THE LAST time I visited Meadow Park, it was on the evening of September 11, 2001. Hitchin were playing Enfield there and I had been delayed owing to the terrorist attacks in New York. Now, just a few hours after a similarly devastating attack, this time on Paris, I was returning to Boreham Wood Football Club.
It was a sombre afternoon – the weather was symbolically awful, as if in response to the dreadful events in France, and somehow you felt you shouldn’t be out enjoying yourself in the aftermath of a shocking night in Paris.
Boreham Wood have come a long way since I last visited their ground. It always looked like a soulless place in the past, but with a big new side-long stand, with a grand gable that proudly displays the corporate visual identity of the club, it looks the real deal.
You sense that the driving force behind this is one Danny Hunter, the club’s chairman for the past 17 years and a man with a mission. There he was, in the programme, in his best “man of destiny” pose, gazing into the distance at the future he has mapped out for the club.
It is very much the “Hunter” club, if you look at the list of officials. There’s Billy (the secretary, academy manager and programme editor), Matthew (the general manager and stadium manager), Daniel (ground maintenance, groundsman and kit manager), Charlie (new business manager) and Micky (bar manager). Presumably, they are all part of the same tribe – unless Hunter is a common name in the Boreham Wood area!
There’s almost as many Hunters as there are high-vis jackets on display at Boreham Wood. Everyone seems to have one, guarding this area, shepherding that area, even on the door of the bar. I half expected someone to demand, “your papers, please” as I walked into the ground.
This is Boreham Wood’s first season in the National League. Despite the tidy ground and professional look and feel, you don’t get the impression they can maintain this level of football. For a start, their crowds are far too low – something that has always been an issue. And what would worry me, if I were a Boreham Wood fan, would be the decision to go full-time – especially in the first year of National League football.
Not crowd funded
Crowds don’t seem to have been too much of a problem for Boreham Wood. Ten years ago, they were in the Southern League Eastern Division – that’s Step 4. They then spent four years at Step 3, winning promotion from the Ryman Premier in 2010. Five years in the Conference South ended with another promotion in 2014-15 via the play-offs. In three of the last four campaigns, they have reached the first round of the FA Cup.
During this time, crowds at Meadow Park have fluctuated, but in 2014-15, they averaged 312. Now in the National League (that’s Conference with a new label on the jar), they are averaging over 500, but that’s mainly due to the influx of away support at this level.
Chester brought 247 supporters in a crowd of 589, so even then, 342 were from Boreham Wood. Still too low to sustain this level of football, but other teams with small audiences have flirted with Step 1 – Forest Green Rovers being a good example.
Surely non-league football should not be full-time?
There is an argument that National League can only be full-time, especially with the plethora of former Football League clubs now in membership. Turning full-time proved too much for Boreham Wood’s manager, Ian Allinson, who couldn’t balance a full-time job with the new football commitment. Allinson, no stranger to Game of the People, had done an excellent job in taking the club to the National League, but handed over to Luke Garrard, at 30 the youngest manager across the first five divisions of English football. Allinson’s departure from the dugout, although he is still involved at the club, does highlight a problem. Non-league should not be full-time – it flies against the whole ethos of this level of football, and one might suggest that full-time non-league is a symptom of the unrealistic state of the game in Britain today.
Chester are a good example of how a club’s finances can get out of control. The original Chester City was wound up in 2010 and a supporter-owned club was formed in its place.
Chester enjoyed three successive promotions from their inaugural season in 2010-11. This is their third campaign at the highest non-league level and like 2014-15, the current season is looking mid-tableish.
In non-league terms, they are a big fish, as evidenced by an average gate of more than 2,000, which puts them among the top half dozen non-league clubs. You can easily tell a club’s status by its media following and the Boreham Wood press box was packed with representatives from newspapers, radio stations and the web-site community – all of whom were there to see Chester.
With the weather dire, the crowd crammed into the covered areas but had little to cheer about. Boreham Wood’s band of loyal fans, the so-called “Wood army”, had a huge flag proclaiming that this was a “Small town…big dreams”. For 90 minutes, they had little to dream about, such was the tepid nature of the game.
Weather 1 football 0
Chester created very little all afternoon, but they did have the ball in the net in the opening seconds, Ross Hannah’s effort being ruled out for offside.
Chester’s best chance of the half came in the 34th minute when a cross by Roberts found Callum Dyson, but his shot was blocked by a defender.
In the latter stages of the half, Boreham Wood grew in confidence and might have gone ahead just before the interval, Shakes shooting wide after a cross by Charlie MacDonald.
Chester opened positively in the second half and straight from a John Rooney corner, Boreham Wood defender Danny Woodards acrobatically scythed the ball off the goalline.
Boreham Wood added a different dimension to their attack when they brought on Anthony Jeffrey and almost immediately, he bulldozed his way through the Chester defence and created an opening.
Mauro Vilhete was presented with an easy chance in the 71st minute when Chester defender Ian Sharps misjudged his header and the ball fell invitingly, but his shot was tame and failed to trouble Chester goalkeeper Jon Worsnop. It ended 0-0.
Chester assistant manager, Jon McCarthy (surrounded by half a dozen microphones) summed up a lack-lustre 90 minutes perfectly: “Although it is a point away from home, neither side did enough to win the game. It was two evenly-matched teams playing in difficult conditions.”
Boreham Wood manager Luke Garrard, with one eye on Monday night’s FA Cup replay against Northwich, was pleased with the point after the midweek win at Bromley: “We had the lion’s share of the chances, but a point against a decent side like Chester, after winning at Bromley, goes some way towards the consistency we are looking for.”
So that was it – not a great advertisement for National League football, but the conditions got the better of the teams. You cannot help but be impressed with the set-up at Boreham Wood, but you do wonder how long they can sustain Step 1 football. The man in charge seems to be confident: “The plaudits and platitudes don’t get handed out until next May. So, I will go on record now and back my dressing room, back my judgement and back my belief that come May 2016, we’ll still be a National League club every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”