To The Heroes of Non-League Football

It started on Good Friday – 48 years ago. An association with Taunton Town which, even after all that time, and the distance that now separates me from them, still pulls strongly during the football season. 

I have no idea what the crowd was that day, I’m guessing 700 odd but to me it seemed like a huge occasion. The opponents were Minehead Town, Taunton won 3-1 (no I don’t remember the goals) and I was hooked. 

Back in those days football was played on Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Monday. We went back the following day, a less satisfying 0-0 draw against Andover Town and as far as I can remember pretty much every game from then on. 

But this story isn’t about me, it’s about my Dad and thousands like him across the country. The volunteers who are the backbone of non-league football, the people who give up their time and often money, who make family sacrifices to ensure their town has a non-league football team. 

Dad must have been bitten by the bug in a big way as soon after those first few games he joined the committee. Taunton you see was a club not a company. No board of directors just a bunch of disparate people who had a mutual love of football and strong sense of civic pride.

I’ve no idea of the details of Dad’s initial involvement, how it came about, whether he approached them or they approached him but I do recall him coming home and telling me he was now on the committee. I was so proud.

I still remember the names who ran the club at that time. Dave Pipe, bookmaker, serious businessman, and club chairman at the time. Dave’s true claim to fame came through his son Martin, a promising jockey who had his career cut short by an horrendous fall at Taunton racecourse which we witnessed. Martin of course went on to carry all before him as a National Hunt trainer, succeeded by his own son David.

Dave was a larger than life character, someone who had the clout to get things done in the town and I’m guessing had a significant financial stake in the club. Dad was a huge admirer of Dave and when in 1972 he was asked to become club treasurer her jumped at the chance. It’s amazing to think that Dad had no financial background when he took the role on. But with Dave’s guidance and many many meetings with the clubs’s auditors he quickly grew into the role. 

I remember Saturday evenings after a home game were spent helping Mum and Dad count the gate receipts and programme money on our dining room table. It truly was a family affair and a massive commitment on my parents part but as with everything they did when I was a y embraced the challenge and got on with it. 

Now I’m not going to claim all that followed was down to Dad, it definitely wasn’t but the mid to late seventies saw a time of significant progress for the club. People like Sid Neal, Mike Parsons, Gordon Nelson and John Phelps formed a committee with drive and enthusiasm which saw the club challenge at the top of the Western League under the astute material reign of the charismatic Ron Gingell. 

And no story of the club at that time could be complete without a mention of the two pillars of the supporters’ club; Tom Harris and Harold Needs. Tom and Harold were responsible for among other things the match day pa and the repeated playing of the same military marching band record at each and every home game. I suppose they couldn’t afford the performing rights fees in those days but it was pretty dreadful! But make no bones they were as committed to the club as anyone and raised significant funds for the team and facilities. 

Much like our beloved county cricket club Taunton specialised I’m finishing second without ever clinching the title. Often in heartbreaking end of season games. I particularly remember Taunton losing 4-1 at home to Falmouth Town on the last day of the season to finish second behind their opponents that day in front of a crowd that was not far short of 3,000!

Despite that disappointment Taunton were elected into the Southern League, the next step up in the non-league pyramid that was beginning to form. I can’t even begin to describe the pride we all felt when we made our debut against Trowbridge Town in the Southern League Cup. 

I can remember how proud we were that, having been promoted, Taunton’s results in the Souther League were published every week in the Sunday Telegraph along with the league table. It might seem weird today but back then that additional prominence meant a great deal. 

It is a fitting point to leave that part of the story as Taunton Town are at exactly that point in their re-emergence as we look ahead to these new season. But also because we as a family moved on and our paths moved away from Taunton Town. Mine because university life beckoned, Dad’s because he never really recovered his energy from a debilitating 18 month gall bladder problem.

The story also has a nice rounding off at this point as Kevin Sturmey, “Mr Taunton Town” and I were at school together at Huish’s. 

I’m only a distant supporter now but knowing all the time, hard work, blood, sweat and tears Dad and his fellow committee men put in to Taunton Town it seemed appropriate to write, on the eve of a new season in praise of Kevin and many like him for all they do. 

We live in a different age now, heaven knows what Dad would have done with the TTFC twitter account! But it is clear for all to see over the summer via social media the time, hard work and pride Kevin and his colleagues at the club have put in to get the ground and club ready for the new season. I know if Dad was still here he’d be incredibly proud seeing his club moving back up the pyramid.

But this is not a piece to end on a sad note. The seventies were a joyous time for me growing up with Taunton Town in the winter and Somerset County Cricket Club in the summer. A time of on field success we had never seen before.  And most of all we had and absolute blast during that time, Dad especially with people and families that became our firm friends. 

Football talk occupied pretty much every evening, every meal time. A meeting with the  manager the previous evening, the potential new signing they were pursuing, new ideas for the programme and my favourite, the new kit decision which I’d like to think I had some input in.

Id like to finish just a few of the memories of that time which I hope I’ll give you a flavour of what it was like To be involved in Taunton Town.

The “new clubhouse” was acquired from the army. It was a mess room or some such at Norton Fitzwarren camp which the club acquired thanks to Sid Neal who was ex-army and I believe still working as a civilian for them. There was only one problem. The club had to dismantle the building, load it on lorries, transport it across town and re-assemble it at Wordsworth Drive! But they did it. I remember helping out at the camp on Sunday, with a bunch of other volunteers, fans ( many of who were tradesmen giving their time and skills for free).  I can’t imagine what health and safety would say but it all worked and the club had a new bar and clubhouse of which everyone was proud.

One of the smart moves the club made was in bringing Bristolian Gingell on board. Not only did he have a wealth of experience in south west non league football but he had access to the much larger talent pool available in Bristol. At least half the squad drove down from Bristol on match days. The club bought a mini bus which the trainer, John Argus drove all over the country.

I used to sell programmes on match day and was always more than a little relieved when the white VW mini bus rolled through the gates at Wordsworth Drive with the ever smiling bald-headed face of Artus grinning and waving as they arrived.

We were a club on the rise and one of the first to take advantage of new legislation to start a lottery. Initially in conjunction with Taunton Rugby Club and I believe Wellington Rugby Club. Dad went round all the pubs and bars in the area asking them to sell tickets. It was hard graft over long winter evenings but eventually it was up and running and proved to be a valuable source of revenue for the club.

There was one near disaster early on. The top prize was £1,000 and very early in the first run of the lottery someone bought the winning ticket. It was a Saturday night and the lottery account, which had only just been established, didn’t have sufficient funds to pay the winner! Cue Dad and Mike Parsons driving around Taunton to collect takings from other venues to have sufficient funds to pay the winner!

It was a huge undertaking and took up a lot of time by the committee members but it took the club to a new level. Sadly it came at a high personal cost for Dad who despite being struck down with his illness and losing weight and energy at an alarming rate was determined to see the lottery up and running. 

It was a bittersweet evening when Mum drove him and I to the ground to see the floodlights, which the lottery had in part funded, being erected. Not only did this mean the end of 2pm or 2.30pm kick offs in the winter but it also allowed midweek games and entry into the South West Floodlit Cup alongside Bristol and Bath City, Exeter, Torquay and Plymouth. All the hard work was with it. 

So, at the start of another football season, spare a thought for the John Tancocks and the Kevin Sturmeys and the many many across the country. Take time to find the non-league scores online and perhaps, at the first international break, get along to a non-league game.