The Beautiful Game in Greater Manchester is dominated by two teams who are arguably the best in the country at the moment: City and United. The Football League is also stacked full of clubs from the metropolitan county of approximately three million souls, including Bolton Wanderers, Bury, Oldham Athletic and Rochdale. FC United, founded in 2005 in part due to the hostile takeover at Old Trafford by the Glazer family, and Salford City, owned by the so-called Class of ’92 and Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, hog most of the limelight when it comes to non-league football. There are a plethora of other semi-professional and amateur teams in the region with a rich pedigree. In one suburb to the south of the city, two amateur teams are quietly going about their business and hoping to soon make their very own splash on the burgeoning and thriving local non-league scene.
Wythenshawe sprung up in the 1920s with the estate providing a solution to the housing crisis caused by an expanding population, proving to be a green antidote to Manchester’s grey industrial centre. It grew further following World War II when housing laws were relaxed and mushroomed into one of Europe’s largest council estates. However, rather than the green utopia imagined when it was designed the area became synonymous to a certain extent with deprivation. A New York Times feature in 2007 labelled Wythenshawe as a “pocket of poverty, social deprivation and alienation.” Private ownership is on the up, however, and Wythenshawe is undergoing somewhat of a regeneration thanks to improved transport links and its proximity to Manchester Airport. A recent report noted that the local postcode is one of the second fastest growing in value in the country, second only to Kensington in London, as young professionals from Manchester and beyond look to get on the property ladder.
Wythenshawe has a population upwards of 100,000 which, to put it into perspective, makes it larger than Burnley, a town able to sustain a Premier League side. Wythenshawe has a rich footballing heritage to call upon with a history of strong amateur sides and players. Manchester United star Marcus Rashford was born and raised there and hasn’t forgotten his roots, and former Red Devil Ravel Morrison, now playing in the more exotic climes of Mexico, also hails from the area. Paul Stewart, who earned three caps for England and spent a year at Maine Road, spent his formative years in Wythenshawe. The spectre of the two Manchester giants looms large, with the majority of Wythenshawe’s inhabitants swearing allegiance to the red or blue.
Wythenshawe Town FC was originally formed in 1946, competing in the Lancashire & Cheshire League during its early years. The side moved to the Manchester League in 1974 and remained there for forty years before switching over to the Cheshire League in 2014. This coincided with Kenny Hope’s appointment as chairman and signified somewhat of a fresh start for the club. The 53-year-old created a five-year plan, with the aim to bring non-league football to their Ericstan Park home within that specified time frame, and got off to the best possible start. The club won every single game during the 2014/15 season which saw them win the league as well as three cups. Another promotion followed in 2015/16 before a solid seventh-place finish in their first season in the Cheshire League’s top flight.
The club is steadily building off the pitch too. In 2009 a new clubhouse – including changing rooms and a bar – was opened at a cost of £500,000. Rather than bemoaning the existence of the two Manchester clubs, their games are shown on the big screens with punters drawn in by cheap beer and a homely, relaxed atmosphere. In 2017 the club hosted a benefit match raised £500 in the wake of the Manchester Arena terror attack following an Ariana Grande concert, adding to the amount raised to the Manchester Evening News’ pot and showing how important community spirit is to the club’s agenda.
Interestingly, in December 2015 Wythenshawe Town announced an official link up with League One side Fleetwood Town, taking annual advantage of their facilities on the Lancashire coast. The agreement also means promising young players coming through Wythenshawe Town’s development squad have the opportunity of going on trial with Fleetwood, which it is hoped will attract budding local footballers to their set up as it provides a tangible route into professional football. The Cod Army should prove inspirational as they themselves were playing at North West Counties level a little over a decade ago.
Like their crosstown rivals, Wythenshawe Amateurs were also founded in 1946 and spent their formative years in the Lancashire and Cheshire League. In 1985 The Ammies reached the fifth round of the FA Vase and three years later moved to the Manchester League where they remain to this day. In between 1990 and 2003 the club won three league titles and lifted the Lancashire Amateur Cup once. Across senior, women’s, and youth football more than 800 players are registered with the club, providing inclusive football in a ward of Wythenshawe that can count on 17,000 inhabitants. The new clubhouse, inaugurated in August 2017 and built at a cost of £840,000 with the help of the Football Foundation as well as their own fundraising, hosts community events such as recruitment fairs for local businesses, and FA courses for budding coaches. Their revamped ground at Hollyhedge Park includes a pitch equipped with a modern drainage system, although this wasn’t enough to prevent a postponement in November when other, less salubrious pitches, were deemed playable. Andy Walsh, the former General Manager of FC United who left Broadhurst Park in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, now sits on the board of Wythenshawe Amateurs.
What does the short to medium term future hold for the two clubs? In October 2017 the FA announced a reshuffle of the non-league pyramid, which included the introduction of a new league within the North West Counties Football League structure. This has proved a great fillip for ambitious local amateur sides, including the two Wythenshawe clubs, who are looking to turn semi-professional sooner rather than later. It is assumed that ground grading regulations will be relaxed, although floodlights will no doubt be a must. Previously teams had to finish in the top five of their respective leagues in order to achieve a successful application although this shouldn’t be so stringent in the face of the expansion. Saying that, at the time of writing Town and Amateurs are third and second in their respective leagues so this shouldn’t be an issue either way. Both seem well place on and off the pitch to make the progression to the semi-pro ranks.
Although turning semi-professional signifies progress to it also throws up issues. Whilst the idea of the structure reformation is to cut down on travel time, it will still be considerably more than the teams currently experience. The requirement of floodlights also means that mid-week games become the norm as opposed to the exception in the summer months. Whilst a better standard of player may be attracted by the higher level, what of those already at the club? Depending on their employment status, further travel time during the week may be prohibitive to stalwarts, those that have made up the fabric of the clubs for years. In essence, the higher up the pyramid you go the less of a hobby it becomes, and to some it can become a chore.
For both Wythenshawe clubs the next few years are sure to be entertaining. With Premier League football pricing out all but the most affluent fans, and rare Saturday afternoon kick-off times, it would be great if clubs such as Wythenshawe Town and Wythenshawe could thrive and become a real focal point for the community, on and off the pitch.
By Dan Williamson
First published in STAND #24. The landmark 25th issue is out now!