Submission for the 2014 When Saturday Comes Writers Competition.
During the wettest winter on record, Laura Jones looks at how non-league Wealdstone FC have weathered the storm
‘Is Fingers around?’ I ask a group of middle-aged men lolling over a balustrade in front of a Portakabin.
One man in a padded manager’s coat shouts into the makeshift office that a ‘young lady’ is looking for him.
‘Do you know why they call him Fingers darling?’ They all burst into laughter. ‘I’m sure you’ll find out on the way around the pitch.’ So far the experience is starting out a little too ‘Operation Yewtree’ for my liking.
Paul ‘Fingers’ Fruin is the Club Secretary, a Director and the head groundsman at Wealdstone FC. He appears before me in a black Wealdstone training top that looks as if it has been lovingly washed hundreds of times. As I attach the microphone to interview him, I notice the round neck collar has faded to grey and is fraying; a sign that he’s been here for quite a while.
‘So why do they call you Fingers?’ He winks at me as if we’re in a ‘Confessions of a Ryman League Groundsman’ film. ‘That’s a trade secret.’ I do get it out of him eventually. In real life Fingers is a landscape gardener who, as part of an outsourced team, keeps Wealdstone Football Club playing week in week out at their current home in Ruislip.
Fingers is precious about the blades of grass in front of him. The Chairman, Howard Krais, and some of the fans at the ground tell me he’s anxious about a pitch invasion after tonight’s match. If Wealdstone beat Lowestoft Town they will be mathematically promoted to the Conference South.
He’s every right to feel protective about the playing surface. As Fingers and I take a walk around the edge of the pitch he tells me if I’d been standing in the same position in January I would have been under water. For a pitch that had been submerged from the corner flag to the 18-yard-box, it looks lush, healthy and evidently more playable than some Championship surfaces this season.
Winter hasn’t been kind to clubs like Wealdstone this season. The rain has been relentless and surface water has rendered many pitches unplayable. At this level the luxury of under ground heating to evaporate the incessant rain, isn’t even a financially viable consideration. For Wealdstone, the luxury of having their own ground would be a start.
The Stones 15 year nomadic existence has seen them ground share with Watford, Yeading, Edgware Town and Northwood. In recent years, the club has been in an all out war of attrition with Barnet FC over the right to play at The Hive.
Even the name ‘The Hive’ makes Fingers the groundsman bristle. ‘It’s not called The Hive, it’s the Prince Edward Playing Fields’, he tells me. Wealdstone have some proprietary claim on Barnet FC’s new ground, having invested £300k of their own money into a stadium they’ve never even played at. Work started on Prince Edward Playing Fields in 2003 but promptly stopped in 2004 when the construction company in charge of the build went into liquidation.
Howard, Wealdstone’s Chairman, tells me after the match that the Ruislip Grosvenor Vale ground, where they currently play, started out as a means to an end. ‘When we told the players we were moving here their faces dropped because it was one of the worst pitches around.’
You can’t help but feel for a club that is now facing a monumental fixture pile up, having only managed to play two games in January, especially when Barnet are benefitting from the facilities and drainage paid for by Wealdstone FC at The Hive.
The supporters club has also suffered financially because of the winter fixture cancellations. There has been more demand for away travel this season and Jeremy Albert, Wealdstone’s Travel and Commercial secretary, has been forced to negotiate to avoid large cancellation fees.
‘Because pitch inspections are done on a Saturday morning and we’ve already ordered the coach, we have to pay for the coach because it’s ordered.’ At a cost of £700, and no upfront fees collected, the supporters club has to stand the cost. Jeremy has been able to reduce this fee to £300 a time but the supporters club has lost over £1000 this season.
Playing Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and then Saturday again is also taking its toll on the semi-professional players. The players want to keep playing in a winning side but the body can only take so much.
In conversations with members of the Wealdstone training staff the magical solution of 3g pitches could be cost effective but the players apparently don’t enjoy playing on the surface. Many have complained about ‘jarring up’ and back pains when they have finished training on the plastic pitches.
I expected to find a club that had been beaten down by the constant upheaval, a winter that had pushed back fixtures into a barely manageable pile up and trepidation about the thought of having to move grounds again. I was wrong. There’s an air of positivity about Wealdstone FC that I have rarely seen at a football club.
There is a sense of finally finding a home at Ruislip, where the grass can be lovingly tended to and the neighbours are turning up in their droves to celebrate every weekend. Before the match, supporters congregated in the social club as women in Lycra wandered through to the private function room for an evening of Zumba. Every inch of these facilities are being used to generate income and be inclusive of the whole community.
Wealdstone FC has lost a generation of supporters through so many enforced relocations. The families in the residential Ruislip area are encouraging a new cohort of Wealdstone fan and attendances are increasing.
Despite my initial reservations, thinking this maybe a club stuck in the 1970’s, I’ve discovered it is has a progressive mindset that is adaptable to all conditions. The chairman doesn’t want plastic pitches because the team have a passing game ethos. The investment in the ground has been sensible and most of the assets are moveable, even the stands, if the club is forced to relocate again.
Wealdstone feel like a glamping club, wherever there is a patch of grass they have the ability to set up, play and win in style.
With Greg Dyke’s Premier League B team league casting a cloud over the English lower league structure, Wealdstone’s past and present circumstances might set them up to weather the storm.
As I remove the microphone from Fingers’ much loved Wealdstone training top, I ask him about his nomination for the FA Groundsman of the Year 2013/2014 award. He shrugs in a self effacing way.
It seems that over the years, for Wealdstone FC’s staff and fans, it has never just rained but it has poured, but as they proved just a few weeks later by winning the league, there’s no reason you can’t relish jumping in the puddles.