It’s 5 May 2018, the final day of the League One and League Two seasons. The agony and ecstasy of promotion or relegation will touch the lives of thousands of fans across the country over the next few hour.
In the small Buckinghamshire town of Olney, the sun has risen early and burnt off the droplets of water sitting on the grass which forms the stage for their senior team. There is plenty to play for today, even though Olney Town’s final game of the season – a 2-1 victory over Blackstones – took place three weeks ago.
That win helped them secure a sixth-place finish in Division One of the United Counties League, with the club falling only a handful of points short of a promotion place. Upon the sound of the referee’s final whistle, every member of Olney’s squad gathered in the centre circle to be congratulated and embraced by the club’s long-standing chairman, Paul Tough.
Tough arrives at the ground this morning with the club’s fixture secretary, Mick Brown. He walks along the edge of the field and inspects the neatly cut grass. It lays neat and still, perfect for football. He would have expected nothing less. However, Tough isn’t here to prepare the pitch for the upcoming campaign, nor watch the players ready themselves for pre-season friendlies.
He and Brown unlock the clubhouse, but they aren’t preparing it for an afternoon of football in the sunshine. Instead, they’re clearing it out, emptying it of its fixtures, fittings and possessions. They remove photographs from the wall which chronicle the club’s proud history at the heart of the local community. Formed in 1903 and one of the founding members of the North Bucks League in 1911, the time has arrived to close the doors on Olney Town. Forever.
Tough and Brown share some laughs as they find memorabilia from years gone by. They discover images of themselves sporting unflattering hairstyles and questionable choices of attire. Later on, the moment arrives for Tough to turn the key in the lock one last time. Emotion floods over him and he can’t help but shed a tear. An entire chapter of his life once sat on the other side of that door. Now it only exists in his memories.
This is it. This is the harsh reality. This is grassroots football in 2018. It’s the form of the game most tangibly linked to the lives of those who love and follow the sport. Fans of Premier League teams know they’ll be able to watch their clubs for the rest of their lives. At grassroots and non-league level, the future is never so certain.
For decades this small and humble football club sat at the centre of a thriving community. Numerous people have been involved for so many years, be it by simply spectating, serving in the clubhouse, running the line, cutting the grass or playing in the first team. There are so many members of the local community with a story to tell, a memory to share and a lifetime of participation to remember.
The non-league football clubs of our small towns and villages are so much more than just football clubs. They bring people together, they elicit hopes and ambitions, they take people of all ages through journeys of triumph and tragedy – and more than anything, they remind us that football is truly transcendent. Football is the world. Football is life.
Football at its most simple is one of the finest sights the human eye can witness. The unnerving accuracy of a through-ball, the ripple of a goal net, the wall of sound from the terraces: they all come together to produce emotions that touch both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. But the game has changed. Or more specifically, money has changed the game. Forever.
At the elite level of the game, obscene levels of revenue are generated from broadcasting deals, ticket sales, merchandise and sponsorship from all angles. Everyone in the commercial sector has an interest in football’s money and marketing machine. Agents bathe in huge monetary returns for their part in capturing the services of the world’s finest players, who themselves receive vast rewards for their signature.
It’s obvious that grassroots football has received a disproportionate amount of investment. The Premier League pledged £100m per year, which equates to just four per cent of the £1.38 billion its clubs spent on transfers in 2016/17. Agents alone received £174m for their part in those deals. The magnitude of the FA’s grassroots problem is clearly still an issue given that the organisation recently considered selling Wembley to Shahid Khan in order to generate funds for those lower down the pyramid.
Local non-league clubs are the bloodline of our football heritage and talent. Almost every young player ever signed by a professional club will have at some point played for a local team. But the game is dying at the bottom. Just half of the aforementioned £100m is spent on small-sided children’s football. It’s a drop in the financial ocean, and we’re consequently faced with a never-ending uphill battle if England is to ever build a future golden generation.
For clubs like Olney Town, financial margins are slim. Relegation can precipitate a long-term decline. Even promotion brings its own problems, with clubs forced to meet FA requirements on stadiums and facilities.
In 2017/18 Olney competed in Level 10, or Step 6, of the football pyramid. Clubs at this level depend on the goodwill of fans, with free labour – cutting the grass, hanging the goal nets, painting the pitch lines – necessary for survival. Tough and the other members of the Olney committee, Malcolm Thomas, Andrew Baldwin, Mick Brown and Ian Barcock, have ploughed thousands of hours of their own time into running and maintaining the club to ensure it continues to exist.
This ongoing financial battle has played on Tough’s mind every day for a number of years. He receives no wage for his services. All of his time, effort and input is purely voluntary. At times he’s personally supported the club financially, and now that they are no longer around he’s unlikely to receive anything back on his investment. Tough’s passion for the game is unquestionable, but the sad state of grassroots football nationally means the FA’s governance of the lower tiers has become less and less about the actual game itself.
To maintain their place in Step 6 of the pyramid, Olney Town were required to upgrade their ground to meet the FA’s grading requirements. The club needed to add 14 seats to their seating area, the Dennis Timpson Stand, named in honour of Timpson’s 75-year involvement with the club. They were able to do this, as well as upgrading the stadium’s changing facilities. However, installing a fence around the perimeter of the pitch proved more troublesome.
This rule has caused difficulty for several teams down the years. Many sides don’t own the pitch on which they play; instead, they pay rent to the local council for permission to use it. In Olney’s case, the authorities were reluctant to grant the club permission to build the fence, having publicly affirmed that there would be no more developments on the land. Olney tried to negotiate with the council, but their failure to persuade them meant a first step towards liquidation.
Olney started in the North Bucks League in 1911 and won the Division Two title in 1932/33. In 1966 they moved into the United Counties League and finished 15th in their first season. In 1972/73 Olney were crowned champions of the United Counties Division One, but they didn’t go up and remained in the first division until 1975, when they secured promotion as runners-up. Olney spent five seasons in the Premier Division before being relegated back to Division One in 1980, remaining there for the final 38 years of their existence.
Towards the end of last season, Olney were presented with the option of being relegated into a lower league where the ground requirements are not as demanding, but there was no way the club could survive financially further down the pyramid.
That’s why Tough and Brown have had to lock the clubhouse door. The two men shake hands and give each other a knowing nod, their years of service and dedication to the club summed up in a single gesture.
Tough and Brown turn around and make their way up the path and away from the clubhouse. Their shadows lengthen in front of them. No matter where they go next, they will always remember where they have been. And so too will the good people of Olney.