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It is 3 pm on Saturday, and I’m standing on the terrace. There is the smell of pies and Bovril in the air and fans exchange pre-match predictions. This is what football is all about.

I’m at Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club as they take on Slough Town in the National League South. It’s the Tudors versus The Rebels. Victory for Hemel will all but confirm safety for another season, whilst Slough Town already have their flip flops on as thoughts turn to summer.

When I arrived at the stadium, I was instantly struck by the community feel of the club. It’s a great set-up where overlooking the pitch is a building used for providing a Sports qualification equivalent to A-Levels, where first-team regular George Williams (who went to the Euros in 2016 with Wales) undertakes some of the teaching.

I couldn’t help but think what a great programme that is, learning next to the pitch with someone who has been part of a major European Championship squad. Next to the pitch, there is also a separate training area which is used for the youth teams.

Surrounding the stadium complex are houses and it may be a million miles away from the Premier League, but this to me is what football is all about and should be all about. The stadium is also sponsored by local business, Focus, which is involved in scaffolding and rigging at large-scale well-known sporting events. That feeling of community runs throughout the whole club.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you come to the home of Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club is the Astro-turf pitch, which was installed during Covid in 2020. Whilst it is a surface which may arguably increase the risk of injury and perhaps have clubs thinking twice about sending players out on loan to Hemel, it is a move which has had huge benefits. The change to Astro-turf has helped to cut costs with reduced maintenance of the pitch and has also contributed to the club increasing its revenue.

Football stadium with astro turf

Hemel’s role in the community cannot be understated. Use of the Astro facilities across the week plays a big part in grassroots football throughout the community, whether that’s walking football, community kickabout sessions, youth football or the academy, Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club is utilised 7 days a week whether that’s on the pitch or via the function hall. From hosting local league cup finals to weddings, christenings and big birthdays, they really do it all. It is an incredibly impressive insight into how the club operates.

Standing in the media area of the stadium I had the chance to speak with the Head of Media and Communications at the club, Dan Finill. His phone has just rung and it was a player stuck on the motorway who couldn’t get hold of the manager and asked if Dan could tell him.

One of Dan’s many roles at the moment is to be involved as a player liaison while there’s an interim management team in charge. It highlighted to me how everybody involved at Hemel is pitching in to make sure the entire operation runs smoothly.

Fans at Hemel Hempstead Football Club

“My role is predominantly Head of Media and Communications,” explains Dan. “But due to the nature of the role it involves building lots of positive relationships with various stakeholders in the club so you get to know a lot of people.

“In recent weeks we’ve had an interim manager and so to ensure some consistency across the club, I have supported the players and the interim management team with various bits of admin, organising things such as away day travel and generally supporting where I can.

“I enjoy being part of a team so if there is a way in which I think I can help out and improve things for the benefit of the group or the club, I will certainly do that.

“In addition to that I manage and support a team of 6 media volunteers. I get a lot of satisfaction in seeing those who want a future in the game develop at our club.

“My aim is to always ensure we can get the best out of them but also ensure we give just as much back in terms of support, development opportunities as well as teaching them new skills.”

The National League South and Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club are full of plentiful quirks. The fans mingle with each other in the same areas before and after the game, unless of course, Hemel are playing rivals St Albans.

The Hemel fans take their seats behind the goal which their team are shooting toward, and at halftime, both sets of fans switch ends so they can be behind the goal their team is shooting into for the second half. You can also grab a beer from the clubhouse and drink it on the touchline while watching the match, something fans all across England wish they could do.

The game itself happens to be an absolutely rip-roaring affair. Slough Town may be thinking of sun loungers and Sangria but you’d never guess it as the match kicks off at a frantic pace. There is something raw and untamed about football at this level. It’s two teams going at each other, hammer and tongs and It’s electric.

It is Slough who took the early initiative through John Goddard before George Willams responded 3 minutes later for the home side. The two teams are relentless in pursuit of more goals but the score remains level at half time.

Whilst results may not have gone to plan this season, Dan has seen many high points during his time at the club. As the wind breezes across the stadium he smiles fondly as he recollects some of his favourite memories.

“My highlights have certainly been the relationships I have built. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many great people on and off the pitch and some of my close friendships have developed through my work at the club.”

“Despite the challenges of this season, we have had some good moments, especially beating St Albans at their place on Boxing Day. The atmosphere of a derby and the emotion of the day was great. Like most football clubs, challenges always come when a manager moves on because it’s never nice for either party especially as you get to know them as people as well as their families but like most things in football, everything moves on quickly.”

As the second half begins the frantic pace continues, the atmosphere never dampens, the players never quit or surrender, and there is fight and passion aplenty. It’s The Rebels though that steal a second goal through Trae Cook-Appiah to leave Hemel staring defeat in the face. There is though a never-say-die attitude that has clearly been instilled in this team as once again 3 minutes later they fight back. This time through laciofano.

As The Tudors go in search of a goal that would secure their status in the division it’s Slough Town who strike with only 5 minutes to go, as Goddard once again wheels away in celebration leaving Hemel Heartbroken.

As the final whistle sounded, players from each side embraced and chatted with fans like old friends – it was great to see. I think in professional football the divide between players and fans can sometimes seem vast, so to see the close connection here was refreshing.

After the game, all the players, staff and fans mingle in the clubhouse for a few hours. I asked a few people what they thought of the likes of Salford and Wrexham who have risen from the National League and the reactions were always positive. For them, it puts a great spotlight on the league and what can happen and be achieved.

Hemel’s expectations for this season were the playoffs, but even after the loss against Slough, everyone was in good spirits and upbeat.

One of the biggest things for me that I noticed throughout the match was the connection between the players and the fans. After each Hemel goal, the players would run towards the supporters to hug and celebrate with them, and after the final whistle, they made a beeline straight to the fans to console them.

“Fans in any football club are the foundation of what a club can do,” says Dan. “We are fortunate enough to have some really loyal supporters who are optimistic and passionate but also realistic.

“We have a good thing going at Hemel where players will mix with fans after the game in the clubhouse which is common practice at a lot of clubs at this level.”

Since the game again Slough Town, Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club have appointed a new manager in the shape of Bobby Wilkinson.

His first game in charge against Taunton this Saturday had been looking like it could have been a relegation nailbiter, but results over the last few days have been kind to Hemel, with the teams below them dropping points. This now means that safety is secured in the division for another season.

“Survival this season was vital. The club has been at Step 2 for 9 seasons and we want to ensure a decade of National League South Football remains. Not only from a football perspective but a pride thing too. Everybody wants to ensure our club is playing as high as possible as we have big aspirations on and off the pitch to continue to push ourselves in the right direction and challenge at the top end of the table.” 

All our thanks to Hemel Hempstead Town Football Club and Head of Media and Communications Dan Finill.

Words and images by Lee Galvin

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