In It For The Long Haul

Mevagissey v St Stephen, East Cornwall League Division 1

Some football clubs rise and fall spectacularly, with periods of exceptional success and dramatic decline. Others follow a less noticeable trajectory. Mevagissey, a fishing village south of St Austell now more renowned as a tourist spot, has a club that is one of the latter, with a historical timeline that is more geological than mercurial.

The club was founded in 1895, originally playing out near Tregony Hill, and won their first trophy as champions of the St Austell and District League in 1909. Three times winners of the Junior Cup in the 1920s and 1930s, they last won the trophy in 1951. Since then things have been more steady than sensational.

They were founder members of the Duchy League in 1965 and are the only club to have consistently fielded a team in the league since its start. They gained promotion from the Duchy to the East Cornwall League in 2013, their first time ever in senior football, and are now securely established in the league.

Martin Perrin, club treasurer for the past nine years, is typical of the volunteers who keep clubs like Mevagissey alive.

“The first team manager is my son-in-law. They were looking for a treasurer and he basically conned me into doing it. And I’m still here and I really enjoy it.”

Martin first became involved during a period when the club were in financial trouble. It was the club’s late secretary, Tony Woodforth, who began to turn their fortunes around.

“Tony arrived when the club was on its knees. We had one team, going downhill, but he got them back on their feet. Tony started going begging for money. I don’t know how they survived before. He was basically going round the shops every week to get a match ball sponsor for the first team. Now we’re trying to do that for every home game, firsts and seconds.”

Since 2006 they’ve had the use of the clubhouse and well-appointed changing rooms of the Mevagissey Activity Centre, right by the pitch. But despite the club having found a new stability, keeping it ticking over season after season remains a struggle.

“Every team at this level has got problems. We’ve spent an awful lot of money on the pitch. And the Activity Centre hasn’t got the funds to help us too much. The pitch used to be the village rubbish tip. We’ve been putting in drainage channels all over the place. If you dig it up you find bottles and bits of car and all sorts. We used to have the council cut it, but they wouldn’t pick up the cut grass. We’d have to go round and pick it up. Last season it was really wet around September, October. They turned up with a huge tractor with the cutters on the back and they got stuck up the far end by the corner flag. The tractor wheels dug a trench a metre wide and ten metres long, trying to get out. After he’d managed to get out he filled it back in with all the loose stuff he’d churned up. With the rain it became a swamp. We couldn’t see how we were ever going to fix it. We didn’t have a pitch to play on. The council came down and gave us a load of sand, which didn’t really help much. When it dried up a bit we were able we were able to dig the trench out and pack it back in until it was firm, which luckily has worked.”

Martin accepts that the club’s recent ascent to senior football is likely to be the limit of their progress, and that ambition has to be tempered by realism.

“We don’t own the pitch. It’s leased by the Tremayne Estate to Restormel Council. We could never put up stands or floodlights. Some teams are very ambitious, but what they don’t realise, I’ve seen so many times teams coming up from the Duchy League to the East Cornwall. They tend to come up, and they might have one good year, then they start losing games and players disappear. It’s alright being ambitious if you’ve got something to back it up with.

“Money’s the biggest problem. In senior football it’s really hard to get players in without paying. There are even teams in the Duchy League that are paying players. All we can offer is not asking the first team players to pay subs. I don’t think we’d have a first team if we made them pay subs.”

Like all clubs, Mevagissey are competing for what seems to be an ever-dwindling pool of potential players.

“We’ve played games in Devon in this league, and you notice the difference, even from playing teams up in the Plymouth area, because there are so many players up there. And although Devon seems rural there are a lot of big towns up there, far more than down here. We’ve got an awful lot of teams to spread our players around. And clubs are folding. Fowey, that was our local derby for a long, long time. They had a good squad of players. They just went, overnight.”

In the past there were generations of players from the same village families, but now most of the team tend to come from the St Austell area.

“Nowadays people don’t stay around the village so long. They go looking for work. People having to work on Saturdays is another big thing. Some players have been around for years and suddenly their hours change and they just can’t get away on a Saturday afternoon. Some of them have taken to playing Sunday football.”

A couple of years ago the second team manager left and most of the players drifted away. The youth team stepped up to fill the gap.

“It’s a really good, tight-knit group. It’s a good club. They’re happy if they win, but when they lose it’s not the end of the world.

“Mevagissey is a club. That’s the main thing. We’re lucky. We’ve got a good chairman who’s been here a long time. We all get on, we all have dos together. Our presentation evening’s held here. Both teams get together for our pre-season day. It is a club. A lot of other teams I see are just that – teams, not clubs. We don’t tend to lose a lot of players. When we lost a lot of the second team, half of them came back. You get the odd one who goes because they’re chasing trophies or want to be paid, but we don’t lose a lot of players.”

Although the club are managing to retain players, Martin says that the terrible wet weather of the past few winters has had an effect on spectator numbers. “We’ve lost people who used to come down and watch. We’ve gone from crowds of 30 to three men and a dog.”

Judging by the sedate handful of spectators today, you’d never guess that Mevagissey was the scene of an outbreak of Cornish football hooliganism. After a 1934 Boxing Day fixture against Bugle the away captain was attacked ‘with sticks, stones and umbrellas’ by a Meva mob. History doesn’t record what had stoked their ire, but a contemporary newspaper report tells how this ‘perfect babel of abuse and threats’ led to the ground being closed for seven weeks.

Today’s game is fourth versus third in the league, with St Stephen very much the form team. The home team’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that two players haven’t turned up after a heavy night, so they’re a couple of reserves short.

Meva start well, forcing a succession of corners, but it’s St Stephen who have the best early chance when they break and force the home keeper to make a point blank save. As the half progresses Mevagissey are having the better of it, combative in midfield and starting to create chances. Then, about 20 minutes in, against the run of play, a hopeful St Stephen free kick into the box slips through the home defence and ends up in the net. In an immediate response Meva build down the left and a 20 yard shot squirms under the St Stephen keeper for the equaliser.

There are some uncompromising tackles going in and a few yellow cards are bandied about as the game starts to get a bit feisty. Mevagissey remain on top, but out of the blue St Stephen regain the lead just before half time. A free kick isn’t cleared and a low shot from the edge of the area makes it 1-2.

The second half follows the same pattern, with Meva pushing forward and St Stephen quick to make incisive breaks. Midway through the half a St Stephen player is sent off for a second yellow. In the ascendant, the home team continue to dominate possession and press, but St Stephen are resolute in defence and the only clear chance for Mevagissey results in the away keeper tipping over a rasping shot. It ends 2-1 to the visitors.

One of the beautiful things about football is that, no matter what the level, if the game is close, played with commitment and has a recognisable narrative (in this case a classic smash and grab) it can be as entertaining a spectacle on a muddy park pitch as many a game played in a top stadium. And after watching such a satisfying contest, for free, the Meva supporters, I’m sure, won’t be feeling the need to wield their umbrellas in anger.

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