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Non-League Football Coming Home

Non-League Football Coming Home

Benfleet Webmaster16 Apr - 09:00
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The Woodside Story

2019 was the toughest year in over a century so far for Benfleet Football Club. When our chairman Dan Wright joined the club in 2019 he found an organisation in freefall. Following a ten-year court battle with Castle Point Council, the Club had an eviction notice expiring in less than two months. We had exhausted our £2,000 overdraft facility with no money coming in, and had seen a once vibrant youth section reduced to just a couple of teams.

With no money, no ground and almost no members left the Club had drawn up plans to integrate the remaining youth teams into the Canvey Youth set up, and the first team – which had only just achieved the most remarkable promotion into the non-league pyramid – was to fold in under Canvey Island’s first team and function solely as its reserve team. In order to meet the ground grading requirements the Club had been groundsharing with Canvey Island for a year since its promotion into the non-league, so it was a logical plan to dissolve the Club, but it was devastating to see the prospect of Benfleet’s main football club folding out of existence altogether. Dan agreed with the incumbent chairman that he would take on the running of the Club and see if a fresh approach could save Benfleet Football Club.

After a long process of re-engaging with the Council, he succeeded not only in having the eviction notice rescinded, but managed to secure a new twenty-year lease on significantly reduced terms. He then secured some short-term grant funding to cover the remainder of the season, and then set about rebuilding the Club. The pandemic soon followed, but on stronger foundations the Club not only survived but thrived through the periods in between lockdowns, enough to keep the Club afloat during the periods of closure. We also expanded our community section significantly through this period, going from four to over twenty teams.

But to really move the Club forward we needed one thing in particular, and that was a way to bring our non-league first team back to Woodside Park. Previous committees had spent nearly four decades working with the Council and local organisations to no avail. Through persistent engagement with local councillors and senior Council executives yet another new lease was secured, this one doubling the size of the area to accommodate our rapidly growing community section. But even more notably, the new lease included the elusive exclusive zone which would allow us to build our non-league ground.

Once the lease was signed, and planning permission was secured, we were ready to commence the project of a lifetime – bringing our non-league football club back to its home town to give the community of Benfleet a proper local football team for the first time ever. Funding from the Premier League covered half of the development, with local businessman and Benfleet’s most notable supporter Keith Wells generously funding the other half of the build. Works started in January this year and are on track to be complete before the summer.

As if the excitement of bringing Benfleet's first team back to the local community of Benfleet wasn’t enough, this season has been the most extraordinary of all 102 seasons the Club has been in existence. Starting the season with the aim of making a push for the play-offs, when Alex Salmon left for Enfield in September and Lee Scott took over, we started the most extraordinary run of form which lasted the entire season! We won the Thurlow Nunn Division One South title, securing the most remarkable achievement in our long history, and with it a promotion into Step 5 of the non-league pyramid, and a guarantee of FA Cup football every season at our new Woodside Stadium.

We’re not finished here though. We hope to go on and win the title this week or next, and our ambitions are to bring this fantastic local football club on a par with other local non-league football clubs in the region, like our current landlords Canvey Island, with a real footprint in our community and a fan-base across our local area.

Dan and the committee know we won’t achieve this overnight. But the extraordinary progress we’ve made in less than five years turning a football club on the verge of liquidation back into a huge community asset with an over-achieving first team, an enormous and ever-growing base of community teams and a club membership now totalling over 500 and still increasing by the month, we all believe at Benfleet that we can continue to beat the odds and climb further still up the non-league pyramid, giving the locals of Benfleet a football team they can really support and be proud of.

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