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Sunday, April 4, 2021

CORONA VIRUS TIMES: REAL ALE, HOOLEY AND DODGY JUMPERS

 

A large number of football clubs, large, small and miniscule alike, took to Twitter, Facebook and so on to increase their visibility - and following - during the sport's global hiatus in the early days of the Corona virus pandemic, and have continued to do so. Some have been more successful than others, but most clubs' social media acccounts have seen increases in on-line traffic.

One of them is Dee Rangers, one of the oldest Sunday League sides in the north-west English city of Chester. They are also one of the longest-running Sunday League clubs in the region, having been formed sometime around 1970, and have seen their follower count on Twitter double over the past twelve months to more than a thousand. However, how many of those following Dee Rangers know anything of the club's history?


The current Dee Rangers club crest; it gives a nod to elements of the club's earlier crests

Well, if you are one of the throng following the Hoops, as they are otherwise known, fear not. Let us embark on an interesting trip down memory lane - one with which any number of Sunday League clubs will no doubt identify - with none other than current first-team player-manager Ryan Williams. Williams has been manager for the last eight years, having joined the club as a player back in 2002, but the club itself first saw the light of day as Stonebridge FC in 1970 (although Williams concedes as it may have been earlier, but club records only date from 1970) before they changed their name to The New Inn in 1976. Six years later, another name change saw the birth of Dee Rangers as we know it.

There was a good reason behind the name change to Dee Rangers, as Williams explains.

"In early 1982, the 'four fathers' of Dee Rangers met in a Handbridge [local suburb of Chester] pub for a chat about setting up a new team. Pete Chaloner, and perhaps another two out of the group, was playing for The New Inn, but was aware that the club was on its last legs and was in debt to the tune of £80 - a fair amount in the early 80s and which is roughly £240 in today's money. 

Dee Rangers in the late 1980s

"Back then, there were 4 divisions of 12 teams and a waiting list for any potential new teams. The easiest way to get into the Chester & District Sunday League was to join an existing team, or, as in this case, take one over! Pete, Kerry Driver, Paul Spruce, Bev Tilling & Phil Thacker decided to come together and clear the debt, thus assuming control of The New Inn FC. They completed the season under that name wearing their yellow kit.

"When the 1982-83 season started, they had appealed to Cheshire FA and the league to change the club's name and had purchased a brand new - this is questionable given they paid virtually nothing for it - all sky-blue kit. Dee Rangers was born."

A few years later, the club adopted a blue and white hooped kit in the style of QPR, and these have been the club colours ever since, and the shirt, naturally enough, became the source of the team's nickname - the Hoops.


 Dee Rangers' Jon Wainwright, creator of the club's "The Onion Bag" fanzine, which saw the light of day in the early 1990s

In the early 1990s, one of the Dee Rangers players, Jon Wainright, who had joined the club when he was fifteen years old and went on to score more than 130 goals for the Hoops, produced a fanzine on a regular basis called The Onion Bag, and wrote about the club, the local area and real ale, which was rather popular amongst the playing staff at the time, a fine tradition which continues to this day. Wainwright, who was the first player inducted into the Dee Rangers Hall of Fame, sold copies of the fanzine at Chester City games, and the venture proved so successful that the club were able to buy a new set of kit from the proceeds. (Wainwright was the youngest player to appear for the Hoops until forward Norbert Lepucki made his debut, also aged 15, some while back.)

The club spent many years playing at Chester's Coronation Fields in the city's Hoole Park, but are currently elsewhere. Williams: "We currently play at Limewood fields in Hoole, Chester while we await or 3rd return to our spiritual home on Hoole Park otherwise known as Coronation Fields (Hoop Park we like to call it). The changing rooms are currently being renovated and our absence is now in its 5th season after some....attacks on the copper piping declared the locally famous William Brown Building [unusable]. It is council owned; we have never owned our own pitch."


 Dee Rangers' mid-90s issue team photo 

The club celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary as Dee Rangers back in 2017, and did so in typical Hoops fashion, bringing out its own real ale in time for the anniversary bash, which was held at Chester's Deva Stadium - where else? After all, the team is named after the river which runs through Cheshire's county town, and the stadium is named in honour of Deva Victrix, the original Roman fort which later became the town, and then the city, of Chester.

Rangers currently runs two teams; their first, or open-age, team currently plays in Section B of the Chester & District Sunday League, whilst their Veterans team, founded in 2013, competes in the Chester & Wirral Saturday League Veterans Division. Bev Tilling, one of the club's founders and its first goalkeeper, still makes the occasional cameo appearance in goal for the Veterans, and lines up alongside first-team striker Andrew Fowlie's father.

