after completely dominating the next forty-five minutes, Harry Elmes made it three shortly before the break. It was evident that the home support hadn’t anticipated this (not least because losing to similarly placed opposition has become an increasingly rare commodity in this part of the world) but the more vocal element of the 150 so home fans saved their vitriol for the referee rather than their own players.
In the second half, the Saints emerged far stronger and better organised, and displayed some of the excellent attacking football they have become renowned for. The impressive Lewis Hilliard scored twice to reduce the deficit to 3-2, and the largely ineffective Stefan Moore had two good chances to bring the scores level. By now, the game remained a ‘friendly’ in the loosest, most traditional sense of the word. A series of increasingly rash challenges from both sides coupled with a minor brawl towards the end of the game added to what had been a superbly contested match; two late Concord strikes probably made the final score of 5-2 a little flattering.
The referee – inevitably – got blamed for everything, from the sinking of the Lusitania to the disappearance of Lord Lucan. “I didn’t pay to watch him” observed one departing fan, in the guise of a man who has purchased expensive cinema tickets and spent the whole film staring at the back of someone’s head. “What we saw there was a tired team” offered another spectator, applying a more objective summary to the evening’s events. St Neots start as many people’s favourites for the Southern League Central division next season. The whole setup oozes professionalism, and if crowds continue to reach the 350-400 mark, there is no reason why the club shouldn’t be challenging for honours again.
The Saints are uniquely positioned in that they have a brand new community growing up around them, of which they can become a genuine focal point. That said, the housing development is very much marketed as a commuter town, which may bring people from outside of the area who already have other football allegiances. Moreover, St Neots is flanked by a number of larger well established sides (MK Dons, Peterborough United, Cambridge united, Stevenage) so there will be a constant battle for the supporter pound. Perhaps the biggest problem will be how other clubs in their division – and indeed the wider non-league fraternity – choose to view them. The chairman is quick to talk of sustainability, but any sentence containing the words “Stefan Moore”, “five figure fee” and “United Counties League” means observers will tend to draw their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, there have been so many stories of well meaning clubs overspending and then going bust that supporters have become hard-wired to expect the worst. These issues are further compounded by what may be perceived as unnecessary acts of ostentation. St Neots are running an executive coach to away matches next season with top deck capacity for sixty paying fans. Aside from whether this quota will be taken up on a cold winter’s night away to the likes of Uxbridge, it may cause umbrage for smaller under-funded clubs who consider the whole thing a little flash.
It would be a shame if St Neots come to be regarded solely as a bank rolled club as there is so much more to admire about them. It is without doubt one of the friendliest places a person can watch non-league football, and for all their recent good fortune, there isn’t a hint of arrogance amongst any of the supporters. If anything, they are rather humble about their new found status. This lies in stark contrast to certain teams one might care to mention, who casually forget their debt ridden under achieving past now hard cash is in liberal supply. Money may speak loudly in the modern game, but for all the finances St Neots may or may not have, the warmth of the fans and committee remain their biggest asset.
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