A SUNDAY league team from Chester is bucking a national trend by thriving while other clubs around them struggle for survival.
AFC Hilton, formed in the summer by staff and friends from the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel, have enjoyed an encouraging start to life in the Chester Sunday League, losing only one of their first five games in Chester Chronicle Section B.
The club is in a position of strength both on and off the pitch – but the same cannot be said of other sides in the area.
In the past 12 months, the likes of Bromfield Arms, Frodsham Red Lion, Lache Park BA and Carlton have resigned from the League – for a variety of different reasons – while many others continue to find it difficult to survive.
But club officials at AFC Hilton believe Sunday league football still has an important part to play in the community.
Blacon-based club secretary and treasurer John Hibbert said: “It’s been great to see our idea come to fruition. We’re a good, young side and there’s a great mix of hotel workers and other players.
“We have a good foundation and encourage people to come along and get involved.
“Finances are always the main source of problems for most teams and we’re lucky that Hilton Hotels have sponsored us in getting kits and paying for league fees, etc.
“We’ve even been able to look to the future by raising £200 for Handbridge Youth Centre.”
Hibbert is part of a close-knit team which runs AFC Hilton, along with manager Tony Watts, chairman Peter Hendry and captain Scott Davies. They play their home games at the Cheshire County Officers ground in Upton.
Hibbert says the Hilton model for success takes inspiration from supporter-owned phoenix club Chester FC.
“The demise of old pub football, which was the root of Sunday league, has been a problem,” said Hibbert, a taxi driver for KingKabs. “But clubs like ours are not all about football and, having seen Chester FC turn their club around, we think the same can be done in amateur Sunday football.
“So I’d love to hear from other clubs in the league about maybe having a meeting to help other new teams form for next season.”
Graham Johnson, chairman of the Chester Sunday League, believes the emergence of AFC Hilton provides a welcome drop of good news amid seemingly constant apathy towards amateur football, particularly at Sunday league level.
He said: “New clubs are not coming forward really, but it is a national problem.
“When our league began in 1963 we actually used to have too many sides. Now we dread the day when we won’t have a league at all.”
Johnson, a long-serving league official, can reel off a long list of reasons for players losing their passion for Sunday morning football.
They range from the rise of Sky Sports to the recent credit crunch which left many amateur footballers out of work and also forced the closure of numerous pubs which once formed the bedrock of the Sunday game.
Johnson said: “Nowadays, due to finances and changing lifestyles, other forms of entertainment, shops being open on Sundays and more and more professional games being shown on TV, numbers of players and clubs have dropped.
“Also if people are out of work then they can’t pay their subs and many clubs used to be funded by local pubs – but pubs are closing down by the minute.
“I don’t know what the answer is but we can’t do any more to encourage teams to join the league.”
He added: “My advice to anyone starting a new club is to be organised and get enough people around you to help you to take on the load.
“Football clubs are not cheap and it’s hard to be a one-man band and to wash the kit, collect the subs, pay the referees and league fees, organise the training and manage the team, all on your own.”
Hilton man Hibbert is now determined to see his fledgling side mature, continue to enjoy their football and to all muck in – so they avoid becoming another statistic.
He added: “There’s been a lot of issues for clubs regarding availability of players and sponsorship and so I believe that amateur football would benefit from an extra pot of funds being available for sport locally.
“But we’re made up with our progress and we won’t be dropping out the league any time soon.”
For information about joining the Chester Sunday League contact Graham Johnson on 01244 373154.