AFC Telford United: The club that lived on
Talk about the first day of the rest of your life – then know just how uncertain the future was when the first seeds of the 'new' AFC Telford United were sown.
It's a decade to the date – Thursday, March 25, 2004 –when fans were left stunned by the news their club was bankrupt, giving birth to a new entity which they now own.
The collapse of 100 per cent shareholder Andy Shaw's business empire that was bankrolling the club, which was operating in non-league's top flight, spelled disaster.
Shaw's bold claims when he joined the board as chairman in 1998 that Telford would be in the Football League within five years had completely failed to bear fruit.
In fact, it looked to all intents and purposes that there might not be any football at all by the end of it, having coined the 'Bucks' nickname from their Lilywhites moniker.
They now had a new ground, built in 2000, and an estimated £640,000 of immediate debt, with £64,000 needed just to finish the season.
The only option was to reform when possible. That was clear from day one.
Shaw immediately resigned, having funded the club from his own pocket during his reign, some estimating to the tune of £1 million every season.
The players at the club agreed to take a 50 per cent wage deferral, with manager Mick Jones even agreeing to work for the rest of the season for free, however bleak the situation looked.
He said at the time: "I can't see a benefactor coming in, this club is as close as any club at any level has been to going out of existence."
The situation on that very first day left everyone associated with the club reeling, but they still had an FA Trophy semi-final at home to Canvey Island to contend with two days later.
That was the last thing on the players' minds as the Thursday was also transfer deadline day with Sam Ricketts, goalkeeper Chris Mackenzie and Stuart Whitehead all parachuting out.
The one that stayed on until the bitter end and then joined the reformed outfit was defender Neil Howarth, who joined the coaching staff to prepare himself for life in the back-room.
It turned out to be a wise decision, as he went on to become Mark Yates' assistant manager at Kidderminster Harriers and, today, in the Football League with Cheltenham Town.
Now 42, he said: "We came in and was told something had gone wrong with the chairman's business and the Thursday was, if I remember rightly, transfer deadline day.
"The club was trying to be fair but it was a proper worrying time because, when the deadline had gone, there was no chance of getting fixed up anywhere else.
"But I had to go home to my wife and kids and tell them that the money we had already spent had been cut and a couple of months later would be gone completely.
"It was always apparent that the old club would go into liquidation and then be reformed, but placed well down the non-league pyramid, at a level I had never been at.
"I was the only one to stay when they reformed the following season which, on the other side of the coin, was an exciting time, as we were getting bigger crowds."
"Dropping down to that level was a bit of a step into the unknown but I was lucky enough to get my first coaching job with the new club."
Telford fans rallied around in large numbers, raising around £50,000 in two months. A small band of them were even going from pub to pub around the club's hometown of Wellington with buckets on that first day, starting a fundraising drive.
They flocked to Joshua's Bar, on the site of the New Bucks Head, that very night where one of their own, Lee Carter, was first appointed to an active role behind-the-scenes.
The club was liquidated on May 27 but that wasn't the end, instead giving birth to a fans-owned model which has proved to be envy of many of their peers.
Life in the fast lane with Bucks Head boys:
There's been more ups than downs since the 'new' AFC Telford United's journey began 10 years ago today with more thrills and spills to come.
The new club's first manager, Bernard McNally, arrived in the close season and, with the ground lease and assets secured, they were ready to play.
They were placed in the Northern Premier League Division One by the Football Association, in a year where Conference North and South were formed.
They first kicked a ball away from home in pre-season against Newtown, with their first league game on August 21, 2004 at home to North Ferriby United.
Alfie Carter scored the club's first league goal with just 14 minutes gone, but they found themselves 2-1 behind at the break, in a league they were meant to walk.
Carter equalising from the penalty spot with three minutes to go ensured their first day would not end in defeat and they went on to reach the play-off final.
The visit of Kendal Town to the New Bucks Head drew 4,215 people, a record in that league, with goals from Roy Jordan and Sean Parrish sealing a 2-1 victory.
Promotion in their first season was expected of the club but defender Neil Howarth, the only player to stay from the old club's squad, reckons they had to work hard.
He said: "We were playing against teams which had average attendances of about 70 or 80 people, so it was everyone's cup final when Telford came to town.
"Teams were turning up at the New Bucks Head with cameras taking pictures and they were so up for it, which made it difficult to play against them."
It started the crest of a wave that resulted in a second promotion in three years on May 5, 2007, again through the play-offs with a 3-1 win at Witton Albion.
The club did not get the title they wanted, losing 2-1 to Burscough on the last day of the season in front of their still club-record crowd of 5,710 spectators.
Smith's men were 2-0 down and counting after goals from Kevin Leadbitter and Ciaran Kilheeney, with Justin Marsden's reply not enough to avoid defeat.
So Witton it was away from home and there would no mistake this time as strikes from Lee Moore, Chris Cornes and Steve Foster led the club to promotion.
They won their first silverware since reforming on April 9, 2009, defeating home side Forest Green Rovers at the New Lawn on penalties after a goalless 90 minutes.
Telford goalkeeper Ryan Young was hero, saving all three spot kicks as Jon Adams, Mark Danks and Gavin Cowan converted to hand the club the Setanta Shield.
The ultimate goal was promotion to the league they occupied before folding and they finally did it in dramatic style during 2010-11, at home to Guiseley. Some 5,436 fans were sent delirious by Phil Trainer's injury-time winner.
They would spent two seasons in the Conference Premier before returning to the North with last season's record-breakingly bad relegation campaign.
They sit on top of the league today, looking to make an instant return to non-league's top flight. It's increasingly clear it's where the club belong.
By Craig Birch
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