Hands up who really goes to watch their local team? Genuinely local, not just “close” by. I would say less than 1% of football fans actually regularly watch a game at their local stadium. Look at West Ham for instance. A core of their support comes from Dagenham, where of course their local team would be Dagenham & Redbridge. Yet they head over to Upton Park rather than walking down Victoria Road. Liverpool and Everton, on the other hand draw most of their regular support from the local community despite the fact that they are global brands. However, it does take a special type of fan to become a regular at non-league level. A fan who can see through the crap football, crap stadium, crap food and drink and crap people in charge of their clubs deserves a medal. But there is a growing trend in support for these clubs and almost all of it is fuelled by local fans.
I live in SE9, almost on the border of London and Kent. If I draw a line at the Blue Square level of the football pyramid my local teams (as the car drives) are Bromley FC – 5.2 miles (although as the crow flies this is only 3 miles), Charlton Athletic 3.7 miles, Millwall 5.9 miles and Welling United 2.7 miles. So my local team is Welling United. Well you may be surprised to know that I was a regular at Park View Road for two seasons a few years ago, with West Ham playing away on the days when they were at home. I grew to appreciate my Saturday afternoons at PVR, watching the likes of Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford (They did try to get Tony Banks down so that they could do a photo of the alternative Genesis) under the management of ex-Manchester United full back Paul Parker.
Facilities were basic, but the crowd were loyal. I even had the pleasure on a couple of occasions of writing the official match report for the programme, such was my influence on club affairs. And then it all stopped. Primarily because West Ham’s games were always on the same day. but also because GiMP had decided to give the programme editing a kick into touch. Our desertion co-incided with the club’s wilderness years, as the club fell down the newly formed Blue Square South league, flirting with relegation to the Rymans league. Whilst the club are relatively young (only formed in 1963) they had actually played at the Conference level for a number of years and this would have been a reversal in fortunes for them.
The club were actually formed essentially by a Sugar Daddy. Syd Hobbins, ex-Charlton Athletic goalkeeper formed a club for his son’s Graham and Barrie who have gone on to form a true one family dynasty. Barrie Hobbins is still at the club today, fulfilling the role of Kit Manager, Head Groundsman and Club Secretary as well as being a general miserable chap, wandering around the ground as if he had all of the cares in the world. The club played in number local youth leagues before they progressed through the non-leagues, gaining promotion to the Southern League in 1981. Five years later they were promoted to the Football Conference, the highest level they have played at. Whilst they never set the Conference alight they did keep a position in the league for nearly fifteen years. In 2000 they were relegated for the only time in their forty five year history, and eventually finishing in the top half of the Southern Premier League to gain a place in the Conference South when the leagues were restructured in 2004.
Last season under Andy Ford the club looked for some time if they would make the final play off shake up but a final position of 7th was just two spots off a chance at the Conference again. They did inflict a rare home defeat on AFC Wimbledon late in the season, and this was a high point along with the goals of Charlie Sheringham (son of Teddy) who scored 19 goals.
So why was I coming back? Well faced with the choice of Ice Age 3 or cutting the grass I chose neither. Danny and Cynical Dave (see the EFW team website) also faced a similar dilemma judging by their keenest to come down to the London Borough of Bexley on a dreary July day. Our plan was a few beers along the cultural hub of Park View Road, following the Route Of Wings (Wings is the nickname of the club) as they marched to this pre-season friendly. Not one to frequent Welling ( I have been there twice actually – once when I was cracking on to a lovely young lady I worked with in Lloyds Bank back in 1990, and once for Lolly’s birthday party three years – neither of which got me the apple pie I wanted) I tried to find a decent pub to start our session in. I went onto mecca for drinkers – Beer In The Evening website. Thirteen pubs were listed – good start, but the average score was just 4 out of 10 and didn’t exactly fill me with anticipation. The reviews of The Guy, the pub next to the ground included such platitudes as “place is shocking…..i too recommend you avoid………” and “Without the worst pub in the world not safe bad people etc etc a definite to avoid at all cost also big drug problem and locals looking for a fight at anytime of day or night – stay clear”.
Gillingham were the visitors for the second pre-season friendly at Park View Road (called as such because it forms the north border of the lovely Danson Park). Every year the club welcome Charlton Athletic in early July. As a sign of the times this fixture had moved from a all ticket capacity affair to become a pay on the gate with room for plenty inside as the Addicks had slipped down the league. The club still stuck to sensible ticket prices, charging Adults just a tenner for entry for this one, and on a very pleasant Saturday afternoon, Danny, cynical Dave and myself wandered along the centre of South East London culture in Welling looking for some fans we could chat to. And we found none. We did find pints of Ruddles County in the Nags Head at just £1.90 a pint which was a nice surprise and stayed there until near kick off, enjoying the England batsmen’s humiliation of the aussie attack at Lords.
In the ground the club bar was where the Gills fans who had travelled had taken up camp. A few hundred of them had driven up the A2, brimming with confidence for their forthcoming season in League One, and a chance to play some decent local games this season. League One has turned into a bit of the southern with two thirds of the teams playing south of Milton Keynes and the Gills were looking forward to Charlton Athletic amongst others.
Welling United 2 Gillingham 0 – Park View Road – Saturday 18th July 2009
If truth be told (and it always is on TBIR) it was a classic pre-season game. Very little skill, players a bit wary to try something different for fear of the wrath of the managers and a few surprise performances. Welling decided to play in white, which was a bit of a surprise considering their normal Red didn’t clash with either Gillingham’s normal blue or the yellow they wore here. In an obvious commercial/marketing ploy they switched to a new blue shirt at half time. It would have been a good idea if they were trying to promote their new kit(s) if they actually opened the club shop to sell them!
Welling deserved their win. Charlie Mitten in goal made some excellent saves, looking a very confident keeper and in midfield Sanchez Ming (brilliant name – should be half Mexican/half Chinese but wasn’t!) was busy and scored the opening goal, taking his chance with confidence after ex-Southend keeper Simon Royce could only parry a shot into his path. Their second, with five minutes to go came from an excellent run by Jake Hobbs who outpaced the defence and slotted home from a tight angle.
It was hard to see what either manager could take from the game. Welling must be confident going into the Blue Square South season but with big spending Dover coming up, and Woking and Lewes sure to be focused on bouncing back to the Premier it may be that they need to aim for the Playoffs again. Gillingham on the other had will need to start the season strongly. Division One this season will be tough with the three teams who dropped down from the Championship in Norwich, Charlton and Southampton sure to be pushing hard as well as Leeds United desperate to end their two year exile from the Championship (and five from the Premier League!).
The three of us wandered off, trying to find a pub with Sky in. The Nags Head was closed for a private function, “Infernos” was closed (permanently by the look of it – shame as I wanted to revisit the seat where I had so much luck all those years ago) so we ended up having one opposite in the Plough, with its 1970’s TV showing the golf – a very retro pub indeed. But full of local people doing local things. Shame they didn’t realise they had a local club down the road to support.