Food and football the combination at Hungerford Town

The last day of the festive period saw another Bank Holiday and finally gave me the chance to get to Hungerford Town in the National League South. A while back last year someone posted a picture of the burger served up at Bulpit Lane, courtesy of @FootyScran on Twitter. It looked the business and something I thought I needed to get there and try.

Not long after that I became aware of their fantastic offering ‘4 for a score’ which comprised of match entry, matchday programme, either burger, pie or sausage with chips and a pint or soft drink from the bar. Now if that wasn’t excellent value I’m not sure what is!

I had a brief Twitter chat with the Crusaders chairman Patrick Chambers to see if the offer had seen a rise in their attendances and sure enough they had seen an increase in numbers from pre-covid times which is encouraging, I promised him I would get to a game and this was finally the one.

Patrick actually looks after the scheme mentioned above on the gate, could I imagine Barnet Chairman Tony Kleanthous personally welcoming supporters into the Legends Bar at The Hive, certainly not! It’s a nice touch at this level too, not often will you see that happening. A token for your food and drink and a matchday programme in my back pocket and off I went in search for the burger.

Patrick’s wife Nicky serves the food whilst doubling up as the Commercial Manager, it’s that kind of club. As soon as I said who I was to both of them instant recognition, some nice words and a warm welcome what we like perfectly about non-league.

The burger lived up to its reputation, so much I had a second one at half time! I make no apologies for adding the picture below, certainly a big winner for me and it made my Twitter page ping for a good while after.

But it’s not just the food that’s getting rave reviews. On the pitch Danny Robinson’s team are competing very well with sides around them who have much bigger budgets. I was also looking to see Ryan Seager in action, scorer of a good amount of goals so far this season.

The ground itself, the classic non-league looking one which was just what I wanted to be seeing, but with plenty of seats and covered standing for all. The game itself began at a very frantic pace and to be honest it didn’t let up for the majority of the 90 minutes.

The home side drew first blood inside ten minutes, Sol Wanjau-Smith was upended in the box, Ryan Seager’s penalty flew past Alan Julian for the opening goal.

Both sides then traded possession but still at a good pace to the game before Town upped the ante again. Just before the half hour mark Wanjau-Smith broke clear of the visitors defence and looked set to double the lead but shot over as the defenders did just enough to put the striker off his stride.

The other side of the half hour mark brought the best out in Julian, a curling shot from Seager looked to have found its way over the head of the stopper into the top corner but at the last minute a fingertip save kept the scoreline down to one goal.

There was one more chance before the interval for Seager to add his and Hungerford’s second, but he shot straight at Julian, a single goal lead for the hosts going into half time.

There wasn’t long to wait for the second goal, just six minutes into the half Wanjau-Smith danced his way into the box and crashed a shot against the bar, the ball fell kindly to Seager right in front of goal and he nodded home for his and the home side’s lead to double.

The points were secured on 64 minutes, Rhys Tyler letting fly from 20 yards giving Julian not a sniff of the shot and a comfortable 3-0 lead for Hungerford. Seager did have the ball in the net ten minutes later but was denied his hat-trick by the offside flag.

There was one final chance for the home side to put the icing on the cake four minutes from time but neither Seager nor substitute Nana Kyei could get on the end of Matt Jones’ cross, but three points and three goals for Hungerford to end the festive period of games.

The win puts Town back into the play-off places and in amongst illustrious company too, given the budgets generated by the support levels of some. Hampton never really got going in the game and the early goal against I think knocked their game plan from the off.

Seager certainly looked hungry for goals after a little lean spell while Wanjau-Smith was a willing runner alongside him until his substitution. Keith Emmerson marshalled the back four well that Luke Cairney only had a single save to make all game.

Certainly not an easy game for Tonbridge this coming weekend as the Crusaders make the trip to Kent, they hustle and get very tight waiting to pounce on the mistake.

The Chambers have a lovely club here and hopefully the support continues to grow throughout the season, 496 were here to watch this one, it’s well worth a visit for the food, but just as much for the football.

