Local Football

Wokingham & Emmbrook  FC chairman mark Ashwell is ready to unveil plans that could herald a new era for non-league football in the Bracknell and Wokingham area.

And he is banking on support from the two towns’ communities, as well as the local authorities, to turn his dreams into reality.

The 52-year-old entrepreneur, who last year also managed to find time to launch a campaign to become an MP, has revealed that 2011 is a crucial year for the future of his beloved football club.

Since selling their old Finchampstead Road ground in 1999, Wokingham & Emmbrook, the new operating name of the old Wokingham Town, have failed to lay down any permanent roots, and Ashwell insists that trend must finish once and for all.

In the 12 years that followed, Wokingham have groundshared with Windsor & Eton, Flackwell Heath, Egham Town and Bracknell Town, while also suffering the heartbreak of being denied a permanent home at Cantley Park.

Wokingham do have a stake in a 30-year lease on the Emmbrook Sports and Social Club at Lowther Road, but potential stumbling blocks mean development there may not be a viable option to support their first team in the Hellenic Premier Division.

Now Ashwell has proposed two options which could allow for non-league football in the area to flourish.

Firstly, the TradeMark Windows owner has received a pledge from senior members of Wokingham Borough Council that the club will be included in plans to regenerate the borough, with promises of a new home ground.

Secondly, Ashwell has approached Bracknell Town Football Club, their current landlords following a groundshare deal struck last year, with regards to a potential merger between the two clubs.

It is a radical proposal, littered with potential political hurdles, but Ashwell is adamant that it could be the answer to many of the problems existent at both clubs.

The first option, regarding involvement in the regeneration of Wokingham, is something that Ashwell plans to address immediately.

Ashwell and the club’s committee is set to meet in March when a short-term plan is expected to be decided.

And although Bracknell Town have already agreed to continue the Larges Lane groundshare deal into the 2011/12 season, Ashwell insists this is not a sustainable long-term solution.

“Recently we’ve put all our energies into getting Wokingham established in the Premier Division, and getting on with our landlords,” said the Wokingham chairman.

“Next season we have to concentrate on what we can do in Wokingham, and thankfully there are a few options for us.

“Bracknell have told us that they’ll have us back which is great, but it’s not sustainable.

“At any stage our landlords could say, quite rightly, that they want to play a reserve team at Larges Lane every other week and can’t accommodate us anymore.

“Every season we will be living in fear of the guillotine and we can’t carry that on.

“We are the poor cousin to the other local teams because we haven’t got our own ground.

“We pay for the privilege  of playing at Bracknell, but we lose revenue from the bar which we would have had by playing at Emmbrook and it is the bar revenue that most clubs survive on nowadays.

“We’ll lose £20,000 this year and we will have to try and cover those costs elsewhere.

“At the moment, there is a Wokingham Borough  development core strategy which I really subscribe to,” added Ashwell, who is also president of the Wokingham Chamber of Commerce.

“The council are looking to have four developments around Wokingham as well as regenerating the town centre.

“One of these developments, probably in the north of Wokingham in the area around Cantley Park, could accommodate our football club at the heart of it.

“I’ve had a pledge from the council’s chief executive and a senior officer saying that Wokingham & Emmbrook will be included in the master planning.

“It’s not in writing in any way, but I’m hanging on to that pledge and I have to keep the pressure on them about it.

“My question to the council, which I will be asking over the next few weeks, is how Wokingham & Emmbrook FC can get involved with the process now, and if not now, then when, because we have to be involved.”

But, like any good businessman, Ashwell knows all too well that he has to keep his options open.

As he found with the Cantley Park fiasco, which saw the club campaign for four years to build a permanent ground there, only for the rug to be pulled from under their feet at the 11th hour, you can’t put all proverbial eggs in one basket.

Promises from the council, which suggested the club would be able to begin ground improvements to facilitate promotion into the Hellenic Premier Division, were broken.

The club had planning permission and were waiting to be granted the lease which would have unlocked a £400,000 grant from the Football Association.

But the council informed Wokingham & Emmbrook FC that a lease for an area of land at Cantley Park could not be provided to a private club, ending their hopes of building a permanent base.

It was an unexpected, and ultimately heart-breaking decision from the club’s perspective, who then had to arrange a quick fix with Bracknell Town.

And now Ashwell is testing the water with their landlords regarding a potential merger, which would see the creation of Bracknell & Wokingham Town FC.

