VIDEO: Halesowen Town on the up again

Standing on the terrace opposite the Harry Rudge stand, Steve Lynch dreams of seeing Halesowen Town play at the highest level.

VIDEO: Halesowen Town on the up again

He said: "The fan base is here with a population of 80,000 in this area. And the club has a good enough ground, so that is the ultimate ambition."

But the club's owner does not have the Premier League in his sights. He is speaking of the highest-rung of non-league football, the Conference.

He said: "More people are disillusioned with the Premier League. They are fed up of being taken for granted and being treated like cash machines."

Halesowen Town – affectionately known as the Yeltz – have seen their crowds double from an average gate of 225 four years ago to more than 500 this season.

In the past few weeks more than 4,000 spectators packed into The Grove, in Old Hawne Lane, over two games versus FC United of Manchester and local rivals Stourbridge.

It is a dramatic turnaround in fortunes for the club, which went into administration just six years ago, leaving fans fearing the 142 year-old side would fold.

The rise in popularity of the Yeltz is put down to a mixture of improved performances on the pitch.

The team won promotion to the Northern Premier League last year – and disenchanted Premier League supporters flocking to the lower leagues.

Mr Lynch said: "A family can come to us and bring their young children in for free.

"When they are here they enjoy the excitement. Fans from opposing teams stand or sit next to each other without any fuss.

"The fans have also formed the Friends of The Grove Supporters' Association," he added.

"It is like a family. The supporters' association call it the Yeltz Family. It is incredible, they car share to away games, they sing their hearts out and it's a great atmosphere."

Season ticket sales have been increasing each year, with 40 holders this season. That number is expected to increase to more than 60 next season.

A match-day ticket costs £10 for an adult, £7 for concessions, £3 for students and under-16s, and free for under-12s accompanied by an adult, whereas match day tickets for the Premier League cost an average of £50.

Season tickets in the top flight range from £300-£2,000, while a season ticket to see the Yeltz is just over £100.

It costs £87,000 a year to run the club – the equivalent of just two days of Wayne Rooney's £300,000-a-week salary.

Players are paid expenses to cover training three times a week and away travel.

The team is currently two leagues below the Conference – the seventh tier of the football pyramid. A team of around eight volunteers work on match days in roles ranging from preparing the ground to selling food and drink.

The club even has its own media team who run Facebook and Twitter accounts and broadcast videos on Yeltz TV on YouTube.

Sandra Checketts, aged 62, from Stourbridge, is head of catering and has been at the club for nine years.

She arranges hot meals for sponsors, directors, and players, as well as stocking the tea hut for fans. She said: "Last season was a season we could never have dreamed of.

"The club is in the best position we have known it. We pride ourselves on our hospitality and one referee even said he was writing to the league to say this was the best treatment he had.

"It is a family club. I walk around and recognise most of the fans. It's a great atmosphere and with the supporters' association there is a new link between supporters and the management.

"You can watch the match, get fed and have a beer for under £20. We have vastly improved the match experience."

The club has its own bar, which was opened at the back of the Shed stand 18 months ago.

As well as giving the club a new revenue stream, it is a place where fans can meet before and after the games. It can also be hired out for family parties and private functions.

Owner Steve Lynch surveys the ground from the terrace.

Andrew While, 58, from Stourbridge, is the club secretary. The former Albion season ticket holder went to his first game in the 1990s.

As well as dealing with most of the club's paperwork such as registering players and liaising with opposition teams, he is also the kit man.

"It's a full-time hobby because I work full-time in telephone sales and then a lot of my free time is involved with the football club. You want to do it. It's enjoyment and there's the social side, which is a big thing.

"When I first got involved there was a lot of optimism. We got to the play-offs but lost to Team Bath and it seemed to go off the rails.

"We eventually went into administration. The club was relegated and we had players playing for nothing.

"Steve bought the club and we started to see steady growth. John Hill came in as manager and what he has done on the pitch is unreal. It made us proud again.

"Professional football is no longer the working man's game. Here the players come in and supporters have a chat with them and there is banter – could you imagine that in the Premier League?

"When our lads put on a Halesowen Town shirt you know they are going to give 100 per cent."

The Friends of the Grove Supporters' Association was formed this season and runs a prize draw to help with maintenance costs and upkeep of the ground, overseen by Rob Lloyd.

Emma Broughton, 42, from Halesowen, is secretary of the association and only started going to games in September.

She said: "The idea of the association is to give something back. This is the first season for me here and the club really is a family – the Yeltz family."

Her husband Neil, 48, has been a fan of the club for 18 months. He added: "We are a family club and we welcome everyone here, whoever they are and wherever they are from."

Dave Hawley, Sandra Checketts, Andrew While and Rob Lloyd.

Club photographer Dave Hawley, 48, said: "We are one of the only clubs in the league that takes a full media team home and away.

"It is about raising the profile of the club. It is taxing but very enjoyable. I joined the club by accident really, but like everybody here have really taken it to heart."

Mr Hawley can also boast of being the only photographer in the league to have a chant about him sang by the fans.

"They call me soggy bottom," he said. "It's because if it is raining I'll be getting soaked. The chant goes 'there's only one soggy bottom'.

"There's a great camaraderie amongst the fans and no animosity between the opposing sides."

Halesowen Town is one of the oldest teams in the country and claims to have been formed in 1873.

The earliest records that the Football Association have on file relating to Halesowen Town FC are dated 1882.

The club had three trips to Wembley in the 1980s in the FA Vase, winning in 1985 and 1986.

The Yeltz have also reached the FA Cup first round proper nine times and won the Birmingham, Worcester and Staffordshire Senior Cups seven times and the West Midlands League Cup twice.

After coming out of administration, the 2010-11 season saw one of the poorest records in the club's history – finishing bottom of the Southern League Premier, scoring only 24 goals and conceding 107.

There was even a period when Big Ron Atkinson became involved as 'consultant manager', but that did not last long.

That is when Mr Lynch, who lives near Lichfield, stepped in to buy the club for an undisclosed fee.

He said: "I read in a newspaper the club was in trouble so decided to come down for a couple of matches and really enjoyed it.

"The thing I liked about it was sometimes, when you are a stranger and go in somewhere for the first time you feel like you're being watched – here wasn't like that at all.

"People came up to me asking where I was from and were so friendly without any hesitation. I took over in May 2011 and have gone on from there to steady the ship because it was in a lot of trouble.

The team celebrate promotion to the Northern Premier League at the end of last season – now their sights are on getting into the top tier of the Conference.

"Improvements needed to be made to the ground and I brought in John Hill as manager, who brought us promotion last season and has consolidated a mid-table position this year.

"It is excellent because the target was to finish fifth from bottom. Winning promotion last season has to be the highlight.

"That day we had fans here who have been coming here for years and they were saying what a fantastic day it was. It made us very proud."

The club will launch an academy in September which will see 20 talented youngsters based at the Grove training and playing matches,.

They will also studying for sports qualifications, with a tutor coming to the ground during the week.

And although the club has ambitions to play in the Conference, which will be renamed the National League from next season, Mr Lynch will not be recklessly throwing cash in.

He said: "It has gone from a club losing money to being self-sufficient. For a non-league club to be self-sufficient is vital.

"The Conference is our goal, but we don't want to throw all the money at it. We don't want to gamble. It has to be done at a steady pace as we can afford it."

The last game of the season sees the Yeltz play Grantham Town at The Grove on Saturday at 3pm.

For more information go to www.ht-fc.com. For details of how to join the Friends of the Grove Supporters' Association, go to www.fotgsupportersassociation.co.uk.

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