So where do I begin with AFC Croydon Athletic? Well it is another example of a phoenix club having to be reformed from the ashes of the old but whereas other clubs went to the wall away from the public eye, the previous club found itself splashed across front and back pages in national newspapers.
I am referring of course to the (now defunct) ‘News of The World’ expose’ of the then Croydon Athletic owner Mazhar Majeed telling an undercover journo exactly which balls certain Pakistani ‘cricketers’ would bowl a no ball on. He had been boasting about how many cricket events he’d been fixing and you can see some of the video evidence here. Most disturbingly for the club, he stated that he only bought the club for money laundering purposes.
As always I am not going to go through the whole story as others have done it far better than I could and this whole series, as it were, is about what is happening now and in the future. It is that time again where I point you towards the always excellent twohundredpercent whose articles on Mazhar Majeed (here) and the whole sad story of Croydon Athletic can be found here.
Plus I have an interview with Paul Smith who is Chairman of AFC Croydon Athletic and he goes into a detail and depth from a fans eye view, meaning most of the murky story is far better told by him. What of course did happen was that after a long drawn out process (which is in bite sized form here), Croydon Athletic played their last ever game on December 3rd 2011.
It should be said that from what I’ve read and asked around there was little sympathy or perhaps less than we might expect on Croydon Athletics demise. This was largely down to the fact that Croydon Athletic had been promoted in 2009/10 season from the Ryman South to Ryman Prem on crowds which were not massive. Other teams felt after the scandal that they had been cheated out of a promotion, so solidarity was perhaps not forthcoming.
However despite the disaster of losing their club, the fans dusted themselves down and on the 6th February 2012 got together to start the process of forming a new club. They had to ground-share with Croydon FC with difficulties in getting their old ground back but they headed into the 2012/13 season with a clean slate, starting at Step 6 of the non-league pyramid in the Combined Counties Div One, two divisions below where the old club finished.
Last season probably went as well as the club could’ve hoped, a solid eighth place finish combined with the first ever silverware for the new club having won the Division One Cup 5-0 against Staines Lammas on the 6th May 2013 (Highlights here). So all in all a good season on the pitch but they still found themselves nomads, as the clubs old ground had the club house set on fire and destroyed by mindless vandals, which put back AFC Croydon’s plans to move home.
Before I went to see them the club had just played four games against all the teams that they were competing against for promotion and despite only being beaten once; they only gained three points out of those games, making them an outside bet to get promoted. So it was on a miserable and atrocious day that I made my way to Croydon for some ‘gloryhunting’ in the Combined Counties Division One.
As I arrived the weather was worsening and walking towards the ground I passed a pub packed with Palace fans who were at home to Newcastle, I was tempted to pop in for a pint but wanted to make sure I found the ground.
My biggest problem on the day was one of my trainers had a massive crack in and the other was also no longer as durable as it once had been. By the time I got to the ground my feet were absolutely soaked and to make matters worse, as I walked through the gates Paul and others were in discussion with the referee whether the game was to go ahead.
If the rain didn’t stop it’s monsoon like downpour then I would have been a drowning rat for nothing. I headed to the toilets and spent the next ten minutes ringing my socks and holding them under the drier just to give me at least a couple minutes respite from future trench foot. As I stepped out expecting it to still be bucketing down, the rain had stopped and I’d come out to a totally different day.
Confidence restored, I headed into the changing room/gym room/ cakes and tea room which was to take on another function as the interview room for me and Paul Smith. Paul, I don’t think will mind me saying, is a bit of a big bloke but doesn’t come across as aggressive at all and since the old clubs demise devotes a considerable amount of time to the football club.
So we sat down to begin and the first thing was to ask Paul to outline the demise of the old club. Paul was keen to stress the demise had its roots further back than one scandal.
“Back in 2005, Chairman Keith Tuckey who had been generous in supporting the club for a long time suddenly died. His funding dried up and the club had to find new ways of funding itself. Initially the club was sold to Roy Price, a local business man who took on the clubs debt and wiped it clean. It was only ever a short term position and he continued to look at new investment , so he owned the club fully and in the 07/08 season he sold the club to (the now infamous) Mazhar Majeed.”
So another story beginning with the drying up of an unsustainable business model, the wealthy benefactor, started the cycle of decline for the old club but initially as Paul would explain, Mazhar didn’t look like your typical villain.
“Mazhar took over a roughly 90% share in the club and Roy Price held onto 10%. So from being very much a community club, where there were a number of shareholders, the club was now effectively controlled in the hands of one owner. Mazhar Majeed was a man of considerable wealth, he seemed to have plenty of ambition and was happy to put significant money into the team and eventually new management. From the fans point of view, everything seemed to be pretty straightforward.”
