Keeping a grassroots club together is no mean feat. Old Wimbledonians have now been doing it for 50 years. Ollie Goodwin went down to join in the anniversary celebrations and find out what it takes to keep the fires burning for half a century.
By Ollie Goodwin. Images By George Simmos
My football club gave me a lot. As a sixteen-year-old at college, with a weekend pot wash job, there wasn’t a lot going on. But once I started getting involved with the village team, I was one of the lads. One of the skinny, lanky, slightly nervous lads. But I was one of the lads all the same. When a horrible centre-half clattered me, they backed me up. They’d sneak me a cider in the pub. I belonged to AFC; it was my club.
That’s why, when I chatted to the lads at Old Wimbledonians, the sense of community they shared resonated with me. It made me want to go home, home to my club.
It was a big day for the Wimbledonians. The club had been going for fifty years, which was rightly a cause for celebration. That’s fifty years of wonky lines and bobbly pitches, fifty years of calling around everyone you know on a Sunday morning and fifty years of chasing subs.
When I first got to the home of Old Wimbledonians there was only one guy there: Paul. I could tell Paul was keen. We had a chat and he introduced me to the Old Wimbledonians and told me a bit about how he got involved. “I started playing after sixth form,” he explains. “It was about ’98, five or six of us joined and most of us stayed here for a long time. It’s been going for fifty years, but for me, it seems like it’s always been here. We haven’t seen each other in ages, I’m a bit worried I won’t recognise them.”
As his old teammates filtered into the car park, Paul had no trouble recognising the boys and they were soon chatting about being kicked up in the air by chemistry teachers. I could see how much the club meant to these guys as they chatted over the thousands and thousands of memories they’ve shared together on a football pitch.
The plan was to have two matches, one being the Saturday team versus the Sunday team, a bit of an inter-club pre-season. On the other pitch the Vets team were playing some of the older boys who’d come back for the day. More of an Old Wimbledonians testimonial. There was a massive turnout for Friday night football, with around eighty to 100 people getting down.
I’d planned to meet Damien Woodward, current chairman of Old Wimbledonians and all-round nice guy. He gave me a quick crash course on the club and where they’ve come from.
Damien (or Woody, as he is known) explains: “1970 was our first season. It all started with a youth club connected with a church in Worcester Park. As the team grew momentum we became affiliated with the Old Wimbledonians, which has always been cricket and rugby. Football was always sneered upon, but we wanted to be a part of it all. Lots of us went to Wimbledon College together and we get loads of lads down, even today.”
In Woody’s three years in charge he oversaw some changes at the club, and it continues to grow. “I came into chairmanship with a clear ambition to move the club forward and change a few things. Because we have so many sides it’s about getting a good spread, being as inclusive as possible for everybody, no matter your level. I think going forward we’d love to have a junior side, both boys and girls, and a women’s side. We’re not a club looking for semi-pro status, we are very much an amateur club – players pay their subs, wash the kits … it’s proper football.”
So many grassroots clubs struggle, especially in the current climate, with the weekly stresses of finding players and pitches, often running around on Sunday mornings looking for anyone with boots. This isn’t the case down at Old Wimbledonians. “What’s been critical was getting people involved,” Woody tells me. “Having a strong committee is far and away the most important thing, people that have been around for a while that know and understand the club. People like Stef.”
Stef’s an Old Wimbledonians legend. When I say legend, I mean it. He’s racked up over 985 league and cup games for the club. “If I play this season it’ll be my forty-second consecutive season for the club,” Stef states proudly. His teammates know him as “Deadeye”, with good reason. “I’ve scored just under 500 goals now. We’ve had our ups and downs but one of the things is people like coming back to us. They make good friends and leave with fond memories.”
The club puts a lot of emphasis on the community aspects of grassroots football, not just what happens on the pitch. The socials and sense of camaraderie mean the club wins, loses and has a laugh together. Woody tells me about how they have coped with the last year. “I look back on the last year with Covid, and one of the most noticeable things was our togetherness. I’m on most of the WhatsApps and everyone was always looking out for each other, there was loads of support. That definitely came from the spirit of the club but it’s also absolutely not the stereotypical view people would have of a bunch of footballers!”
With everyone caught up, the football kicked off, one match slightly faster than the other (I’ll let you guess which one). The older lads found their feet, passing the ball around, whereas the other match was a bit more frantic, a proper pre-season. However, the steady flow of jugs from the clubhouse didn’t stop, which is always nice to see. It was a great scene.
To be honest, I ended up watching more of the Vets match – it was a great spectacle. Within the first twenty minutes there were shouts of “OXYGEN!”, but shout of the day goes to Paul, who exclaimed “IT’S NOT THE F*****G NINETIES!” after a particularly heavy pass. I also witnessed the best goal I’ve ever seen from a thirteen-year-old when Richardson Jr jinked his way off the wing and delicately dinked the despairing keeper from twenty-five yards out. There were limbs from both father and son, who were on the pitch together.
After chatting with a few of the older boys, I wanted to see what the current crop of Saturday and Sunday players thought about their club turning fifty. I wandered up to the top pitch and ran into Lewis Hampton, captain of the first eleven. “I play here with my mates, my brother, it’s great. I came down when I was eighteen and I’m thirty-three now.”
We had a chat about what tonight was all about. “It’s such a great club to play for; lots of great events like this evening, and we always get a good turnout. I mean, getting four teams out on a Friday night says everything.”
One downside with the numbers was that Lewis had been hooked off in the first half. “We’ve got seven subs tonight – I guess it’s not a league game, so I’ll reluctantly accept. Everyone else is having a pint but I’m having to wait until after. Lead by example!” Lewis jokes.
As I sauntered round to the top pitch I ran into Nathan. Nats is only sixteen and it’s his second season with the Old Wimbledonians. I thought back to my first seasons, being shouted at to run and run and run while the slightly older midfielders had a little rest. It was nice to hear that he was getting the same treatment as me.
“It’s crazy playing here, knowing that loads of teams are only a couple of years old, whereas this has been around the whole time. My dad got me down here when I was fifteen – brought me along to training and I started playing for the Saturday and Sunday teams.” Chatting with Nats, part of the new generation of Wimbledonians, showed me that the future of the club is certainly bright.
The games drew to a close with the matches finishing 8-2 and 4-2 respectively, but it wasn’t about the scores. Everyone wandered over to the clubhouse and the chatting, drinking and catching up really began. The lads were dragged to their tables where Woody and others said a few words about the club, and then the Old Wimbledonians’ celebrations continued long into the night.
There were probably a few sore heads in the morning, but I’m sure it was worth it for what was a great evening in Wimbledon. The lads were fantastic company and even bought me a couple in the bar afterwards, which I gladly accepted. Clubs like this mean so much to the people involved. Here’s to another fifty years of the Old Wimbledonians!