AFC Rushden & Diamonds
“If anyone gets more than us I’d like to see it. I check out Liverpool’s academy sometimes on satellite TV and their games are watched by one man, his dog and a couple of relatives.” So says Mark Starmer, the manager of a youth team which can justifiably claim to be the best-supported in English football.
Incredibly, this team can be found in the sleepy footballing backwater of Northamptonshire - a county that has rarely had it so bad. At the time of writing Northampton Town are propping up the entire Football League, while Conference side Kettering Town are embroiled in a long battle for survival. Rushden & Diamonds know how the Poppies feel: they were expelled from the Conference in June last year, with the final boot to the side founded by Doc Martens supremo Max Griggs administered by HMRC shortly after.
Now they’re back. Sort of.
AFC Rushden & Diamonds, the phoenix club formed from the ashes of the original incarnation, decided to take a novel approach to regeneration. Last summer they took the unusual step of entering a fledgling team - rather than a full men’s side - in step eight of the non-league pyramid, the oxymoronically named Northants Senior Youth League. In short, the future of the new club was put in the hands of a bunch of kids. Surely Nene Park regulars would have to find a new team to support? Not a bit of it.
“We had to put back the kick-off of our first match because of crowd congestion - we just couldn’t get people in the ground on time,” says Jon Ward, acting vice-chairman.
A crowd of 467 turned up for that game against Daventry Town on August 25. Club skipper Danny Bird scored the club’s first league goal in a 3-0 win.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Bird tells FFT. “The people just kept coming. It has taken some getting used to but for us young guys it has been an incredible season.”
Just five days after Daventry were seen off at Diamonds’ adopted Kiln Park home - the base of United Counties League side and near-neighbours Rounds Town - the new boys travelled to Bugbrooke St Michaels, who had never seen anything like it.
“It was a Tuesday night and they weren’t really prepared for almost 200 away fans,” laughs Ward. “The fact is, these fans are used to travelling across the country but now every away fixture is on our doorstep. We don’t pay an entrance fee away but we do a bucket collection and raise a couple of hundred quid for whoever we’re playing.”
Starmer was in the dugout directing operations that late summer’s evening. Rushden’s former head of youth completed his UEFA A licence alongside the likes of Celtic manager Neil Lennon, and led the original club to victory in the Midland Youth Cup and the FA Youth Alliance League as well as guiding them to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup in their final season in existence.
“I worked without pay from March 2011 before the club went under, but was genuinely honoured and privileged when AFC asked me to take the job because I know other people were interested,” he tells FFT.
“It keeps a lot of people involved in the old club going and everything is ticking along nicely. There’s no sugar daddy ploughing in loads of money - we’re building up from the bottom.” Rushden & Diamonds know the perils having a rich owner can bring. When the club was formed in 1992, Griggs boasted that the club would be playing league football within 10 years. He was wrong. They did it in nine.
Promotion from League Two to the third tier of English football followed in May 2003 under Brian Talbot. Then things began to go awry. They were relegated the following season, then in the summer of 2005 Griggs handed over control of the club to the Supporters’ Trust - as well as giving them Nene Park stadium and £750,000.
That hailed the beginning of the end for the Diamonds, and by the summer of 2011 the club had gone bust. But from the most unpromising situation imaginable, AFC Rushden & Diamonds were born, handing youngsters like Bird a chance to be local heroes. “The fact that we’re all local lads makes it even more special,” says Bird, 17. “On matchday the fans’ noise really lifts the lads, and sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remind yourself you’re playing in a youth league in Northamptonshire. The only downside is, we’re the team everyone wants to beat.”
It is hoped the current youth team will form the basis of the AFC Rushden & Diamonds side that will kick off their first season in August. But while they prepare, some players - including Bird have been handed first-team non-league football elsewhere.
“I’ve got three boys set to play for Rothwell Town in the UCL [United Counties League],” says Starmer. “They look OK youth in football but I want to see if they can handle a six-foot gorilla pushing them all over the park on a Saturday afternoon, because that’s what will happen.”
In the meantime, for those of a Diamonds persuasion at least, Thursday nights are the new Saturday for the rest of this season.
“The first couple of weeks you think it’s quite nice having a free weekend you go shopping with the wife, that kind of thing,” says Ward.
“That doesn’t last long though.”
If Diamonds fans share that sentiment, the club’s following could swell further next year.
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