At the age of nineteen the closet most football fans get to owning a football club would be through video games, however at Walton and Hersham, Co- owner Thomas Bradbury, (pictured one left of centre), is ‘living the dream’ with his six friends who are thought to be the youngest owners of not only a football club in Britain, but in the world.
They officially took over the Surrey based side last summer, after previous owner Alan Smith was looking to sell. They set out a plan, where each of them would be assigned a role to help build and grow the football club, to try and take the club back to where they belonged. The seven friends have feature on the cover of BBC Sport online, and have all conducted interviews with various top media outlets, in a whirlwind first season for the Swans new owners.
Walton and Hersham have an historic history, currently based in Division One of the Combined Counties Football League. The club famously beat Brian Clough’s Brighton side 4-0 in 1973. They have also had Sir Stanley Matthews, who was the first winner of the Ballon d’Or in 1956, was president of the Swans for a short stint in the 80’s.
Thomas Bradbury, who is Co-owner and the Public Liaison Officer at the club tells SNL just how extraordinary his first season in football has been. “It’s been pretty crazy, we have gone from having our first season to having no season at all.” Due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has brought the footballing world to a standstill, the FA, ruled that all football below that National League would unfortunately be rendered null and void, leaving teams very much in the dark about their future. Which you can read more about here.
Bradbury goes on to issue his displeasure with the FA’s ruling, ” I think it kind of shows where the FA’s priorities are; money talks and I feel the FA do have a habit of neglecting Non-League quite a lot, and this reflects that.”
Bradbury’s side joined over 100 other teams from all over the country issuing an open letter to the FA, asking them to potentially reconsider the decision to ‘expunge’ all results from this season, thus effectively cancelling the season.
The young owners’ first season in football was going to plan; the club sat third in Division one of the Combined Counties with promotion a real target for the Swans. The FA’s decision has left clubs very much in the dark, with sides feeling a great injustice especially since the majority of the season had already played out.
The goal of the owners’ debut season in football was promotion. Bradbury explains that on missing out on going up to the Premier Combined Counties League has tarnished the “Project” the ambitious owners are trying to build. He continues, “We want to put Walton back where it belongs, as one of Surrey’s Premier teams, but you can’t really do that in step 6.”
When asked if Walton and Hersham would seek any legal action against the FA, Bradbury replied,” It’s tough, because a lot of clubs at this level, including ourselves we don’t really have much money going around, so we can’t exactly afford a legal challenge to an organisation as big as the FA.”
The 19 year old, who studies politics at the university of Exeter, sets the hard truth that for teams, who thought their season would end in promotion, will need to come to the realisation that they will have it all to do again once the football does resume. He adds,” They have to ratify the decision that they have made, but I highly doubt they will. Quite frankly any decision they come to will be contentious apart from continuing the season, but that jeopardizes public safety, so I am not sure.”
The Coronavirus has been has devastated much of Non-League football with it still very much unclear on how and when the football will resume; it could leave many sides futures at high risk too, with the financial aspect of Non-League a mere drop in the ocean when compared to the Premier League.
Despite the unprecedented challenge that the young owners have faced in their first full season, Bradbury reflects on the season as a whole, as he looks back at his, “Crazy”, first season at the helm. ” I am a football fan, I understand there will always be ups and downs, and we have certainly experienced that at Walton, I mean it was a bit of a bumpy road at first; the form came and went- there was one really awful month we had in December and we just couldn’t seem to win a game, but the team played well, the management did well and in the end we found ourselves third after five wins in a row.”
Football is a hotbed of tension, a result can have fans turn on you in an instant, or they can be signing your praises from the rooftop. When asked how Bradbury dealt with the pressure, he explains, “I do feel for the fans, because the nature of Walton and Hersham and the history of the club has, they are not used to seeing the club so far down the football pyramid. So I completely understand every thought and opinion they have when it comes to the team not performing, especially when the team is not performing, because this season was all about promotion really.”
Bradbury tell SNL what although Walton and Hersham have unfortunately missed out on promotion this time round, there was still, “big plans”, for taking the club in the right direction. The forward thinking owner affirms, “We are in the process of setting up an academy, with a few schools in the area, so we are trying to get a proper set up going, with a clear path to the first team.”
With their first season in charge drawing to an unwanted conclusion, Bradbury reflects on what has caught him off guard the most, about owning a football club and on his first season in football as a whole. “I was very surprised about the amount of negative attention we got- especially from social media.”
He continues, “Especially when we first took over the club, a lot of the fans of the club (Walton and Hersham) and Non-League in general, they were questioning the whether we had the ability to properly manage the club- we had accusations that it was work experience. It was funny really; it’s unprecedented in the English game.”
He admits that it has not been all plain sailing in his first season, ” We did make some mistakes along the way, like for example when we first came in we did change the club badge, without any public consultation, and while i think the new badge is better than the old one, I do believe we made a mistake in ignoring the fans. So since then we have properly tried to communicate with them, and get them involved in every decision we make.”
Hungry to achieve something in the game, Bradbury asserts that for him and his fellow Co-owners of Walton and Hersham will waste no time in planning for the future. When asked about how personally having the title of ‘youngest owner in football’, and what it means to him, Bradbury brushes the accolade off and claims,” It’s cool to think about, but objectively, I don’t think it really means that much, we still have of things we still need to do and achieve at Walton, to make that actually mean something.” He adds,” Our first season has just been written off, and we haven’t really achieved anything yet, so I would like to answer that question in five years’ time, hopefully if we still own the club, I think maybe then there will be some proper achievements- but right now it’s about laying the foundations.”