FA Cup: How non-league Helston Athletic are battling the cost of living crisis

Helston's players celebrate scoring against Bishop's Cleeve in the FA Cup second qualifying round
Helston’s players celebrate scoring against Bishop’s Cleeve in the FA Cup second qualifying round

“Our hearts sink each time we hear the FA Cup draw,” says Helston Athletic’s chairman Paul Hendy.

An away tie almost inevitably means a long day on the road for the part-time club based in Cornwall. This weekend is no different.

On Saturday, Helston’s team coach will set off at 08:30 for a third qualifying round tie at Weston-super-Mare, a 340-mile round trip that involves five stops along the way to pick up players and staff in Truro, Bodmin, Saltash, Plymouth and Tiverton.

In the last round they were on the road at 07:00 with breakfast granola pots for the mammoth 450-mile day out to Bishop’s Cleeve in Gloucestershire.

Having started out in the extra preliminary round on 6 August, this is Helston’s fourth away tie in eight weeks and means the club nicknamed the Blues will have clocked up 1,250 miles in the FA Cup this season.

With winter approaching and the cost of living crisis starting to impact, hundreds of clubs are worried about heating costs, energy bills for floodlights and fuel prices.

Didcot Town, who play in the Southern League Division One Central, say their energy bill is increasingexternal-link from £1,250 per month to £5,450.

Mansfield, who play five leagues higher than Helston in League Two, have moved the kick-off time for their home game against Walsall on 15 October forward to try and mitigate the “considerable increase in energy bills”.

Down in the Western League Premier Division, where money is even tighter, Helston are bracing themselves for tough times.

“We’ve already been approached by a club in our league asking whether we would agree to change the kick-off time so that they can save on floodlight costs,” adds Hendy.

“Our clubhouse used to open every night. Not now. We can’t afford it when only one person comes in for a bottle of Coke.”

Yet Helston, who have 25 teams operating out of their Kellaway Park home, believe they can ride out the financial storm and provide the town with a community facility for many years to come.

It helps when the club treasurer, who also washes the kit, is a former bank manager.

Helston Athletic chairman Paul Hendy (left) and treasurer Sandra Egan
Paul Hendy is Helston Athletic’s chairman and groundsman while club treasurer Sandra Egan is a former bank manager who washes the kit

‘Petrol prices difficult for us’

Helston is just two and a half miles from the picturesque Cornish fishing port of Porthleven, a magnet for tens of thousands of tourists each year.

But for all of its surrounding beauty, Helston is still a near two-hour drive from Plymouth, where the core of the team’s players are based.

Only one of the players – former England schoolboy defender Josh Storey – is on a contract. The rest receive expenses but no wages.

“In terms of geography, Helston is quite far down,” says Blues manager Matt Cusack.

“When we are trying to recruit players from further afield, they might be reluctant to join because fuel costs more than it did.

“I hear murmurs from players about the cost of petrol and that’s where things potentially get a little bit difficult for us.”

The cost of living crisis has not put defender Tom Hands off from playing for the team even though he is 200 miles away studying at Bath University.

“He travels down every game,” adds Hendy, who doubles up as Helston’s groundsman to cut costs.

“They are all young players. They have got mortgages and are impacted by rising costs like we all are.

“I’ve just filled my car up and it cost me £102. Not long ago it was £75 maximum.”

Players Josh Storey (right) and Tyler Elliott (centre) help Paul Osborne, who runs the Blues Kitchen which serves food to fans on matchdays, with the washing up
Players Josh Storey (right) and Tyler Elliott (centre) help Paul Osborne, who runs the Blues Kitchen which serves food to fans on matchdays, with the washing up

From scoring in Europe to Helston

As well as chairman and groundsman, Hendy also helps run the bar on matchdays. The 57-year-old once played for the club and used to edit the programme.

Helston have been promoted three times in his nine years as chairman, while Kellaway Park has seen more than £100,000 worth of improvements, including the installation of floodlights in 2015.

They have also appointed a director of football. Steve Massey is part of Wrexham folklore after scoring against Spanish side Real Zaragoza in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1986.

A retired BT operations manager, Hendy devotes 50 hours a week to the club along with his partner, Sandra, a former bank manager who uses her experience to keep on top of the club’s finances.

She also washes the kit, one of the band of volunteer committee members who help keep Helston going.

Helston's players celebrate scoring against Bishop's Cleeve in the FA Cup second qualifying round
Helston Athletic are playing in the FA Cup third qualifying round for the first time

“I know there are teams at our level struggling,” says Hendy. “Sandra and I have come from an environment where we were driven to reduce costs and get rid of waste. We want the club to survive for the community.

“To cut costs we’ve changed energy supplier and the brewery who provide drinks for the bar.

“We had a company that pulled out of a sponsorship deal but times are hard and we move on. I’m always grateful to the businesses that support us because they don’t have to. It’s not like we are getting exposure on national television.

“We’re fortunate in that we are next to a busy road that has about 12,000 vehicles go past every day. It’s prime advertising space and we take full advantage of our location.”

Helston’s average league crowd is about 150 who pay £5 (adults), £3 (over 65s) and £1 (under 18s) to watch the Blues against the likes of Barnstaple Town, Buckland Athletic and Cadbury Heath.

“We had 351 in the ground for the FA Cup replay with Bishop’s Cleeve,” adds Hendy. “I think we even had a few who climbed over the fence as well.

“We’ve discussed putting the prices up. It’s not what we’re about. We’re about offering people the opportunity to come and enjoy the football.”

Helston Athletic's players receive granola pots for long away journeys
Helston Athletic’s players receive granola pots to eat on the team coach for long away journeys

Free travel to Weston-super-Mare

To help their fans with the cost of living crisis, Helston are providing free coach travel to Weston-super-Mare, who play two levels higher.

“We have already exceeded our expectations in the FA Cup this season so there is no pressure,” adds boss Cusack.

This is the club’s best FA Cup run in their 126-year history and Hendy is determined as many supporters as possible get the chance to experience Saturday’s game.

Helston will use some of the £10,000 earned from this season’s run to fund the travel, while Helston’s women’s team secured an additional £1,800 last month after winning their FA Cup first qualifying round tie with Crediton United.

“Although there’s a lot of stuff going on with the cost of living, we’re in a much stronger position than we were,” says Hendy.

“The money we have earned from the FA Cup is not going on things like electric and gas because we will cut our costs accordingly for that.

“It will be used to improve facilities and will serve as a permanent reminder of the year we made it through to the third qualifying round of the FA Cup for the first time.”

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