Not that the first team have been seeing much action over the past year or so, unfortunately; the manager said that "last season was null and void; we only managed to complete 4 league games due to the weather and COVID. But, amazingly, we qualified for two cup semi-finals and a quarter-final, all of which were voided.


 Dee Rangers in 2006

"This season, we currently sit in mid-table, but again have only played a handful of games. We're once again in a semi-final and a quarter-final, and we are drawn in both games against higher-division opposition. The last cup game we played was a classic. We went through on penalties after a fantastic 3:3 game against Tarvin - real headline stuff, full of drama."

Perhaps Rangers will soon get the chance to take to the field and add to what is a pretty meagre collection of trophies: two, to be exact. They won Section C of the Chester & District Sunday League back in 1989, and had to wait thirty years for their next honour, the 2018-19 Chester Mini League, a competition which came about because the league found itself with an odd number of teams and decided to split it in two. They have finished as runners-up in various league competitions down the years - "Always the bridesmaid, I'm afraid", says Williams.

Continuity plays a large part of the club's ethos, as the manager explains. "We have had five first team managers since Pete [Chaloner] started the team in 1982 - of which I am the current one and the third longest serving, creeping up on second place as I approach a decade in the job. I still play now but generally only get a handful of appearances. I've had an injury over the past couple of years that I've never recovered from.

  
Dee Rangers before - or after (??) - a game against CDS in early 2018

"I'm entering my ninth year as a players and eighth as player-manager. And, of course, I get to turn out for the Vets now - if my wife lets me have two days at the weekend", he laughs.

And now, the club are planning to take their ethos a stage further with the set up of another team, as Williams explains: "With so many of our current first team now having children under 6, I have recently stopped coaching a Under-16 team and have been talked into setting up a Mini-Kickers' style Mini-Dee to coach the foundations of movement and football - of course my son will win MOTM every week.."

Williams and everybody else connected with the club still keep in touch with their former players, including the club's 'four fathers', as he explains. "Each year we hold an annual Legends Day where the veterans and players from yesteryear take on the current crop - all in memory of a fallen friend taken well too soon: we raise money for Clatterbridge Cancer Charity in memory of Tom Arnold. Chal [Pete Chaloner] and the gang are still in touch with me; they came to Legends Day two years ago and we got them into the squad pictures (see below photo). We aim to somehow complete the 2021 Legends Day between the two squads - dates of course will be very touch and go [because of the effects of the Corona virus]."

 Just some of the team who lined up for Dee Rangers back in 1982 (L-R): Paul Spruce, Kerry Driver, Phil Thacker, Anthony Hart, Jon Wainwright, Gary Palin, Bev Tilling and Pete Chaloner

The Hoops and their manager have plans for the near future, which do not start and finish with Legends Day - "Both squads are set to continue, and hopefully the Mini-Dee will get off the ground when it is safe to do so" - but they haven't sat still over the past year or so. Far from it, as WIlliams told PFB.

"During lockdown, we have tried to be as active as possible - we've had keepie-uppie competitions, video challenges, and plenty of Zoom quizzes. We created a Christmas jumper and sold it to raise money for the homeless." Featured on the Christmas jumper was none other than Hooley, a cartoon mascot which, Williams said, "appeared in random places during the '90s and made a return this gone year for the limited-edition jumper."  


The one and only Hooley, Dee Rangers' cartoon mascot, who recently came out of retirement

"The virus and lockdowns have taught me and the club committee (mostly me and my miserable brother, who is club captain) that people do want to stay involved and want to be a part of something, we are planning on some new and interesting ways of keeping players and past players involved as life returns to normal. 

"Hosting pub quizzes, bringing back the annual golf tournament that hasn't been seen since before I took over, a WAGs night - because, truth be told, they are putting up with a lot of moody lads not playing football right now - and a few more things including the development of our social media use. We have even started a YouTube Channel, so content will hopefully become more engaging for those not with us every week for whatever reason."


 Dee Rangers before an away game last season against Upton YC

Right now, the club has also been taking part here and there in Twitter polls and recently undertook a virtual pub crawl of their old (and new) haunts in Chester. (Whether Hooley made an appearance during said pub crawl has not been documented.) The last twelve months or so have formed one of the most interesting periods in modern-day football history, if not always for the right reasons, and one of the most innovative for a great many clubs, not least Dee Rangers, a club which has seen two name changes and two new set-ups since its original creation as Stonebridge FC back in 1970, if not earlier. The Hoops will celebrate the club's fortieth anniversary under the name of Dee Rangers next year, and will, one hopes, continue to develop and innovate well into the future. What they will do to commemorate their forthcoming milestone remains to be seen, but you can be fairly sure that there will not be a dry glass left in the house. Just as it should be.

