No games mean no money. That’s the stark reality for football right now. Amid the arguments about if and how the 2019/20 seasons should be brought to a close, clubs are left scrabbling for whatever funds they can find to keep going. In South London, Tooting & Mitcham United of the Isthmian League South Central division are just one of many clubs resorting to crowdfunding to try to cover some of their costs.
The Terrors, a proud club with a long history, are far from alone in facing the threat of collapse. But, like any club that boasts a football pathway from 5-year-olds to the first team, the potential loss to the local community would be huge. Earlier this season, Groundhoppers contributor Michael Grimes went to Imperial Fields to get an insight into what a non-league team means to its community as Tooting & Mitcham took on Poole Town in the FA Cup.
For club Chair Caroline McRoyall, one of the keys is offering more than just a game on a Saturday afternoon. She’s proud of the way Tooting & Mitcham encompasses a broader sporting – and non-sporting – community.
“The good thing about this club is there is so much that goes on around the football,” McRoyall said. “We’ve got the two 3G pitches here as well as the grass pitch, we’ve got the gym, the soft play, the function room.
“I think people don’t actually realise how much does go on. It’s not just football, it’s boxing, the gym, lacrosse. And a lot of community activities, like young disabled people coming down and doing landscaping on site.”
On the field, McRoyall is keen to see an ever-stronger connection between the club’s flourishing junior ranks and the first team.
“As a club we are preparing our structure so we can promote and develop our own players all the way through,” she added. “We have a youth section that goes all the way from our ‘little kickers’, 5-10-year-olds who just play for fun. Then there are leagues for u11 to u16. There’s an academy programme for 16-18-year-olds, then the u23 team, then the first team.”
Although new to her role at the club, the Terrors have always been on McRoyall’s radar. From growing up in Mitcham, just around the corner from the old Sandy Lane ground, to working for many years with previous chairman Steve Adkins, she’s always had a connection with the club.
That community theme also inspires the club’s social media officer, Stephen Reynolds. Despite a busy role trying to spread the word about the team and attract much-needed sponsorship, he dismisses the suggestion that he works for a club that is part of his family’s history.
“I don’t work here, I’m a supporter,” he insisted. “I’ve been coming since 1973. I used to go with my grandfather, who watched them since the 1930s, ever since the club existed.”
Life began with the merger of Tooting FC and Mitcham Wanderers in 1932, and for much of that time the local press has been a reliable partner in keeping the club in touch with the broader community. In the internet era, though, all that has changed. The sheer volume of available football – from saturation coverage of the pro game to the lockdown opiate of a live stream from the Belarusian championship – makes it harder to get the club’s voice heard. At the same time, though, the explosion of social media, blogs and other communication channels, a kind of hi-tech update of the old fanzine culture, but now with a potentially global reach, offers new opportunities – and that’s what Reynolds is trying to tap into.
“My main role has been promoting the club with social media and working with others to get sponsors in the club,” he explained. “Mainly we’re just putting our name out there. We haven’t really been doing social media stuff properly for a number of years, so we have a lot of catch-up to do. It’s been getting people like yourself to come down and talk about the club, write articles about us. If you don’t ask you don’t get.”
Reynolds, too, is excited by the progress of the club’s youngsters – and a sustainable model for Tooting’s long-term future, pandemics notwithstanding.
“You can go two ways in non-league football. You either have a rich owner who is going to throw money at it, like Billericay, Dorking or a few other teams, or you try to grow your club. We have gone the second way, at least it is sustainable if you can grow your own players. Our u23’s won the Isthmian League development league, so there is still a lot of talent coming through.”
Getting off a boom-and-bust cycle is also important – especially in the current uncertain climate. Three seasons ago, the Terrors romped to promotion from Isthmian South East, only to come badly unstuck in the top flight. Rooted to the foot of the table, losing regularly, the team saw interest dissipate. The rebuild, and the focus on internal development, has been a slow process – a year before our visit, many were complaining that a ‘cheap option’ with young players was a recipe for failure – but there were soon signs of stable progress.
“We started last season with a (first) team that had lots of U21s, lots of 18-19-year-olds or even younger,” Reynolds said. “We didn’t start terribly well but things started to come together. Three or four players joined the club and then since November last year we’ve only lost 3 league games. We finished one place outside the play-offs last season, but our form was at least good enough for the play-offs and possibly even to win the league.
“And five of the players who were playing for us have gone on to sign for professional clubs. Two went to Middlesbrough and are doing really well in their U23s, one went to Charlton, another to Reading and yet another to play pro football in Finland. They were all 18 or 19, they’ve all fitted in and are doing well in their new environments.”
Their replacements stepped up with little difficulty. The October visit saw Tooting still unbeaten in the league and taking on Poole Town with genuine hopes of making the First Round Proper of the FA Cup. That prospect – prize money, bigger crowds a huge profile boost – was tantalisingly real. Instead, a 2-0 defeat against 10-man Poole ended the dream; the Cherries went on to pack a four-figure crowd into their ground for the next round against Hayes & Yeading, with a televised tie against League One promotion hopefuls Oxford up for grabs.
Much of the squad for the Poole game had come through the ranks and was ready to slot into action as soon as required. A sustainable structure, and no attempts to spend silly money chasing the dream, hopefully means that the Terrors are better placed than most to survive the current crisis and continue to play that all-important role in their community.
Imperial Fields, London, England
FA Cup 3rd Qualifying Round, Oct. 5, 2019
Tooting & Mitcham United 0 Poole Town 2 (Brooks, Dennett)
To support Tooting’s crowdfunding campaign, click here