A Thing Well Made

St Newlyn East v Polperro, Duchy League Knockout Cup

There’s a slightly tired, commonly accepted image of all grassroots football  clubs as wholesome, salt-of-the-earth, welcoming institutions. That’s not exactly a myth, but there are plenty of clubs out there who seem to consider themselves as self-contained entities, insular and indifferent about the idea of engaging with the wider world. That’s probably to be expected when every club’s personality is dependent on the character of the handful of volunteers who keep it going.

But at St Newlyn East, a village five miles south of Newquay, they’ve got a club that is genuinely, actively welcoming and conscious of their place in the community.

Jon Grigg, club secretary and treasurer, has been on the committee for about 20 years. Born in the village, he’s supported them all his life, and although he never played for them he has family history with the team going back decades, with his dad and brother both having been part of the team. Jon was one of those who brought the club back from the brink of extinction three years ago.

“They were getting beat”, he says, “double figure scores. Players were just turning up out of nowhere, who hadn’t kicked a ball in their lives. In the end it came down to three blokes at the bar with no money in the bank discussing whether or not to do the club the following season. So I got re-involved with the finances, looking to bring money back into the club. There was a move to get the right people involved management-wise. They then attracted players back into the club. We focused on getting a stable side playing, that could get results, that were going to enjoy football again. And also we wanted to focus on the ground, the pitchside facilities, so we’ve got a ground that’s enjoyable to play on and a high quality surface.

“It’s what you put into it. If you realise the standard you’re at and want to do the best you can with it, and you take a bit of pride in what you’ve got, it instils everything else. We’ve got a very good pitch, we take care of painting the facilities we’ve got, we keep things maintained as best we can. So people who come to support us enjoy coming here. You take pride in what you’ve got.”

Founded in 1906, the club originally played on a farmer’s field outside the village. They were founder members of the St Columb and District League in 1927 and three times winners of the Truro and District League in the 1930s, during which period they relocated to their current Cargoll Road ground in the heart of the village. Their most successful period trophy-wise was the 1960s, when they won seven cups while in the Mining League, before joining the Duchy League in 1970. Their outstanding achievement of more recent years was ‘The Invincibles’ season of 1997-98, during which they won every single league game and the Duchy Division 2 Cup. In 2007 they had their taste of ‘senior’ football with a move up to the East Cornwall League, but withdrew the following season when they couldn’t maintain a senior side. After the struggle against folding three years ago, successive promotions have seen them climb back to the Duchy Premier League.

Newlyn aren’t the first club to end up being stung by their ambition to play at a higher level, and the step up to the East Cornwall was a hard learning experience.

“We were in there for one-and-a-bit seasons. We made the decision to jump up. It seemed the right idea at the time, but I think the result was rather than have the reserves as a feeder up to senior level, the gap was too big from junior to senior, and we ended up as effectively a two-club set up. It was totally unsustainable really, and it folded half way through the second season. After that the junior side had back-to-back promotion through five seasons and got back up to the top flight of Duchy football, and that’s where we’ve bounced around ever since. So it had a good end result even if it wasn’t originally what we were aiming for.”

Bucking the trend in local football, the club don’t seem to be having problems recruiting and retaining players.  Jon believes the main reason has been putting a sense of enjoyment and local pride back into playing.

“There’s a lot of happy guys playing for us now. What we don’t seem to see is any players that are left out of the squad on the day suddenly looking elsewhere. They’re fighting for their places week in, week out. This is the best we’ve looked for quite a few years. The last few years we did have a lot of players travelling from further afield, even into Devon, and of course things go awry with that when results aren’t going your way. We’ve now got a far more local squad, coming from a very small radius around the village, which is great because it’s what it used to be in the 60s. They’re happy to pay their subs. It’s got an enjoyable atmosphere before, during and after the game.

“The game’s changed these days in that it seems to be less physical.  You’ve got a lot of players who only seem to want to play on carpets, to play tippy-tappy football, and don’t want to be out there when it’s pouring with rain, hail, gale-force winds. But our management team are old-school players. They’ve slogged it out and bust a gut for their side, and worn the badge with pride. And they’re instilling that into the young lads that we’ve got at the moment. And bear in mind most of these players are in their late teens, early twenties. They’re taking it on board and we’re seeing it on the pitch.”

