IT IS always sad to see a non-league club fold, but the fact that Northampton Spencer played their last home game in front of just 75 people says a lot about the sustainability of football at step five and below.
I visited Kingthorpe Mill, the club’s ground since 1971, around 20 years ago. I doubt there were 75 people at the game against a United Counties League title-chasing Stotfold.
It seemed a football backwater to be honest and I recall one end of the pitch was slightly waterlogged, a goat was on the pitch and two seagulls were battling for attention on the crossbar. I remember referring to the curious tableaux that greeted us when we arrived at the ground in my report in the Hitchin Comet.
There didn’t seem much interest in the club as I also recall asking for directions from two people and they did not know Northampton Spencer even existed.
But to the loyal band of people that do care, the end of their club will come as a bitter blow. Indeed, on Wikipedia, a fan or official has issued a desperate plea for someone to take over as chairman Graham Wrighting is retiring.
Wrighting presided over the club’s affairs for an astonishing 33 years. He was invited to take the chair in 1981-82 when Spencer finished bottom of the UCL. He brought in John Petts and in 1991-92, the club won the Premier Division. The fact that Wrighting, who has certainly “done his bit” for Spencer, is stepping down, leaving something of a void, is a message for other clubs.
Spencer’s committee, most of whom were long-serving devotees to the cause, has become smaller and smaller over the years. To quote the club’s programme, they are folding because there is a lack of people willing to help behind the scenes.
A couple of years ago, website provider Pitchero conducted a survey around volunteers in sport and the results were quite worrying. The poll revealed that while established volunteers were committed, the young were reluctant to get involved in non-league football.
A non-league club’s biggest single outgoing is invariably the wage bill, but they are almost all underpinned by voluntary labour. The old “salt of the earth” characters used to epitomise the amateur and semi-pro game. But they are a fading force.
This is partly due to the fact that demographics in non-league football are quite unhealthy. The image of non-league football in the outside world is of a 50-plus, male-dominated audience that is just getting older. A younger audience would result in more virile volunteers and more people coming through to help run the club in the future.
Engaging youth is one of the hardest tasks unless there is a thriving youth set-up that is aligned to the parent club and everyone genuinely feeling part of the same machine. And to feel “ownership”, volunteers have to be appreciated.
One very inclusive chairman I came across used to make a point of thanking each and every one of the people who ran the club at every home game. He spent the 90 minutes before the game shaking everyone’s hand, asking them if there were any problems and showing his appreciation. “We can’t afford to pay them, but a bit of gratitude goes a long way,” he said. It worked well.
Too often, it is assumed that everything runs to plan. If you want volunteers to remain just that, they have to feel what they are doing is worthwhile and valued. And this is probably even more important with younger people. The aim of the “leaders” at a club should be to harness all its resources and create a sense of togetherness – not in a “this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” way, but as a united force that has a stake in things.
Northampton Spencer’s situation could easily be replicated across the non-league pyramid. If there are not sufficient people interested in the club – the average gate this season is 58 – either on or off the pitch, the future is over-dependent on too few individuals. The club becomes the “hobby” of a handful of people and succession is never contemplated. It’s sad when it comes to an end, but there is a sense of the inevitable about it
Anyone involved in a non-league club, particular those that can only generate small crowds, should be concerned about Northampton Spencer’s demise. If you are over-reliant on that ageing enthusiast who lives and breathes the club, look after him or her, and while you’re doing that, look for someone who might be able to share that role. One day, that dyed-in-the-wool supporter will have to be replaced. The question is, who will do the job?