Why Keith McKenna had to save Halesowen Town from going under
Keith McKenna does not mince his words when he talks about the state of Halesowen Town in the weeks before he and Karen Brookes took control of the club at the tail end of 2018.
“We were on our backside,” he says. “We were up against the clock because, if we didn’t take over the club in a certain period of time, we were going under. We’d have to drop two or three levels.”
The deal was sealed in the nick of time and although Halesowen were relegated to the Southern League Division One Central at the end of last season, the transformation since has been remarkable.
The Yeltz sit second in the league with a game in hand over leaders Berkhamsted and were due to face Concord Rangers over two legs in the FA Trophy semi-final before coronavirus put it all on hold.
It’s undoubtedly a major blow for the club, with more than 3,000 tickets sold for the home first leg at The Grove.
McKenna is philosophical over this latest twist in the club’s season, saying that people’s health must come first and voicing concerns about the financial consequences for clubs lower down in the football pyramid.
“Our club is in good shape financially and we will survive, but I do feel sorry for a number of clubs in our league who will really struggle financially,” he adds.
“It’s all up in the air at the moment as we don’t know if the season will finish. But rather than worry about it we have just got to see what comes and deal with it as best we can.”
The 47-year-old says he is focused on maintaining the upward trajectory the club has been on since manager Paul Smith and his assistant, Yeltz legend John Snape, were appointed.
That period has seen a complete overhaul of the squad and backroom staff, while off the pitch the clubhouse and boardroom have been extended as part of a major investment.
Not only are the Yeltz winning again, but they are producing a style of football that has seen the fans flocking back to see them play.
“After relegation we needed a complete change in ethos,” McKenna said, revealing that he had first earmarked Smith for the job the previous year.
“The manager’s brought that in, and together with his backroom staff and the players they’ve created a real buzz among the fans. It reminds me of how it was in the best times for this club.”
McKenna is referring to the glory years in the FA Vase, which the Yeltz won twice at Wembley in the mid-1980s, and the 1995-96 season when they narrowly missed out on promotion to the Conference.
His own connection to the club dates back more than two decades.
Born in Cumbernauld, outside Glasgow, McKenna moved down to the Black Country as a 16-year-old to work at Babcock in Tipton.
He was playing as an attacking midfielder for Hainge Rovers when Malcolm Hazlewood got him in at Halesowen, where he captained the reserves and broke into the first team before his career was cut short after just five games due to serious injury.
He was 22 at the time and, after a long period out, he came to the realisation that his ambition of playing football for a living would not come to fruition.
He continued to play at a lower level, while concentrating on growing the business he set up, M-Tec Engineering Solutions, a major success story in the field of high level engineering recruitment.
McKenna returned to The Grove in 2015 to set up and manage the club’s youth section and under-21s, with an ‘ultimate’ aim of managing the first team.
But he says he quickly noticed that the club was in disarray both on and off the pitch, something which was relayed loud and clear when he attended fans’ forums.
“I just thought... I know the club, I know the fanbase, I know the potential here,” he said, explaining why he decided to move into ownership.
“There was still a great bunch of people here but the club was in a bad place and needed to change.”
McKenna recalls how at the time the club had gone through years of turmoil at boardroom level, and Karen Brookes was helping her father, club president Colin Brookes, to try and ‘steady the ship’.
They initially drafted out a plan for the Yeltz future in August 2018 and took over three months later, putting up an initial £50,000 to keep the club afloat.
It would take the next 18 months to clear the debts and rebuild the squad, at a further cash injection of close to £100,000.
“We were shocked when we started to unearth the true scale of what was going on behind the scenes,” says McKenna.
“There were bills not being paid, debts all over the place, a huge list of things we needed to address urgently.”
He said the club’s sponsorship deal with Mapei was ‘nearly dead in the water’ and had to be resurrected, while a long-standing relationship with Halesowen College had completely broken down due to the club owing money.
“It wasn’t easy,” he continues. “We had to rebuild these relationships almost from scratch and show them that we had a workable plan for the club.
“That took time but we did it. There’s families who are born and bred here, who are part of the club, who felt pushed out. They are all coming back now.
“We had to get it right off the pitch so the team could do the business on it.”
McKenna said impressive performances in a string of pre-season friendlies gave him confidence that a strong season lay ahead.
This was boosted further when he saw the work of scout Steve McGinn, whose detailed analysis of the opposition has been invaluable according to McKenna.
“The football in the friendlies was unbelievable, the pitch was immaculate – the best it’s been,” he says.
“I was very confident with the manager. He had a plan in place, but I thought convincing the fans after what they’ve had served up in the last few years was going to be the hard part.”
McKenna’s face lights up when he talks about the club’s FA Trophy run, which has seen them play 13 games starting with a 2-1 win at Dereham Town at the end of September.
He says the win away at National League side Halifax Town – with more than 600 Yeltz fans in the crowd – made him believe they might actually get to Wembley.
“Barnet just topped it for excitement,” he said, recalling the quarter final come-from-behind win in London last month.
“It was the most remarkable victory. We got level and were the most dominant team, winning in extra time with a goal from Simeon Cobourne, a goal machine we signed from two leagues down.
“It showed what we are all about. Collectively I’ve never seen a squad so close together. Not just the players, but with Paul and his staff, with myself and Karen and everyone who works here, with the fans.”
McKenna is hopeful that the season can eventually be completed.
He says he’s ‘in it for the long haul’ and sees the National League as a minimum target for the club, with plans already in the works for next season involving improvements to the playing squad and attracting new finance.
“We’re heading in the right direction with the team. Our ground is great, and as far as I’m concerned we wouldn’t look out of place in the National League.
“It’s just a case of waiting to see what happens now. Getting to Wembley is the stuff of dreams and I hope we get the chance to do it.”