That spirit of solidarity also helps strengthen the club’s bonds with the village community, and they’re grateful for the long-term support of the local pub. A common complaint these days is that rival teams no longer get together socially after games, but here, too, Newlyn seem to be going against the norm.

“We like to think we put on some of the best food going and the best atmosphere after the game, too. Our lads will still be down the pub at eight o’clock in the evening after a game, socialising together. They are mates.”

One step the club has taken is to make the experience of watching a game more welcoming and inclusive.

“We try to self-manage the bad language. I think we were the first club in the Duchy League to take on board the Respect initiative. We went through a bit of a spell where we had a massive fines problem. The pitchside spectator behaviour was awful and we were getting fined left, right and centre. So we had a meeting and decided to do the Respect campaign. And it stopped virtually overnight. And it seems to have a nice knock-on effect, because we’re starting to see people bringing their kids up here. It’s a nice atmosphere to come and watch a game.”

The club’s previous reputation for rowdiness seems to date back far beyond Jon’s time. He shows me an old newspaper cutting that reports how, after it all kicked off during a 1926 match against Probus, an Emergency Committee of the Cornwall FA “condemned the contemptuous conduct of Newlyn East”, whose spectators “incited the home players to rough play” before attacking the referee and the Probus players and staff. The ground was closed to all football for the rest of the season.

This eagerness to connect with the old days also helps to give the club a stronger identity. Jon has been digging out archive news reports and collating details from the club’s past, and hopes to get a comprehensive history written up.

“We’ve had an overlap from old to new, with fathers and their sons playing for the team. We often have old players turn up to watch games who played for the team in the 50s and 60s, and after a couple of stiff brandies they’ll start telling the stories. It’s a fascinating thing to do. And we want to build on that with a reunion, maybe in the next couple of seasons.”

If the club’s sense of identity has been strengthened by a connection to its past, then it’s also helping to fuel its ambition for the future.

“We want to put brand new pitchside facilities here. It’s going to have combined changing rooms, spectator facilities, canteen, toilets, everything we need. In order to get the funding for that we need to have more than one adult side playing, so we’re considering a second team, and maybe women’s and youth football. If we can attract that it opens up a lot more funding. We’re working closely with the FA and the parish council.”

Today’s game, the first at home this season, is a Duchy League Knockout Cup (despite its name, the competition now starts with a group stage) tie against Polperro reserves, of the league below.

The threatened rain arrives right on kick-off, sweeping across the pitch and only increasing as the game goes on. Both sides create early attacks, with Newlyn looking slightly the more likely to make something happen. On the slippery surface neither side is able to take control of midfield, and it’s Polperro who come closest to scoring when they hit the bar from 30 yards. Newlyn blast a couple of chances over and miss a sitter towards the end of the half, and they go in 0-0.

A minute after the restart the away keeper can only parry a shot that skids across the surface into an oncoming forward and it’s 1-0. The home team get a second on the hour and are looking well in control. Polperro are reduced to potshots from distance, but manage to pull one back with virtually the last kick of the match. It’s a deserved win for Newlyn.

I’ve been invited to join everyone back at the pub after the game, but the rain’s getting worse and I decide it’d be wiser to drive home before dark.

The way that a village club like Newlyn operates could be used as a template for countless others. There’s enthusiasm and ambition here, as well as a willingness to look outwards and engage (the club has a social media presence that’s more than just a list of fixtures and results, they’ve even got that absolute rarity in local football, a  regularly updated website  with match reports and a club history). The words that appear most often when Jon talks about the club are ‘pride’ and ‘enjoyment’, and it’s clear that he has an acute sense of its role beyond the pitch.

“It might sound a little bit hackneyed”, he says, “but it is a club at the heart of the community and with the community at its heart.”

If you’re looking for that mythical archetype of the friendly grassroots club, this one really does fit the bill.

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