HOW ONE NON-LEAGUE CLUB BOUNCED BACK FROM DESPAIR & CAME BACK FIGHTING
Words: Seb White
Images: Jon Barmby
Saturday, May 13th, 5.55pm, somewhere deep in the West London suburbs. Diaz Wright of Braintree places the ball on the penalty spot at a jam-packed quintessential non-league ground, all angles, echoes, and charm. Forty-six league games, two play-off knockout matches, and another gruelling 120 minutes on a baking spring afternoon have all come down to this.
Wright steps back, pauses, and looks at the goal. He knows that if he buries it, his side will win the National League South play-off final and, with that, gain promotion to the top tier of non-league football. The ground, despite the 3,000 spectators in attendance, is deathly silent. Wright begins his run-up. For those of us watching, time seems to stop. We’ve been there every step of the way and, in those moments, the memories all come flooding back: the away days, the last minute winners, the camaraderie and spirit, the drunken songs, and our love for his club.
Diaz Wright isn’t thinking about any of that, though, as he calmly rolls the ball into the bottom corner and sends the travelling Braintree fans delirious. Elsewhere, silence. The loyal Hampton & Richmond supporters know their chance has gone again. It’s the hosts’ third play-off defeat in ten years. Football is a game of fine margins but, as we find our voices and start to talk to each other, it’s obvious that failure at this very last hurdle will soon have huge ramifications for the club.
Within days the manager Alan Dowson and his coaching staff—including a certain Martin Tyler—are on their way down the road to Woking. Despite having a north-east accent that borders on indecipherable, the enthusiastic and infectious gaffer worked wonders in his four seasons at the club. He came in, saved them from relegation, got them promoted the following season, and then got to the play-offs in successive seasons. It wasn’t just on the pitch that he cast his spell either: Dowse was an integral and much-loved part of the community, summed up by the fact that he ended his passionate leaving statement by saying he’d always be back for pints in the Jolly Coppers, a pub a mere sliced clearance away from his ex-club’s ground.
I’d been one of the many who had shared a drink or six with the esteemed manager in Hampton’s (arguably West London’s’) finest boozer in recent times. And yet, just three years earlier, I’d never even heard of Hampton & Richmond FC. Born and bred in Somerset, I was, like my grandad and my dad, a Yeovil Town supporter. Over three decades of my life was devoted to the Green and Whites until I couldn’t any longer stomach the incompetent, clueless, geriatric charlatans who unfortunately had ownership of the club.
Sadly, Yeovil isn’t the first club, nor will it be the last, to succumb to off-field shenanigans, and while it hasn’t garnered the press attention of Blackpool, Blackburn, or Leyton Orient, thousands of people in Somerset have decided to do something different on a Saturday afternoon, and that is a crying shame. I wasn’t looking for another football club to indulge in—if anything, the opposite. My first love had left me bitter, broken, and in no way ready to put myself through it all again…
But, then, one evening back in 2015, a good friend Matt, who’d recently moved to Hampton, suggested going along to the Beveree Stadium for Hampton & Richmond v Lewes. My sole aim was to tick it off my list of grounds visited. Yeah, I’m one of those people (137 at the latest count, by the way, with each new one greeted with a volley of good-natured abuse from my colleagues at MUNDIAL) and it was a chance to see supporter-owned Lewes, a club that had long been lauded for doing things the right way. The visitors ended up winning 4–0, and the football from the hosts didn’t demand my return. Yet there was something about the Beveree: the mismatched old stadium surrounded by a wall of trees looked beautiful under the lights, the humour and obvious, instant, camaraderie on the terraces. The fact I could stand with a pint and watch what was happening on and off the pitch. Oh, and there was a terrific post-match brawl between the players of both teams which absolutely no-one (everyone) wants to see. It was left to Martin Tyler to try and calm tempers to no avail, and it spilt out into the car park. It was like a Wild West cartoon. I turned to my friend Matt, laughing. “Shall we come again?”
It all reminded me of the simplicity and inherent fun that you get in non-league football, which I’d experienced growing up as a Yeovil Town fan, but soon lost as they rose into the Football League. This was a club of good, honest people, all there for a genuine love of the game, not the balance sheet or future property deals. And the pints. The glorious, glorious, pints.
Me and Matt quickly became regulars, and we soon met Blackpool John, who like me had had enough of the parasitic owners of his boyhood club. Our arrival coincided with The Beavers racing up the table and clinching the title on the final day of the season. We were hooked and soon started going to away games, too, even sponsoring the kit of the very players we’d chat to post-match in the bar. Eventually, we joined the Supporters Trust and are now on the Trust board, becoming part of the very community that is so important for non-league clubs away from the bright lights and deep pockets of the Premier League.