One final word on referee Jason Richardson, brilliant performance in the middle explaining his decisions if questioned and generally talking to the players on the same level, some of his contemporaries higher up could do with taking notice of this.

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Supporters are the lifeblood of every club

Being innovative in football is something you have to constantly be. Finding new ways to promote yourself, your club, your brand has to be done in order to avoid stagnation unless that’s something you’re happy with.

Since the interruption of non-league football over the past two seasons there is a clear eagerness from top to bottom inside clubs to play, to enjoy things a bit more and just as importantly to attract not just the loyal supporters from before but new blood as so to speak to ensure clubs keep on surviving.

There are many ways depending on the size of the club that you can attract new supporters but at times also rewarding those who’ve been coming for a long time, it’s not just about getting new support, retaining what you have is just as important.

I’m picking up on this with a range of different things I’ve seen, witnessed myself and heard from supporters of other clubs over the opening couple of months of the season.

A quick start at National League level and back to the summer, Bromley trying to over-extend their season ticket prices and after much disgruntlement quite rightly amongst their fanbase given the huge rise, they backed down and not surprisingly the price went to a point supporters were comfortable with.

I take my club Barnet charging £22 to sit down, no terrace option, it’s that price or nothing. Personally I believe £20 is more than enough, throw in the £8 parking as well and that’s me seeing almost three Isthmian League matches for that price only two levels lower.

Whilst the club might argue it’s reasonable for the level etc, lack of communication meant no reasons were delivered and quite understandably supporters start to shun and vote with their feet, it’s so easy now to find something else to do which no doubt some people did over the course of the last 16 months.

Effective communication is the bottom line, so many channels available these days there is almost no excuse. Clubs raising beer prices which can be understandable if the brewery has done so, but not finding out until you buy that first pint of a new season is likely to come as a shock, again look after your regulars via a membership scheme or something similar, if new supporters want to come more often and save money they’ll join it trust me!

Just over a week ago I saw National League South Hungerford Town come up with a fantastic offer. £20 got you match entry, a programme, a meal deal of either chicken, sausage or pie with chips and a pint, now it’s impossible to follow every single football club on Twitter, but please tell me if you can find a better deal than that, it’s superb!

Now, not content with rolling it out last weekend which then prompted me to mention it on our Premier Non-League Podcast (available to listen to on all the usual listening platforms twice a month) they’ve gone for it again this weekend in the FA Cup and during next week I will try and catch up the Town chairman Patrick Chambers to find out how much of an impact it’s had on attendances.

I’m not implying here every club has to do the same nor bankrupt themselves whilst doing so, it’s not something you can repeat every single game but surely offers are worth a try throughout the season are they not?

Simple things like a free hot drink as the weather begins to turn, kids for a quid over half term week or the Xmas holidays, small but effective if marketed well.

 I did see as well during the past week Dorking Wanderers in the same division offering a family of four (2 adults, 2 kids) FA Cup football for £20 which was available all week until midnight on Friday, again great value to try and get a few more in through the door.

Going back to Barnet once again I would like to see a £2 reduction if you buy a match ticket before matchday, with £22 being the price being bought on the day, Hungerford have this option at least for their FA Cup match thankfully not at that price to begin with. That way you’re committed to going and it might only be a couple of quid but the next time it might encourage you to buy earlier.

Another one I’ve seen is Wealdstone offering match tickets for £5 for their BT Sport live game against Solihull Moors next Tuesday if you buy online with Under 14’s free with a paying adult; a great idea to see a packed stadium while the nation’s camera’s are watching instead of 200 sitting at home on the sofa seeing the game. You can almost guarantee it will attract some floating fans and pretty sure they’ll spend more once inside the ground too.

The key is looking after the newbies whilst not getting the backs up of those who regularly attend, but it’s easy to do and if marketed right then you’re onto a winner and hopefully some bigger attendances going forward.