SQUAD-LIST

GOALKEEPERS: 1 Joe YORK; Hayden BAINS

DEFENDERS: 2 Dr. Andy ROWNTREE; 17 Nathan HICKSON; Sam RUSSELL; Jason LUCAS; Alex BELL; Andrew GRAVES; James ELLAMS; Oli LEADBETTER; Jake SHAW

MIDFIELDERS: 6 Dewi ADAMSON; 8 Jordan WILLIAMS (CAPT.); 10 Craig DAVIES: 11 Liam JONES; 20 Gary WILSON; Dan TATE; Craig ROGERS; Kev GARDNER

FORWARDS: 7 Nik HORABIN; 9 Andy HARRISON; 21 Adam WILSON; 23 Ryan WILLIAMS; Andrew FOWLIE; Norbert LEPUCKI; Alex WEBSTER; Ben SACHE

13 MAN OF THE MATCH - Reserved for the MOTM to wear to the pub

MANAGER: Ryan Williams

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Dee Rangers' Ryan Williams for his immense assistance with the above article. All photos/images were supplied by Dee Rangers.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

CORONA VIRUS TIMES: THE KINGS OF TWITTER

The last year or so has brought a great deal of misery, hardship and uncertainty for many people, and it is in large part thanks to the Corona virus. Football has not escaped its clutches, with league of all standards the world over being cancelled or, at best, interrupted. Due to the financial constraints heaped upon them by losing revenue because of the footballing hiatus currently being experienced in a number of countries, large number of clubs have mothballed or simply ceased to exist. 

Yet, for other clubs, 2020 was a time to regroup and, in some ways, expand. One of them is a Sunday League side from the English county of Berkshire, just to the west of London, who have emerged as the kings of Twitter thanks in no small part to their dynamic social media presence, which has seen them increase their following on the social media giant from a couple of thousand to more than 11000 in the space of two years or so.

The club hails from Caversham, now a suburb of Reading but once a town in its own right which was in southernmost Oxfordshire until 1911, when it was transferred to Berkshire and became part of Reading county borough. Caversham United, nicknamed the Billy Goats, were founded in 2015, but can trace its history back to 1996 when it was founded as RBC Unison. The club joined the Reading and District Sunday League, later going under the name FC Brettle, and was also known for a time as Miah's FC before yet another name-change in 2010, when it went under the name AFC Palmer.

Club manager Paul Gutteridge, one of only two remaining Caversham United members from its time as AFC Palmer and the man behind its social media boom, explained the reasoning behind the most recent name-change from AFC Palmer to Caversham United, which turned out to be much more. "In June 2015, the current management took over the club following the worst season in the club’s history, achieving just 4 points in the bottom division. Just two players from the 2014-15 team remain at the club now, both of whom now form part of the club committee. June 2015 saw the club change management, name, badge and kit, so essentially formed a new club."

On the pitch, the club's name might have changed but its fortunes didn't, remaining in the lowest reaches of bottom division of the Reading and District Sunday League and on the verge of folding once and for all. In the autumn of 2018, during the club's promotion season, Gutteridge, who described himself as being "a bored commuter-cum-Twitter admin" back then, decided to ramp things up a bit on social media, and this ultimately brought results on the pitch.

"The idea of using social media was initially to increase our recruitment of players, following a challenging 2017-18 campaign which decimated the squad. Then, seeing the engagement from teams like AS Roma’s English account, we thought we would try to become more active too. The club began to pick up a few verified followers, with the likes of AS Roma and Bayer Leverkusen among the ranks, and never looked back!" 

Gutteridge, who not only leads the way on Twitter but is also the team's player-manager, has a Twitter partner-in-crime in striker Joe Hales, who, in his manager's words "tends to head up the brilliant graphic design and illustration work" social media-wise (and, like Gutteridge, sits on the club committee). Having successfully attracted enough new players to bolster their squad for the new season to twenty-six, they and the rest of the committee decided to give the club a bit of a Twitter-inspired overhaul as well: "In November 2018, we launched a series of Twitter polls to decide a new club crest, club nickname and also a new home kit."


 

The new club badge featured the River Thames, which splits Caversham from Reading "proper", Caversham Bridge, which links the two parts of the city, and a goat, representing the club's nickname The Billy Goats. The club kit's main feature is, unsurprisingly, the shirt, which is a wonderful mix of purple, blue and white. 

