“I think the fact that Wakefield is the biggest city in the country to not have a professional football team gives us an edge”
Wakefield, West Yorkshire, more famous for Jane McDonald and Indie greats The Cribs has been a football wilderness throughout its history. Although, with the exception of a brief and complicated flirtation with AFC Emley.
Often lazily derided as a ‘Rugby town’, it is, however, surrounded by Leeds, Huddersfield, & Doncaster. All places with a proud league heritage.
A very ambitious and experienced group are looking to change this and break the glass ceiling, step forward AFC Wakefield.
The club was formed in 2019, led by former professional Goalkeeper, Chris Turner. History is littered with teams who have shot for the stars but ended up bankrupt. And yet, this club seems different.
Building solid foundations
AFC Wakefield are in The Sheffield & Hallamshire County Senior Football League. This is step 7 of the English Football Pyramid. Or to put it another way, 6 promotions from the National League. This gives you an idea of the challenge facing them.
Adam Sweeney, Commercial & Marketing Manager tells First Time Finish,
‘Having the right people in the right places also helps us with the progression of this football club and helps us put in the foundations to build something successful.‘
‘Chris Turner, Adam Lockwood, and Lee Crooks have all been in and around professional football for several years and bring invaluable experience to the running of the football club.
Also, the experience of our Head of Academy, Shane Pallet, who spent ten years at Doncaster Rovers in the youth set-up, will help grow the club from the tots to the First Team,‘ Sweeney explained.
Role of the academy
The academy is a key part of this project. As producing your own players either propels you to success, or you sell them on for a profit.
Wakefield have set up their own Yorkshire version of La Masia, Barcelona’s famed finishing school for talents from all over the world. Global talents from Zambia, Mexico, and Switzerland have all touched down in this unlikely destination.
So what does the club offer them?
Adam Sweeney explains ‘Our Elite Football Programme allows UK-based and international players to join the club, live in club accommodation, train four to six times per week and play on a weekend. Chris Turner has a vast number of contacts all over the world which helps with recruiting and gets our Programme noticed overseas.
We also offer the chance to study whilst enrolled onto the programme and have introduced our own BTEC programme for next year in partnership with Virtual Learning UK, and still have a great partnership with Wakefield College for our international students.‘
It’s not just a football education these players are getting.
And what about those ‘Rugby town’ stereotypes? ‘We can see that the fan base is already there, with crowds of 300 before October’s lockdown, and 600+ in attendance for Saturday’s game. Hopefully, as we grow and move up the leagues, more people from Wakefield and surrounding areas will notice us and come along too,’ Sweeney said.
On May 22, with 691 fans to be precise, Wakefield AFC took on opponents three steps higher in the pyramid in Brighouse Town AFC. Amongst those numbers, were the usual smattering of Football tourists, but clearly a core of passionate local fans.
A buzzing crowd, broken up by the sale of pints & pasties, and the occasional chant of “Come on Wakey” really set the scene for a giant-killing.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Brighouse took the lead on 8 minutes, which did nothing to dampen the jovial, family atmosphere around Post Office Road.
A good back and forth half, with the home side looking to get in behind with the electric pace of their frontman, ends up 0-2 to Brighouse after a counter-attack.
Wakefield AFC a club on the rise
The stadium incidentally is owned by Featherstone Rovers. Featherstone are a Rugby League team in the Championship, with a big giveaway being the rugby posts behind the goals. The ground has wonderful old-fashioned concrete terracing behind one end, with a mixture of stands dotted around elsewhere. With one of the stands being donated by Scarborough FC.
It’s not every day that you get to watch football in a rugby ground but Adam explains, ‘We have agreed on another deal with Featherstone Rovers for the 2021/22 season and will be playing our home games out of The Millennium Stadium. It’s a fantastic facility and the officials at Featherstone couldn’t do enough for us.’
‘Ultimately, we are Wakefield AFC, and our long-term ambition is to be playing in the City Centre of Wakefield and bringing football to the city. There are plans and agreements already in place and ongoing conversations to make that happen,’
The second half starts and ends subdued with Wakefield AFC showing greater technical abilities and tiki-taka football and Brighouse with more physicality. It wasn’t quite Allardyce vs Cruyff, but you get the picture.
No further goals, nonetheless, a great experience and learning curve for the home side. Against opponents who were much more vaunted and experienced.
Supporting local community important for Wakefield
Despite the loss, the sense of belonging around the ground was evident. This felt like a people’s club. Which is a rarity in the modern game, as seen by the recent super league fiasco.
So it is clear that fans who identify and relate to a team will only be more passionate in the long run.
As Adam explains ‘Supporting the local community is paramount. Mike Hegarty [owner] has made very public statements regarding the need for a community-based football club in Wakefield and it’s crucial we stick by the Wakefield community.’
‘Our charity partners, The Real Junk Food Project, are good friends of the club and do some fantastic work in Wakefield, and beyond. £5 from every shirt sale in 2020/21 season has been donated and we will be presenting them with a cheque for £550 at the Brighouse game’.
Breaking down barriers
Another topic that has become all the more prevalent during recent times is mental health. Because that has also been an underlying, but, rarely addressed subject in football.
‘Mental health is of huge importance to the club; we want to ensure that we are effectively supporting the staff, players, volunteers, and the fans. We appointed a new Welfare Officer in Grace Ainsworth to oversee the welfare of everyone involved in the club which just shows that we’re heading in the right direction,’ Sweeney said.
If only other clubs followed their lead by breaking down the barriers and dispelling stereotypes around this subject. Then, the football world would be a better, healthier, and happier place.
A positive ethos, philanthropy, and taking a stand on things that actually matter, identifying with your people around you, fostering a sense of belonging, all sound somewhat utopian in the game we all love.
‘Our plans to reach the Football League are very much at the forefront,’ says Adam. Make no mistake, this is a club with ambition, to bring this city a Football club it can be proud of.
if you find yourself nearby and fancy sampling some non-league football, get yourself to a game. Because they might not be non-league for long.