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As we arise from our winter hibernation, local grassroots football clubs need us more than ever. With the doors closed on his beloved Spurs, Matt Fletcher-Jones heads out on a Beverley Brook stroller to explore a woodland world of grassroots football.

Over the last month, my footballing world has revolved around three grounds, all within a mile and a half of where I live. I’ve visited them virtually every day and as of yet, I’ve never seen a second of football.

SW19 is famous for one sport and one sport only. You’re never more than a mishit forehand away from tennis, and my regular sporting consumption takes me to the considerably less glamorous N17 and a seat at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The imposing of Lockdown 2 in November and our government-sanctioned outdoor exercise has opened up a whole new world of local grassroots football clubs to me that I’d like to share with The Grassroots Post. Not that I’ve seen any actual football.

Each day I use that hour (is it still an hour? I don’t know anymore) to escape a world of Zoom meetings and gradually head further and further into the woods of Wimbledon Common, allowing myself to get lost on its myriad paths, all the time edging closer to its audible boundary of the A3. After a couple of weeks of this daily amble, I emerged from the far corner of the woods into a clearing to be greeted by a huge World War One memorial. Usually this would be enough to capture the attention of my inner historian, but the pathway continued beyond the monument, opening out into a vast expanse of football pitches rendered silent by Covid-19.

Ever since, my days have taken in the Richardson Evans Memorial Playing Fields, home primarily to Old Thorntonians FC, before following Beverley Brook along a tree-lined tour of non-league football grounds in this corner of London. A world I knew nothing of just a few short weeks ago.

The first of Old Thorntonians’ six teams reside in the Amateur Combination Premier League, and even though they (technically) play on Wimbledon Common and are a defensive clearance away from the deer of Richmond Park, they’re a thoroughly modern amateur club. Visit the Club Shop and you can get your Nike playing or training kit with the option of adding your own initials (I’m considering it). The first team manager Peter Walsh can be seen on the club website, walking his dog with a pint in hand. You get the impression that the club works hard and plays hard, and proudly goes by the nickname of ‘The Onions’ after some merchandise arrived with a classic misprint. You can’t help but like them.

Their division also gives an insight into the nature and history of club football in South West London. The Old Thorntonians this season go up against the Old Hamptonians, Old Meadonians, Old Suttonians and Old Wokingians, as well as Fitzwilliam Old Boys and Fulham Compton Old Boys. But like anything in this part of the world, change is waiting just around the corner – or, in this case, a few metres over one of the many little stone bridges of Beverley Brook.

Here, the A3 curves south at Kingston Vale and reveals another mass of pitches at Commons Extensions. The Extensions give the impression of classic ‘rec’ grounds, available for hire to all and sundry. They too give an insight into football in this part of London where many clubs are rovers and wanderers without a regular home, likely to play in Balham one week and alongside Beverley Brook the next. 

Today’s stroll takes place on a Thursday and the nets are up alongside the cricket wickets covered for winter after the briefest of seasons, but the fixture list reads P-P across the board. Sitting close to the borders of Kingston, Merton and Wandsworth, each weekend sees a variety of local leagues visit the Extensions, and I’ll be hoping to catch some action in the coming weeks from the Southern Sunday Football League, with both Dara FC and Wimbledon Wolves calling the Extensions home.

Dara FC may only be six years old but are already growing, with a reserve side this season joining League 8 of the Southern Sunday, while Wimbledon Wolves (clad in the gold and black of their Premier League namesakes) are about to embark on just their second season. Both will have dreams of promotion, yet it’s hard to look past the confidently named South London All Stars. With a name like that, surely success is guaranteed?

Even when football starts up again, the impact of Covid-19 will be apparent, with many clubs unable to use regular facilities and having to venture further afield. Godalming’s Old Carthusians, the Juventus of the Arthurian League, are amongst those utilising the Commons Extensions for home fixtures this season as they can’t currently play at Charterhouse School. Will it impact on their hopes of a tenth double in fourteen years? Probably not. A second FA Cup victory after that of 1881 may be a longer bet.

Speaking of the FA Cup, the final ground on my Beverley Brook journey has already hosted FA Cup action this season. A mesh fence and rows of conifers mean that I have to hop back over the water and stroll further south to reach the home ground of the big boys of the Brook clubs. 

With the path narrowing, the woods increasingly encroaching, confident crows and falling acorns, you wouldn’t know you were about to enter a football ground. Over another stone bridge with an adjacent heron on sentry duty, the light dazzles as Wibbandune Sports Ground opens up before you. The ground and its two small stands has been home to Colliers Wood United since they moved a few miles west nearly thirty years ago.

Now, full disclosure, ‘The Woods’ reside in the Combined Counties Premier League and are a semi-pro club, but let’s not let that spoil a good grassroots walk. Especially as the club is 146 years old and must play at one of the capital’s most idyllic grounds, even if permanently sound-tracked by the hum of the A3 on one side. After a great escape from relegation in 2019 and sitting safely in mid-table when 2020 was cut short, hopes are high for returning to past glories in 2020-21.

Here ends my Beverley Brook football journey and it is a fitting finish, too. Before lockdown got me wandering, I wasn’t aware of these grounds or their clubs. Today, the strolls continue and with the season starting afresh again soon, I’ll finally get to see them host some actual football. 

And during lockdown the twentieth anniversary of me moving to London passed. My first home in the city back in 2000? Colliers Wood. It’s a funny old game.

Why not take a look at around you? You might be pleasantly surprised at the local grassroots football clubs around you, and find something you truly feel a part of.

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