The Non-League 100: Wealdstone 1984-85, the first double winners

IN an age when former Football League clubs proliferate the top division of non-league, it is often forgotten that the first non-league team to perform the hallowed “double” of National League and FA Trophy was a relatively humble outfit from the Middlesex conurbation, Wealdstone.

Wealdstone, the club that nurtured the talents of players like Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones, were beneficiaries of a novel points system introduced by the Gola League (Conference/National League) in 1983 of three points for an away win, two for a home victory. If the conventional system had been applied to 1984-85, Wealdstone would have finished third, behind Bath City and Nuneaton. But as it was, 12 away wins gave the Stones an advantage over their rivals, even though they also lost a dozen games on the way.

Brian Hall had fashioned a hard-working team that had its share of characters. The skipper was Paul Bowgett, a swashbuckling figure who was adept at penalty-taking. Most of the team had experienced some form of involvement with a Football League club – goalkeeper Bob Iles and defender Steve Perkins had both been with Chelsea, Brian Greenaway started with Fulham, Mark Graves had played 34 league games with Plymouth Argyle and Robin Wainwright had played at Millwall and Luton Town. The Cordice brothers, Neil and Alan, had been involved with Northampton Town and Norwich City respectively.

The team that would make history in 1985 was largely built around the side that won the Southern League in 1982. When they arrived in the Gola League, they were remarkably consistent, finishing third in 1982-83 and fourth a year later. Like many teams in the London area, they were not especially well supported in terms of numbers, but they had a very passionate following. In their first season after promotion, they were averaging 828 per game at Lower mead, but this fell by 20% in 1983-84 and went up to 826 in their double year.

They started the season well, unbeaten in their first nine games before losing to Boston United. They experienced a bad patch in October/November before finding their form again by December, beating close rivals Altrincham 1-0 at Lower Mead before a 1,000 crowd.

The FA Trophy got underway with the Stones disposing of Harlow Town, Wycombe Wanderers and Welling United. With cup commitments and the weather, Wealdstone went from early January to the first week in March without playing a Gola League game, but five consecutive wins in March really underlined their league title credentials. Back to the Trophy, once Frickley Athletic were beaten in the quarter-finals, Wealdstone faced Enfield over two legs. They pulled off a sensational 2-0 away win in the first leg thanks to goals from Andy Graham and Neil Cordice and despite losing the second leg by a single goal at Lower Mead, they went through to the final at Wembley to face Boston United.

The title race was a close-run affair, but a five-game run, including impressive away wins at Kidderminster and Kettering – the deciding goal scored by Andy Graham – was enough to give Hall’s men a four-point advantage over second-placed Nuneaton in the final analysis. The Stones ended the season with a 7-0 defeat at Barnet as Wealdstone prepared for the second stage of their pursuit of an unprecedented haul of trophies.

At Wembley, Graham, a somewhat unorthodox striker, scored after just two minutes, receiving the ball from a corner and sending an overhead kick past Boston keeper Kevin Blackwell. After Dennis Byatt missed a penalty, another corner led to a second goal, headed home by Lee Holmes. Boston pulled a goal back in the 50thminute from Chris Cook, but Wealdstone hung on to clinch the double.

Sadly, the club declined after the spectacular success of 1984-85 and in 1988, they were relegated from non-league football’s top flight. It was not long before they had lost their home ground and became something of a nomadic club. Fortunately, the club retained its loyal support during some difficult times. The heroes of 1985 have never been forgotten.

 

Life in the Tropic of Wealdstone

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AS THAT TV series about Salford revealed, a non-league club is a little world of its own. Behind its “metroland” neighbourhood in Ruislip, Wealdstone is no different. It’s an institution that has come back, not quite from the dead, but certainly from a nomadic existence that would have killed off some outfits. To have returned from a very uncertain future suggests that there was plenty of heart and soul in the club and you only need visit the them at their adopted home of Grosvenor Vale to see they are not only alive and kicking, but actually flourishing.

