Dan Lodge, head of PR and media at FAWNL Division One SW side Cheltenham Town Ladies spoke to Ben Gilby about the challenging times of the past 14 months and how they are planning to broaden their supporter base further to aim for Tier Three.
Dan began out conversation by outlining the journey that women’s football has taken at the Gloucestershire side. “The club has seen the highs and lows over its 32-year history. It started out originally, as a five a-side team and eventually joined the South-West Combination League finishing runner-up in the league a few times. I don’t know a huge amount about those times, as we’re talking 2000 or 2001, maybe 2002 and there’s not a lot of information available. In 2012/13 the club won promotion to the newly created FA Women’s National League Division One South West and despite a few relegation scares always managed to avoid the drop. Things changed in 2018, Alex Cheal came in as the new manager and made some changes and the club started competing, finishing fourth in 2018/19. We were also fourth in 19/20 before the season was voided, so the club has seen a lot of ups and downs.”
The club have now seen two successive seasons in National League Division One South-West rendered null and void due to the coronavirus pandemic. I asked Dan how the club has coped with such a tough period.
“It’s been frustrating. The players certainly aren’t used to it, although I’m fairly sure that’s the case for everyone. For the players, I’m sure it has a huge impact because they’re so used to being out in all types of weather being active and playing games and there’s the social side of it too and I think the social side of it, being out and able to see friends probably has a really underappreciated value.
“Behind the scenes, it’s made things a little bit more difficult. We don’t have quite as many sponsors coming on board as last season, as a lot of places are having to pull back on spending. That said, we are an amateur club anyway, so nobody gets paid for what we do, so we don’t have that wages aspect to worry about. The problem is training facilities coming out of the various lockdowns. We train in the evenings, so we need floodlights, but the places we normally train like Tewkesbury School, All Saints Academy and Hartpury College aren’t opening back up to the public just yet. So, we’re having to pay for training facilities as we would normally do, except there are fewer facilities open and the same number of teams all searching for a timeslot.
“It’s the same for matches too. I know we aren’t playing games at the moment, but chances are, if we do, they’ll be behind closed doors. So, we won’t have the income from supporters or from food and drink sales to help with covering the cost of booking facilities. I’d say we’re doing OK, but everything just feels that little bit tighter financially.”
Apart from coronavirus, one of the biggest issues facing the club is growing the number of supporters at their games – something which has only been made worse by the pandemic. “Our attendances were on the rise season after season, we were bringing in new sponsors, on the pitch performances and scores were going great and the pandemic has slammed the breaks on all of that a little bit. The 2019 Women’s World Cup was a big driver in promoting overall interest in the club and fans began to get behind their local side. Women’s football in general I think, was riding the wave of the World Cup and attracting new fans. We actually had one supporter tweet us and say he’d never been to a Cheltenham Town Ladies game before the start of that season, and up to that point, and I think maybe until the season was voided, he didn’t miss a home game. So that was fantastic to hear. We just need to make sure we continue the hard work and encouragement of women’s football after the lockdown and after the pandemic too.”
So, we’re now having to try and reach further and almost start over again from scratch. That said, our attendances this season were still higher than they were in 2017/18, so we’ve had more people interested during a pandemic than there were out of one in 2018, which is great to see. I can only imagine what our figures would be like had Covid-19 not hit! I’m taking that as a great sign of a bright future.”
The club’s links with the men’s side who play in the fourth tier of the men’s professional league are, as Dan explains, “basically an affiliation. We’re a fully independent club, we have our own matchday venue, training venues, our own board of directors, our own website, and social media. We do work with them and we are building bridges to work together even more year on year, it’s just hard at the moment with us not being able to play games.
“They are very hospitable towards us, they’ve let us play some big games at Whaddon Road, they’ve let us have the same kit as the men’s, in 2018/19 and 19/20 they provided kit for both our senior teams. And in 2020/21 they’ve arranged for us to have a version of the brand-new kit, but with our own sponsors. We could always do more together, and I get on really well with Joycie (Richard Joyce of Cheltenham Town FC), and their media team and interns do a great job covering us, so it’s a good relationship. We work with them when we can, but we can also do our own thing, so it’s flexible but it works.”
