HARDLY a few days go by at present without updates from troubled Aldershot Town FC. And it’s not just diehard Shots fans drawn by these worrying developments.
A shadow still appeared to hang over Andy Scott’s side as July ended, just the latest uncertainty in a harrowing few months for the cash-strapped League Two wooden spoon holders of 2012/13.
If they do get the go-ahead, one of the first visitors to the Recreation Ground – over the August bank holiday – will be my club Woking, in what should be another impassioned Conference Premier derby between these local rivals.
In an era of financial austerity for clubs below the bank-rolled upper tiers, Woking had to be more than satisfied with a creditable upper-half finish and top-three status among the Conference part-timers last season.
It might have been so different, the Cards’ 1990s’ era of three FA Trophy wins in four years, headline-grabbing FA Cup runs and top-three non-league finishes followed by increasing mediocrity and a financial crisis threatening to finish us a few years ago.
Thankfully, former publishing magnate Chris Ingram stepped up to strengthen our foundations when many potential saviours might instead have made a few quick bucks then walked away on realising the extent of the problem.
Furthermore, he stuck around – at a far-from-safe distance – to ensure the club continued to run within its means, while showing no great desire to have his face splashed all over the papers for his part in our survival and revival. He comes over as a genuine fan who just happened to have a few bob to do something positive about our plight.
That’s not been the case at the Rec though, and 21 years after Aldershot FC went bust, there have been a few worrying parallels for fans of a North Hampshire club who remember only too well those dark days. And it’s certainly been an anxious summer for all associated with the ‘phoenix club’ that rose in their place.
Those who regularly read this blog know my allegiances, but local rivalries apart, I’ve a lot of sentiment for a club where I first learned to love the game up close and personal, having followed Aldershot regularly for at least a decade up until their original demise.
Like my Grandad and older brother, I grew up a Tottenham fan, won over by ever-dependable Pat Jennings and Steve Perryman and true talents like Glenn Hoddle, Ricardo Villa and Osvaldo Ardiles. Maybe an appreciation of the underdog played a part, Spurs’ 1961 double and further FA, League and UEFA Cup glory already in the past by then.
I loved QPR too, lured by the skills of Stan Bowles and co. But as my folks and siblings didn’t drive and with little money around, day-trips to North and West London were pretty much ruled out.
Similarly, I followed the fortunes of Reading, Mum’s hometown team. But even the Berkshire border was a long train ride away for someone only earning paper-round wages.
And while there was a strong family link to Woking – part of the Wyatt heritage since the 1890s – there was little incentive to seek out Kingfield at that stage.
Instead, I had my sister Jackie’s boyfriend Ian to thank for my introduction to the Beautiful Game. And don’t laugh, it really was for this impressionable 11-year-old from the Far East (Guildford, that is, 12 miles away, a town robbed of its own team in ’74). He was a Rec regular then, and when he couldn’t make it, family friend Uncle Charlie was happy for me to tag along with him and his brother.
My first visit was in the 1978-79 season, during a Division Four campaign the ‘strayshots’ pages of the http://www.aldershottown-mad.co.uk website remind me was heralded by great optimism around Rushmoor. That following decade I took in many visits to the Rec, and was hooked from the start, happily recalling to this day my old route to the High Street entrance from around Newport Road.
The Shots were never fashionable in the wider world, but for me the thrill of going to the match, hearing that terrace noise and banter on the sidelines was unrivalled. There were feisty derbies against promotion contenders Portsmouth, Reading and Wimbledon, but also glimpses into an unknown world for me against opponents from exotic locations I knew so little about, like Bradford, Hartlepool, Huddersfield, Port Vale, Preston, Scunthorpe, Walsall and Wigan. Who’d have guessed then that North End would be my nearest League club 15 years on?
I loved that moment all home Shots fans of a certain age recall – clicking through those turnstiles then climbing the terrace steps on the open side, the Rec vista steadily opening up to me. The football wasn’t so bad either, and I soon had my favourites among Tommy McAnearney’s squad.
It was the established names that first grabbed me, from follicly-challenged keeper Glen Johnson to moustachioed Cossack-hairspray fan Joe Jopling – the Shots’ answer to dentally-challenged Leeds, Man U and Scotland legend Joe Jordan – and Glasgow-born striker Murray Brodie.
