Despite not liking Featherstone Rovers, due to their peculiar and longstanding rivalry with Leigh Centurions, I’ve always (rather quietly) been a fan of their historic Post Office Road ground. If you take away their supporters who can usually be found strutting about the place in flat caps, trying their best to intimidate groups of away supporters, it’s a pleasant place; a hybrid mix of old and new. Recycled, upcycled and ramshackled. Corporate yet also cringeworthingly tacky.
My first visit to Post Office Road came back in the summer of 2012. A few of us from school followed the Centurions up the M62 as they vied for a place in the final of the Northern Rail Cup. It was an evening that ended in disappointment as Leigh were trounced 54-16. It wasn’t just the players who had a night to forget, with ‘Fev’s’ laid back and blasé attitude towards underage alcohol sales enabling us schoolboys to get hammered behind the sticks, on a terrace which tragically no longer exists.
As that suggests, much has changed at the ground since that day. The terracing that we stumbled around was replaced by two recycled stands from the abandoned McCain Stadium in Scarborough. Volunteers demolished, moved and rebuilt the stands. The recycled structures were placed at the Railway End of the ground, with the pitch being extended in the process, which conveniently made the venue fit enough to stage football matches.
This isn’t an entry about Featherstone Rovers though. We were here for football; a sport which has faced a volatile and unpredictable existence in this part of the world in recent years. Wakefield AFC’s story, which is still in it’s embryonic stages, is one which is primarily rooted deep in the failure of others and it is compiled further by a tough geographical positioning; allegedly.
We’ll start with the latter point. The one which the majority of people you talk to will say is the main problem; Wakefield is a city which is tucked deep inside an area of the north which traditionally cares more for rugby than football. It is the largest city in the UK not to boast a professional football team. In contrast, Trinity, the cities rugby league team averaged crowds of 5,400 for league matches in the previous campaign. By adding the gate numbers from Featherstone, who always attract crowds of over 1,000 through the gates and it proves that there is no shortage of people in the area willing to pay to attend live sport.
Controversially, I would say that labelling Wakefield as a rugby city is lazy. It’s an easy excuse. It’s a get out of jail card. The truth is that football is loved by many here and why shouldn’t it be?
Whenever I’ve been to Wakefield, I’ve always found it’s far too common to walk through the city centre and be greeted by hordes of Manchester United and Liverpool shirts. The target audience for a local football club around here would rather sit in the Wakey Tavern, drinking Carling, arguing about VAR than take interest in something on their doorstep.
A bubbling underworld of football interest does exist around here. What has been missing though is a local club that is stable enough to present an opportunity to develop an affinity or even better, an uncontrollable bond where you inadvertently become a supporter.
This takes things back to the first point. Football, at a decent level in the pyramid, has been played in Wakefield before but the truth of the matter is, it wasn’t meant to happen and to say it didn’t go well, is an understatement. In an attempt to truly understand where we are today, you have to travel nine miles south west to the quiet, undulating streets of Emley. Sitting equidistant between Huddersfield and Wakefield, the village of Emley is famous for it’s large transmission tower. Lurking in the shadows of a structure which kept Yorkshire’s TV and Radio sets supplied with signal were a football team who were having a very successful time on the pitch.
Emley AFC had been playing at the Welfare Ground in the centre of the village since 1903 and by the turn of the new Millenium, they found themselves challenging at the top of the Northern Premier League. Back then, it was straight promotion into the Conference as the North and South tiers were not introduced until 2004. A step up into the top division of non-league, which was within touching distance, meant Emley would have to complete a large number of ground improvements, something which was simply not viable for them.
Instead of spending vast amounts of money on the ground, they chose to take the radical step of relocating their first team matches and moved to Belle Vue, the historic home of Wakefield Trinity. The move very nearly paid off as that season they amassed 101 points, only to be beaten to the league title and subsequent promotion into the conference by Stalybridge Celtic who had one point more.
By 2002, Emley AFC had changed their name to Wakefield & Emley FC before a further change to the simplified version of Wakefield Emley FC two years later. It was hoped this change in identity would attract fans from their new location, which had a far greater population to draw crowds from.
While the revamped club played miles away from its heartland in an attempt to gain promotion, the reserve side continued play at the Welfare Ground in Emley until 2005. At this stage, the Reserve League disbanded and as a result, the need for a reserve side was no longer required. It was at this point, disgruntled supporters of the original Emley AFC decided that they would form their own club, playing at their traditional home as AFC Emley; this club is the one which competes in the NCEL at present.
With ties severed, the club now playing in Wakefield at the 12,000 capacity Belle Vue Stadium, changed their name again, this time to Wakefield FC, completing a permanent move to the area. It came at a cost though. Dwindling crowds, zero interest in the club and high rental costs were beginning to take their toll. Added to this were Trinity’s ambitions to move away from Belle Vue (another long standing issue which still rumbles on to this day) and there were just too many factors working against the football club.
