From ISFA Glory to the ninth tier – the 19-year-old OHs running a local football club
By Josh Hood
After Calogero Scannella wrote himself into Hampton folklore by scoring a hat-trick to win the Under 15 ISFA Cup Final in 2015, you could have been forgiven for thinking that he’d reached his footballing peak. Yet now, joined by six colleagues and a loyal legion of established fans, Scannella is at the helm of Walton and Hersham FC – a previously declining non-league team who’ve been taken over by a record-breaking group of seven Old Hamptonians.
Although it’s a very prominent aspect of their lives now, the idea of becoming a “footballing entrepreneur” in the way that Calogero and his six fellow owners have done started out as a “distant prospect” and was often joked about as being “an opportunity to succeed in a real-life Football Manager experience” by the group of Old Hamptonians.
When asked if the well-known online video game resembled his experiences in the past few months in the business, his answer was short and sharp: “No.” He proceeded to explain the vast array of footballing issues related to the job that do not feature on the footballing career simulation, yet still occur on a daily basis for him and his colleagues – from players’ wages to contacting the league organisers over disciplinary matters.
Calogero, who is in charge of the latter, went on to discuss some of the issues in his area of the management process. “There’s an endless ‘to-do list’ in the role” seemed to be the resounding opinion among the seven owners. But with the “relentless atmosphere” of the job, it helps hugely to have “six others” to share the tasks involved.
Equally, from time to time the job can have an element of comedy – particularly on the playing side. “Goalkeepers are a big problem for us,” Calogero tells me. “It’s like a curse. We’ve got through seven since taking over at the club”. There’s a wide variety of causes for this seemingly huge number of keepers that have left during this time period – including disciplinary issues (red cards and suspensions), competition (other clubs willing to give a higher wage) and sheer impatience and dissatisfaction – a lack of tolerance for the club’s early performances.
Later, Calogero explored another challenging aspect of his role. While a crucial factor in the club’s recent good form has been the players’ grounding and ‘down to earth’ mentality, he suggested that, should a successful run develop and promotion become a possibility, other bigger and more financially stable clubs are likely to come swooping in with plenty of appealing offers for the club’s players.
“It happens everywhere,” says Calogero, “from the Vanarama 10thDivision to the Premier League – it’s just inevitable.” But though it’s a permanent feature of the world of football, it can make life difficult for the management of lesser sides, and the effects are even more alarming due to the utter disregard of loyalty at this level of football.
“As all players at this level of football and a number of levels above,” adds Calogero, “play the game as a part-time occupation, passion and integrity often aren’t priorities as much as wages. Therefore, when an exciting offer comes in from a new club, mostly they will leave, and this can be quite costly.”
On top of losing an influential player to the side, this system equally neglects investment in youth, encouraging the idea that better players can be bought by bigger sides for a small sum. So this is another issue to add to all the normal problems that occur at football clubs.
“Having previously been owned by the same family for 50 years (the father for 30 and then his son for a further 20), there was uncertainty for us about how the ‘life-long’ supporters would feel about the situation” he explained. This was especially a problem since the majority of the support was attracted quite a few years ago when the club was at the peak of its success.
However, despite the club’s most recent largely unsuccessful results, the fans took to the new owners’ youthfulness and energy, and they reserved “a great reception” for the aspiring business students. Just as importantly, says Calogero, “the players’ cooperation was key” – and this came equally willingly.
“The boys are all young and the squad is very down to earth, which helps a lot,” adds Calogero while talking about the reasons for their firm grounding. Another crucial aspect of the boys’ success is the sense that arrogance on their part will not help to improve results.
There’s seemingly nothing more you can ask of them if they carry on in this way. On the other hand, despite the very courteous welcome from the existing fans, Calogero couldn’t stress enough the importance of attracting new fans to support the team and keep the business running.
“On the day that the BBC came to film our match,” remembers Calogero, “we opened the gates for free – so our only source of income for that game was through selling programmes”. Compared to the usual attendance of between 400 and 500 people, that day the number of fans shot up to well over 1,000. Of course, these modest moments of success are what makes the role worth taking on.
His favourite of these small-scale achievements was in fact the afternoon on which the game was filmed and broadcast live by the media. Despite missing a penalty and having a player sent off in the tunnel at half time, the game did eventually end in a positive as the Red and Whites scored a last-minute winner to earn three points that they thoroughly deserved.
“One of the best things about it was the fact that it happened in front of so many people in such an extraordinary manner,” observes Calogero, before referring back to the advantages of ticket sales. His strong urge to take advantage of the surge in attendance for the game was immediately addressed as he went on to discuss the Hamptonians’ entrepreneurial vision for the future of Walton and Hersham FC and how to sustain these excellent figures.
The first of his aims involves simply selling more tickets. Having opened the gates free of charge to all the players at Walton Casuals Youth FC (a neighbouring club), he now wants to enforce the same rules for all boys at Hampton School – “which should equally boost attendances”.
Another very interesting part of his job is the psychological side: this new life is very different to his previous experience in football. In spite of the undeniable challenge of his former role as a composed, goal-scoring, match-winning striker for the Hampton U15A team, being in such a unique position as player as well as chairman arguably is an even greater challenge.
“Being able to switch off from the chairman-related distractions can be difficult – but at the end of the day, it is a vital trait to possess if you are going to progress, both personally and as a team.” As is the case in many different circumstances, when he was young Calogero wanted to pursue a football-related career, much as millions of other children around the world.
Although the vast majority do not end up involved in the sport, and even fewer as star players in top leagues, the biggest rarity in ‘the beautiful game’ was in fact created by the seven Old Hamptonians. Having been cleared by the Guinness Book of World Records, their unique achievement has not yet been surpassed elsewhere in the world, making their miraculous accomplishments “one of a kind”.
“Admittedly,” he claims, “it was by no means a childhood vision of mine that had been carefully planned for years, but simply an idea that arose out of nothing at the beginning of this year”. From then on, the enthusiastic entrepreneurs have never looked back, despite the endlessly unpredictable nature of the game.
How long does he think he will continue to invest his time and energy in the club? Calogero explains that his time spent running the side would be based on results that the team can earn rather than a specific time scale.
“Obviously, should everything go to plan and the side sustains a successful spell for a matter of years, we will have to leave eventually. However I would like to think that any change should come about only after we have made a considerable impact on proceedings here, rather than just turned up and disappeared again.”
Although no longer beating his opponent on the wing, or crafting a composed finish on the end of a cross in front of millions on a global stage, have achieved extraordinary feats since leaving Hampton two years ago. While the likes of Lionel Messi can perfect an ability to deliver on the field, it is personalities like the seven committed Old Hamptonians that are just as responsible for the remarkable success of the round-ball game across the globe.
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