So when that penalty from Wright hit the back of the net, I was as gutted as I’d ever been at a football match—not just personally, but also for the many fans of the club I’d gotten to know so well in recent years. The people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes at the Beveree week in, week out. People who the club would not survive without. Every non-league club has them, the heroes intrinsic to the grassroots of grassroots football who make the English football pyramid revered around the world.
There would be no quiet summer for them, however, as with our coaching staff moving on, there was an awful lot to do to get ready for the coming season. Players and managers don’t hang around long at this level, but the fans always remain to pick up the pieces…
After a demanding and extended season, the Beveree’s pitch required urgent attention. But there was a problem: the groundsman had left the club, too. Whatever changes needed to happen within the on-pitch team would be essentially pointless without even a platform to play on. So in stepped Phil Weller, Chairman of the Supporters Trust.
Phil started coming to watch the side about a decade ago. Sick of the handling of his club QPR, he too became captivated by the charm of The Beavers. He soon stuck his hand up at one of the early Supporters Trust meetings and things developed from there, and Phil spent much of this long hot summer on the phone looking for a new groundsman.
“There were problems like there always will be on a project of this scale, but nobody anticipated the endless days of blazing sun and drought that followed,” he says. “With the new seed planted and every new blade of grass about to burn up on arrival, there was no option but to get out there every single night and spray thousands of litres of water onto the pitch. Me and Bill, a club devotee, set about the job, aided and abetted by frequently calling upon the usual suspects to help out, often at short notice. Thankfully, among the long hot nights with the hose, we found a new groundsman through our connections with a local school. He’s now taken the hose off our hands and has produced a pitch of which we can be very proud.”
The newly installed manager, Gary McCann, who had the luxury of a lovely 4G pitch at his former club Hendon, said: “My teams have always played high intensity football, with a lot of passing, and a good pitch is obviously imperative to that. I walked out onto the turf when I arrived at the end of May, and it was clear there was a lot of work to do, but that’s where you see the importance of community spirit at a non-league football club.”
A new pitch, a new manager, and an urgent need of new players are not things that come very cheap. Like most at this level, the Beavers are grateful for financial backing from their diligent owners, and in Graham Wood and Jacques Le Bars, they have a chairman and vice-chairman with the club dear to their hearts and very much willing to pitch in. But football clubs are a very expensive business and unless you have pockets as deep as the likes of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim and his mates from the Class of 92 or that pantomime gangster Glenn Tamplin at Billericay, then every single penny needs to be spent wisely. Anything else that comes in is only going to help, but the summer months are a notoriously fallow period for non-league clubs. Season tickets provide a much-needed boost for the cash flow, but also allow clubs to help better prepare budgets for the whole season. And the lady in charge of selling as many season tickets as possible at Hampton is Lesley Rance; matriarch of a family weaved into the fabric of the club.
“I’ll be honest I wasn’t that much into football,” she says, “but then my husband Les started taking our kids along to the Bev in 1990, as league football was starting to get expensive. After a few weeks, Les was asked if he would be join the club committee; he agreed and the rest is history. At various times he’s been press officer, bar manager, match day announcer, and programme editor and I’ve done all sorts, too, including running the kitchen with my daughter Vicky for a couple of seasons. My son Stefan was also bar manager for a while and edited the programme but now he’s in charge of the youth set-up, where there are 28 teams and 300 youngsters playing under the club banner.”
In between all the other work Les and Lesley do in and around the club, on match days the supremely dedicated pair are the Beavers front of house. The ground is tucked off the main high street in Hampton, with only the fixture board and looming floodlights giving an indication there is a football club in the vicinity as you walk up Beaver Close. Les mans the season ticket holders’ entrance and Lesley the pay-on-the-day turnstiles, as they both did on that blisteringly hot day in mid-May.
“It was quite difficult for all of us club staff, paid and voluntary, not to be able to watch the play-off final, but if we weren’t doing the jobs then there just wouldn’t be a club, everyone works so hard to ensure everyone is welcome,” says Lesley. Missing large portions of the actual matches is a sacrifice worth making so everyone else can enjoy themselves. “Sometimes when the weather isn’t so nice,” she adds, “when you’re counting the gate receipts and cashing up and it’s wet and windy outside it’s a nice excuse to stay inside the turnstiles!”