I have to admit that Wealdstone played a part in igniting my interest in non-league football in the mid-1980s. I worked with Andrew Lane, now a board member at the club but back in the 1980s, a fan on the terrace. When I first met Andrew, I was amazed that people could actually have a passion for a non-league football club. He invited me to Lower Mead and at the end of 1984-85, I was at Wembley with him as the club won the FA Trophy, securing the “double”. From thereon, I watched Grays Athletic and later became involved with Hitchin Town. But it started with that trip to Wealdstone in 1984-85.

Now Andrew is on the “inside” at Wealdstone and, like all good clubmen, he was manning the turnstiles as we arrived at the ground. It’s a stadium that is typical suburban non-league and looks just about adequate for the step two level that Wealdstone currently play at. It looks as though they have found their resting place, so once the next lease is settled, the club will surely upgrade the facilities. As it stands, it’s a pleasant place to watch football, plenty of character and quite a few characters occupying the terraces.

And increasing numbers are watching Wealdstone’s football these days. In 2011, the Stones were averaging 440 people per game, last season, this had gone up to 669. Interestingly, in the club’s programme, Sudhir Rawal spoke about the growing interest in non-league football inside the M25 at clubs like Dulwich, Clapton, Enfield and added that Wealdstone should speak to people at these clubs about supporter engagement. But, reassuringly, he added: “We are not going to become some left-wing, hippy dippy trendy football club.” Wealdstone’s fans might not be political, but they have something of a reputation for being vocal and occasionally raucous. I crossed paths with a group of them in St. Albans last season and they were loud and keen to let people know who they were following.

By the sounds of it, some people were not prepared to go to Whitehawk for the next away trip. Rawal added: “Next week we travel to the People’s Republic of East Brighton, with no doubt some of our travelling fans taking to wearing hard hats after the events of last season.” I later learned there was some history.

Judging by some of the comments I heard in the ground, Wealdstone have been a bit more liberal with their budget this season. As well as some new players, they have a new chairman in Peter Marsden who was previously with Accrington Stanley. He has been vocal about his desire to “drive success” at the club.

With extra expenditure comes greater expectation, but on the face of it, Wealdstone have got a good chance of a decent campaign. Their two games before Margate arrived had both ended in 2-2 draws – at Dartford on the opening day and at home to St. Albans.

Gordon Bartlett is still manager of the Stones and is in his 21st year in charge. He was dressed for the weather in bench garb, but his opposite number, Nikki Bull looked decidedly uncomfortable in his best man’s suit. After nine minutes, Bull’s afternoon got worse as Elliot Benyon opening the scoring for the home side. It was his third goal in as many games.

Margate tried to get back in the game, urged on by the shrill encouragement from behind the goal. After half an hour, though, Wealdstone doubled their lead when new signing Omar Koroma netted after some nice approach work.

Margate had a good spell after the interval and Jonathan North pulled off an excellent save from Elliott Buchanan. They also went close through Manny Parry with a header.

Wealdstone were good value for their lead and one player who caught the eye was midfielder Danny Green, who foraged away in the middle of the park and linked up well with the front men.

After dominating for long periods, Wealdstone had to endure a nervy finish after Marcel Barrington pulled a goal back for Margate in the last minute. It should have been more comfortable than 2-1.

As we walked out of the ground, with Stones fans rejoicing at another three points, we caught a glimpse of the famous Wealdstone Raider, the fellow who has become something of a cult in non-league football and beyond. On the strength of Wealdstone’s start to 2016-17, he may have something to sing about this season.

 

www.gameofthepeople.com

 

 

Taking the contrarian view – the cult clubs that defy the odds

Clapton FCThere are successful clubs, monied clubs, ambitious clubs and those that are always down on their luck. But there are also clubs that have some cachet because of their name. Some are, relatively speaking, well supported considering their status. And there’s those that have enjoyed better days, moments when they have been in the sun, won trophies and been at the top of the game.