As I’ve noticed since the season began crowd figures have been very impressive and have continued to maintain themselves at most clubs which is fantastic to see, but why not go that one step further and gain a few extra, that should keep the club treasurer with a smile on their face………..

Watson: It was a challenge, a challenge I enjoyed

It’s been a long time coming but this week I finally sat down with Billericay Town boss Kevin Watson to talk about his time at Ebbsfleet Utd, how it was being out of work since his recent appointment in Essex and what it’s like being a manager under the current conditions, here is part one:

TK: One of the things I noticed is on your CV you’ve got a lot of promotions as a player and a coach; do you think it’s something that surprises a lot of people?

KW: Yeh I think so. My playing career was very successful, four promotions at three different clubs, captained Rotherham Utd to back-to-back promotion campaigns, went to Reading and got another one there as well and ended up at Colchester where I picked up the final one.

I was never brash or ‘out there in your face’ as a player and just did what I had to do, all in all nearly 500 games if you all count all the mickey mouse cups as well, so not a bad career overall.

I finished up at Luton Town under Mick Harford with a six month contract around the time they had the money troubles and financial irregularities but ended up retiring as a player there in Dec 2009 after my achilles and calves had had enough so I became assistant to Mick there, we went to Wembley and won the Johnstones Paint Trophy in front of around 52,000.

From there it was Soccer Saturday with SKY for five years and onto Stevenage with Teddy Sheringham which was an eye opener for me, the first real foray back in the coaching game. Then followed a stint as Bishops Stortford manager where I brought a lot of academy kids through having also worked with them whilst managing the first team, the last matchday squad I had there contained seven boys who had come through with four of them starting that day, that was pleasing to see.

After Stortford it was teaming up with Ronnie Moore at Eastleigh, we were going really well there, 7th in the table and having just beaten Swindon in the FA Cup who were a League One side at the time, and then Ronnie was relieved of his duties which we only put down to a clash of personalities with the chairman and that was me done there.

Hungerford was my next stop as assistant to Ian Herring who to this day has become a really great friend of mine despite us only knowing each other about two and a half years, I actually looked forward to doing the two hour drive there and back on a Tuesday and Thursday night getting back at 1am, and on Saturdays because I loved the place and the people there.

For us to stay in the National League South on the budget we had was like winning promotion and we told the boys that, staying up on the last day of the season.

Then November 2019 I had a call from one of the lads I knew at Ebbsfleet Utd who said he thought Ian Hendon was leaving and there might be an opening there and would I be interested. So I went along, had a chat with Garry Hill, drove to Hungerford that evening and told Ian I would be leaving, it was an opportunity for me.

I took training that night and Ian nicely dropped me in it with the lads ‘Watto’s got something to say to you all’. It was a bit emotional I’ll admit as I felt very comfortable there and grown with those boys but there it was and the next day I was in at Ebbsfleet with Gary.

Then literally ten days later Garry lost his job and he said to me not long before ‘there might be a chance for you here, I’m a couple of defeats away from losing my job I think’, but that’s not the reason I wanted to go there, it was a National League club and I wanted to progress back up the ladder.

I was in interim charge for I think five games, winning three and drawing and losing one each off the top of my head. There were loads of impressive CV’s on the chief executive’s desk, some good names in there and I think that those results put me right at the front of the owner’s mind and that’s where the job came from.

TK: And definitely not the easiest time to be involved at the club either.

KW: No, it wasn’t. We had ups and downs I think it’s well documented, and I don’t think I need to go into it too much but it was a challenge, a challenge that I enjoyed and having taken over when we were on ten points from sixteen games I think we finished on 42 points from 39 games and that last win at Halifax effectively pulled us out of the bottom three.

We knew it was only three going down due to the Bury situation and we felt it was such an achievement for not just me or the staff but the players as well as we worked hard on the pitch, in training, we had a settled team and formation of 3-5-2 which I like so much and we nailed it, won the last three away games and from the last nine that we played we had a better record than Barrow who went up at champions. It was a really good time and we were just disappointed that lockdown came about just when it did.