Prior to the campaign being rendered null and void, Cheltenham Town were having a decent season in the fourth tier FA Women’s National League Division One South-West.
“It had been positive. We were sat in mid-table. One win and you could be up to third, one loss and potentially down to eighth or ninth. But the performances had been good, our opening day game against Chesham United had us all on edge and I think we all let out a good sigh of relief at the final whistle because it was unbelievably tight. A couple of other results didn’t go our way, but with FA Cup games included, we managed to go on a little bit of a run with positive results. And things, hopefully, will only continue to improve us. We had lots of new players and a new style from last season, so that naturally takes time to gel. I think we need to make the most of our time off the back of lockdown to tighten things up if they need it, maybe shake some of the rust off and get back into the swing of things, but once we have, I feel things will turn a corner over the next couple of seasons and we can make promotion to – and our survival in – FAWNL Southern Premier a real aim.”
“Promotion to tier three I think is a goal for this group of players and we’ve been able to take steps to improve the club with that as a goal. We recently held interviews for a General Manager, and we’ve actually ended up with two extra roles because the candidates were so good. We’ve now got a General Manager, a Commercial Manager and a Matchday Operations Manager, all of which have different things they bring to the table and can hopefully contribute very well to the future of the club and make us a more rounded organisation. Getting those improvements to infrastructure in place will really help us grow in the long term.”
Like any club, the pathway for youngsters coming through to the first team is hugely important. Dan outlined what it is like at Cheltenham Town: “The pathway is pretty good, I think. There’s been a few players that have made it to the senior level. For instance, Holly Rogers, who recently returned from a spell at Boldmere St. Michael in Birmingham, came up through the ranks, as well as Annabel Davies who had a couple of years in the first team. At the moment our Development Team is packed with youth system products, the likes of Hannah Dix, Leah Rhodes, Amie Boyce and Elle-Mae Simpson all instantly spring to mind. So, the pathway definitely does offer a way up to senior football, all the way from Under 8’s I think the youngest year group is.”
Like any club, Cheltenham Town can only function and prosper due to a group of core volunteers. “Obviously, the players go out there and work hard and bring back the results,” said Dan. The coaching staff and managers who go through the details with a fine-toothed combe and make sure no rock is unturned, there’s Darren Johnson and Evie who work in the shop serving tea and coffee, and if you ever saw them at half-time you’d know exactly why they deserve a mention! The media team do a fantastic job of covering us, both for our own coverage and for Cheltenham Town FC. And then there’s the chairman, and the secretary who sort mountains of paperwork and make sure everything is ticking over and nothing is rocking the boat. Everybody, from the chairman to the girls who work on the gate collecting money, it’s a real team effort and there’s a lot of people behind the scenes making sure everything goes to plan without a hitch who don’t get a mention.”
With, hopefully the first signs of the end of the pandemic on the horizon, we ended our chat by focusing on what Dan’s aims are for the sport and Cheltenham Town more specifically over the next five years or so.
“I’d love to see women’s football grow further, especially at our level. I’ve been involved in women’s football for about four years and it’s great. It would be fantastic to see women’s football in this country grow and I think it will continue to do and the further generations will carry it on as they grow up with more and more exposure being given to the women’s game. Eventually it’ll just become the norm, hopefully. I’d also like to see the FA Women’s National League get more exposure, as the Super League and Championship get a lot of coverage.
“For the club, it’s a tricky one…. Obviously, I’d like to see us get promoted if possible. But it’s always a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. We’ve all seen clubs in the past, like Blackpool or Yeovil Town in men’s football, who skyrocket up the leagues but can’t sustain it and the decline is almost as rapid as the rise. So, we have to make sure we avoid that.”
“Naturally, we want to build the club and we want to compete at a good level and see how far this club can really go. That said, from my standpoint as Head of Media, if we can’t go forwards, then we definitely don’t want to go backwards. So as long as we’ve got a real stability in the club and we’re able to steadily grow and maintain what we have, and if we can build our fan base and give Cheltenham Town Ladies fans a good time on a Sunday afternoon, then happy days, that’s fantastic. I’d be more than happy with that.”