By Alex Narey
Last Tuesday night was one of those rare nights when I actually got out to watch a game of football. The venue was Hartley Wintney, a club just a few kicks down the road from where I live.
When you drive through the village, you are greeted with Hampshire splendour at its finest; grand antique stores and quaint coffee shops pepper your view, all adding a dash of character.
This, right here, is middle England. The faces aren’t as familiar as they once were and the population has swelled as the area lives off the fat of the London commuter belt, but just over the way is a football club that has its roots built on the workings of a tight-knit community. A local club for local people…
Hartley Wintney, or ‘The Row’ as they are known in Non-League circles, were promoted from the Combined Counties last season and are now punching away in the Evo-Stik Southern Division One East. And punching nicely they are too.
The season’s start has exceeded most expectations (certainly mine), winning three of their first four before yesterday seeing off Kempston Rovers with a 90th-minute winner last Saturday.
On Tuesday night, they fronted up in a local derby with near-neighbours Basingstoke Town, where a second-half penalty from Sam Argent sent them through to second round qualifying in the FA Cup.
Hartley won the Combined Counties in 2017 by a staggering 18 points. They won it the year before too, but their ground was not deemed fit to meet the Southern League’s requirements and so they were forced to sit and slug it out for another term down in Step five. For most clubs, this would have been a sucker punch too low to recover from.
Players, ultimately wanting to muck it out at a higher level, often have their eyes and ambitions elsewhere.
But in Hartley’s case they could see the vision of the club and so joint managers Anthony Millerick and Dan Brownlie were able to keep the nucleus of a winning side together, and at the second time of asking, the ground-graders were satisfied and the boxes were ticked after an army of volunteers came together to make the dream a reality.
And that’s the secret of their success: the club didn’t run before it could walk. Pushing the finances beyond limitations was not the way to build for the future. They were patient. There was no need to panic…
Walking round the ground last Tuesday night, I noticed a special bond. Former players were there to offer support; kids stood with their dads, watching the action rather than playing with their phones.
Even a few locals who would normally have little interest in football were there to watch their club and share in the moment. And while the result no doubt helped, win or lose, the bar would have probably had the same feel-good factor after the game had they been turned over with a 6-0 thumping.
I roll my eyes at football too much these days, but there are so many clubs out there like Hartley Wintney that are driven by good people with good intentions. It’s a layer of football that is too often forgotten…