Standing in the Way of Control

Penzance v Wendron United, South West Peninsula League Premier Division West

Imagine a parallel universe in which, say, Tranmere Rovers found themselves newly owned by a minted sheikh. Ready to conquer European football, but with their immediate grand ambitions constrained by their location and the less than optimal facilities at Prenton Park, the club approach financially struggling neighbours Liverpool FC and propose a merger that would involve the dissolution of both clubs and the creation of a Merseyside FC, based at Anfield.

In terms of both clubs’ relative locations and histories that situation isn’t a million miles away from the one that Penzance FC found themselves in at the end of last season, when they were approached by their well-funded, hugely ambitious neighbours, Mousehole, with a proposal that the clubs merge and restart as a new entity at Penzance’s Penlee Park ground.

John Mead, Penzance’s groundsman, who has been at the club since he began playing for them in the early sixties, explains why the idea came about and what it would have meant for the clubs.

“The proposed merger is more about Mousehole needing our facilities than us needing Mousehole. Basically, the person behind Mousehole’s drive for success is aware that the location of their ground isn’t somewhere that will help them in their quest for higher league football. It’s too difficult to get there, and with a big attendance it would take until Sunday morning to get down into Newlyn again, let alone home.

“They wanted to combine the two clubs, In fact, if we go back twelve months, they made a proposal which was different. They originally wanted the two clubs to combine, but it would be basically ‘Mousehole’, playing here. In green. And that wasn’t something that we could look at. The proposal this year was slightly different in that we’d have a different name, along the lines of ‘Mousehole and Penzance United’. But it wasn’t something that any of the fans I spoke to, from either club, were in favour of. So that petered out. We’d have had financial security but both teams would have lost their identity. And it would have been largely ex-Mousehole people running the show. We didn’t have to think about it a lot.

“Since then we’ve got a new chairman who’s promised to look after us and provide a budget for the playing side. I’m not sure what his motives were. He was aware of the danger of Penzance disappearing, but he’s not local. But it doesn’t seem as though that’s now going to happen. I can’t make an official statement on that because it’s nothing to do with me.”

John’s mix of past and present tenses would come to make more sense as the day progressed.

It’s probably fair to say that for some time the club has been considered a sleeping giant of Cornish football.

Founded in 1888, the same year as the Football League, the club became inaugural members of the Cornwall FA the following year and were the first winners of the Cornwall Senior Cup in 1893.

Work began on the Penlee Park ground in 1951, with committee members and volunteers working alongside bulldozers to shift 20,000 tons of earth in what was often a sea of mud due to torrential rain. The ground opened in 1952 with a friendly against Luton Town.

Apart from the Victorian era the club’s heyday was probably during the 1940s and 1950s, winning the Senior Cup against St Blazey in 1948 in front of a crowd of 12,000, and South Western League titles in 1956 and 1957.

The club entered the new South West Peninsula League in 2007, and their most recent honour was the Division 1 West title in 2009, leading to four seasons in the Peninsula Premier Division.

John started playing for the third team in 1962 at the age of 14, and within a couple of years was playing for the firsts in the old South Western League. He had ten seasons in the league, winning Senior Cup and South Western League champions medals in the 1970s, before a knee injury forced his retirement. He’s been involved with the club in some capacity ever since, being club chairman throughout the 1980s.

“By the early nineties we were in danger of becoming a social club that had a football team attached. I had family commitments and stepped away for a while. Once we had someone come in who I could trust to run the clubhouse, I rejoined the committee as secretary for 19 years. Now I’m groundsman. There was nobody else to do it, and it needed to be done. Like most clubs, you struggle to get large committees these days. But the ones that are there are committed, and I’m sure the club will survive any hiccups that come along.”

Like most people who’ve been involved in the local game for a long time, John considers the main change over the years to be a decline in players’ attachment to individual clubs.

“There’s no longer the commitment or loyalty that I believed was an important part of being a member of a club. Players are too happy to move from one club to another at the end of every season, whole teams sometimes. The sad part of that is that these players who move around from club to club throughout their career, when they finish playing they’ve got no real allegiance to any club, and therefore they drop out of the game entirely. Whereas in days gone past, in village and town clubs you had people who were ex-players helping out after their playing time. But that’s the way it is. I think players in particular dictate what goes on in clubs far too much. They think local football should be based on the same principles as the professional game.”

Following FA restructuring the team find themselves in the new step 6 South West Peninsula League Premier Division West, having been ‘promoted’ along with eight others from the old ‘West’ league, to face eleven sides from the old Premier League. John agrees that on paper it looks like a tough ask for the teams that have risen a level.

“Now we’re a step higher and it’s more of a challenge. Everyone seems to think there’ll be a few hammerings for the teams that have stepped up. If we can finish mid-table we would have done well.”

And the new league structure also raises the perennial issue of clubs’ need to temper ambition with realism, to find their ‘natural’ level. John believes there are few clubs who would be willing or able to take promotion to the Western League.

“Sides like Saltash, who are on the border with Devon anyway, Launceston, Bodmin possibly, St Austell. For us it would be impossible, even if we managed to get that far. And I think the FA would accept that. Because undoubtedly you’d have midweek away games in Bristol.

“And the facilities they demand to meet the ground regulations are unrealistic. For example, they say even at this level, and we’ve got the work to do yet, you have to have hard standing for spectators on the complete length of at least one side and one end. So that means we have to put it down from the end of the stand to the corner, where nobody ever goes, or the complete length of the far side.

“I don’t think we’d ever want to go up to the next level from here, and it may be that realistically step 7 is a better place for the club as things stand at the moment. You’ve got to have the right personnel in charge, the finances, the support from the public. And you’ve got to have the help of businesses. Much as I used to enjoy playing rugby, the Cornish Pirates, while they’re based in Penzance, swallow up nearly every sponsorship opportunity, and they’ve got people working full time on that.”

It may be that a club facing the threat of losing its identity helps it to focus on what that identity actually is. John, certainly, has a clear vision of what Penzance FC stands for.

“People from other clubs say that they’ve always found Penzance to be a great bunch of people. They love the facilities and they’ve always been well looked after. So I can say we’re a very welcoming and inclusive club, and we try to do our best for the community. We’ve got a very good youth set up. We did have a ladies team until Mousehole pinched them, and two disability teams. We want to be the most inclusive club in west Cornwall rather than the most selective.”

After days of rain the footballing gods have allowed us sunshine and a summer breeze for the first game of the season.  It’s just right.

Penzance have the best of the first half and deservedly go in a goal up. Midway through the second half the away keeper, who’s not looked comfortable throughout, lets a near post shot squeeze through his legs to make it 2-0. Wendron pull one back soon after, and with about 10 minutes to go equalize after a scramble from a corner. Wendron are now looking the more likely winners, but the only other action of note, in what hasn’t been a bad-tempered game, is a double sending-off after a brutal challenge from a Wendron defender and the Penzance player’s retaliation. It ends 2-2.

Not long after the game the club make an announcement on social media that explains what John was talking about earlier. It emerges that the ‘chairman’ who’d pledged so much, who was considered by some to be a guarantee against the merger, turned out to be something of a Michael Knighton figure, a fantasist who promptly disappeared the moment it came to stumping up the promised cash.

From the outside it’s unclear what this means for the club’s future plans, but it must have been a body blow to have apparent financial security just vanish like that. Because it’s hard to imagine such a famous local club, with such a history, such a ground, somehow losing its autonomy and its personality. I hope it works out well for them.

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