Football: Aldershot discover life after death: The recreation ground is back in business. Owen Slot reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MANY an Aldershot fan can tell you where they were at 6pm a year ago on Thursday, the hour that their football club was officially closed down. Along with the day the Falklands War started, or when Aldershot drew with West Ham in the FA Cup, it remains lodged in recent memory. Hundreds of supporters paid homage that day to curtailed joys by adorning the club gates with their football scarves, never thinking they would have to return this season to buy new scarves when the ball started rolling again.

The club shop has boomed, and even though the football is five divisions lower, the crowds have increased too, for down in the comparative hinterland of the Diadora League Third Division, an amazing recovery has taken place. It was remarkable enough that a completely new set-up should have been in place ready for the next season; but it is extraordinary that a crowd brought up on a diet of League football should feast on comparative scraps. Doesn't this take club allegiance a little far?

Perhaps, but consider the club a year ago - five points adrift at the bottom of the Barclays Fourth Division with three wins from 36 league games - and consider it now, 15 points clear at the top of their league, after 23 wins from 32 matches. With Saturday's 6-1 victory over Camberley Town in the bag, a win tonight against Cove will make their points tally unbeatable.

The victory bandwagon has gathered pace, with new fans climbing on at every stop. Attendances in the Diadora Third Division average around 100, Aldershot average 2,000; away games have become something of a party with 1,000-odd fans piling into small grounds. At Camberley in November, the official attendance of 1,966 was bigger than the total of Camberley's home crowds for the whole of the previous season.

The man hailed as Aldershot's saviour is Terry Owens, a 46-year-old local businessman who was climbing over the Recreation Ground perimeter fence to watch the Shots from the age of seven. He started paying a little later and is now back watching on a free ticket, a small reward for the 20 to 30 hours he puts in weekly, totally unpaid. In previous years he had held a club directorship and has been chairman of the 'Save Our Shots' campaign, raising pounds 160,000 over 12 months, and a year ago he was back in saviour mode again.

Owens foresaw closure and a month before Aldershot's demise he was exploring the corridors of non- League football. When the plug was pulled, Owens was ready to act. The Diadora League's April application deadline was met and a 5,000-signature fans' petition persuaded the local council to lease the Recreation Ground. Out with the bankrupt old club went the entire playing staff and board of directors, and in with the brave new world came a share flotation (oversubscribed) to fund the club and directors drawn exclusively from club supporters. It appears to be the ideal club set-up; so much so that a number of club chairmen have phoned Owens asking for advice on how to copy it.

Those players who turned down contracts offered them in June have missed out on the enviable success now being enjoyed by Aldershot's new boys, a largely local band selected and managed by Steve Wignall, the former Shot (161 games).

It was clear, last Tuesday, that Wignall is an Aldershot favourite. The Recreation Ground was bursting with 5,251 supporters, its largest crowd for many years, who had come to see the Hampshire Senior Cup local derby with Farnborough Town, comparative giants from the Vauxhall Conference. The crowd danced to chants in the names of Wignall, another favourite, Dave Osgood, nephew of Peter Osgood, and the local hero, Mark Butler, the life-long fan who lives over the road from the ground and was a regular on the terraces last year.

All pretty stirring stuff, nearly matched by an against-the-odds result. Farnborough went 3-2 ahead with five minutes to go and the Shots were beaten. The crowd were not though, taunting the financially- troubled enemy with chants of 'Going bust, going bust, going bust', the words they heard a little too often themselves just a year ago.

(Photograph omitted)