Rarely does a non-league club capture the imagination of the masses. Mainstream supporters are understandably more accustomed to discussing likely destinations for high-profile strikers – Robin Van Persie or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for instance – or how many millions Manchester City will splash out on any given Sunday.
But ahead of the 2012/2013 season, a flurry of transfer activity a little closer to home might just be the catalyst for one or two eye-catching headlines in the near future.
The story in question: non-league Wembley FC’s signings of David Seaman, Graeme Le Saux, Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, Claudio Cannagia and Brian McBride.
The Lions, who play their home games at Vale Farm and ply their trade in the Combines Counties League, have recruited the veterans in a bid to venture as far as they can into this year’s FA Cup.
And the onslaught of ex-internationals did not originate in the spur of the moment, with the seeds of the current recruitment drive being sown when Budweiser became the club’s official sponsor halfway through last season.
None other than former England manager Terry Venables was then appointed the club’s technical advisor (or director of football depending on the source) and suddenly, the Lions were on the map.
Indeed, recent years have provided significant travails for the Brent-based, including an inability to pay their players. But it would now appear that those days are well and truly over as Wembley FC have undergone a monumental reversal of fortunes.
Budweiser’s sponsorship has opened up new ground and the recent influx of seasoned pros has underlined the new project’s adventurous nature.
‘We’re not a big club but we have big ambitions,’ Chairman Brian Gumm said in wake of the new signings. With Budweiser’s help, those ambitions are being more than met.
It’s not just on the pitch that they have invested, with the beer manufacturer also improving the local Vale Farm Sports Centre. Player-manager Ian Bates believes the initiative ‘shines a light on non-league football, reminding people of the importance of amateur football in contributing to the development of the national game’.
The direction of the project is very clear. Budweiser – also current sponsors of the FA Cup – are looking to re-ignite the magic of the oldest knockout trophy in club football. They have one main objective: for the Lions to provide the greatest of upsets (preferably more than once) and embark upon the mother of all cup runs.
And that is exactly where the unprecedented purchase of a highly experienced band of players designed to engineer progression to the main rounds of the draw comes in.
With the coaching staff already declaring that weekly participation is unlikely for the likes of Parlour and Keown, one must not deliberate too much to realise the players were selected for their know-how and not their match fitness. Lions fans will thus only see their new heroes in a limited capacity.
But this may be the source of several problems.
The FA Cup is known for hunger, fight and passion. Can these new recruits – aged between 39 and 48 – compete with determined young rivals whilst considerably short of consistent game time? And how will players and fans alike feel about the club’s league ambitions if cup football is so clearly prioritized?
The biggest dilemma lies where the first team is concerned. Will members of Wembley’s regular XI – last season’s top scorer Daryl Atkins, defensive stalwart Conor Carroll and even Bates himself, for example – willingly sacrifice a starting place in potentially the biggest game of their lives in favour of a player who has barely played for the club?
These are issues that Bates, Venables and Gumm will no doubt have to give careful consideration. The goal for Wembley FC and Budweiser is clear, but the means that provide the eventual end will require meticulous planning.
Nevertheless, the overall impact of Budweiser’s investment is undoubtedly beneficial. Four of the aforementioned signings have won the FA Cup – Seaman, Parlour and Keown with Arsenal and Le Saux with Chelsea. McBride and Canaggia, meanwhile, have enjoyed illustrious careers and also represented their countries on the international stage.
For a non-league club to have signed players of such calibre is nothing short of a miraculous coup.
So with Wembley Stadium only a short drive from Vale Farm, perhaps Lions players can now play their football with one eye cast over the arch in wonder.
Only time will tell if we will see the stuff of Hollywood – but if Wembley FC can deliver on their ambitions, we might just see the start of a fairytale run and the romance of the FA Cup may be somewhat rekindled.
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