“We didn’t even have kit the day before the season started”. Sartej Tucker, a third-year modern languages student at Durham and co-owner of step 6 club Walton & Hersham FC, is upfront about the challenges that faced him and his six friends at the start of their journey almost two years ago. “We really had no idea what to expect or what we needed to do.”
When they took over, the club was at a low, something which Tucker was immediately struck by. “It was a shambles. You wouldn’t run a college team like that.”
After 30 years under the same owner, the club were rapidly declining, having been relegated to the Combined Counties Division One the season before the boys took over.
“There aren’t many people who would be happy to sign away 35 years of work to a group of 19-year-olds. This massively historic club had fallen from the sky.”
Coming in, Tucker was well aware of the size of both the club and the task at hand. Winners of the FA Amateur cup at Wembley in 1973, the Castle student describes the Swans as “by far the most historic club at our level.”
The Ballon d’Or Winner Sir Stanley Matthews was once president, and Martin Tyler began his managerial career there in 2005.
Did the third-year find this responsibility daunting? “It was more exciting if anything. A group of 19-year-olds taking over a football club – how can you have expectations?”
There was a sense of new beginnings. Accordingly, the boys immediately changed the badge, something Tucker felt was key in transforming the image and outlook of the club: “It signified the old club’s done. Welcome to the new one.”
18 months and a global pandemic later, the 21-year-old has grown the club beyond the novelty of its owners’ youth. Tucker himself is in charge of media strategy and online output, launching a booming TikTok account.
“That’s been a huge part of the club’s development in the last two years. [On TikTok] we’re the most followed club in England outside of the Premier League and the Championship”.
In building the brand, Tucker is taking non-league into the somewhat unchartered territory of the 21st century, and it centres around the owners themselves. “We are the brand. People follow because they buy into our journey.”
Despite 60,000 followers on the platform, Tucker wants more. “The barriers of entry to having a successful online brand have never been lower. With TikTok, you can take that brand to market easily. There’s so much scope for development, and if we’re consistent we can be competing with Premier League teams.”
His optimism is infectious, and the Durham student believes the success of the brand will facilitate results on the pitch. “It creates a positive feedback loop – one leads into the other.”
However, with the Swans 3rd in the league and looking at promotion in March 2020, COVID and lockdown came, and with it the season was null-and-voided. With the group’s footballing goals being rocked, the FA’s decision did not go down well.
“There was no thought to the decision. With the amount of work we’d put into the season, to be within 14 days of playing our last game and the season being cancelled was a shock to the system.”
Tucker took it upon himself to draft a letter to the FA, condemning their decision and asking for a restart. “I wrote the letter on behalf of an initial 12 clubs. Within a few days it had spiralled to around 200 signatures”. Unfortunately, the complaints fell largely on deaf ears.
Luckily, the Swans have not been as affected as others by the crisis. Their ground is owned by the council, so the owners do not have to pay the fees required for upkeep and staff.
The impact of COVID-19 was most prominent on the owners’ long-term objectives. “I’m confident we would have had back-to-back promotions, so that’s set us back two years”.
Despite this, Sartej is staying level-headed, and the goals remain the same. “We believe in the long-term model of the club. We have a phenomenal squad for our level”. Tucker sees this model ideally pushing for the National League within five years or so.
With these targets, the club’s branding, and therefore Sartej himself, lie at the heart of its development. It represents a huge responsibility, so how does the London-based linguist balance studying at Durham with running a football club?
“If you love doing it, you’ll always find a way. It’s not a chore. If anything, I find it difficult doing Uni work!”
With seven of them at the helm, there is always someone in Walton to oversee matchdays, crucial for when seasons are re-started and fans are allowed back in.
Therein lies his second priority. Key for revenue and recognition are gate receipts, which the owners are looking to boost. “We want at least 300-400 every game next season. This season we averaged around 150”.
Boosting admissions will itself rely on Tucker’s media revolution. “Online will be central to what we do next year. Non-League hasn’t really been established into the mainstream for people our age. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
In targeting a younger audience, the Old Hamptonian hopes for non-league football to gain some of the recognition it has lacked from the likes of the FA. Rather than recent celebrity takeovers, Tucker believes theirs to be a “genuine footballing story. It’s not manufactured. We’ve done everything of our own accord.”
Due to graduate next year, Sartej seems fully committed to the project. “We understand how much growth potential there is in non-league”.
Such an attitude is depressingly rare at non-league level, and two years on the students have gone from “pretty clueless” to having a fully-fledged business plan, prioritising the media off the pitch and a proud group of home-grown players on it.
If the Durham undergraduate can continue this transformation in a post-COVID world, fans and the FA alike will be forced to begin taking notice of non-league’s importance to English football.
Image: Walton & Hersham FC