Wanderers progress to take on Barnet

There appears to be a thinning out of midweek games across these two weeks before Xmas despite the fact a lot of teams are not that far in front for games and with the threat of more lockdowns in the new year you just wonder if a few more could have been slotted in.

One club I wanted to get to this season was Dorking Wanderers, for a number of reasons as there have been for most clubs I’ve tasked myself with visiting. The rise for the Surrey club has been nothing less than extremely impressive, I remember them coming to Wick on a Friday night around 10-12 years ago in the Sussex League Division Two as it was then and winning 2-0 under the club owner and manager Marc White.

Rising through the County League, Ryman League and now well ensconced in the National League South Wanderers are looking well set for another tilt at promotion to the top level. Playing now at Meadowbank, home of the Surrey FA they have a tidy very nice ground for the level with a selection of seating and standing areas for all.

Wanderers were the club who really got behind the #LetFansIn campaign which I promoted through this blog and along with others who also joined, in the end it did bear fruit in getting people back inside stadiums from Steps 3-6, but at their own level they’ve had to wait until this month to have their own supporters back inside the stadium.

As I’ve stated in the past this season I’ve wanted to go to clubs who have helped me achieve the success this blog is becoming, be it through interviews with their managers, players, or chairman. My thought with Dorking for really getting this campaign to work, I’m going to head there and put a few quid in the coffers, least I can do to help out.

And with the FA Trophy putting games into quick succession the visit of Hungerford Town was the opportunity to make it happen. With both sides residing at the same level we were in for a good game, as it transpired we got one but not quite in the way I expected.

Right from the first whistle the intent from the hosts was very impressive, zipping the ball around with an option to pass for every player who was in possession, Hungerford really struggled to get a hold of the ball with the Dorking midfield pairing of Kane Wills and Wes Fogden controlling things in the middle of the park.

The first effort went to the visitors in the opening minute, a blocked shot which resulted in a break downfield and skipper Jason Prior having a header saved by keeper Luke Cairney. Wanderers then dominated the ball throughout the first half, chances created from Nicky Wheeler and Callum Kennedy giving Prior more opportunities, but a combination of good defending and the experienced striker unable to hit the target kept the scoreline level.

It certainly wasn’t looking like Prior’s night as two further chances went begging, another good save from Cairney and a header that hit the crossbar.

The deadlock was finally broken a couple of minutes before half time by Dorking, just when it looked as if they would be going in frustrated at half time, Luke Moore controlling Wills’ pass inside the area and sliding it across for James McShane to slam home and give the home side a deserved lead.

No sooner had the teams emerged for the second half than Dorking were two goals to the good, the impressive McShane finishing off Fodgen’s touch across goal to slide in at the far post.

The goal seemed to inspire the visitors to have their best spell of the game, Slav Huk having to save from both Mike Jones and Ryan Seager in quick succession as Wanderers allowed their guard to slip slightly and it certainly would have been game on had one effort found its way into the net despite the fact Dorking should have been out of sight had the chances been put away in the first half.

Ten minutes later Jake Evans beat Huk, but the Hungerford substitute’s effort clipped the top of the bar. Chances came in the final fifteen minutes for Wanderers to extend their lead, Prior having a second effort cleared off the line having rounded the keeper, while McShane was denied by the post for a hat-trick.

One final chance arrived for Prior in the final minute but headed over the bar capping what must have been a frustrating night for the skipper who on another day could easily had four or five goals to his name.

McShane was quite rightly named man of the match, not just for the two goals but also popping up in the gaps and space all over the final third to make it harder for Hungerford to pick him up.

The visitors definitely found it hard to keep the ball against a side who moved it around superbly and Barnet will certainly find it tough this coming Saturday, especially with the Bees being bang out of form. Even I wouldn’t bet against Wanderers progressing this weekend although of course I’m firmly on the opposite side…………….

NB This article was written before the Government placed Dorking and Surrey into tier 3 from Saturday and once again unable to admit fans.