In non-league football, there’s been a lot of teams that have fallen [dramatically] from grace, but often this has inspired great loyalty among their fans. It’s not exclusive to non-league football. Cult clubs in the Football League include Accrington Stanley and Crewe Alexandra, mostly because of their names. And in continental Europe, teams like St.Pauli of Hamburg, Genoa, Dukla Prague and Frem Copenhagen have loyal and passionate followings that sometimes exceed their status.

Here’s some of the clubs that can be classed, for one reason or another, as “cult clubs” in English non-league football:

Clapton
Their ground, the Old Spotted Dog, has legendary status, but its future is uncertain and it has certainly enjoyed better times. The club, which won the FA Amateur Cup five times (1907, 1909, 1915, 1924, 1925), now plays in the humble surroundings of the Essex Senior League, but they have a following that is noisy, raucous and very fond of leaving stickers around London Underground stations. Clapton was the first English club to play outside the UK – in 1890.

Hitchin Town
The Canaries’ ground is another time warp and is steeped in controversy as the ongoing battle with their landlords continues. Hitchin are unique in that their forerunner played in the very first FA Cup. The club is also consistently supported and was the home of Britain’s first football museum. Their fans are incredibly loyal and patient – away support down the years has been remarkable.

Bishop Auckland
One of the most successful amateur teams ever – winning the FA Amateur Cup 10 times including three triumphs in the 1950s. Currently in Northern League Division One, they wear very distinctive two-blue halved shirts. One notable item from their history tells you how good they were in the 1950s – they lent Manchester United some players after the Munich air disaster in 1958.

P1040207 (350x263)Dulwich Hamlet
One of the great old names from amateur football, Dulwich Hamlet’s pink and blue is one of the more identifiable strips in the non-league game. Dulwich is a club that has been written off on a number of occasions but their support seems to have grown in recent years. It’s not easy to survive as a London-based non-league outfit, but Dulwich are doing more than that. Great fans, great strip, great history.

Crook Town
Another of the north-east’s heritage clubs, also from the Northern League Division One. Crook flew the flag for England by travelling to Spain in 1913 and actually played Barcelona. They won the FA Amateur Cup five times, including four between 1954 and 1964.

Corinthian Casuals
A name that evokes the old amateur days of Corinthians and The Casuals, formed in 1939 as a merger of the two clubs. They have also been written off, but they now play in Tolworth and are members of the Isthmian League Division One South. Another notable kit: pink and chocolate!

sheffieldSheffield FC
A club trading off its status as the world’s oldest football club. Sheffield have had a renaissance in recent years and have a cult following that has been exported overseas. It’s good to see a club using its history as a door-opener.

LewesLewes
With their iconic ground, The Dripping Pan, and their ground-breaking match posters, fan-owned Lewes have come back from troubled times. Now playing in the Isthmian Premier, Lewes have kept us entertained with their imaginative art-work. They also host the Bonfire Cup, a tournament between eight local Bonfire Societies (Lewes and November 5 is big business).

Blyth Spartans
One-time FA Cup experts with a string of giant-killings, their notable name and green strip has made Blyth Spartans a cult club outside the north-east of England. They’ve played at Croft Park for over a century.

Slough Town
Once a mighty club, Slough are still tenants at Beaconsfield SYCOB, but they are a big club waiting to happen again. After a series of near-misses, they finally won promotion in 2014 and are back in the Southern League Premier. Voiciferous fans, most of whom probably don’t remember Slough as a big club.

Wealdstone
A club that has stared into the abyss after selling its Lower Mead ground in the 1990s, but happily has found its way back and is now in the Conference South. It’s still a far cry from the days when Wealdstone were the top non-league outfit, winning the double in 1994-95, but it’s good to see they have survived bad times.

This list is in no way exhaustive and no doubt anyone could add a team or two to the article. It’s also not a tribute to success, because some of these teams have long since seen any silverware, and some have never won anything major. But they are all clubs worth a visit!