With the widening gap between professional football clubs and their fanbases, combined with matchdays being off limits to supporters for over a year now, many have turned their attention to non-league football in an attempt to rekindle the love and connection with the game that has been all but lost.
The North East has a large number of clubs and many have seen ex-Newcastle United season ticket holders join their fanbase as they look to find what every football supporter wants to see from their club - hope, pride, passion and respect.
In one of social media's great recent stories, it is a club situated 286 miles away from NE1 that has perhaps gained more followers during lockdown than any club closer to home. I spoke with the impressive young woman, largely responsible for this, Elsa Jones.
Named Hanwell Football Club in its initial incarnation, before folding in 1912 due to financial reasons, the club was reformed in 1920 as Hanwell Town by a group of Geordies, demobbed following the end of the First World War and working on projects such as the construction of the A40 and local railways.
Financial issues continued and, coupled with low attendances, meant that the club folded once again in 1927. The links with the North East continued as the Gateshead-born Walker brothers, recently relocated South looking for work due to the depression, transformed the fortunes of the club.
Still nicknamed "The Geordies" and playing in black and white stripes, the club has recently connected with its North East origins once more due mainly to their membership secretary and marketing manager, Elsa.
Elsa, aged just 19, has been involved with the club for six years, just one year after initially attending as a supporter. She manages all season ticket renewals, as well as the club's social media accounts and club shop.
(Elsa with the Hanwell Town players, supporting Level Playing Field)
Described by one of the players as 'someone every non-league football club needs', Elsa won an award as the Rising Star of the Year in the McDonalds FA Grassroots Football Awards for her impact on the club, which saw attendances increase by 22% in 2019/20 from the previous season. In two years, gate receipts have increased 55%, due largely to Elsa's engagement with the local community, as well as raising £2500 last season for local charities along the way. Elsa also penned personalised messages to elderly fans so that they wouldn't feel lonely during lockdown.
The online club shop was set up prior to Christmas 2020 and has already had 170 orders - 120 of which have had Newcastle addresses on the delivery slips. The club shop was previously nothing more than pin badges and hats sold behind the bar but this was taken to another level when COVID lockdown presented new challenges for football clubs and their finances. There are even plans to open a club shop at the ground in the future, with a Geordie Day in the pipeline, to coincide with a Newcastle United away fixture in the capital.
"We're hoping to do that at the beginning of next season and we're praying that there aren't capped attendances, which limited us to 400 people prior to football stopping completely. That was never a problem because we didn't have those attendances anyway but if we're doing this Geordie Day, we'd hate to have to turn people away! So that's something we're keeping an eye on. We'd love to see a load of people in black and white shirts cheering on the players!"
(Toch Singh wearing the famous black and white stripes)
The club is surrounded by many professional football clubs, as well as other non-league clubs and competition for fans is a challenge. Despite this, attendances have increased steadily and pre-lockdown averaged 220 people. Capitalising on professional football's postponement and fan lockout, the club decided to offer half-price season tickets to anyone with a season ticket for a Premier League or English Football League team.
"Something we're seeing is people turning away from the professional game. We've had people give up their season ticket for Fulham, QPR or Brentford and get a Hanwell Town one instead. In the last two or three years, we've established a more solid and consistent fanbase. Where previously we might have had people coming every three or four games, they're here every week now. The club has sixty-five season ticket holders and that guarantee of having at least that number every week is great."
The ground has a large bar and a raised veranda, which is popular in the summer months for supporters to stand on and enjoy a good view of the game while having a drink. With this proving popular, the club expanded it and now have capacity for 150 on the veranda alone. Space isn't a problem for Hanwell Town, with their facilities having capacity for 3000 fans. Over lockdown, the club has bucked the trend of many by gaining supporters, as fans of other local non-league clubs have contacted them to switch allegiance. Elsa puts this down to communication:
"There's a club in our league who haven't put anything on social media since the last game of last season. Their fans aren't responding well to that. They want to know what's going on at the club and at the ground and they're getting frustrated.
We've been really proactive with that. There are people down at the ground every weekend doing improvements. People want to see where their season ticket money is being spent or where their donations are being spent and that's helped us out a bit. Lockdown is when clubs needed to communicate the most. We were sending letters to our older fans, who might not have social media, to keep everyone in the loop and involved. That kind of thing is appreciated."