The fans’ idol then was free-scoring John Dungworth. What a name, what a player. And while I never got to see my namesake Malcolm ‘Supermac’ Macdonald in action, the Shots had a Malc of their own – future Sunderland boss Crosby – and that was good enough for me. I soon had my own favourite too, another Glaswegian, Alex McGregor, not least as for half a game he’d track up and down my wing. The fact that he looked a bit like a Bay City Roller would have endeared him to my sister too.
My first match, with Ian and Jackie, was on March 10, 1979, shortly after a mighty FA Cup run in which Tommy Mac’s side came within a replay of the quarter-finals, going out to a Shrewsbury Town side who had already humbled Man City. The opponents were Crewe Alexandra, rock-bottom that season and resigned to the old re-election lottery.
The Shots won 3-0 to stretch their undefeated league run to eight matches in a season where only a surfeit of draws ruled out promotion to Division Three, finishing one place above new boys Wigan in fifth.
Many more visits followed, and that might have been the whole story for me, but within a couple of years Charlie took to Brighton to watch top-flight football with his son-in-law, while Ian and Jackie moved deep into Hampshire and a new mortgage ruled out too many Hog’s Back to and fro’s. In time, I returned with my mate Al, and a promising spell followed. But the quality soon waned, and by the time the club went out of business I had a more compatible love.
That switch of allegiance didn’t happen overnight, an FA Cup visit in late ’86 only slowly leading to more fevered allegiance to Woking. I was a Kingfield regular by the late ’80s, but still turned out to support the ailing Shots in their hour of need. And that first love never fully left me.
Most of my earlier Shots memories are shady, but I vaguely recall an early taste of footie violence from some visiting Bournemouth fans. It was a humbling lesson for two bewildered young Cherries idiots not quick enough to run away, falling foul of a confrontational squaddie in the home seats. I’m guessing those lads didn’t sit comfortably for a few weeks.
There were a few great cup nights too. Remember those Milk Cup ties when Unigate floats paraded around the perimeter before kick-off? Or how about that November ’84 evening when eventual winners Norwich – held 0-0 at Carrow Road – won 4-0 in fog so thick it’s a wonder the score ever stood? There was an eerie atmosphere that night, and I recall Wiltshire-born England star Mick Channon being greeted by a plethora of copycat yokel accents after shouting ‘over ‘ere!’ to a Canaries team-mate.
From our vantage point we could barely see the half-way line, but at one point the Shots were within a whisker of a goal at the High Street end. Celebrations followed, and by the time it became clear the ref had ruled it out, the cheering had spread to the East Stand. By then, Norwich were attacking again, so we assumed they’d scored on the break. That kind of confusion continued all night. But there was no fog to blame on the night in early October ’89 when the Shots got stuffed 8-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday, after another 0-0 draw in the same competition (then dubbed the Rumbelows Cup).
Some of the best moments came during the ’87/’88 campaign that secured Third Division football again after a decade in the bottom flight, the rank outsiders – sixth that season – beating famed Wanderers Bolton and Wolves in the very first league play-offs.
I mentioned in Captains Log fanzine at the time how a patronising Daily Telegraph reporter suggested the Shots were ‘one of the worst supported teams in the League’. But that kind of dismissal only served to inspire this battling band.
This was a club that usually threw away promising promotion charges in the last few games or only started playing once elevation was ruled out. But that season was different. First, chairman Reg Driver was ousted in a takeover and Chelsea legend Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris took charge of the team. Heads rolled, goals were scored, and crowds returned, only for the new board rebels to be outvoted. It appeared that safe obscurity would return with the re-appointment of boss Len Walker, but something went terribly awry, and no one could stop the Shots as they went on the promotion rampage.
Having somehow reached the play-offs, there followed a nervy yet highly-charged semi-final first leg 1-0 home win over Bolton, settled by a Garry Johnson strike. Then came a 2-2 second-leg extra-time draw at Burnden Park against a Trotters side that finished fourth-bottom in Division Three.
By then, the Shots were daring to dream, ready to dance with Wolves in a two-legged final. And as I wrote at the time, ‘that next hour and a half saw the most exciting thing in Aldershot this side of a nuclear war’. Lenny’s Shots took a 2-0 lead up to Molineux after a fever-pitched night at the Rec, then won 1-0 in the Black Country, jerry-curled ex-West Ham hero Bobby Barnes scoring the winner seven minutes from time on a night that ended with the travelling fans greeted by a barrage of bottles and bricks from the local thugs.