Despite the shortened period, the tenacity of Lesley and the other volunteers throughout June and July saw the club sell more season tickets than the previous season. This was, in part, due to Lesley and Les running a box office to sell season tickets out of Hammonds Bar, a fully-licensed venue tucked behind one of the goals.
The Rances are just two of many people who help keep this club together. Tracey Hathaway is officially known as the manager of Hammonds Bar, but that title doesn’t even scratch the surface of what she does for the club. Tracey went to her first Beavers game aged three with her dad, who among other things ran the bar there. Tracey took Hammonds on in 2012 partly to honour her father who loved the football club so much. Her dad would be extremely proud because Tracey is the heart and soul of Hampton & Richmond.
“I do the players’ salaries, the book-keeping, help with maintenance, I’m on the Supporters Trust board, and loads more,” she says. “I’ve even driven the players to the match in the minibus and made them all packed lunches, too. I don’t know where I find the time, to be honest, but you just get on with it. Everyone has more than one role at this club, everyone gets involved. It doesn’t really matter what it is happening on the pitch, everyone just mucks in. Even if I go on holiday, I always try and make sure that everything is covered before I go away, but my phone is always on and it’s always ringing…
“Everything we take through the bar is vital to the club and the World Cup was great for us,” she adds. “It wasn’t just a case of “Let’s open up and sell a few drinks”, we did sweepstakes, we did scratch cards, we put on food, and did everything we could to get extra money in. Every single penny counts at this level.”
Of course, a lot of the people involved in Hampton & Richmond have long and unbreakable bonds with the club but, as I found out, newcomers are always welcome, particularly if you’re willing to get your hands dirty. Matt Horsman was a Masters student at the nearby St Mary’s University, and was offered work experience at the club by his course director (who just happens to be the Beavers’ club secretary) and. while non-league football didn’t appeal to most people on his course, the die-hard Hearts fan jumped at the opportunity.
“I came down to London to work in sport and the opportunity that came at the Beavers has been the single most important one in my young career so far,” says Matt. “There was a time last season when I worked Monday to Wednesday, went to uni Thursday and Friday, filmed the Beavers training on Thursday evenings, and then commentated on the games on a Saturday. It was a bit manic, but I absolutely loved it. The club is amazing, it is no exaggeration to say it’s a family, and you get totally sucked into that. This summer has been a hectic one with an entirely new backroom staff and just one retained player. So that has meant lots of media work in terms of signings and announcements. Which has been time consuming, but it’s just what we do.”
Matt and his colleague Luke Lambourne, another newcomer, have got to know new gaffer McCann very well, and the boss is no stranger to going beyond the call of duty, balancing his part-time job as a black cab driver with building a squad to succeed in the National League South from scratch.
“I have to be honest I have felt the pressure between the two,” says McCann. “I’ve had to put an awful lot of time and effort into getting things right here. It’s not just the signings that come off, it’s the ones that for whatever reason you don’t get over the line. There are so many people at the club who care and that do plenty. I’m still getting to know them, but we have to do all we can for them and the rest of the supporters.”
McCann’s hastily assembled mix of signings and trialists played two pre-season matches at nearby Bedfont Sports, which is about as close as you can get to the runway at Heathrow without being arrested for trespassing. The World Cup may have been a distraction but things were already starting to get back to normal. The day before France beat Croatia, and just sixty-two days after (i)that(i) Diaz penalty, a brand new Beavers were back at The Beveree, as they hosted Oxford United on their brand new pitch. The hosts ran out 2–1 winners against League opposition and the pitch recovered well after its first real test.
A week later, a large group of hardy volunteers braved the searing heat over a long weekend, to undertake a cleanup of the ground surrounding the renovated surface. Brooms, paintbrushes, shovels, rakes, and all manner of tools were put to use on the seats, terraces, barriers, and stands. The Bev is a little rough around the edges, but that’s part of its charm and with the likes of Lesley, Les, Phil, and Tracey leading the charge and able to call upon a raft of other hero volunteers, everything looked ready for another season in the history of Hampton & Richmond Football Club.
Within a few weeks, the Beavers kicked off the season proper with a 1–1 draw against Slough. The start of a new era on the pitch that wouldn’t have been possible without those working so hard off it. The bitter disappointment of that day in May has already faded—it had to, there simply wasn’t time for it to stew. And what happens on the pitch is, at times, just a sideshow for the many people that pour their time, energy, and soul into a football club because it’s their community, their family, and their second home. Hampton & Richmond aren’t unique in that—it’s the same with non-league clubs all over the country—but seeing it all at such close quarters makes you realise the true impact of the Beautiful Game.
And isn’t that just fucking brilliant?