The club has over thirty youth teams, with around 450 children playing for Hanwell Town. This has established the club with an impressive youth team setup, helped further when other clubs folded due to lockdown and not just their players but their coaches found a new home with them. The club is also looking to access funding to build a 3G pitch, with a view to establishing links with a disability league and already support the charity Level Playing Field.
A Twitter competition in January 2021, pitting teams against each other based on their nicknames, accessed a whole new audience as people became aware of The Geordies.
"Just from that, the club account gained over 1000 new followers, which was mental. From that, we started selling replica kit and they were all going up to Newcastle! We've started selling the Geordie print merchandise and that's gone down really well. That's been our best seller by far. We didn't think our local fans would want it but they've been buying it too. Our local fans love it and love the new connection."
(Trevan Robinson wears the Geordie Print t-shirt - a popular seller on the club shop site)
"The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation followed us on Twitter, so we followed them back, and we also have in our clubhouse a picture of our CEO with Sir Bobby and a signed shirt from a charity event he attended. So it all linked together there and then we saw that you could do this 10 km challenge for the foundation. All of our players could obviously run 10 km because they're really fit but Gareth, who lives about five minutes from the ground, said he'd do it but that 10 km felt too easy as he does that all the time. So he decided to do ten of them!
It sparked a lot of interest and we got the BBC Look North feature. We didn't know when it was airing and I wasn't really thinking about it and then one day we suddenly got twenty orders for the club shop all from the North East and it took me a while to realise what was going on! We're very lucky to have had all the help that we have had. Some of the older people at the club, who don't fully understand social media, didn't really appreciate what us having 1000 new followers in Newcastle meant but once they see something like the news clip, then they get it."
(Gareth Chendlik completing one of his 10 km runs for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation)
"I found out about the Alan Shearer video for Gareth the day before and I was actually at Gareth's house twice that day and I'm terrible at keeping a secret but somehow managed to. Well, I told all the other players but obviously we did manage to keep it from him because that reaction you see from his is genuine. That was the first time he knew about it."
The club's Twitter account had 5087 followers in mid-January and now has 6660, with around 150 added this weekend as the club faced Ilkeston Town in the semi-final of a virtual FA Cup. Losing 30%-70% with a couple of hours remaining, an influx of support from Newcastle United fans saw a dramatic turnaround as Hanwell Town won 55%-45%. An incredible 3164 votes were cast for that semi-final, compared to 714 in the other, which saw Whitley Bay win 75%-25%.
"This latest Twitter competition is having a similar effect in terms of followers, it's crazy! One of the players asked if I was worried about a negative reaction and people supporting their local non-league clubs ahead of us but I never was, to be honest. We're nearly 300 miles away so it's not as though we'd actually be taking supporters from them - you can't just pop down for a Saturday game, can you? The final is April 17th against Whitley Bay so I'm not sure whether we'll still get all of those North East votes that won it for us at the weekend. We'll have to play on the Geordie name, I guess!"
(A selection of photos sent by Newcastle United fans, wearing Hanwell Town merchandise)
Looking forward to a post-lockdown world, Elsa isn't planning on letting the Geordie ties and the new connections with the North East support remain solely online.
"We're in contact with Redcar and Whitley Bay and we're definitely planning on arranging a pre-season friendly next year with at least one North East club. We're hoping to find a sponsor to cover the cost of the weekend but it would be amazing to bring the whole club up and meet some of the Geordies who have supported us online over the last few months. That would be an incredible weekend."
You will often hear people from Newcastle and its surrounding areas say phrases such as, "Once a Geordie, always a Geordie" and "adopted Geordie" and it is usually in reference to ex-players who have bought into the club, the city and the values that the locals hold dear. In that respect, Elsa and all of those at Hanwell Town are adopted Geordies and the historical links between the city of Newcastle and their football club are continuing due to the actions of those involved with the club today.
With their black and white army ever-expanding and plans to both travel up here and host Newcastle fans down there, the bond between North East and South East looks likely to strengthen further. We are the Geordies!