Gutteridge, Hales and everyone else involved with the club haven't let up since, on or off the pitch. They gained promotion to the RDSL's third division in 2019, and find themselves in its top level this year after a bit of reorganisation in the league. Their fortunes off the pitch have mirrored those on it in that time, too.

Two years ago, they had fewer than 100 followers on Twitter. Gutteridge: "In September 2018, we had just 50 or 60 followers. It's just sky-rocketed from there!" Now, Caversham United have over 11000, with the majority of followers linking up in the last year or so since the advent of the Corona virus thanks to the club maintaining a near-constant media presence, connecting with fellow clubs who were unable to play due to lockdown or various other reasons, holding and taking part in many a Twitter poll and posting some eclectic posts. They've also done a lot of charity work, as Gutteridge explains. 

"Since those early days of social media, we’ve gone from strength to strength and aim to use our social media reach in a positive way to engage with and inspire fellow grassroots clubs and to raise money for charity. To date we’ve raised £5,000 for Balls to Cancer in the last 24 months." 

(Balls to Cancer is a British charity which raises money for, amongst other things, male cancer awareness and education, and also for chemotherapy packs to help alleviate somewhat the side-effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The charity also has a couple of holiday homes which, subject to availability, house those cancer sufferers and their families in need of a short break, donates some of the money it receives to hospitals and research organisations, and has also set up a fund with the intention of helping cancer sufferers and their families suffering from financial hardship.)

But, the Billy Goats let their hair down on Twitter as well, with the Wheel of Misfortune being rolled out on occasion and lots of cheeky banter being flung around. And then there's the one and only Skid, Caversham United's record signing at a cost of..£25. Gutteridge again: "As well as the charity work, we do like to have a lot of fun with the platform and a cracking example of that is signing a goat, named Skid [see below photo], upon reaching 8,000 Twitter followers. This went down really well on the social media and even featured in Four Four Two magazine and BBC Radio 5 Live!" 

The manager is enthusiastic about the present, and also about the future. The club has plans, but they also remain realistic. "There are definitely plans to expand this football club. 2021-22 should see the emergence of a second Caversham United team, but the details are still being finalised and the specifics are under wraps for now... This is almost certain to happen now, though! 

"Scaling the English Football pyramid, maybe in the style of our friends Hashtag United, isn’t quite on the cards quite yet. The current Caversham United team plays in the Reading and District Sunday League, which in fairness, we have scaled a fair bit. In 2018-19 we were in Division 4 (Tier 6) of the Reading Sunday League. In the current 2020-21 season, we are up to Division 1 (Tier 3). Maybe one day we will make that switch to Saturdays and the official tiers, but not yet.

"Off the pitch, we have loads of plans of course. To continue to raise money for our partner charities is of course high up there. We would also love to hold another charity tournament one day but this summer may come to soon to do it the way we would want to. One thing is for sure though, we will not be quiet and will remain very active!"

Caversham United have just completed a World Cup of Twitter Admins, won by quite possibly the only English non-league club who have had a more meteoric rise on Twitter, Marine AFC, and are now busy whittling down the designs they have received for their proposed new kit. They received some 140 designs, and are currently, yup, holding another poll for the Twitter public to decide which kit the Billy Goats will wear next season. 

Gutteridge would not be drawn on whether his club will hold a World Cup of Blogs, but you can be sure that they will have something else up their sleeves fairly soon. They have helped keep the spirits of many a football fan and many a football club high during the past twelve months, and have helped out charities, too. (They have given their sponsor space on the front of their new shirts to Balls to Cancer, and will be donating money from their shirt sales to the charity.) There is much to admire about the club, both on and off the pitch. They are trailblazers for the smallest of small clubs everywhere, not least on social media. All hail Caversham United, the Kings of Twitter.

SQUAD-LIST

GOALKEEPER: Tom HIG

DEFENDERS: Euan BARKER, Zac DELLOW, Sam FOSTER, Olly FROST, Jack TAPSCOTT, Chris VOELKER, Seb YOUNG

MIDFIELDERS: McBriggs ANTWI-BOASIAKO, Ofori BOATENG, Dave BRAWN, Tom BURNETT, Iain GRAHAM, Paul GUTTERIDGE, Aneal SADIQ, Matthew WEBB

FORWARDS: Caleb ANTWI-BOASIAKO, Lewis DOWNES, Joe HALES, Josh HEMPHREY, Alex JENKINS, Brad PEMBROKE, Conner STURGESS

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Paul Gutteridge, Caversham United player-manager, committee member and Twitter hero, for his help with the above article, and for also for submitting the photos contained within said article.

To find out more about Caversham United, visit: www.cavershamunited.com

To find out more about, or donate to, Balls to Cancer, kindly go to: www.ballstocancer.net