Long hard road ahead but Angels are fired up by community spirit
by Andy Tong | 9th August 2019
TONBRIDGE ANGELS return to the giddy heights of the Vanarama National League South knowing that they have a battle on their hands to compete with clubs that have much deeper pockets.
The Angels had to fight hard to gain promotion from the Isthmian League Premier Division in what was their 70th anniversary season.
First they had to win two conventional play-off matches, then a new 'super play-off' against Metropolitan Police of the Southern League Premier South.
They needed an extra time winner in a 3-2 victory at Imber Court to take them back to their highest ever league placing, where they last competed in 2013-14.
And they are aware that their first campaign back in the sixth tier of the football pyramid, two levels below League Two, will be a massive challenge.
Many of the other clubs in the division can boast a wealthy benefactor to help secure important signings and keep established players in the squad.
But Tonbridge's manager Steve McKimm has been forced to cut players from his first-team squad over the last two years because of budget concerns.
And at the end of last season the club's main sponsor, the Hadlow Group, announced they would be terminating their support after a decade.
The club have announced two new shirts sponsors, DS Barden Building Contractors (home) and Jump In Trampoline Parks (away).
McKimm took over when they returned to the Isthmian - the same season in which the club was effectively taken over by the fans.
The club was privately owned by Garry Pass and Nick Sullivan but the supporters clubbed together to 'buy out' the shareholders.
They ran the club for 12 months on behalf of the pair, who then gifted their shares to the board - and it gave them back to the club.
So the club is now owned by its members as a 'community mutual', which includes the players as stakeholders.
Steve Churcher was chairman for a decade until last year, has also chaired the Supporters' Association, and has been involved with the club for half a century.
He told the Times how the Angels have learned to live - and flourish - under their financial restraints.
Last season the Angels celebrated their 70th season; to what do you attribute the club's longevity?
Ultimately, the club will survive all the time we have supporters who are prepared to step up and run the club, volunteer for various jobs around the ground and generally support the team.
How long have you been associated with the club? How has it changed during that time?
I first went to the old Angel Ground in the late 60s. There were some very dark days for the club in the late 70s [when the Angel ground was subject to a compulsory purchase order and the club had to leave its old stadium]. But the determination of a few individuals on the board at that time secured the club's future at Longmead.
I would like to think that the club now has a stable footing compared to 39 years ago but there is still a lot to do!
The club has a very strong and commendable community ethos. Why is this an important part of its strategy?
As a Sports Club Community Mutual, it is written within our constitution that the purpose of the society is to be conducted for the benefit of the community served by the club and not for profit of its members.
Whilst we still have several extremely generous private benefactors, we don't have a single 'sugar daddy' bankrolling the club. We’ve never been blessed with a multi-millionaire like Glen Tampling at Billericay.
The club runs a '12th Man' fund which has helped secure new signings from voluntary contributions by fans. What financial pressures are the club under?
The club has to work twice as hard to encourage additional funds in order to effectively stand still.
Rent, rates, utilities, licenses, insurance, waste disposal and general ground maintenance will eat up in excess of £50,000 a year and that sum continues to rise.
Do you think non-league football clubs generally are struggling to make ends meet?
Most non-league clubs are owned by a single individual or a group of business people who all heavily subsidise their club throughout a season.
The football 'pyramid' should more correctly be described as a 'funnel', as all the wealth is in the Premiership with the majority of non-league clubs receiving very little funding by comparison.
As a fan-owned club, we now have around two thirds of our average gate being owners - on a one member, one vote basis. Any of our owners can stand for election to the board.
The fans always feel they morally own a club anyway, they are a part of it, there’s an affiliation.
How does the Sports Club Community Mutual work?
Two-thirds of the gate pay an annual fee of £25 minimum, that’s 250 to 280 out of an average gate of 420. Major decisions are voted upon by these members.
They also vote in the directors to run the club on the board, with two or three having to stand down each year.
How will the Angels be able to survive and thrive for the next 70 years?
The board needs additional people to help run the club and drive the club forwards and those people can currently only come from our membership.
We are blessed in having an active commercial team and events team, but it can sometimes be extremely hard work, especially when trying to hold down a day job.
It doesn’t take a lot to put you off kilter, it’s always been a question of building up reserves to flatten spikes out.
In 2017-18 there was something like a 40,000 footfall going through the gates, whether it be for the football, slimming world, beginners to runners, the firework display with the Round Table, the England fan zone at the World Cup. That way you can raise sufficient funds to create a reserve.
We have a number of teams playing below the flagship first team and I believe the club need to encourage them to all become owners.
They are all obviously proud to wear the club badge and are considered the future lifeblood. If we can encourage them to become members now, they will hopefully become the people running the club in years to come.
As I like to say, it’s not what you get out of the club, it’s what you can do for your local football club and the community we all live in.
McKimm strengthens his options
Steve McKimm has been able to bolster his small squad in preparation for the Vanarama National League South campaign.
Among the new recruits is Alex Bentley, who arrives from AFC Hornchurch where he made 288 appearances in the Isthmian League Premier Division. The experienced right-back was voted Supporters Player of Year last season.
Central defender Rian Bray, 20, has joined from fellow National League South club Hampton & Richmond Borough, where he was named Young Player of the Year last season.
Winger Khale da Costa, 25, has signed up after leaving another National League South team, St Albans City, while Tommy Brewer, a central midfielder, has arrived from Kingstonian.
To add depth to the midfield, Tommie Hession-Harris comes in from Isthmian League North club Maldon & Tiptree and Rhyle Ovenden joins from Whitehawk.
Craig Stone (above), 30, has decided to move on after playing 75 games as a defensive midfielder.
His goal against promotion rivals Carshalton Athletic at the end of last season secured the Angels' place in the play-offs. He has been appointed coach of the Under-18s and Under-23s at his old club, Gillingham.
And defender Arthur Lee is also heading for new pastures. He made 53 appearances and scored the first goal against Met Police in the Super Play-Off.
Also departing are winger Adem Ramadan, 21, who has joined Margate, and 20-year-old central defender Callum Adonis-Taylor.