“He wasn’t interested in the club pursing any other commercial activity, he seemed to be happy to fund everything and clearly at that time could afford to do so. That enabled the club to climb up into the Premier of the Ryman League and things looked very good.”
Then for a lot of the supporters on that Sunday morning, they opened up the News of The World and there was Mazhar Majeed on the front page.
So what was Paul’s reaction when he read it? How did he feel about the whole situation? The fans had been told one thing by him and then read what he said about the club, namely that Mazhar had only bought the club for money laundering. Of this claim, Paul was sceptical.
“Well I think what he said about the club was a load of nonsense, you couldn’t launder money through Croydon Athletic because we didn’t have sufficient incomings, so all he was doing was spending money on the club. So I’m not convinced by that… Now whether he had the ultimate ambition to grow the club then use it for that end, who knows?”
“Essentially, it was a great shock and it put into question: Did the club have any sort of future at all? He had funded the club and it wasn’t a question that people didn’t know anything about him but what we didn’t know was this side to his activities. It came as a great shock but our concern was less for Mazhar Majeed and more for what did this mean for Croydon Athletic.”
Paul went on to explain the impact on the club after and the desperate attempts of Croydon Athletic supporters to keep the club alive until the end of the season.
“Well we played two more games under the Mazhar regime and we played on the Bank Holiday Monday, the day after the story broke and there was lots of… interest, obviously. We then played the Saturday at our ground and clearly there was a lot of discussion in the week.”
“It wasn’t the last game, at the time we thought it could be but there were those who decided it probably would be the last game. Myself and others said that no, we didn’t see this as the end. The team and management all left but we got in a team who had been involved with the club before, we negotiated with the league to give us a period of 11 days to get the club back on its feet or at least playing and it was less than 13 days later we played with a scratch side.”
“It was people who had been invited along the day before on the basis that people knew them or they came to training so we turned out a team. I have to say at 78 minutes it was still nil nil, we went on to lose 3-0 but we were very pleased. Of course that season was one of great difficulty, there was no money for the players or management. We were able to keep the club afloat on a day to day basis but we couldn’t deal with any debt that was from the Majeed regime.”
So with a success of sorts achieved the club was in a position to look for a new owner and clear some of the debts left by a previous owner, an almost exact copy of the situation they had been in before Mazhar came to the club but just on a far worse scale.
And Mazhar Majeed?
He effectively emerged from a period of invisibility for a while and agreed we could do that.
The next owner was to be … Fodboldselskabet. They are the group which acted so disgracefully against the fans of Chester FC who had set up City Fans United and tried to do everything to prevent the fans from gaining control of the club. It could be said that Croydon Athletic fans should’ve known better but alas, beggars can’t be choosers.
What did Paul make of them?
“They were very naïve in their approach and of course they were in business with Mazhar Majeed rather than with the fans.”
As we know, that groups involvement ended leaving the club in no better position than when they had arrived and the success of Chester FC under the ownership of the fans tells us everything we need to know about this organisations (lack of) abilities.
However, we are moving ahead now to the plans of the fans to get a phoenix club up and running, as that of course was the reason I was sat in Croydon with trench foot. Croydon Athletic fans gathered themselves for what they realised would be the end.
“They (plans) were in motion before the old club failed and we knew it was going to fail. We’d had some discussions, we knew there was interest amongst the supporters, they wanted the club to live on and they didn’t want it to die. The practicalities of that were going to be tough but overall we were determined once the club failed.”
“The first issue was whether we were going to stay at the existing ground in Thornton Heath, the owners had stripped out the ground after the old club folded and took everything that was of value that wasn’t bolted down. Then they unscrewed anything that was bolted down and had taken that as well. The lease was significantly in arrears and although the council made an offer to relinquish the lease, effectively writing of any of the debt, they refused.”
So before they even begun, their old Keith Tuckey Stadium at Thornton Heath (named after their long term benefactor) was denied to them and they had suffered their first set back. Not disheartened, the fans found a solution.
“We’d spoke to the council and using this ground came up which we accepted. So we got an agreement that we would be playing here, we met with supporters and we felt that if we didn’t start playing any delay would see it die. We had our first AGM in May 2012 and we were delighted on May 10th we got confirmation form the FA they’d placed us in this division.”
Six months after the old club had folded we knew we were back up and running playing football again in the 2012/13 season.
It was far from job done though as Paul would go onto explain, in fact you could say the real work had only just begun.
“That then starts the next challenge which was of course we have to fund it, secondly we didn’t have a team or manager so in May and June that was the priority but we were able to secure some generous donations from supporters and others. With fundraising we could meet that obligation we had to fund the club through the season as we don’t play here for nothing. Of course without a bar and a social club it’s very difficult to raise money.”
So with a ground in place and a team on the pitch, Paul summed up AFC Croydon Athletic first ever season and it’s small part in the fan owned history of British football.
