West Didsbury & Chorlton FC is a semi-professional football club based in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of Manchester. They currently play in the North West Counties League Premier Division, the ninth tier of English football, and over recent years have experienced enormous growth. We spoke to WDCFC supporters club supremo and recently-elected committee member Matthew Britton about the club, why non-league football is in a golden age, and how all this could not possibly happen without the enthusiasm and passion of their supporters and volunteers.

KUDOS: If the ‘club history’ entry on the West Didsbury & Chorlton FC website is anything to go by, the club – one of Manchester’s oldest amateur clubs – has a long and storied past. So let’s focus on the recent history… where was the club at before the relatively recent transformation started to kick in?

Matthew Britton: Until relatively recently, the club weren’t a part of the football pyramid proper – i.e. they weren’t part of the same structure as Premier League clubs, and had no direct route through which they could progress up the leagues. It was only a couple of years ago that the club were elected to the North West Counties first division (the lowest rung of the pyramid in our region, as far as I know), and they were playing in front of 10s of people. It has certainly come on a lot in the last few seasons.

KUDOS: It’s fair to say the club has transformed in recent years, in terms of attendances, exposure and professionalism. Can you tell us how all that started – was it by design, or has it been a happy and organic accident?

MB: It is a mixture of the two, really. The accident part of it is the timing and the location. A lot of people (myself included) are becoming disillusioned and priced out of the game at the upper echelons of the game. As well as being massively expensive, going to top tier football is a hassle – packed public transport, having to go through airport style security checks, and heavy handed stewarding – and it is also a moral issue for the vast majority of elite sides now. So, there are a lot of people about who love football, and love watching it, but just can’t be bothered with the mental, physical, and financial burden it puts on you. In that context, and with the club residing in a fairly metropolitan area, filled with people brought up in different parts of the country who might not necessarily be able to see their ‘own’ team each weekend but still desperate to go to a game.

Some of it has been purposeful, of course – when I started going to watch West a few seasons ago, the club already had an excellent social media strategy, thanks to dedicated West fan and committee member Rob McKay. Thankfully, he’s still at the club now, and is always looking for new ways to increase the club’s profile – mainly because it is a lot more fun when there’s 600 there than when there used to be, say 60.

KUDOS: Initiatives like Non League Day have been very successful – is this a golden age for non-league football, or is West bucking the trend?

MB: It is definitely a golden era for non-league clubs: in our league, we’ve got City of Liverpool who have been doing amazing things and getting huge crowds despite only being in their second season. Away from the North West, there are all sorts of interesting fan culture cropping up – Eastbourne Town are one of the major success stories, with their Pier Pressure fan group creating some of the most wonderful and interesting art about their club, and crafting a culture that is progressive and passionate about their club. Higher up, there’s also Whitehawk with their Whitehawk Brigade, and of course Dulwich Hamlet, who are the daddy of them all, really. There are more clubs than I can mention doing really interesting things – you just need to have a look at the shed end of our ground to see the variety of stickers from other non-league clubs.

KUDOS: It seems to us thriving non-league clubs do so almost entirely because of the passion of their volunteers. Is that a fair assessment, and if so how do your volunteers chip in?

MB: Oh god, yes. There’s an account on Twitter, Streatham Rovers FC – it documents the travails of a fictional non-league club, loosely based on Dulwich Hamlet. One of their running jokes is how the club is entirely built on the backs of people giving up their free time for the sake of this little club: it is the same everywhere in non-league. It is part of what makes it so special, but also an aspect that makes it very difficult at times. The fact that everyone involved is doing so from the goodness of their hearts helps build a community atmosphere, and means that everyone is incredibly committed to the cause, almost by definition. But, there’s the other side to that – that it means people are having their lives defined by a club, with little or no material reward.

Volunteers run every aspect of our club: from social media, through to working the bar, and even washing the kits. At most, people are working purely to get their expenses back: it is an enormous effort to get every game on, and I’m forever grateful to the volunteers across the country who do the unseen work to make sure that games are on every Saturday.

KUDOS: Do you reckon your model is a model that can be adopted by other clubs?

MB: I wouldn’t say we’ve got a model, per se – but I think there are probably tricks that other non-league clubs are missing out on. Our fanbase, and the growth of that culture, has mainly been organic – I don’t think you could take that and transplant it into other teams, just as other club cultures wouldn’t work in Chorlton. But things like making sure that details on your games are updated on social media, making sure that any relevant information is available on the club website for anyone looking to make a journey down, and trying to encourage any kernel of interest from people who do come down – as Rob McKay has been so successful in doing at West – are fairly easy ways to slowly grow your support.

