Watlington Town have undergone a remarkable transformation in little over a year – from perennial Oxfordshire Senior League strugglers to one of the most vibrant local football clubs in the county, writes MATT BRUCE.
Originally founded in 1887, the club enjoyed several years in the Hellenic League throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but after withdrawing from the league in 1999 Watlington underwent a slow decline.
“We let things go,” said secretary and reserve team manager Mark Carter.
“There were people running the team who perhaps weren’t really football people and there was no one else who really wanted to do it.”
In May last year Paul Griffiths took over as chairman and a new committee was formed to reverse the club’s fortunes.
Since then the club has flourished, attracting an unprecedented amount of interest in the town.
It has resulted in an influx of players at both junior and adult level, new sponsorship deals, grants and increased ambition.
“Considering where we were a year and a half ago it’s really incredible,” added Carter.
“It is all down to the drive and determination of the chairman. The club’s gone virtually from dying to blooming within the space of 12 months.”
One area that has seen a huge increase in participation is the club’s junior section, which has expanded from running one team last season to boasting four sides at under 7, 8 and 9 levels.
The club was awarded FA Charter Standard status in December last year and now runs a highly successful soccer school on Saturday mornings.
“Receiving our FA Charter Standard status has really helped to raise the status of the club,” said vice-chairman Keith Woolfson.
“It’s a recognition we have met the necessary financial requirements and have things set up right behind the scenes.
“Thanks to the soccer schools we have a lot of kids on board now who hadn’t been playing at all.”
At senior level the club is booming as well.
The first team now have their sights set on promotion, first to the Premier Division of the Oxfordshire Senior League and then onto the Uhlsport Hellenic League.
“I came to Watlington and was set a target of a top-half finish,” said manager Lee Matthews, who joined the club from Benson AFC last season.
“We ended up getting our highest points total for ten years so we’re going to build on that and try to progress as far as we can.
“We should be able to finish in the top three or four this season and we aim to be in the Hellenic League in the next five seasons.”
Preparations are under way to ensure their Shirburn Road ground is able to meet Hellenic League requirements.
“We have done a lot of work to improve the facilities,” said chairman Griffiths.
“We have new portable goals, line marker, attractive new kit, improvement to the dressing rooms and new floodlights.
“We are about to install new pitch perimeter barriers and signage and next year will see improvements to the training area.
“We are progressive and ambitious and although we can’t buy success on the pitch, we have a great platform to build on and put Watlington Town Football Club back on the map.”