Whys and Wares

Ryman League Division One North isn't normally awash with transfer scandal, however intrigue is rife after Ware FC lost manager, assistant, physio and the entire playing squad in less than a season. Si Hawkins reports

West Ham and Portsmouth fans may have spent the winter transfer window ­worrying about losing their finer players to ­better-off rivals, but at least those players left one by one, and for hefty fees. Far below the Premier League, in a leafy home counties commuter town, followers of the once upwardly-mobile Ware FC entered the new year bemoaning the loss of an entire squad, the manager, his assistant, and even the physio. Rarely can a promising club have unravelled so quickly.

Last season the Hertfordshire side were the toast of Ryman League Division One North. As the lowest-ranked club in the FA Cup first round proper they acquired a soupçon of national press coverage and even an invite to Soccer AM’s Crossbar Challenge that, admittedly, didn’t go too well. The Cup run was the culmination of a useful spell of progress under ambitious coach Glen Alzapiedi, who had guided the club to a rare promotion the year before. His pleasing ball-playing side were riding high in the current campaign too, until the sudden split in early December.

Alzapiedi had long been tipped for a move up the divisions, but his eventual destination was hardly a momentous leap: Harlow Town, struggling at the bottom of the division above and on course to swap places with Ware at season’s end. That became rather less likely when five of Ware’s better players then followed him to Essex, and the rest of the squad left for varying pastures.

Clearly something had gone amiss. The FA’s “notice of approach” rule prohibits clubs stealing significant numbers of another team’s staff, and it soon became apparent that Harlow had done nothing of the sort, with Ware actually precipitating the departures. Arguments over wage cuts were the major sticking point. Alzapiedi announced that he’d actually been told to resign, chairman Aiden Mynott called the departing players “naive”, and the usually sedate local papers were awash with intrigue.

The club messageboard became similarly contentious, with contributors’ scapegoats differing depending on their closeness to club and players. Player/fan disputes in the Ryman tend to be more interactive than  in the higher echelons and several ex-players responded to claims of disloyalty in full and frank fashion. “There are a few things that have completely changed my opinion of the club,” admitted midfielder Joe Stevens in his parting address. “The money cuts was just the icing on the cake.”

Mynott blamed the belt-tightening on the global economic downturn but such concerns came as a surprise to long-term followers, as the club seemed to be doing well off the pitch too. Ware were provided with a smart new stadium in 1996 after previous ground The Buryfield was acquired by the town’s biggest employer, a leading pharmaceuticals company. (The site was rumoured to be an old burial ground for plague victims, so if the plague ever re-emerges and Glaxo Smithkline provides the remedy, well, you read it here first.)

The new ground’s function room/bar seems busy enough. League games are occasionally accompanied by ramshackle versions of indie classics as local bands rehearse next door, and a high-profile comedy club attracts punters from further afield every month. (Popular opening gambit from guest compère: “Any footballers in?” Cue blank faces from audience and ten minutes of pre-­prepared material down the toilet.)

And then there’s the thousands won from that Cup run. Ware fans aren’t ones for showy demonstrations though, and despite some disgruntlement crowds have remained surprisingly healthy. The club were high enough in the table to entice new staff and incoming manager Dennis Greene immediately impressed by conjuring up a side in a matter of days, including several ex-Harlow players.

That staved off the threat of cancelled games, and the subsequent hefty fines, which might well have proven an insurmountable hurdle. “I was really worried over Christmas that it was the end of the club altogether,” admits supporters’ club spokesman Pete Miller.

Admittedly the cobbled-together side have lost most of their games since the turnaround, but performances are improving and the many points won before Christmas should tide Ware over for the rest of this season. The realistic Miller admits that “the glory days are probably over, for the time being” but while the club’s once-lofty ambitions have been downsized, the foundations for a moderately successful non-League side remain firm. Much firmer than in those plague-pit days, anyway.

From WSC 265 March 2009