Owen Amos on Airbus UK, the Welsh club just trying to go about their business quietly
Everyone knows the joke. The result pops up on Soccer Saturday and, within seconds, someone has cracked it. So, are they dancing in the streets of Airbus UK? They are not, but they are doing all right. The club, in the Welsh Premier League, are based at the huge Airbus aeroplane factory in Broughton, north Wales. The site, which employs 6,000 people, is a mile from the English border, and the ground is tucked away in the south-east corner.
The club were formed in 1946, soon after the factory opened, as a works team playing in local leagues. Their name has changed to suit the owners of the plant: everything from Vickers-Armstrong to British Aerospace. In 1992, they were promoted to the fourth tier of Welsh football. They reached the third tier in 1996, the second tier in 2000 – when the name changed from British Aerospace to Airbus UK – and were promoted to the Welsh Premier in 2004, where they have remained since. From fifth division to first division in 12 seasons. By any standards, it is quite a rise.
The club are no longer a works team. When they first played in the Welsh Premier around half of the players worked at the factory. Now there are none. The company still support the club – as well as providing the ground, they sponsor the team and cover electricity and water bills. "We are not bankrolled," says club secretary Philip Bailey. "Airbus are a huge company. If they bankrolled us, we would be top of the league. We still have to find other sponsors."
That is the thing with Airbus. Despite the name, they are well liked in Wales. The club is not a rich man's plaything and they do not drown the opposition in cash. They are just a works team made good. Most importantly, says Bailey, they are friendly: "Ask anyone in the league who the most hospitable club are, and they'll say Airbus." He tells a story about Dave Cameron's wife. Not that one, the big 36-year-old striker, who used to play for St Mirren, Brighton, Lincoln and Chester, among others. "Cameron came here with Droylsden, for a match last pre-season," says Bailey.
"His wife and kids came along. We gave them a ball to play with. His wife sent an email saying that, in 20 years of following Dave round at football, we were the friendliest club she had come across." That is perhaps why the average gate has reached 225. That may be the second worst in the league, but it is a vast improvement on 2006-07, when it was below 150. Bailey is a lapsed Chester fan, who first watched Airbus in 2004. "At bigger clubs, you are just a number," he says. He became secretary four years ago and has not missed a game since 2007. That includes Haverfordwest County, a club based in Pembrokeshire. "Four and a half hours," he adds, with the certainty of a man who has done it.
In their first two seasons in the Welsh Premier, Airbus avoided relegation by one place. Since then, they have improved, finishing seventh and ninth in the past two seasons. Like all clubs in the league, the aim is Europe. In the new play-off system, this can be done by finishing seventh. "Europe would be absolutely unbelievable," says Bailey. "The occasion, the profile it would give us, everything."
Like ten of the 12 teams in the league, Airbus are part-time (TNS and Neath remain full-time, for now). The players are contracted, though, which means the club receives transfer fees. In January, Airbus sold top-scorer Ian Sheridan to Bala Town for £15,000, after buying him from Colwyn Bay a year earlier for just £2,500. Last year, they sold young striker Jake Cassidy, who had only played for the first team in friendlies, to Wolves for £60,000.
The money from the Cassidy deal allowed Airbus to appoint a full-time commercial director. The ground is coming along, too. There are 512 seats, with plans for another 500, which would allow them to host Wales Under-21 games and European first-round matches – they have already hosted the Victory Shield. The club have five academy sides and a women's team. Airbus are going places, just not at A380 speed.
"We're never going to compete with Chester or Wrexham," says Bailey. "We only have 100 season ticket holders. But our profile is getting higher and higher. You know, I still get asked ‘where is Airbus UK?', especially in south Wales. But these days, not as much."
From WSC 303 May 2012