By the end of the 2013/14 season, strange and desperate measures were being taken just to keep the club going. One weekend, a lad I played with at Atherton Town was contacted by Wakefield to play in a league match under somebody else’s name as they didn’t have enough registered players available. It was a common occurrence for a team of ringers to feature in matches for Wakefield, and on this occasion it resulted in an embarrassing 10-1 hammering at Curzon Ashton.
The writing was on the wall and Wakefield FC were left with no option but to resign from the Northern Premier League. One final twist was still to come, as in a strange and ironic turn of events, they announced tentative plans to drop into the NCEL and agree a groundshare back where it had all started at Emley but this proved a hurdle too far and as a result, 110 years of football was brought to an end.
Following the collapse of Wakefield FC, other clubs in the area tried to fill the void which had been left. Wakefield City FC looked likely contenders, having competed in the West Riding County Amateur Football League for a few years but they disappeared off the face of the earth. There was also City of Wakefield FC who can currently be found competing in the 16th level in the Wakefield & District League Division 2.
Wakefield United FC sprung up out of the blue when they were founded in December 2018, with the aim to “increase participation in sport and encourage refugees and asylum seekers living in our community to be active.” They received a lot of support on social media and even managed to bring on board local indie-rock group The Cribs, who agreed to become shirt sponsors. Before even kicking a ball, they folded and subsequently blamed the local council for lack of support.
So, when new boys Wakefield AFC emerged on the scene having been founded less than a year later, there was more than a cloud of scepticism and cynicism around their formation. It’s been proven just how volatile and thankless running a football club in this city can be, so what makes this venture any different? Surely they weren’t going to fall into the trap of setting high expectations before they had even kicked a ball? Wrong. Their opening gambit raised eyebrows when they confidently stated that they will make it to the Football League by 2033.
It was with a depraved sense of urgency that I travelled to Featherstone. With every challenge already mentioned, there’s also the question of working out when the last time a groundshare between a rugby league club and football club actually worked out? Hull United FC, who ruffled a lot of feathers, played a handful of matches at Craven Park before being booted out of the league. St Helens Town were left homeless after a behind-closed-doors fall out with St Helens RLFC and Leigh Genesis’ stay at the sparkling new Sports Village was short-lived. If Wakefield AFC weren’t already treading along a treacherous path where everybody else has failed, they certainly were now.
Backed by former Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United goalkeeper Chris Turner and a consortium of businessmen, the club aim to gain three promotions in the next four seasons, which would see them race up into the Northern Premier League Division Division One. They’re sticking by this plan, despite only finishing in ninth place in the Sheffield and Hallamshire League Premier Division when last season was curtailed.
From what I have read, it seems the club is led by a mixture of the will to succeed where others haven’t and also an element of delusion, bravado and testosterone. Turner, speaking to the Athletic said, “Our lads are all coming out in bespoke kits and when the opposition teams come to our stadium it’s like their cup final every week.”
Another claim which made me sigh was when Turner stated, “We’ve got a management structure as good as anybody in non-League. You wouldn’t find a more experienced group at a National League club.” It’s debatable, big-headed comments like this which could well annoy established non-league clubs in the long run. Wakefield, more than anybody, need to be making friends and not enemies.
For me though, it adds an interesting dimension to this Step 7 league. It’s a level which very rarely enjoys the benefits of projects like this. In most instances, if a phoenix club or a brand new fan-owned venture is set up, the FA tends to place them a division higher. Even with Wakefield AFC starting lower down than normal, other local clubs weren’t happy that a new club who had never kicked a ball were flighted in at the Premier Division, arguing that they should be made to start in Division 2 alongside the likes of Caribbean Sports FC and Sheffield Top Lane.
Opponents for this afternoon’s match were Hepworth United, a team who had got to this level on merit having gained promotion into it back in 2008. With current guidelines in place, sides were being encouraged not to travel out of their local area for league fixtures. As a result, the two teams had met the previous weekend at Hepworth’s quaint ground which is set into the rolling green Yorkshire hills, separated only by a sturdy dry-stone wall.
There was no sign of any countryside here in Featherstone, an old industrial coal-mining town whose most famous export is it’s rugby league side which have won the Challenge Cup on three occasions. Murals of Queen Elizabeth II handing over the trophy at Wembley sit proudly at the top of the stairs at you as you enter the impressive bar area of the stadium.
After last weekend’s trip to Wells City in Somerset, this was a relatively local trip for me. It took just over an hour to drive across from Atherton, with the deluge of rain across the moors turning the M62 into a treacherous obstacle course on which every car was aquaplaning. I pulled into the vast car park at Post Office Road in one piece and headed towards the main entrance of the ground, a door which is only open to hospitality guests and visiting dignitaries on a normal match day.
An intricately designed tiled floor which displayed the Featherstone Rovers name was very slippy underfoot, while a volunteer stood to the side by a trophy cabinet and scanned our tickets. Admission was on a donation basis, with the majority of us seemingly choosing to pay £2, with that figure being the most we would ever be asked to pay at this level elsewhere.
