After spending a couple of days in Madrid with a friend, there’s nothing to bring you back down to Earth following a trip to The Bernabeu than spending the morning with the team behind the scenes of Chorley FC. The Magpies currently ply their trade one division below the professional leagues in England’s fifth tier and Victory Park isn’t just home to a football team, it’s home to a community.
When I say down to Earth, this is exactly what I mean. Sue, Josh, Greg, Mick and Laura are all part of the beating heart of this club.
Driving in to Victory Park, the first time I’ve been, I’m reminded of a couple of similar grounds I’ve had the pleasure to play at. Opening the door to the club house we’re not sure what reception we will get, until we gingerly say we’ve come for a nosey, and we’re welcomed in and obliged to have a cup of tea. In these parts it really would be rude not to. If ever we we were in doubt it’s now confirmed, we’re in the heartland of Lancashire.
We’re there to meet Josh, but he’s not back from the morning’s errands and it’s Sue and Laura who greet us. After the ice is broken we try to delve a little deeper in to the runnings and goings on of this historic club (Chorley were established as a football club, switching from rugby, in 1893. We look to learn the roles of our hosts, “We do everything here” says Sue, who’s held many a post and they all seem to have melded in to being a Jack of all trades.
This wide range of responsibilities is not uncommon at clubs of this size, I’ve seen it first hand and wore many of the hats Sue refers to. Jobs are shared and swapped, roles are exchanged, all to get the pitch and the ground ready for when Saturday comes.
As you drop down the ladder, resources, people, time are spread thinner than the slices of bacon in the local corner shop. Market and coal mining towns are a far cry from where they thirty or fourth years ago. The world has changed, but everything manages to stay the same too.
We decide to brace the cold for a lap of the hallowed turf, but before we do, a couple of things catch our eye on the club room walls; most notably two framed shirts, both belonging to Paul Mariner. Mariner climbed football’s rungs to feature in the 1981 Cup Winners Cup Final for Ipswich Town. Having a player start his career here and go on to play for and win European silverware with Sir Bobby Robson is monumental, especially for a club that has never reached the football league proper, or got past the second round of the FA Cup.
Having players reach those dizzy heights from the non-league level are becoming rarer and rarer; the last comparable example possibly being Jamie Vardy. It’s no wonder Mariner’s Ipswich and England shirts have price of place.
Sue’s not a bad word to say of their prodigal son and by this point she’s now up on her feet showing us to their hospitality room, a key component of the club’s revenue. It’s a chance for them to showcase their history, roots and values, with a clear message in the decoration about the club stands for.
Back out in the cold, those Styrofoam cups of tea warming our hands, we finally begin our lap of the pitch. Four stands in varying conditions hug the pitch, the backs and roofs of terraced houses overlook us, and the Lancashire dales beyond roll up to the horizon.
We’re on the look out for Mick who we’re told will being doing any job he comes across, but before our search gets fully underway we’re guessing the capacity of each side that makes up the 4,300 total of the ground.
Immediately we spot local businesses supporting the club through pitch side advertising. For a club this size, it’s part of the survival life blood.
You feel the chasmic difference between grounds and clubs like this and the elite level of the game; the top six in the UK are arguably in a position to name their price for advertising space on hoardings or kit, and that space goes to he highest bidder. Here the club has to sell it’s community worth, input and value. It’s a rock and a hard place clubs are wedged between.
Mick sees us coming down the wing and he’s a wary expression on his face. He’s not sure what a bloke in his thirties and another in his fifties is doing at Chorley football ground on a drizzly Thursday morning. To be honest, we aren’t either, but that is the intrigue of the lower leagues; real people, real football and a glimpse back to the game as it was as we grew up.
He’s been doing some work in the changing rooms, but like most people we’ve met, he’s more roles than one. Spennymoor are in town the week after next, one of the larger clubs in the division and a third of the ground will be given over to them. A travelling contingent of this size will see the ground segregated - a rare occasion at this level. Whilst there’s a financial boost from the gate and refreshments, it is largely outweighed by the police bill. This is something that’s largely our of the control of any club, making budgeting for the year difficult. Ahead of any fixture the local policy force will contact their counterparts nearest the opposition club and swap notes on the size and rowdiness of both the host’s and travelling parties. For the game to go ahead, the ground must be adequately policed.
Mick’s seems more like club historian than he does kit or groundsman and he looks to be in a dilemma, stuck between rolling back the years with us, and getting on with his work. He’s been generous enough with his time, and we leave him to it.
Never more than fifteen minutes away from a Lancashire down poor and content with our morning’s work we’re thinking about heading off when our old friend Sue emerges from the club house doors and racing past us there’s a long enough moment for us to let us know Josh is back. Josh manages the commercial aspects of the club and this engulfs anything to do with revenues, sponsorship, as well as dealing with the local press. The bar area is a bit busier with committee members and volunteers now, another addition being Greg.
Prior to the visit I noticed a Premier League logo on the club’s website, noted as a partner, and I’m curious to know how this fits with a club four divisions down from England’s top flight, the richest in the world. It’s worth keeping in mind here, just TV money alone generates £5bn a year for the Premier League. The top 20 clubs in the country received around half of that for the 2018/19 season with the top six pocketing just shy of 3% each. Chorley? 0.0005%. At that rate it’s roughly a whole division getting around 0.01%.
Whilst the gulf in payments is one thing the rules around how it can be spent are just as contrary. A top flight club can spend it’s money however it sees a fit. Though plenty of the top clubs have community programs, there is nothing in the FA handbook obliging a Premier League club to have a community program. A club like Chorley cannot spend grants directly on the team (salary) or capital (kit or stadium), instead it must funnel funds in to the community.
Clubs like Chorley need many things to survive, but the cornerstone is it’s people, inside and out of the club. When we spot the a certificate behind the bar for winning the best away day in the league last season it hits you in the face how big the heart of this club is, and grant or not they care about the community and they care about the football experience.
Nonetheless they’re using this money to touch lives for the better across so many demographics. At youth level there are free coaching clinics. Chorley (according to ukcrimestats.com) has a crime index of 83.3 (across the last two years out of 100). No one football club on their own could drastically reduces crime in their local area, but getting kids playing, exercising and off the streets can’t be a bad thing.
My trip back to the UK has been fuelled by pastry and saturated fats and it’s no shock two thirds of adults in the UK are currently classed as overweight or obese, the most damed age bracket being 45-54. Again, this is another area the club have targeted with a walking football initiative, which is growing so quickly they believe there’s enough interest to start and support a local league.
Both of these initiatives are designed to improve wellbeing, physically and mentally, and the latter has become more prominent in the last few years with ‘invisible illnesses’ taking more lives than ever before, be it through anxiety and depression, or for older generations; dementia.
From personal experience I’ve seen how dementia can virtually destroy a loved one, and providing a ‘normal’ life to someone unlucky enough to suffer in such a debilitating way can be challenging and in many cases focus leans towards the last parts of the journey being as enjoyable and comfortable as possible - something the club are attuned to with the introduction of ‘Football Memories’. This allows senior supporters a place to reminisce happier teams with the support of others who find themselves too in the same distressing boat.
When you see what Chorley are accomplishing on a oily rag, relative to Premier League riches, it makes you think how the thirty quid spent down the pub watching City, United, Liverpool or Spurs could be doing so much more for the foundations of the game and the community.
It makes you think, if Chorley can do this on a shoe string, how much more should the Premier League clubs be doing?