“On the 4th August 2012 we had our first game here and we felt that was quite a significant success. We flirted with the top half most of the season but our results against the teams at the top weren’t good enough but we were very comfortably placed and went on to win the cup which was a real bonus.”
Although as I’ve already mentioned there have been significant problems with getting back to the old ground Paul was confident they would be in by the start of next season. I asked him just how important that would be for the club. The first point was its massively improved opportunities for developing cash for the club.
“Currently, we gain no income out of this stadium or the clubhouse. Croydon FC has been very generous about us using the clubhouse and being able to use it for a couple of fundraisers, they obviously benefit from the bar but they’ve not charged us for that.”
The clubhouse at the Rams home is following the same design as the one burnt down whilst being brand new and Paul explained how the new clubhouse would benefit the club.
“We know it lends itself to being hired out for local events and our own fundraising, we know we’ll be able to maximise our own income from any fundraising we do. Then it opens up issues around sponsorship in a much more meaningful way then we can here, we can’t have perimeter sponsorship here and nor can Croydon FC even though there’s plenty of space. We can look at those opportunities and I think in Thornton Heath, in that area, we’ve got huge opportunities at our level.”
“We can also exploit the wider facilities with not just the stadium but we’ve got the adjacent fields which the council have confirmed we can have use of. That’s excellent for the development of our junior program.”
I have to say, I have very little hope for non-league football in London surviving but this just all sounded too good to be true. The club was heading home soon and already there seemed to be a clear plan about how to utilise the facilities that will soon be available to them. I didn’t know this until I started to write this up but Paul is a local councillor in Croydon.
I haven’t put this to make it seem that there was some back handed deal and that’s why AFC Croydon Athletic have got the stadium back, though of course having someone who knows how to cut the bureaucracy is undoubtedly useful. No, I mention this to make a far deeper point.
It shows how a sharing of power and a greater sense of a common good allows far better outcomes then both organisations (Council & Club) operating aloof from each other. The council own the ground and it’s this fact which is the reason why AFC Croydon Athletic will have a home next season and why Hendon FC does not. However, the council will have goals of participation in sport that are far better delivered by countless local free-running organisations like AFC Croydon Athletic than the council could ever design in any office.
Paul announcing how AFC Croydon Athletic was now working in association with a thriving junior football team was a great example of this point.
“We’ve started a partnership with Wallington Wanderers Juniors FC so we’re already in partnership with a club who have previously played on the pitches adjacent to us, who are desperate to get back to playing on those pitches because it’s a nice facility and somewhere they can call home, rather than being spread out on the local parks. From our point of view we don’t have to start from scratch, we can come in with effectively a section of 8-9 teams.
(Me) Is there going to be a clear link in terms of development with the club?
“Very much so, the intention is for it to be a partnership. It’s not us saying “Right you’re going to become our juniors and change your name” but the important thing for us is we can develop a sustainable junior program of football that’s associated with the club and we’re confident we can do that. Wanderers are very much on board with that and once we can develop geographically, so using our stadium and using our club house effectively, then I’ll feel they will be on board. One of their officials is a Director of AFC Croydon Athletic to reinforce that bond.”
So here we have it, two voluntary organisations working together to create not only a good result for both of them but for the wider community as a whole. They will both be in a position to strengthen and access grant funding, develop a skill base of coaches and a sense of vocation amongst the lads they can get grants to put youngsters through coaching courses themselves. Everyone benefits and they can do this by being supported but not subsidised nor controlled by the council.
It’s a model of mutual ownership and shared responsibility that should be spread across all forms of service provision, rather than council’s obsessions with either selling everything off or imposing reams of pointless targets to show they (the council) have obtained their goals. It relies on trusting that ordinary people are far more capable of running programs and services which create a common good than a University graduate in their office cocooned from reality ever could. Hopefully, the success that I’m sure AFC Croydon Athletic will have in their partnership will offer more proof of the superiority of the mutual model.
That doesn’t mean its all good news. I am not going to repeat my spiel about the demographic changes of London and their negative effects but Croydon itself didn’t give off the impression of being a happy place.
It was, at face value, incredibly segregated in the streets as I walked to the ground and there was no mixing or integrating of people between different colours, it manifested itself in the absurd site of white and black people not even using the same hairdressers but one for each of their separate groups.
The problems in Croydon are touched upon in BBC Three Tough Young Teachers (here) and as I discovered whilst in Croydon, the chronic shortage of school places placing a massive pressure on land availability.
With all this in mind, did Paul have confidence that they could build on the clubs now ageing and limited fan base in what is a demographically challenging situation, made harder that Sky Sports/ BT Sports have proliferated football from the sofa?