The hopes are that such a move would stabilise the downward slide that Bracknell have been on in recent seasons, as well as answering Wokingham’s prayers for a new ground.

“I have talked to a number of the guys at Bracknell about looking outside the box and considering Bracknell & Wokingham Town Football Club,” said Ashwell.

“I’ve asked them to think about it and I’m not sure what they think.

“But the only way we could pursue that, even as an idea, is if we have advocates in the Bracknell set up.

“We can’t afford not to look at it.

“When we played Bracknell at the start of the season, the first time the teams had played each other for years, 400 people turned up. That shows the potential.

“At this stage of the season both teams have crowds of about 100 so you would assume, that if they merged, they would average 200.

“All I want to do is push them as to whether there is any advocacy within Bracknell Town FC for a merger.

“If there is, we have to talk because it’s now when we need to know.

“Their resources are low at the moment, despite their best efforts.

“They haven’t got a lot of people behind the scenes, but neither have we, so if we pool together we double our committed human resources immediately.

“There’s the consolidation of the players and the talent available and we can work on a brand of Bracknell & Wokingham Town FC, with the names in that order.

“Larges Lane also sits right in front of Bracknell & Wokingham College which is a very good brand.

“We could team up with them because the college is centred on vocational qualifications – ones that would be ideal to football – so there is a great option of potentially linking up with them.

“We don’t bring over a pot of gold, but we do bring a stakeholding in a 30-year lease on Emmbrook Sports and Social Club so there’s a nice patch of land in Wokingham that can support a reasonable level of football.

“Our youth set ups could feed into a very successful Allied Counties (Under-18s) team – it makes quite a nice structure.

“Put some vocational qualifications on the end of it through the college and it’s quite a neat idea.

“There will be problems to overcome on both sides, although on our side it would be easier because we don’t have anything at the highest level – but we do have a thriving club beneath.

“They have nothing to fear from us and although we would be starting again, it wouldn’t re-write any of the history of the two clubs.

“I believe Bracknell are discussing it at committee level, but we need to make a decision on it this season and then apply all our resources to it – we have to push our options now.

“We would need a joint working party to consider a merger – that would be a great way forward and then we can gauge opinion.

“At the moment it’s a one-sided idea so I need Bracknell to say either ‘no, we’re not interested,’ or ‘yes, let’s form this working party.’

“What I want to see is a clear, sustainable path for Wokingham & Emmbrook Football Club at the highest level of football possible that will include as much of the local community as possible – the merger ticks all of those boxes.

“It’s about partnership and if we can form an effective partnership with somebody who is just up the road, become twice as strong, twice as good and cover twice as much community, there’s not an awful lot wrong with that.

“To get to the higher levels you need a viable club that sits in the centre of the community as well as having the support of that community.”

But rather than one of the options being weakened by the other being pursued, Ashwell believes that a potential merger would be of an even greater benefit to the area, and makes the notion of this pledge from Wokingham Borough Council even stronger.

“The pledge from the Council comes into play even more if we teamed up.

“Suddenly you have doubled the resources.

“You have two councils behind you, a free-hold ground that Bracknell have, a stakeholding in a 30-year lease on a patch of ground that we have and you have a pledge to be in a borough’s  master plan.

“A merger shouldn’t affect the pledge at all.”

The reality for Wokingham, however, should neither of these two options come to fruition, is rather bleak.

Although Ashwell is adamant that the team will be playing Hellenic Premier Division football next season, the long-term futures for club’s in similar positions has not been great.

In recent seasons both Chalfont Wasps and Marlow United, having won promotion from Division 1 East, were forced to return to the lower division due to the pressure of trying to survive without a permanent home.

And, if Wokingham & Emmbrook FC are to avoid that fate, they need to call in the promised support from their local council as soon as possible.

And, if that support is not forthcoming, then Bracknell Town FC must surely consider a merger that, despite going against the grain for many hardened Robins fans, would guarantee a brighter long-term future for both clubs.

<a href="http://www.getbracknell.co.uk/sport/football/goalpost/s/2087059_ashwell_my_dreams_for_the_longterm_future_of_wokingham__emmbrook_fctag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.getbracknell.co.uk/sport/football/goalpost/s/2087059_ashwell_my_dreams_for_the_longterm_future_of_wokingham__emmbrook_fcMon, 07 Feb 2011 12:10:26 GMT 00:00″>Local Football


Related Websites

    Be Sociable, Share!