These boots were made for walking

The forthcoming walk to Wembley has got me thinking about the previous sponsored walks I have done to football matches with Chesham United and some of the superb memories I have…with the over-riding memory from each being the final comments of “NEVER AGAIN.”

Yet I keep coming back for more!

The whole idea for a sponsored walk started many years ago (mid 1990’s?) when a group of us set off on the relatively short walk from Chesham to Berkhamsted for a game. Less than 5 miles, a good story for the local press and it raised a few bob for the supporters club. I think it was probably the following year that I sat in a committee meeting and stated that “if we can raise £1,000, I’ll walk to Aylesbury United for the game over there.”. Sure enough, we raised £1,000, I did the walk, and the money went towards new dug outs – You can tell how long ago this was as these dug outs have since been replaced by the mini-conservatories that we now have at The Meadow as dug outs.

By now the idea was catching on and as supporters of Chesham United we saw walking to away matches as an opportunity to not just raise money for the football club, but for local charities as well. The idea grew and grew, and so did the miles walked.

We did another walk to Aylesbury, about a dozen of us, and then we went a bit further afield to Burnham (Beeches), before really pushing ourselves with an ambitious walk to Dunstable Town – about 16 miles. Making the mistake of starting out with a stinking hangover we were soon crossing through Berkhamsted and making our way across beautiful countryside towards Whipsnade Zoo before descending Dunstable Downs into the town for a couple of pints en route to the ground. A superb, idyllic, walk. We should have quit then.

But oh no, the following year some silly sod (probably me) came up with the idea of walking to Leighton Buzzard for the game, closer to 20 miles…and definitely further than that using the route we were guided along – It becomes pretty depressing when you have walked about 5 miles and you come out by a signpost saying ‘Chesham – 2 miles’.

We eventually picked up the canal at Berkhamsted and set out on the long, and tedious walk along the tow path all the way to Leighton Buzzard.  I will never forget talking to Dave Jeffrey as we reached the canal, he positively mentioned the fact that we must be about a third of the distance “already.” It was 9.00am.  I was really pleased for a minute, then I remember thinking – I bloody hope we are a third of the way, we set off at 6.00am and as we had been walking for three hours and the game kicks off in six hours it would be a disaster if we did not arrive in time for a couple of pints before the game!

My feet absolutely killed me, the blisters were agony and the last couple of miles – after a pub stop admittedly – it felt like I was carrying two lumps of lead below my waste. It didn’t leave me in the best of moods by the time we reached the ground and I remember having a very loud, and very public, argument with one of my fellow directors who picked the wrong time to make a comment that I did not agree with!

However, that was not the worst example of a walk to a game coming into conflict with my role as an official of the club. In 2011, when I was Chairman, myself and fellow director Mike Warrick once again walked to Dunstable Town for an FA Cup match, a game that Chesham should have won at a canter given the difference in league status between the two clubs.

Again the walk was pleasant, but we did get lost a couple of times, in particular crossing Asheridge Estate, so by the time we arrived at the match our feet were killing, but hopefully the game would be worth it…

…It wasn’t.

Chesham lost the match, it was an embarrassing cup defeat, but worse than that, as a supporters’ run club, it was a horrendous financial blow. It is easy to say that you should never budget for an FA Cup run, but we were really hoping (expecting) to win at least one game, ideally 2 or 3 and raise somewhere in the region of £5-10,000  towards the running of the club. Without it, the season ahead was going to be a struggle. Just to put that into perspective, this season’s cup runs will have raised over £40k for the club, whilst last years most memorable of season would have seen the additional income being in excess of £100k. This on top of the financial commitments made by Directors of the club.

Back in 2011-12 we won absolutely bugger all in cup money, and we had no wealthy directors to put money into the club or provide a safety net if things started to get financially scary…which they did, but what we did have was plenty of strong opinions!

So there I was at Dunstable Town FC. Feet throbbing, the cloud of FA Cup humiliation hanging over, as manager Andy Leese  gives the players a dressing down on the pitch. I can’t remember exactly why it was that I had the wages in my pocket this particular week as it was something I always avoided, probably because the person who normally dished them out wanted to make a swift exit. Understandable.

The feet ached and Chesham supporters, and fellow officials, were walking by moaning, groaning and complaining with a common message of: “I wouldn’t bloody pay them if it was me.” Words I had muttered many times over my football supporting days at Chesham, but when you are Chairman, and ultimately responsible, it is very different.

As the crowds left the ground, Andy Leese and the players were still on the pitch. Jeez, my feet ached. Bloody hell, I was worried about our finances for the rest of the season. Sod it. I stomped onto the pitch, interrupted the managers rant and told him that I was going home, and I was taking the wages with me.

Boy did I feel bad the next morning. Waking up with something like £1,800 cash by the side of the bed. Money that players were due, expecting to take out with them on a Saturday night, and I had taken it all home. Of course it was what everyone had told me to do, the game was rubbish and frankly the players had been rubbish. But in reality, the arrangement was not that they only get paid for winning. They turned up for the game, they gave up their time, did their job…just not very well. I don’t think any of them performed poorly on purpose. Does that really give the club, me, the right to not give them the wages they were due?

It was a huge reminder of the responsibility that goes with being Chairman of a club like Chesham United. You are a supporter, you empathise with supporters, but you cannot act in the same spontaneous, unreasonable, way as a paying punter has the right to. There is a huge responsibility, and although I was never anything like a typical Chairman, I prided myself on always ensuring that players got their wages on time, but we, I, didn’t do it that week. And I regret it massively.

The following Tuesday I spoke with captain Danny Talbot, we paid the wages and Danny and the players were excellent and fully understood the circumstances. I can’t remember if it was in this particular instance, or another time later in the season (possibly both) when one particular player, Dave Fortheringham, came up to me and gave his wages back saying they were not deserved. What an unbelievable gesture, what a true bloody legend of our football club. For the record, not such a bastard myself, I never accepted the returned wages, but would never forget the gesture.

At times I still miss the day to day involvement of Chesham United, but for my own health and sanity I had to give it up, and Saracens have given me a more than adequate alternative outlet, albeit with a difference. When Ben and I get to Wembley on 8th April all we have to worry about is enjoying the game and finding something to eat and drink, whether the players perform well enough to earn their wages, well, that will be absolutely nothing to do with me…and boy am I pleased about that!

Oops, silly me, I nearly forgot, if you wanted to sponsor us for the walk to help Tackling Cancer Together, please do click here.

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