I took in a fair few Division Three games that next season, starting with a belated August bank holiday home opener, a 2-1 win over Doncaster. My diary that year reminds me of visiting Brighton fans singing ‘you’re worse than Crystal Palace’ after their 4-1 win at the Rec, but the Shots soon bounced back, not least with a 3-2 home win over Wigan that prevented the Latics from going top.
There was also a 4-4 draw with Northampton Town in which Al missed at least four goals while queueing for a burger, and a few more home wins witnessed before a 2-0 defeat to Bury in which dense fog struck again and we both missed the goals that time.
I even travelled away that term, albeit for an ill-fated late 1987 afternoon at Gander Green Lane as the Shots exited the FA Cup against Sutton United (a year before their heroics against Coventry).
It wasn’t always the obvious games that struck a chord, and I recall a cracking atmosphere for a 1-0 win over Bristol City in the Freight Rover Trophy (Camper Van Beethoven Trophy as we knew it). Then there was the day Sunderland visited and I was made up at hearing the Roker Roar at the Rec within a minute, following a throw-in down the Redan Hill side. This was more than mere alliteration. This was almost poetry.
The Shots stayed up by the skin of their teeth that season, a 0-0 draw with Preston in the last home game followed by a final-day 1-1 draw at Grimsby. But by then, a heavy schedule of gigs, a girlfriend who didn’t appreciate cold afternoons at the match, and a growing love for non-league neighbours Woking was taking its toll. And as the ‘Walker Out’ chants grew louder that following season and the football failed to grip me, I started to drift away, even testing the home ends at Elm Park and Fratton Park.
Slowly, I realised it was Kingfield where I truly belonged, enjoying Isthmian League football far more than third-tier League action. I still took in a lot of games at the Rec, but much preferred Geoff Chapple’s style of football and the general atmosphere at Woking – the Cards securing promotion to the Diadora League top-flight as the Shots dropped back to Division Four after just eight wins and 37 points that term.
It was only guilt that ensured I kept the faith, the whispers about financial woe growing louder. On July 31, 1990, AFC were wound up in the High Court, condemned as ‘financially insolvent’, with debts of £495,000. A false dawn followed, a certain teenager by the name of Spencer Trethewy stepping in. But within three months he’d been found out and the accounts grew ever more grim.
There were even fund-raisers at Woking for the Shots’ survival fund, and while January 1991’s FA Cup pay-day at West Ham helped in the short term, Aldershot’s problems continued as they finished in the bottom-three of the league twice in a row while Woking went from strength to strength.
I was in Australia by then, a year backpacking around the world seeing me miss the Cards’ own FA Cup exploits at West Brom and Everton but at least missing the Rec’s bleakest days. That next season I made up for lost time and took in home and away Woking games as the Cards secured Conference status, while the Shots’ demise continued apace.
On March 25, 1992, Aldershot FC finally went out of business and had to resign from the Football League. But a new supporters-led club quickly emerged from the ashes, Aldershot Town steadily climbing the non-league ladder from the bottom Isthmian League rung – five levels down from where the original club ended.
As it was, I never returned to the Rec until a much-hyped FA Trophy fourth-round replay against Woking in early 2000, although I was pleased to see their steady progress for the long-suffering fans’ sake. By the time the Shots had joined us in the Conference, they were definitely a club on the rise, with our record against them this century poor to say the least.
A Football League return followed by April 2008, but lasted just five years this time around. And now they’re back in the doldrums, with worrying echoes of that last nadir.
I won’t go into all the legal ramifications of where the Shots are at right now. It’ll probably change within a few days anyway. But ATFC entered administration on May 2 with debts of £1m and £300,000 owed to creditors, director Tony Knights admitting the club had been “haemorrhaging money”. Needless to say, the rest of the news these past weeks has involved the usual key points regarding released contract players, shortfalls, CVAs, 10-point deductions, restructures, consortia, conditional sale and purchase agreements, and promises of long-term security.
Meanwhile, Andy Scott has had to get his act together in trying circumstances before the mid-August Conference Premier kick-off – or at least in time for their key clash with the mighty Woking. This time I’ll miss the occasion, family commitments and geographical challenges thrown up by this writer moving to Lancashire in 1994.
But I can’t forget my formative days at the Rec, and the Shots will remain an important part of my personal football heritage. And I’ll be at least hoping they’ll do enough to bounce back to some extent and North Hants retains its premier footballing outfit. We need a good derby again for a start.