More than one way to skin a cat

I never dreamt that one day I would ever be jealous of a football team that play in pink.

Back in my Chesham United supporting prime, my early 20’s – no responsibilities, no family to support and no kids to bring up – we had some fantastic days. At times my views and opinions, especially in some of the fanzines produced, did not go down particularly well, but as supporters I think we forged some pretty good relationships that epitomised non-league football.

As a bunch of supporters we regularly organised supporters’ football matches on the morning of league games, Chesham fans v Aylesbury fans, Enfield fans or Hitchin fans were regular fixtures.

We would enjoy a match, go to the bar together, have a few pints, then watch the proper game hurling abuse at each other from behind opposite goals before going back to the bar for another drink. And then we would enter a supporters tournament at Hitchin Town at the end of the season where supporters from clubs all around the Isthmian League would come together for a bit of fun and a bit of footy, what a laugh they were; we were so bad that one year we even took a First XI player along as a bit of a ringer…and we still lost!

Bizarrely, one of the closest relationships we formed was with Dulwich Hamlet. Hard to say exactly what the bond was, but we seemed to share an understanding of non-league football and we shared a vision. Back in the mid-1990’s myself and another Chesham supporter won the Hitchin Town quiz in a joint team with a couple of Dulwich fans, including their current Community Initiative Lead, Mishi Morath.

We would regularly play supporters’ matches against each other, or meet up if our teams were playing locally. I remember one Good Friday we were playing a morning match away at Leyton and Mishi came over for the match, and a few drinks. After the match we had a few more drinks with a couple of Leyton fans and before we knew it Mishi, a Leyton fan and I were on the train out of London heading to Aylesbury United to watch their evening match against Oxford City – Oh how life was different when I was young!

We move on, we grow up…I get that. Hey, as you know, I went on to become Chairman of the club I fell in love with, how good is that? It was good, fantastic…but we never did achieve what I wanted. We had great ideas, and we did some fantastic things, but maybe we did not convey the message in the right way, or paint a clear enough picture of what we wanted to achieve: “One Club”, “the community our goal”, what does it all mean?

In short, I wanted us to do what Dulwich Hamlet are doing.

All those beers, all those drunken conversations with Mishi Morath when we were both just fans, and he has gone on and delivered at Dulwich Hamlet something that is truly special as a club in the community. If you haven’t heard about it, or missed it in The Non-League Paper the other week, read the article here.

The focus is on making the club part of the community, getting people through the gate, and once they are in, making sure they enjoy the experience. As Mishi says in the article “To me, what kick-started it off was when we played Hampton & Richmond on Non-League Day in September 2014. It was the first time we did, ‘Pay what you like’ and it was our first four-figure gate of the season.

“After that we had another 13 gates of 1,000 or more that season. We did a lot of hard work in the community before that game – the committee, the supporters’ trust, everyone. That brought people in and showcased the club.”

I read that, and it takes me back to some of the cringe-worthy comments after Chesham United did a “pay what you like” against Truro a few years back. The attendance almost doubled, but gate receipts were about the same as normal. In the local paper the following week the message from the club was very much “Well, that wasn’t worth doing was it”…OUCH.

In recent weeks it has been all go at Chesham with the change of manager and the announcement that Aylesbury United will once again be groundsharing at The Meadow…. Oooh, that’s a tricky one.

Like so many things at Chesham the announcement will not have come as a shock to many, the rumours have been around for weeks, the gossip has been out there, including the likelihood that this will spell the end of the Reserves side – Another blow to the whole community status and the ‘football for all ethos’, but on the other hand, being realistic, it is difficult to blame the Board for the decision.

In a footballing utopia we we would have the mini league feeding the youth section which feeds into the senior youth team, the reserves and eventually the First XI; a clear path for any 5 year old budding footballer to follow all the way to play for Chesham United First XI. The sad reality is, it doesn’t happen very often. It is not for me to judge on why, I know back in my day we would often lose the budding senior youth players to university, effectively falling off the conveyer belt just as they reach the point of blossoming, but there is also the reality that as the First XI get better, moving higher up the pyramid, the gap between them and the Reserves in the South Midlands Division One gets greater and the step up becomes massive…almost too big?

I’m not going to pretend to watch enough games to back up that statement, and I may be shot down for it, but on the surface you can understand why the Board will be tempted by income from a tenant as opposed to the cost of running a Reserve side. The heart says it is bonkers, but the head says it is the right thing. And if I was Chairman still, with, let’s guess at, somewhere between £10-15,000 on the table from a groundshare…it would be bloody tempting.

When on the board I lived and breathed finance, so feel in quite a good position to understand the circumstances and what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to club budgets and managing finances. And I know the difference that sort of money will make.

On that subject, I am delighted that the club still seem to be using the management accounts and forecasting that was introduced by Charles Manchester and further developed by myself and Mike Warrick during our supporters run era. Hopefully that will help to keep the focus on stability and avoid any nasty surprises. When looking at the figures, and trying to get the income and outgoings to match up, it is really quite frightening how big a gap there can be. We have been fortunate in recent years to have Roger Payne and the FA Cup to plug gaps, but if we are truly moving into a new era, income needs to increase, but I really do hope that some of the focus will be on understanding and building bridges with supporters, the town and the community.

Increasing income and reducing costs is the basics for making the club self-sustainable. There are many ways that can be done. You can, bluntly, try to fleece people for as much money as you can get out of them with high prices, or, you can take the Dulwich Hamlet approach of getting people through the door, making them feel involved, make them want to help out and spend their money in and around the club.

As the Non-League Paper article explained, at Dulwich Hamlet: Prices are sensible. Under-13s are free while concessions – including full-time students, 13-19 year-olds, and local NHS workers – pay just £4. They also give out free tickets to schools that, crucially, are family tickets meaning a child can bring their mum or dad.

“We believe kids won’t necessarily come on their own, you need the adults to come with them, and they have the spending power,” Morath says.

“It’s the adults who will buy the burger or a scarf. Once they’re there, they enjoy it. They won’t all take up the tickets, but enough will come. It’s for one game and it gives them a flavour. Enough will then come back for the next one and tell their mates where they’re going.

“You could see that on Saturday by the amount of youngsters we have at games, how many families, how many women. We’re very proud of the fact that, across the community, everyone is welcome at Dulwich.”

Sometimes the understanding between the terraces and the boardroom can be a million miles from each other, in both directions. At Chesham we are in a period of change, and I just hope we take this opportunity to learn from others and make our club something special.

It is well over 20 years now since Mishi Morath and I shared a beer. I am very proud of what I have done in my time at Chesham United, but I won’t lie, I am extremely jealous of what Mishi and the gang have done at Dulwich. They have turned drunken conversations into reality. For us it is still a vision…and not one to give up on. I hope.

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