David Conn: Yeading to heed Cup lesson of Kingstonian collapse

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The Independent Football

Ah, the romance of the FA Cup third round: clubs great and small lining up equal, the hopeful breath of supporters condensing in the January air, ghosts of giant-killers past, and, always, a minnow or two for that once-a-year, cockle-warming, David v Goliath tale. Yeading, playing Premiership Newcastle, are a dream this time: a lesser known non-league name from the outskirts of London, small ground, crowds touching 100, a team with something of the original Wimbledon "Crazy Gang" spirit, paid £1,500 a week altogether, small change earned in a couple of hours by just one of Newcastle's currently underperforming superstars.

After last month's comments by the Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd, about the Premiership not caring about smaller clubs, FA Cup lore demands a humbling for the Geordies, but Yeading's manager, Johnson "Drax" Hippolyte, was engagingly realistic this week.

"We've got great spirit," he told me, "no big names, a few characters with mental attitude problems we've worked hard to iron out. There has been no big money spent. My boys won't be intimidated; they're physically and mentally strong. The game could go wrong if we concede a couple of goals early, but we just hope to do ourselves justice, not come away beaten 8-0." To complete the perfect non-league picture, the man who will pit his tactical wits against Newcastle's manager, Graeme Souness, was talking to me from work - as a marble mason, making kitchen and bathroom surfaces.

Yeading, formed in 1966 by 12 original committee men and now top of the Ryman League Premier Division, are assured their place in FA Cup annals whatever happens at Loftus Road tomorrow, but beneath the easy stories of game part-timers blinded by the polish of professionals, the FA Cup third round can be a warning, more a sign of perilous overspending than player overachievement. For two of the more celebrated minnows of recent times, Farnborough and Kingstonian, their matches, against Arsenal and Bristol City respectively, turned out to be swansongs rather than platforms for progress.

Kingstonian were everybody's favourite four years ago, the London suburban club of long tradition, FA Trophy winners in 1999 and 2000, who beat Southend in the third round and would have reached the fifth but for an injury-time equaliser by Bristol City, who won the replay 1-0. Geoff Chapple, Ks' manager and previously a giant-killer with Woking, garnered all the fond write-ups deserved by a non-league stalwart.

There wasn't much glory, though, in what happened next. Kingstonian were struggling anyway; at the end of that 2000-01 season they were relegated from the Conference, and within eight months were in administration. It turned out that, under the then board and the chief executive, Chris Kelly, a man forever dusted with giant-killing gold from his own playing exploits with green-shirted Leatherhead in the Seventies, Kingstonian had been spending beyond their means. In October 2001, the Inland Revenue demanded £180,000 outstanding PAYE, or it would wind up the club. Eight of the first team were released, Chapple left, crisis descended.

Nick Hood, the administrator, of the firm Begbies Traynor, told me Kingstonian's players' wage bill was £10,000 a week, when gates averaged just 300. The money from the Bristol City replay featuring live on Sky just plopped into an ocean of debt, close to £900,000.

"Non-league football is financially very difficult," Hood told me. "To push for success, clubs spend very considerable money on players, and so risk severe failure off the pitch."

The Kingsmeadow ground became a vale of heartbreak for the loyal core of Kingstonian fans. Hood sold the ground and club in April 2002 to a businessman, Rajesh Khosla, for £465,000. AFC Wimbledon, newly launched as the supporter-owned club fleeing the "franchise" soon to be known as the MK Dons, shared Kingsmeadow for a season, then in the summer of 2003, bought the ground. They agreed to pay £2.4m, a profit to Khosla of nearly £2m. They did not, however, have all the money; they raised a remarkable £1.2m from supporters buying shares, and agreed to pay the remaining £1.2m in instalments, with interest running at around 10 per cent a year. They have chipped away since, but still owe around £800,000. If they default on interest payments of £80,000 a year, Khosla can repossess the ground.

Kris Stewart, chairman of AFC Wimbledon, now top of the Ryman League First Division after their 78-match unbeaten run, the longest in English football history, hosting crowds of over 3,000, told me they do not feel they overpaid.

"At the time we needed a home and Kingsmeadow was worth it to us."

Kingstonian, now their tenants, still owned by Khosla, limp along, a shell of their former FA Cup-trotting glory, on gates of 250 and a dwindling band of volunteers. Ks' Supporters Trust, which numbered 400 during the worst times, has negotiated to buy the club from Khosla so far without success, and the Football Association has recently become involved trying to broker a sale.

"The club speculated to accumulate," the Trust's chairman, Mark Murphy, told me. "The result has been disastrous. We'd much rather have gone without the FA Cup glory, and still had a club and ground, than be in this awful situation."

Yeading, run by Phil Spurden, a builder who played for the club and has been its chairman since 1978, are adamant they are different, run on traditional lines mostly by people who formed the club originally. They competed in the Spartan League until 1988 under their long serving manager, Ray Gritt, and only then, in 1989, did they ever pay a player. "We're a proper non-league club," Spurden told me proudly.

Yeading's highest-paid players are understood to be on £110 per week and Bradley Quamina, a teenage midfielder whom Hippolyte rates highly and expects to name as a substitute tomorrow, is paid just £30. Yeading are late filing their accounts, but Spurden said this is not a sign of problems, rather that the club treasurer is a volunteer, like everybody except the sole full-time employee, Bill Perryman, Steve's brother, the commercial manager.

"Everybody works very hard and chips in," Spurden said. "Our aim is to build this club, which is in a fairly deprived, ethnically very mixed area, and pass it on strong to the next generation."

The £150,000 TV windfall and 50 per cent share of the Loftus Road gate will, he maintains, be spent on new floodlights, improving the ground and securing the club's future, not a whacking wage bill and gambling for success. "There's too much of that in non-league football," Spurden said. Dreaming of a miracle result, Yeading hope to enjoy their fleeting glories, perform well, and, importantly, still be around for many years to reminisce. They warmed up for the Newcastle fixture with a very comfortable 2-0 win last week, against their division's bottom club - Kingstonian.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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