Wanderers FC are a club with a storied origin, and yet they fell off the footballing ladder altogether in the late 19th century. But like a phoenix, they’ve risen (belatedly) from their ashes thanks to the efforts of some dedicated people. Rahul Warrier spoke to Mark Wilson, the club’s General Secretary and Founder of the phoenix club, and Tom Perez, their Head of Media.
Could you bring us through Wanderers FC’s history, and the reasons behind their decline and dissolution?
Mark Wilson: Wanderers were originally called Forest as they were based in Epping Forest, close to where brothers Charles & John Alcock lived. Their family moved south from Sunderland and their father worked in shipbroking. They were pretty wealthy, and the sons were sent to Harrow, where they played sports. At the time, a loose version of football was played inside public schools but, when they left, they wanted to keep playing. They invited friends from other schools, John Pardoe and brothers A and WJ Thompson, to form Forest Club. They played games amongst themselves from 1859 but when there were several clubs up and running they needed to agree on some rules, so that’s why the FA was formed in 1863.
John Alcock and one of the players, AW McKenzie, represented the club but, a year later, the Alcocks fell out – either over the future of the club or John’s divorce – so Charles took the players and created Wanderers. They played at Battersea Park briefly but then settled on the Kennington Oval. Charles became Secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club and then Secretary of the FA so his proposal of the creation of the FA Cup coincided nicely with the club, and the cup finals, finding a home at The Oval.
The club’s success in the FA Cups, winning the first in 1872, and four more between 1873 and 1878, didn’t prevent them from folding; in the south, the wealthy, elite schools soon cottoned on to the popularity of football so set up their alumni teams, such as Old Etonians, Old Wykehamists, Old Harrovians, and Old Foresters, who all competed in early FA Cups. In the north, industrial growth led to the development of football teams for workers, where the businessmen of the day could use their teams to compete with one another and, subsequently, they were forced by player power to illegally pay their players, because professionalism was outlawed until 1885. With the draw of loyalty to their old school or earning a living, Wanderers couldn’t attract enough players and by 1887 they ceased to exist.
Why did it take so long for the club to be reformed?
MW: I don’t think anybody really attempted to reform a club when it’s so easy to just start a new one. Even nine years ago, all you needed was 11 players, 11 shirts, a pitch, and a ball and you could call yourself a team. I think it’s brilliant that the FA are bringing in higher standards now. Since then, clubs have had to pay for insurance, have a written anti-discrimination policy, a bank account, little things that make it better to spot well-run clubs and those who are just mucking about. In terms of Wanderers reforming, we went from a seven-a-side kickabout in Kennington to playing three matches in front of crowds that step 11 clubs would love to have in less than nine months. We weren’t very good and so the first two seasons were just friendlies, but we soon felt it was time to take the club to the next level and join a league.
What was the reasoning behind choosing Wanderers for this project, of all clubs?
MW: I was surprised by the fact that nobody had tried to reform the club before. Initially, we just wanted to play a match against another team in Kennington but when I searched for anyone, all I kept coming across was Wanderers. I found a descendant of the Alcock’s via a genealogy message board and asked her if we could reform the club and she gave us her blessing as long as we were set up to be a community club and support charitable initiatives, which we agreed to.
At the same time, I’d been running the seven-a-side kickabout, which was generating £35 profits each week, and putting it aside. Sadly, you can’t make much of an impact like that, so I approached UNICEF and began a partnership where we operated to raise funds for them. That was the first of many charity partnerships and community initiatives. Using players subscriptions and match fees, we now support the fantastic youth education charity Football Beyond Borders with a decent sum of money each season.
What is the long-term goal at this project, and the motivation behind it?
MW: Personally, I’ve never had the dream of being a professional footballer and frankly, I think people treat football far too seriously, especially a lot of die-hard fans. It’s a great tool for keeping fit, making friends, having a good time, releasing tension, developing new skills, being competitive, testing your limits, and, in our case, generating funds that benefit our community or those less well-off. However, in the long-run, I’d love to make Wanderers a competitive semi-professional club with teams from youth up to veterans of all genders, with our own home ground, a little core of fans who support the teams, and a seat for me in the stand to watch!
The motivation for me isn’t the sporting aspect exclusively but the idea that this is a project that can leave a lasting positive impact on a huge amount of people and I’m excited to see where we can go with it. I’ve managed to steal a place in the men’s first team for a few years and I’m only just getting found out that I’m a terrible footballer after all these years so you never know what you can achieve if you just go for it and hope for the best.
Tom Perez: For me the sky is the limit. I think obviously returning to the FA Cup is a huge dream for all of us, and a nice measurable objective that we all know we can feasibly achieve, if we put our minds to it and build things patiently. It would mean 5 or 6 promotions to get back into the FA Cup preliminary rounds, but with the coaching team we have now and the structures and philosophy they are putting in place, I can see us achieving this within the next 10 years!
I’m just hoping I’m still playing at that point, so I can tell my mates to watch Match of the Day and watch us play! If the Wanderers made it back to the FA Cup, the BBC would definitely take notice, and that would put us back in the public eye again.
However, for me this is not the only goal – just a stepping stone. As Mark said, we want this to be a long-lasting community club that has a hugely positive impact on the lives of players and fans no matter what age, backgrounds or gender. Football should be for everyone, and if we create the kind of football club that makes its local community a better place, even at grassroots level, then I think we can create a blueprint that many other grassroots clubs can follow and even higher-level clubs will have to take notice! Football should not be about making money for shareholders or big business, it should be about bringing people together and sharing the enjoyment of football with everyone!
That wraps up Part 1 of the interview. Keep an eye out for Part 2, which looks at the club’s revival, their journey and goals for the future.