A Beautiful Game
Footy players riding on the bus, two-bob to watch a match, genuine fans, in it for the love of the game. It’s easy to romanticise professional football, but nobody can deny it’s a world changed dramatically.
The reputation of football today is often defined by the big premiership teams, steeped in big money sponsorship deals, sky-high salaries and the endless glare of media scrutiny.
But one not-for-profit, semi-professional football, team is bucking the trend, getting back to the game’s roots and keeping things old school.
AFC Liverpool don’t have the luxury (or pressure) of Liverpool or Everton FC, but what’s it really like to operates each season on less that Wayne Rooney’s daily wage?
We met up with AFC’S Chairman Chris Stirrup to get the score. For him, it’s passion, not money, that wins real fans. First up, how did AFC begin? Well, like a lot of great ideas, it all started in a pub, as Chris Stirrup explains:
“Me and two mates, Alun Parry and Mark Woods, were sat in the Philharmonic Pub talking about the 39th game.”
This was a plan, dubbed “the international round” of extra matches in the Premier League to be played at neutral venues outside England. Say, for example, Liverpool vs West Ham in Singapore.
“It’s different, in our League….”
“It generally just cemented to us that top flight football was not interested in fans, but just a machine to make money. It was an indication football was being taken further and further away from us”.
A grumble about the game and its relationship with those that go to the match is not a rare occurrence in a pub. The usual next step, however, is not to explore how to establish a new football club, but instead to pop a couple of painkillers and shrug the idea away. Chris, Alun and Mark didn’t do that. The next day they talked again.
“We realised it wasn’t the ale talking. The stuff we were on about wasn’t hypothetical, this 39th game was the way football was going. It was happening. We figured it can’t just be us that feels like this. We wanted to do something about it. We thought, let’s take a look, how hard can it be?”
In answer to the question, ‘how DO you set up a football club?’ Chris says it takes “a lot of emails, phone calls and talking to people”. There are a lot of decisions to be made, like where do you play, which league do you play in? You also need to know, does anyone want it?
“We put feelers into the wider world, by various forums to see if it was a goer. The feedback was generally positive”.
They were also keen to make it clear to LFC this wasn’t an anti-LFC move. It wasn’t a protest. Three years earlier, FC United had been established by supporters opposed to Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United. Although some Liverpool fans were opposed to the ownership of LFC by then owners Hicks and Gillett, Chris was clear this wasn’t a similar opposition as that being staged along the M62.
“For us the issue was more about any football club and fans being priced out. People have a laugh that Man City can’t fill the ground, but if you look at the cost of the tickets it’s a no brainer if you can’t afford it.” (Prices for home games at the Etihad Stadium start at £30)
“Getting tickets now is not the same as it was years ago, where you could wake up and say “I’ll go the match today” knocking for your mates on the way. It’s become a military operation. It can cost a week’s wages if you want to go with your family, before you buy a programme, a pie and a drink. This is the price of modern football, it’s becoming an experience that’s once every few months. That’s great, from a business perspective, but for the average football fan it costs a fortune”.
They were right, it wasn’t just them who felt that way. AFC Liverpool, established in 2008 was formed with 1,000 supporters. It’s run on a one-member, one-vote system.
“We have a very broad range at our games, kids through to old age pensioners”.
As members of the North West Counties League Premier Division, there’s a strong community feel at the matches.
“It’s different, in our League. In the top flight, you can pick the top six at the beginning of the season. In non-League, everyone can beat everyone. Yes, it’s annoying when you get beaten but you’re with your mates and you look forward to the next game with your mates. You reconnect”.
Many football chairman would be looking at a wealth of support and, while being delighted for the club, would also be cheerful about the money it would bring them . Chris is a volunteer, like everyone else at AFC Liverpool. The club is run as a not-for-profit, so all the £5 tickets go to ground hire, kit, balls, insurance. They don’t draw any money.
So, chances are, being a football chairman won’t make him a millionaire and he freely admits there are times when it takes its toll. But there’s also a unique joy as well.
“My dad loves it. He stopped going to LFC years ago, now he’s well into the non-League scene. It gives people like him a new lease of life. When there’s a signing in the Premier League, you almost shrug as people go from one club to the next. Here, if a lad signs for Runcorn, or whereever, people will be genuinely interested. There’s more enthusiasm, for us, we’d rather that than the money”.
It’s his dream job, but without the army of volunteers there wouldn’t be a football club, he argued. “Everyone comes, everyone pays a fiver to get in, and if they didn’t do that, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. Everyone’s valued and everyone’s support is valued. In the top flight you just don’t get that”.
“If I didn’t go to the match, my tickets are bought by someone else. Here, if you don’t come people ask why. Everyone’s friendly and you’re instantly made to feel welcome, the minute you come through the turnstiles.”
Currently, AFC Liverpool play at Marine’s Rossett park but if they get their way they’ll soon have their own ground.
“We have everything ready to go, floodlights, turnstiles, everything but we need a patch of land. We don’t want to just be a Saturday ground, neither, where it’s open every other weekend when we play. We want to help an area grow, help local business, help suppliers, engage in the community”.
Most importantly though, how are they doing on the pitch?
“We’re doing good, we’re tenth in the table but the top ten is covered by five points and we’ve got two games in hand. We’ve played eight games and stumbled on a couple. Kevin (Dally, the manager) revamped the squad over the summer and brought in some new players who’ve played in higher leagues so they know the score. We’ll be there or thereabouts at the end of the season”.
AFC Liverpool may hark back to way things used to be, but it’s also the type of club people want now, so support AFC Liverpool and feel truly connected to football again.