Saffron Walden Town take on Sporting Bengal at their Catons Lane home with St Marys Church in the background
The oldest club in Essex, reads the sign above the turnstile at Saffron Walden Town’s Catons Lane home.
There have certainly been some ups and downs since their formation in 1872.
From being forced to withdraw from the FA Cup in 1867 because they couldn’t afford to travel to face Wanderers, to their current position among the frontrunners of the Essex Senior League Premier Division’s title race under boss Jason Maher.
But it’s not so long ago the Bloods were on the brink of liquidation. In 2011, they resigned from the Eastern Counties League because their dire financial position meant they couldn’t guarantee they’d complete the campaign.
In 2012, around 100 people attended a public meeting to set the wheels in motion for the return of senior football to the market town.
A new committee travelled to Wembley to make their case for a return to senior football, which they duly did at Step 6 in the Eastern Counties League in 2012-13.
Promotion followed in 2014-15 before they switched back to the Essex Senior League ahead of last season.
Having extended the lease on their home for the next 100 years, the club is going from strength to strength.
“The previous board worked tirelessly to get us to where we are,” chairman Stuart Vant says. “The previous chairman Jonathan Scripps and treasurer Michelle Garrett had limited funds because the clubhouse and the tea bar were franchised out. They worked really hard to keep us going and then when we took over the clubhouse and tea bar this season, it’s given the opportunity to put a lot of improvements in. We now run it like a business.
“I think also, the local community can see the new board are working and enhancing what the previous board did. They built the foundations and we’re now carrying on with the building of it. I’ve been very fortunate to have a board that is diverse – they do so much work in the actual running of the football club.”
We’re in the club shop, run by Carol Coath, one of a seemingly never-ending stream of volunteers introduced by Vant and director James White throughout the evening. Club secretary James Haynes is on the gate, Vant’s wife Terri is in the tea bar and a whole host of others busy around ahead of the game with Sporting Bengal United.
White bursts with infectious enthusiasm for the Bloods. We first meet in the president’s suite. White is a musician. He was long listed as an emerging talent by Glastonbury Festival in 2017 and will head on a tour around Europe later this year. He’s donated the royalties from his third EP, Citizen of Nowhere, to mental health charity Mind
Back in the club shop, Vant is playing the pre-match music. Does he play White’s?
“He does but then I run inside and get a beer pretty quickly because I hate listening to my own stuff,” White laughs.
The portacabin we’re in used to be full of fridges. But it’s been cleared out, redecorated and – as well as club merchandise – houses a mini museum.
“We had another paper clipping delivered today,” Vant says. “Only a scrumple but we’ll put it in a scrapbook.”
Vant took over as chairman in the summer and has bought a house a throw-in from the gates.
“This is a very old club,” he says. “I’m just the janitor for the moment. I’m very mindful of the people that have worked over the years to make it where we are.
“As I often say to them, I come over from my house, I look over the grass, the church is in the background and I think of the ghosts of people who have played on that field…”
“He’s a fantastic romantic,” White interjects. “But an even better chairman!”
Vant smiles: “We put in a lot of hours as a board. I’ve been here all day repairing plumbing because we had no hot water in the showers. I’m fortunate I have a business in the town so I can do that. If I was employed I’d struggle.”
Soon the game is underway. Call the Midwife star Cliff Parisi – who was recently in the jungle for I’m A Celebrity – is club president and takes up his place on the terraces to watch the action on the famously sloping pitch.
Craig Calver gives the home side a 1-0 lead and then Sporting Bengal’s Rokib Choudhury is sent-off before the break. Tyger Smalls, a 16-year-old recently signed from nearby Haverhill Rovers, shows his talent with two assists – Gavin Cockman finishing the second before 17-year-old substitute George Frodsham slips in a third as they return to the top of the table.
Vant says they are working hard to be Step 4 ready should that opportunity present itself in the coming months.
But this is more than just a success story of the first team. “It’s a society club now, it really is a community club,” White says. “That’s testament to Stuart and the other members like Ada Clarke, or people like Carol volunteering. It goes beyond the football pitch.”