Behind the main stand, I found Bournemouth fan Vinny who had driven up from Hampshire to catch the game, before racing back home to assist with his young lad’s Halloween celebrations. A 14:00 kick-off suited him perfectly. Also in attendance, tucking into a chips and curry from the burger van we were stood next to was UEFA delegate and former Hamilton secretary, Scott. He had been in Kosovo two days earlier on official duty and was enjoying some time at home before “having to go” to Barcelona v Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday night, where he ended up sat next to the benches. Not many people could pull of Pristina, Wakefield and Barcelona in a week but Scott is one of those who can.
Wakefield AFC supporter Ben, who was featured in today’s matchday programme, approached us to see if we wanted a go on the football card. He asked if we were away fans, before in turn we all admitted where we were all from. It felt like an alcoholics anonymous meeting as each person in the circle took their turn to talk. “Bournemouth. East London. Glasgow. Bolton,” were the responses. Strangely, it turned out Ben was from Bolton too but had moved over to Wakefield for work, becoming a pastor and losing his Lancastrian accent in the process. He was genuinely excited about this new project at Wakefield and he wasn’t the only one, with an almost sell-out crowd of 295 in attendance.
Everything single aspect of the club was professional. It was admirable. They had a pop-up club shop which was selling a range of merchandise including the three shirts which they had for this season; most professional clubs only have two. Up the stairs in the stand, a volunteer was selling professionally produced matchday programmes for £2 and their social media output was similar to that of a full-time club. On the pitch, their players were brought together from across the globe, in a way which I had never seen in non-league football before. England, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Zambia, Spain, Mexico, Romania, America, Australia, Switzerland and last but by no means least Zimbabwe were all represented by this multi-cultural and skilful footballing side.
A group of around 20 lads had all turned up in fancy dress, possessing a range of different nations flags. Their favourite player was Mexican goalkeeper Hemir Lopez who had represented his country at U17 level before moving across to England. A bit of a cult hero, even in these early stages of the club’s history. He lapped up chants about him from behind the goal while Dean Makunike, the Zimbabwean winger who had been signed from Scottish side Gretna was a stand-out performer.
Vinny and I watched the first few minutes of the match from the warmth and comfort of the impressive bar which overlooked the pitch, while I enjoyed a pint of Guinness which had to be sent back twice to be topped up. I had never been in this palatial part of the ground before and found it slightly off putting to see a large printed mural of Martin Ridyard on the wall next to our table. Having played over 200 matches for Leigh, he controversially left us to sign for Featherstone, where he lasted just one season on the wrong side of the Pennines before returning back to his hometown club. It had surely been commissioned for a reaction.
Outside, a relatively entertaining match was taking place on a pitch which appeared to be as malleable as a soft sponge. Every single step taken made a visible and lasting imprint in the luscious grass which hadn’t hosted a rugby match since March. Featherstone were no doubt very happy to be gaining some form of income from football while their level of rugby – the second tier – was still not allowed to take place.
Wakefield opened the scoring on 23 minutes when goalkeeper Lopez sent a long ball across to Jack Budge. He in turn played through Makunike who calmly lobbed the ball over the Hepworth goalkeeper, to rapturous applause from the home crowd who were really getting behind their new club.
A few moments later, things got more interesting (and amusing) when one of the Wakefield defenders flew in with a late and high tackle. Not content with having nearly finished an opponents afternoon, he then proceeded to kick the lad when he was down and then inflicted a push to the throat. Players from both sides piled in and almost instantaneously the person who was in charge of the public address system hit play on the Benny Hill theme tune.
It all proved too much for the referee, who after brandishing a very lenient yellow card, retired from play after picking up an injury of his own. There was a delay while one of the linesman had to come on and replace him. As we returned for the second half, after an interval where I had to send another pint of Guinness back, the replacement referee had himself been replaced and for some untold reason and we were now musing over when we last saw a match with three referees. Even Scott was stumped.
There were to be no further goals to enjoy in the second half but it was entertaining nonetheless, with a red card for the visitors which provided another opportunity for the tannoy operator to mock what was happening on the pitch with his choice of music.
A Hepworth winger, who had received taunts from the Wakefield fans throughout for looking like, “an overweight Andy Carroll,” was given a straight red following a late challenge in front of the two dugouts. The Benny Hill theme tune blasted out for the second time before a stern flash of crimson from the third referees pocket was a signal to the media box to play ‘Hit The Road Jack’ as he trudged through the spongy turf back towards the changing rooms.
Wakefield deservedly took all the points which took them up to third place behind Dodworth Miners Welfare and early leaders Swinton Athletic, who were six points clear. At the moment, it seems inconceivable that this club will one day manage to reach the Football League but they point to other clubs such as Fleetwood Town, Salford City and Harrogate Town and say that it is possible. What they also fail to mention is the many millions of pounds that those clubs have spent.
Whether they reach their goal, or whether it ends in tears, will remain to be seen over the coming years. One thing that is certain, they have something special taking shape at Wakefield AFC and while it is great to have ambition, it is equally important to simply have a self-funding, sustainable club in the area that can provide the local community and it’s inhabitants with something that they can be a part of.
This was the last weekend of football to take place before England was placed back into lockdown measures. Football from the Northern Premier League down would be paused for an initial period of a month.