Dobwalls v Perranporth, Cornwall Senior Cup 3rd round
Sometimes it’s the solid markers of success and security, the bricks and mortar, that mean more to a grassroots football club than the end-of-season points tally or the thrill of a cup run. For Andy Walker, groundsman, treasurer and ‘doer of a multitude of other things’ at Dobwalls FC, the highlight of over 40 years involvement with the club as player and committee member hasn’t been the team’s exploits on the pitch or its steady rise up the leagues, but the building of a clubhouse in 2017. It spoke for the club’s progress, cemented its place in the village community and provided a financial safeguard.
Then one afternoon this summer a fire started in a portacabin and spread to the main clubhouse. Three fire crews fought to put it out and managed to save it from being completely destroyed, but it was left unusable. Their insurance policy was deemed invalid as they hadn’t checked the small print and PAT tested all their electrical goods, so it wouldn’t foot the bill. Suddenly the whole continued existence of the club was in doubt.
“At one stage we thought we’d never be playing here again”, says Andy, “We thought that was the end of it. Like most places, a lot of stuff is given to you in good will. I think quite a few clubs have learnt from this and got everything tested. We got no payout at all. We’ve had to fund-raise everything”.
The club put out a plea for help to restore the building, the electrics and plumbing, and the community answered. “It was a tremendous response”, Andy says, “A lot of the work was done free of charge. The fire happened in June and by the middle of September we were back up and running again”.
It’s the permanence that the clubhouse represents, more than the ephemeral nature of what the team do from one season to another, that shapes the way Andy thinks about the club.
“We started off with just the changing rooms and a small kitchen area when we were in the East Cornwall League. But to move further on you’ve got to have a revenue stream. We use it for all sorts of village activities, and that gives us a good income. The infrastructure’s important because players will come and go, but you want to leave something behind that somebody else can take over. What we’ve got here is something to build on. We’re not here to make money. We’re here to put that money back into the club, so people think that it’s a good set up. And hopefully players think they’d like to come and play here because of the facilities, rather than it all being for the money. Whether I’m dreaming a bit there, I don’t know”.
Following league restructuring the club have moved up a level this season to the new Southwest Peninsula Premier Division West. They’ve got a two year dispensation for putting up floodlights and meeting the other ground grading requirements for the league, and behind the scenes there’s the constant grind of prolonged funding bids.
“We can get a 70% FA grant now we’re at this level, but floodlights are going to be about £70,000. It’s going to cost us about 25 grand that we’ve physically got to raise ourselves. Facilities-wise, it’s just a matter of getting funding, and it’s getting the people in the clubs to do that. It’s a lot of commitment when clubs are run by very few people. And to expect them to go running around jumping through hoops to get funding. It takes months to get through the system to get that money. There’s a lot of work involved”.
Andy looks out at the pitch that after days of relentless rain still looks in a good state. “Back in the 70s and 80s this would have seemed like Wembley. But it’s become the norm. People expect it now. A lot of players now don’t realise what grassroots level football was. You can go round the grounds now, even in the Duchy and Trelawny Leagues, and they’re playing on much better pitches. Most clubs have tried to progress and move on”.
If a village club like Dobwalls is punching above its weight, then that’s largely down to a sense of realism and being in it for the long game. “You could name all the big clubs in Cornwall, they’ve all been there and they’ve all fallen back and had to rebuild. You’ve got to live within your means. You can have your one season wonders, but at the end of the day that’s never going to be remembered. You need to make sure you’re financially stable. A club like us, if we overspend we’d probably end up going back into the Duchy. You’ve got to keep a sensible head on your shoulders. No club will be successful year in, year out. You’ve just got to make sure that your downs aren’t catastrophic, when all of a sudden the whole place comes to a grinding halt”.
For Andy, the greatest achievement is just to be playing at this level. “Going back 19 years we were playing in the Duchy League. When we got into the East Cornwall, at the time we thought that was the most we’d probably achieve. We’re not going to win the Senior Cup. We don’t expect to be up in the top six. But when people come here they know they’ll be in for a game, and we give them a challenge. It’s down to management. Much as we’d like to have locals, we’ve got primarily a Plymouth-based side, and they bring other players with them. Like most teams that do well, it’s about contacts. To stay at this level you’ve got to look around. Wes and Ben, the management team, have been here nearly three years now, and half the squad were here when they arrived. At this level you’ll get people that move around for the dollar, and that’s something you’ve got to live with. It’s a bit alien to us because we come from a background where we never paid players. But at this level, I’m afraid, you’ve got to do something, otherwise you’ll just never compete. I was amazed when I heard that even some teams in the Trelawny League are paying players. When I played in the East Cornwall we never got paid. You can see why teams fold. It’s sad, really. If money overtakes the game we’re onto a loser”.
Andy’s unsure when the club was founded. It was affiliated to the Cornwall FA in 1938, but there are team photos around dating back to at least 1913. They played on a series of farm pitches in the Liskeard and District League in the 1940s and 50s, and became founder members of the Duchy League in 1965, moving to their Lantoom Park ground in 1970. The club moved beyond ‘recreational’ level football with promotion to the East Cornwall League in 2000 and went on to be founder members of the Peninsula League. This season’s newly created league is split between the nine clubs, including Dobwalls, who were promoted, and those who are more established at this level, and they’re holding a respectable mid-table position.
Today’s Senior Cup game is against Perranporth, from the league below, and from the start it’s something of a bonkers spectacle. Within a minute Perranporth are a goal up after some dithering by the home defence. Dobwalls wake up and start to press forward and equalize after 10 minutes, only for Perran to immediately win a penalty which is saved brilliantly by the home keeper. The game is ridiculously end-to-end, with only last ditch defending and the goalkeepers keeping the score down. Towards the end of the half Dobwalls take the lead, only for Perran to equalize straight away. A downpour only adds to the madness. Just before half time it’s the home side’s turn to miss a penalty. They go in 2-2 but it could easily be 5-5.
The second half sees more of the same. Dobwalls get a third. Perran get a third. A string of saves from the Dobwalls keeper keeps them in the game, and Perran are looking the more likely to score. Just after the away side miss a sitter Dobwalls break to make it 4-3, and two more home goals within a few minutes look to have decided the game. With five minutes to go Dobwalls’ striker Kelvin Fyneboy caps a top performance by weaving his way through a muddy penalty area and getting his fourth goal of the game to make it 7-3. And there’s still time for Perran to pull one back from a penalty. It ends 7-4. Blimey.
They might not be going to win this cup. They might, realistically, have reached the highest level at which they can expect to compete. But for Andy, after seeing everything literally almost go up in flames, the important thing is that the club continues to exist as part of something bigger. “It’s always been a friendly club, and I like to think that when people come here they look forward to the trip. We’ve made some good friends at the clubs in this league over the seasons we’ve been here. It’s a football community, and at the end of the day football brings people together”.