AFC Henley Awarded County Grassroots Football Club of the Year

Oxfordshire Football Association have awarded AFC Henley Grassroots Football Club of the Year for the first time.

Established in 1974, AFC Henley provides children’s, youth and women’s football for the town. Based at Jubilee Park – opposite Tesco – they currently field teams in the East Berks Youth Football League, the Berkshire County Girls Football League and the Thames Valley Counties Women’s Football League; alongside running multiple ‘Soccer Centres’ per week for children aged three to eight and community outreach programmes.

The Oxfordshire FA Grassroots Club of the Year is part of a series of awards that recognise and reward the people, clubs and leagues that deliver grassroots football throughout the country. Awards are split into categories, and County FAs select a local winner for each. These form a shortlist for The FA’s national winners, selected by a national judging panel.

James Shiplee from the Oxfordshire FA was there to present the award and had this to say on why AFC Henley won “So it was myself and the rest of the judging panel, about six, seven of us. Naturally, Club of the Year is a highly contested award, given that we have 200 clubs in the county. So, we get a lot of nominations and a lot of people that think their club’s the best! As for why Henley, they’ve got so many players down here on a Saturday playing development football; they’re not here to go all-out to win, they’re here to learn, they’re here to have fun and to hone their skills. The club has also looked at female football in the last year or so which means that they’re obviously providing more inclusive opportunities. And that’s something that I’ve got no doubt they’ll look to continue. And just generally, they’ve built up well, everything they do is so positive and they try and do things the right way. So that was what put them in first choice.”

Chairman of AFC Henley, Trevor Howell, first got involved with the club when his family moved to Henley and his young sons signed-up. 22 years later, Trevor has been part of the volunteers, committee and now as chairman, presiding over the welcomed expansion, recognition and success of the club. Henley Herald caught up with him to hear about the developments he’s seen in his 22 years, the future direction of the club and what it means to receive this recognition award.

“When I first became involved, we had about eight teams, now we have 28. So to get there, we started by generating revenue from different sources. The first thing we did was to start the Mini Soccer Centre. We then started incorporating the community. So we had coach development, running after school clubs and then came Player Development Centres and midweek Junior Soccer Centres and then all our activities we offer. Until we’re now operating virtually six days a week and all these activities bring in extra revenue. With that, we’ve invested in decent goals and we’ve now got a top turf specialist looking after our pitches on contract, who’s transformed our pitches. We also thought it important we looked like one club and I introduced the standard kit.

The basic principle here is that the least you can do for young players is to give them decent pitches to play on, decent coaching and some nice kit to wear. And those three things are probably all you need to get football off the ground and to have kids really enjoying it. I suppose it can sound a bit monetary, but we need to run it as a business, as well as operating the safeguarding environment. We have to give value for money, keep our finances under control and we also have to look after the kids as if they’re at school. The parents expect both of those things from us.

“We started our first Mini Soccer Centre with the support of Reading Football Club. Back then, it had about 15 kids, and last year, we’re getting over 100. And that has been transformational for the club, because by having entry level opportunities, we’re able to develop and build up the numbers. So by the time they get to Under 8s, we’ve got enough for three or four teams. We then enter them into the league at Under 9 and that’s our policy and it’s also the FA’s policy: that you don’t play competitive football when you’re under nine. Most clubs have their young players in friendly leagues for Under 6 upwards, but we think it’s premature to put them in a league too early. When competing competitively, there’s too much pressure on players at a young age and we want them to enjoy their football. So the principle is we let them have three or four years of being coached, encouraged and having fun, and then when they’re ready for league football, we put them in. By that time, they’re quite well trained, they normally do very well and can handle it better.

“We’re the fourth largest club in the East Berks Football Alliance League, which extends from Reading through to West London and includes places like Woking, Sandhurst, Ascot, Bracknell and Slough. We’re punching well above our weight for a small town, so we’re very pleased with our progress.

“We’re making a point of looking at where we’ve come from and where we’re headed and we’re delighted to be given this kind of recognition because we think we tick all the boxes!

“The award is a fitting tribute to the dedication of the club’s 60+ volunteers, without whom there would be no football. These include: members of our Executive Committee, who have made a massive contribution to the success of the club over the last two years; our age group managers, team managers, coaches, team administrators and community coaches, who do so much to make football enjoyable for the kids they look after; the small team of helpers who maintain our three grounds and do the heavy work; and others who work quietly behind the scenes in various capacities. I hope this award goes some way to making them feel their efforts have been worthwhile.”

Henley Town Councillor and Deputy Mayor, Michelle Thomas was present as the award was presented and told us “I’m here today and every Saturday, since my son was seven years old. And all these years later he’s 16 and still playing! It’s a really good grassroots football club, that teaches both girls and boys the importance of team playing, of enjoying sport, as something that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. I’m so proud of the club today.”

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