The most important thing, though, is to make sure that people know that your club is important, and that the club deserves your time and energy as a supporter. For anyone at our level – there are plenty of lads in our league who’ve played in Premier League academies, former Under 21 internationals, and at West we’ve even got a Gibraltar international who has played in competitive games against Germany – this is serious football, and it does deserve respect. It isn’t just an alternative for people to do if there doesn’t happen to be a game they fancy watching on the telly on a Saturday.

KUDOS: How is this season going for the first XI?

MB: We started off strongly, with distant hopes of being promoted – but some turnover in the squad, teamed with injuries and some bad luck means that we’re now trying to avoid being drawn in to a relegation battle. It is going to be the first time in a few seasons that we haven’t had a record breaking campaign in terms of our own performance in the league, but that’s okay: our games might be important, but people often forget that there has to be a winner and a loser in a game. Unfortunately, this season, we’ve been on the losing end more than we’re used to – I’m sure that’ll change soon, and we’ll carry on having a great time until it does.

KUDOS: How is the club geared up in terms of its youth football structure? Is there any real chance of kids going through the age groups into the first team?

MB: We’ve got a full youth structure, and the dream is that, yes, players would be able to develop through this system and hopefully play for the West first team at some point. Unfortunately, we lost our senior youth side last season due to the coach, Nik Storey, no longer having the time to run it – that comes again down to the value of volunteers, and how much our club depends upon them. We did have players come through that particular side: Carlos Mendes Gomes is the one who comes to mind who made an impact at that level, and stepped up to the first team to make a hugely impressive impact. He’s still playing for West, but has also been on trial at more than one football league club as a result of his performances for us. Our juniors section is run by the brilliant and incredibly lovely Tim Manley – from what I understand, we’re running several teams at some age groups, and are oversubscribed in others – which shows the demand for structured football still exists in the youth, regardless of what older generations might think of kids spending too much time on their phone or whatever.

KUDOS: You recently set up a women’s side – tell us a bit about that.

MB: That’s a passion project for Rob McKay again, and it has been hugely successful: the first team are already averaging about 50 spectators a game in their first season, and have put on some impressive cup runs. There are plans for a development squad next season, and I think we’d all like that side of the club to grow even more in the future. Again, it shows there is definitely demand for women’s football: both from the playing side and watching it, too. They play football the right way, and they’re always a pleasure to watch: I’m really excited for the future of West Women, personally.

KUDOS: We’ve been down to watch the club on several occasions. It’s a wonderful and welcoming environment in which to watch football – and a very different experience to attending Premier League games. In a nutshell, how would you sell the WD&CFC / non league football experience?

MB: To some people, it is an open air pub where a game just happens to be on. To others, it’s a fairly easy way to keep up the habit of going to watch football. We have families coming down because it is a day out that costs about a £20 all in, admission, beers, food and sweets included, for everyone. What I’d say most is the club is a living, breathing community – a chance to catch up with old friends, and to make new ones. One of the main thrills of any home game for me now is it being a chance to hang out with people I know – a lot of whom I know purely through the football. Honestly, I’m welling up now just thinking about it. I love this club so much.

KUDOS: We’ve seen the likes of Salford City FC ruthlessly pursuing their grand ambitions – realistically, what is the limit of West’s ambitions?

MB: We’ve seen a lot of clubs march up the divisions, and there’s usually a reason for that. At West, we don’t have wealthy owners – in fact, we’re member owned, so we don’t have ‘owners’ at all in the traditional sense – and, personally, I’d be pretty upset if we got someone in paying through the nose simply to get West out of this league. It isn’t a sustainable strategy, and I’m not sure our fanbase would like it much anyway.

Realistically, we’re probably at about the level we deserve to be at at the moment: we get some of the top crowds in the division, but still some way off being the biggest. If, miraculously, we were to go up this season (mathematically impossible as it is), I don’t think we’ve got the structure behind the scenes to deal with it, and we certainly don’t have a ground good enough to get us to the division above without some major improvements. However, our model is about doing things at the right time, and not pushing it too much so that we’re dependent on, say, a good cup run to keep us afloat. I’ve no idea about where the club may be in 5 or 10 years time in terms of our place in the football world: but I do think, realistically, we could be major force for good in our local community. That’s the most important thing for me.

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Thanks so much to Matthew for taking the time to speak to us and providing such illuminating and passionate insight. West Didsbury & Chorlton FC perfectly exemplifies the power of passionate volunteers and a community coming together for sport – something in which we believe very strongly.

You can follow their progress on their excellent Twitter account or find them on Facebook. The very best of luck to West Didsbury & Chorlton FC for the future.

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