ALNWICK Town are back where they belong, the club chairman has hailed, following promotion to the STL Northern League.
Despite suffering heartbreak on the final day of the 2010/11 season – surrendering the Northern Alliance Premier Division title to Ponteland United – the St James’ Park side will play higher-tier football next term.
Town’s return to the prestigious Northern League after a four-season absence heralds a remarkable turn around in fortunes in just a matter of years, from relegation to the Northern Alliance in 2007, under the threat of extinction, to a life-saving change of management and a climb back up the footballing ladder.
And as the latest chapter of the club’s story begins, chairman Tom McKie has praised the Gazette for the vital part it played in rescuing the club from the brink of collapse, after the Save Our Side (SOS) campaign tugged at the heartstrings of readers and brought new people forward to keep the St James’ Park ship afloat and ultimately transform it.
Branding the dream promotion as ‘another adventure in Alnwick Town’s revival’, Tom said: “The club is back where it belongs. Alnwick is a club with a lot of tradition, it belongs in the Northern League and it is the Northern League where we want to be. We had a five-year plan to win promotion and we have done it in three.
“We are looking forward to the challenge and we have been inundated with people wishing us well and saying it is glad to have you back.”
Tom became chairman in 2008 – heading up the new committee which took over the reigns from the club’s then three-man leadership – following the SOS fight.
He added: “Without the Gazette launching the Save Our Side campaign I don’t think Alnwick Town would be where it is today.
“Everyone was keeping an eye on it and eventually we got the opportunity to step in and take the club forward.
“If the Gazette hadn’t launched the campaign, the club would probably have gone out of business.”
Town, who finished second in the Alliance Premier Division, will be welcomed back into the Northern League at its AGM this weekend, after league officials gave the club’s aging St James’ Park ground a qualified approval on the morning of that costly final-day defeat to Heaton Stannington.
But the club will not be able to rest on its laurels as work still needs to be done on the ground to bring it up to the required standard for Northern League Division Two.
And if it is does not cut the mustard by the end of March next year, the club will be relegated irrespective of final league position.
But, it is still a huge step forward from where the club found itself at the end of the 2006/07 season, when it was relegated from the Northern League, at Town’s own request under the old committee – amid a lack of volunteers and money – for failing to meet agreed ground criteria.
Tom is confident though the rest of the jobs will be completed well before the deadline.
“It has taken three seasons to get the club to where it is now. The most important things we have had to do is put a concrete path all the way round, put a new roof on, upgrade the lights, have seating for 50 people and a multitude of small jobs.
“The fact that the ground has cleared the first hurdle is down to all the hard work that the volunteers have put in over the last three years. They have given us until March 31 to do another few bits and pieces but I want it done before the beginning of the season.
“We are making a mighty effort to get the ground passed by the start of the season. We will meet the grade.”
Tom also paid tribute to the Duke of Northumberland for his help in transforming Town’s fortunes.
In 2009, His Grace pledged a total of £100,000 over a five-year period to help develop the club, in particular the junior section.
And Tom said the cash injection has been invaluable.
“If it wasn’t for the Duke’s money, we wouldn’t have been able to get the ground up to standard, because it has taken a phenomenal amount of money.”
He also paid tribute to the club’s sponsors, including Kitson Windows, MKM Building Supplies and Blackshaws, which have helped bring in valuable funds.
“There are 45 boards around the pitch. They are all local businesses.
“I wish I could name all of them but there wouldn’t be room in the paper. The support has been fantastic.”
Northern League Division Two will also throw up the challenge of playing against a higher-calibre of opposition, who also have spending power to splash the cash on players.
And while Town will relish that opportunity, it also serves up the prospect of long-haul journeys to the likes of Northallerton Town, Chester-Le-Street, and Whitehaven.
But Tom is confident the club will cope.
“We are looking forward to it. It is daunting, but it is a challenge and another adventure in Alnwick Town’s revival.
“Everyone at the club recognises that we will have to step up to raise extra funds, because we have got to fund this.
“It is a challenge that we knew we were facing but it is a challenge that we know we can meet because of one reason, we don’t pay the players.
“We have discussed it with the players and we wanted them to be honest with themselves and the club to commit or not to commit and they wanted to commit.
“I have challenged the lads to become a mid-table team in the first year and I have challenged them to prove everybody wrong and we are looking forward to the new season, whatever that brings.”
Mike Amos, chairman of the STL Northern League, said: “It is smashing to have Alnwick back. They have worked really hard and Tom and his colleagues have done a really good job. I didn’t think they would be back as quickly as they are. A lot of people will be happy to see them back.”
But he reinforced the point that Town have to ensure the ground is up to the league’s Division Two standard, which is Grade G, or they will be ‘forcibly relegated, irrespective of where they finish in the league’.
l Alnwick Town’s AGM takes place at the clubhouse at 6pm on Sunday.