In June of 2019, myself and six old school friends took over a historic non-league football club, Walton & Hersham FC, with the aim of rejuvenating its declining fortunes under a new mandate and direction. A year on, we can safely admit that there have been tough times where things haven’t gone to plan, both on and off the pitch. Yet, we have also experienced a thorough learning curve that has allowed us to rapidly gain experience despite being the ‘youngest owners in world football’ — and we now feel the club is in a better position than ever for the upcoming season.
Here are the eye-opening highs and lows from the last year.
The turbulence of social media
It was inevitable that we would attract both positive and negative social media responses in our new positions. Considering that we were seven 19-year-olds when the takeover occurred, the story made easy pickings for witty responses. One fan lamented and accused the old ownership of giving the club away as a ‘work experience project’, while other responses ranged from tweets about us going to Ibiza during the season to us being clueless, dreadfully inexperienced and out of our depth with the steep task at hand. Fortunately, we were able to take them in good spirits, and even the more unsavoury responses spurred us on to prove people wrong.
As the season progressed, we did see a rise in support on social media. Under management of our Facebook, Instagram and TikTok accounts, I have seen a drastic increase in following and received many kind messages from across the world that wish us well — it even appears we have fans in India and Australia. In addition, a mini-documentary that we brought out in partnership with 90min also gained much positive traction and making it was definitely my highlight of the season as it gave people a proper insight to running a non-league club.
Social media has been important for our ownership, as it is a conduit of communication often neglected by other non-league teams (with perhaps older, more traditional owners). Yet, we are also aware of the inevitable banter, trolling and negativity that can come with football.
Football — a game of two halves
Football is a game dependent on results above all else, and the owners and board of directors cannot escape accountability for results. This was the area of the club we wanted to build on the most in the last year, particularly after the club had experienced multiple relegations in the years preceding our ownership. Promotion in the first season was the dream.
A bumpy start to the season saw us flout around in mid-table in the early months of the campaign. A 3-0 win over Eversley & California in our first competitive game was followed by getting knocked out of the FA Cup, and a 5-0 defeat to Kensington & Ealing. December proved to be a cursed month for the Swans, too, with little to cheer about by Christmas after a month of near-capitulation.
Fortunately, under the direction of George Busumbru — who resigned in April — we forged together a team that ultimately competed in the higher echelons of the league. We managed to gather momentum in the new year which propelled us into a promotion race by mid-February. Our youthful team played dynamic, attacking football that saw us score 79 goals in 29 games in the Combined Counties Division One, the second most in the division. The defensive record was far less impressive, but nonetheless by the time the league was called off due to the pandemic, we sat comfortably in 3rd place (promotion spot).
With the return of non-league football our team has been restyled again, this time under the tutelage of new manager Scott Harris — who brings an abundance of experience and quality players to the club. Promotion is now a realistic aim, not an ambitious dream.
How covid-19 ruined non-league
As the covid-19 pandemic began to spread across the world and Western media from mid February, we were only acutely aware of its potential impact on our season. Matches played on the 5 March were the last ones with handshakes allowed in our league, and only one more game was played after that. The suspension of fixtures came at a time when Walton & Hersham had amassed five consecutive wins in a row.
Subsequently, the FA ruled — by the end of March — that all leagues at our level of non-league would be considered ‘null and void’. In a panicked and undemocratic move, the FA displayed utter contempt for teams striving towards promotion after a gruelling season (with us having just nine league games left to play).
Mediocrity was rewarded, and success punished. The Jersey Bulls, league leaders in our division, had won 28 out of 28 games. A Points-per-Game (PPG) system was rejected, despite the fact it has been seen favourably in higher leagues (including League 1 – the third tier of English football).
The club’s position now
Fortunately, we have been in a somewhat better position than other football clubs during this pandemic. Aided by a government coronavirus grant, we have been able to cover some outstanding bills.
The early ending of the season has meant we have had a lot of time already to build towards the future, and we have been doing so in liaison with new potential sponsors. Busumbru’s resignation in the aftermath of the ‘null and void’ decision, for personal reasons, meant that we had a managerial vacancy to fill — and we feel extremely confident in our new manager. The fans have responded incredibly well to the appointment on social media too, aware of his previous connections and some of the players he will be able to bring to the club.
As for our ownership, we are thrilled to see football return. Hopefully the fans will too, in good health and good spirits. While we were simply finding our feet this time last year, now we’re feeling rejuvenated and ready to press on with bigger and bolder plans for the club.