Mike Whalley tells how after an unexpectedly slow start to club existence, AFC Liverpool are in it for the long haul
"We didn't really have an idea as to what we were letting ourselves in for," says AFC Liverpool chairman Chris Stirrup. "Everyone had seen what FC United had done. In that first season, we thought we would walk the league." Two-and-a-half years in, Merseyside's newest non-League club have learned to temper ambition with realism. They've had to, when their home gates in the North West Counties League First Division – the tenth level of the pyramid – are below 150. Considering the amount of publicity they generated on their formation in 2008, it's easy to wonder why they aren't doing better.
It's taken AFC a while, it seems, to figure out exactly who they are. They came into being when local folk musician Alun Parry got together with a group of fellow Liverpool fans, all disillusioned by the rising cost of Premier League tickets. Their idea was to set up a supporter-owned club offering £5 football to those who couldn't afford Anfield but still wanted to cheer a team called Liverpool.
Surprisingly, perhaps, that was as far as AFC's politics went, even though fan hostility towards the Hicks-Gillett regime was already escalating. Parry and co described the new club as "Liverpool's little brother", and endeavoured not to antagonise the older sibling. Relations were so cordial that the newbies not only had progress reports published on Liverpool's website, but were also the subject of a one-hour documentary produced by the club TV station.
AFC argued that Liverpool's ownership issues were no direct concern of theirs and left the Spirit of Shankly supporters group to do the campaigning. Without using the obvious political hook on which to hang their identity, the new club's national profile soon dipped. "We might have got more publicity by being a protest club, but that's not what we're about," Stirrup says. "Our aim has always been to offer an affordable alternative to Premier League football. If you set yourself up as a protest club opposing an owner, what happens when that owner goes?"
On the pitch, AFC made a winning start after securing a groundshare with Northern Premier side Prescot Cables. But life got tough in that first season, as all those at the club discovered just how much work was involved, and that being a big non-League name was no guarantee of success.
Club founder Parry, tired of getting personal abuse from fans and struggling to juggle his football and music commitments, soon quit the board, although he continues to attend AFC matches and has since been made life president. Success came in the form of the divisional cup in each of their first two campaigns, but promotion eluded them, causing manager Derek Goulding to resign shortly before the end of last season. His replacement, the former Worcester and Southport goalkeeper Paul Moore, has enjoyed a steady start, and AFC are well placed to go up this year.
Yet while the club have stabilised, crowds have dropped. Attendances have never reached FC United or AFC Wimbledon levels – the record is 723 – but the average home gate fell from 316 in the first season to 138 in the second. "I think people tried us at first as a bit of a novelty," says Stirrup, a civil servant by day. "Some have stuck around, some haven't. But I think crowds will rise if we go up." Maybe AFC Liverpool have fallen between two stools. Premier League fans can find the spartan comforts and crowds at this level something of a shock, while Merseyside's non-League enthusiasts have long had a clutch of other clubs to follow within relatively easy reach.
Those running AFC, though, are no less determined to press on. Ground talks with Liverpool City Council are progressing, and the club are exploring ways of raising around £400,000 for a 1,000-capacity home by 2013. In addition, AFC recently secured a training base in the city, with an agreement to use facilities at the North Liverpool Academy secondary school and sixth-form college.
And, despite all the early setbacks, AFC remain ambitious. "I would like to see us become the biggest non-League club on Merseyside over the next ten years," Stirrup says. "We had a tough start, but we've been through everything and we're still here."
From WSC 287 January 2011