Stretford Paddock are one of the new teams set to enter the Lancashire & Cheshire AFL this coming season, and they most certainly mean business.
The brainchild of Stephen Howson, the club is joining an amateur league but with a setup that screams professionalism, from trials, and coaching, to marketing and production. The name Stretford Paddock is one that Manchester United fans in particular will know about; the fan channel has more than half a million subscribers on YouTube and almost 300,000 followers on Twitter.
The seeds for the formation of Stretford Paddock were sewn last summer when Stephen – chairman and manager of the club – spoke to his friend Ben Adams – the club’s treasurer – about the possibility of involvement within a non-league club.
But rather than go for a pre-existing team, they both decided Stretford Paddock’s brand should be extended to include a team in the amateur leagues.
Stephen explained: “Because we’d started this fan channel, we thought ‘why don’t we get some kits with the fan channel logo on and enter a team as that’, which we did.
“Loads of people were saying they’d buy a shirt, and that we should put an 11-a-side team together.
“A combination of what Ben had put in my head in August and the response to that, made me go for it.”
Before even playing a game – competitive or otherwise – the club have sold more than 1,000 shirts, and on the playing side, the level of anticipation regarding trials saw 1,000 people sign up. These took place on 2 January, and resulted in 30 players being retained.
It is clear though, that the club is not entering to make up the numbers. The initial intake of players had a “lower threshold for acceptance than we will have moving forward,” according to the manager. Not only is the club determined to be competitive, but the vast social media presence means it’s imperative.
He said: “The social media side is great, we have a good following, but it increases the pressure. If we don’t perform, we will know about it. There’s no hiding from it. There’s a lot of pressure on us but everyone knows about it, is expecting it, and is ready for it. We can’t wait to get going.”
It is apparent from the quality of player on show, and the interest in signing for the club, that standards are high. At a time when amateur sides find it difficult to maintain player participation, Stretford Paddock are thriving. At the start of August, there will be another trial.
At the time of writing, almost 250 players have signed up to attend. But, Stephen said: “We are being really strict. We are only looking for players with academy or North West counties experience.
“I’m probably going to invite 100 people off that list to come and trial. We’ll play our first team and reserves in games against them, and measure their abilities from there.
“I’m hoping to pick 25 for the first team and 25 for the reserves from that trial.”
They will be joining a highly competitive group, if training is anything to go by. L&C representatives visited one of the sessions that took place in Droylsden, and it’s a hive of activity. Players travel from Leeds and Liverpool to take part, and the club has even had a request from a footballer in Canada.
Coaches work with players in different pods, with sessions adapted to adhere to social distancing regulations.
Different groups were practicing different finishing drills, with pure finishing, cutbacks, and pass and move all alternated. One participant was Ronaldo Brown, who started off in Liverpool’s academy, and spent time with Oldham Athletic.
It is clear the standards will be high on the pitch, and this translates to everything off the pitch too. Peter Blake, a lifelong follower of non-league football, will be the club’s secretary.
There are currently 28 members of the backroom staff, all of whom volunteer. But almost all the coaches have studied at the University Campus of Football Business. All of them are Level 1 and 2 qualified, and on the way to gaining the UEFA B coaching Licence.
There is a member of the coaching staff with a sports science degree, who deals with strength and conditioning, and a specialist goalkeeping coach is on the staff.
Away from the game, Stretford Paddock also have somebody recording and making videos, as well as a photographer. The official Twitter account has almost 15,000 followers, and there is even a fan club in Norway.
But, despite this creation of content, Stephen stressed it’s a “football first” attitude.
He said: “It’s football first. We’re trying to be overtly professional in what we do because of the content we make. we want to show the work that goes into football at this level, but also give viewers a peek behind the curtain of the professional game.
“We’re getting GPS trackers for our players. Clearly there’s a performance advantage, but there’s also an audience interest. We’ve all seen players wearing them, but what do they do? We’ll show you that, why they’re used, and the data that comes from them.
“That’s what we’re aiming to do. We love football, we love it so much that we’ve created our own team and we want to show the work that goes in, even at this level, and open this side of the game to people.”
Community is key to the underpinning of any success on the field and content off it. Moving forward, the club is committed to becoming part of the community in Stretford and Urmston, and “cementing roots with a junior team, all the way down to under-6 and under-7 teams,” to ensure Stretford Paddock is a “proper community club.”
Stephen said: “That’s where we want to be, but it starts with competing.”
It will certainly be a journey to watch with interest.
Whilst the club are a member of the Lancashire and Cheshire AFL, they will operate purely as an amateur club, all aspects of professionalism are aspirational at this stage. No player will receive payment.