“Well I think there’s great potential and I think you have to be realistic. I know clubs have done the sort of ‘everyone comes in for nothing’ for a game where they get a big crowd and it looks attractive. It’s not something I’m ruling out but that’s not how you build a fan base, it’s to actually get people to come on a cold winter’s night rather than a sunny afternoon when they get in for nothing.”
“First thing is you’ve got to make sure you’re visible and known. We’ve worked quite hard that we’re known as a football club and that’s not easy when a neighbouring team has got into the Premiership because they dominate the local papers. Palace playing at home today will hit our attendances even more but what we can do is to make sure we’re known, increase our involvement with local business which is absolutely essential and you know I do think we’ll have something to offer.”
“The population in the vicinity of Mayfield road (the old stadium), if you took a half mile radius would be around 25,000 and I think what we can do is make sure they all know we’re there, that we’re the local team. If we have some success than people will see the facilities and what we’re offering and they’ll come back.”
So drawing this interview to a close, I asked Paul to imagine where AFC Croydon Athletic could be in 3 to 4 years’ time.
“We’ve got to look to establish ourselves at each level and it’s only at a firm foundation we can move forward. First instance, we can sustain Combined Counties Premier football, we’ve got the club to do that. We’re in the mix. Teams above us have to play each other, we’ve recently had 5 games against teams above.”
“So in 3 to 4 years’ time I’d say we’re in a position to be in Combined Premier, of course the ultimate aim would be to say we’re a club that had been in the Ryman league for a long time and that’s where we want to get back to.”
And with that Paul headed off to consult with the referee and I headed back out of the stadium to the clubhouse for what was a scandalously priced Carling. At something like £3.50 I nursed that pint before heading back into the stadium to watch the Rams fight for three points.
The ground itself is an incredibly bleak and desolate place even in the summer I was informed, the day I was there it looked like the kind of place you’d see in Children of Men. Devoid of any way of making an atmosphere and with the main stand miles away from the pitch, it didn’t surprise me that many of AFC Croydon Athletic members would not watch them until they were back at the old ground.
Nevertheless, on a bleak day in the middle of winter combined with Crystal Palace at home, there were a few hardy souls who had come to watch AFC Croydon Athletic and we kicked off. Now it’s safe to say the quality of the game was not of the top draw but still I was at least glad it was on. Ten minutes in, the ball was scrambled around the Dorking box before hitting the post and staying out.
It was Dorking who went into the lead with a ball in from the corner catching the wind and bouncing in the box with neither the goalie or defenders claiming it, the ball was bundled in for Dorking to make it one-nil. Before half time though the Rams were level as they put their own cross in, which hung against the wind and was headed in by Jordan Martin.
Second half and the game was given its first moment of class when Gareth Williams, who has been on the books at Crystal Palace and Colchester in his career, proceeded to walk his way through the Dorking midfield before whipping in a wonderful goal from the edge of the box.
Williams again showed he was the best player on the pitch by some distance when he lofted a through ball over the Dorking defence with Daniel Penfold running through and burying the ball to make it 3-1 and the game looked like it was petering out. However, it what goes down as the worst Goalkeeping (or lack of) effort I have seen for a long time Dorking found themselves back in it.
In the 83rd minute a rather tame shot was hit by a Dorking player for the bottom right corner and the Rams goalkeeper proceeded to literally stand and watch it go in. He didn’t even move for it, I could’ve saved it and what’s worse I was sat by his Dad so I couldn’t lament how dreadful his goalkeeping was.
However, another goal befitting this level of football came in the 88th minute to kill the game as a Rams player crossed the ball in, caught the wind, which then floated over a back-peddling keeper to give Lewis Goddard the easiest tap in he will ever get. So closer than it should have been but 4-2 to AFC Croydon Athletic and us few brave souls who had come to watch it could at least be glad it wasn’t in vain.
So that was me done with another adventure in the bowels of non-league football in the English Pyramid and another fan owned club ticked off the list. Since I have been there AFC Croydon Athletic have won two more games, losing one and have had a dozen postponed by the weather. I have also bought a pair of proper boots and my feet are grateful for being warm again, they had to put up with cheap holey Patrick trainers for too long.
This season, the Rams have nine games left with the majority against those in the lower half and are still in with a chance of defending the Division One Cup they won last season. In the league, three go up and one of those places looks beyond AFC Croydon Athletic but they are definitely in the hunt.
So after Croydon Athletic was effectively destroyed by one man and his ability to control their destiny, by having total domination over the club and therefore the fans, we have a story of great hope.
It’s the hope that a fan owned AFC Croydon Athletic will be able to engage the community in a way the old club never did, the hope that they can have success on a sustainable level whilst growing their work off the field but perhaps most importantly, it’s the hope that the next time you read about them in the papers…
It’ll be nothing but good news.
You can follow more football ramblings and other general stuff @eddyman00
The badge is used with the kind permission of AFC Croydon Athletic and all other photos were taken by yours truly.
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