The White Tigers of Truro are on the march; a march of even brisker proportions than AFC Wimbledon’s abundantly purposeful strides up the footballing echelons in recent years. Before property-developer Kevin Heaney arrived on the scene and bought the club seven years ago, football in Cornwall was a non-entity. Yet the ensuing five-promotion climb propelled by Heaney’s cash is offering increasing incentive to watch football in the county, diverting a Saturday migration to Devon’s Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City. Truro now lie in the chicly named Blue Square Bet South. One league below the Conference to you and me, and significantly, just two promotions away from the Football League - a place where no Cornish club has ever dwelt.
Heaney’s fortune had him jostling for positions in the Sunday Time’s Rich List in years gone by, and though a modest rank of 458th represented his peak in 2007, this nevertheless amounted to a wealth of £154 million – substantial reserves to say the least for a semi-professional club. The impact the bankroll had on the pitch was most explicitly demonstrated in the second promotion of Heaney’s stewardship, as City won all but 5 of their 41 matches, amassing 112 points on their way to the 2006/07 Western League Division One title. Striker Stewart Yetton, who had joined from Plymouth, had the kind of season the over-sized-star-striker-who-reaches-puberty-before-everyone-else enjoys in Under 12s football; bagging 72 goals. The season was capped with victory in the FA Vase in front of an incredible - and record-breaking - 36,232 people at a brand new Wembley Stadium.
Year upon year the White Tigers were being installed as promotion favourites in leagues they had never reached in their history, and last season’s triumph in the Southern League Premier Division sealed Conference South football for the current campaign. Captain Jake Ash has been an ever-present through the remarkable ascent, having joined the club as the Heaney project began in 2004, and the club’s erudite stalwart believes credit for the rise must be shared:
“Heaney’s ambition and backing has attracted the players that have achieved the success. However, the players have been a huge factor; the hunger to keep achieving success, to overcome the immense toll of the travelling and the desire to prove themselves even after so many promotions is testament to all of them.” Ash’s nod to the long-distance away travels is justified. Akin to many of the southern regional leagues, Conference South clubs are most heavily congregated around London and the South East. Fortnightly 8 hour coach journeys from deepest Cornwall are some strain, especially when players and staff are juggling footballing commitments with jobs. But this has failed to hamper City’s progress as the squad have seamlessly adapted to higher-levels of football each year:
“For most of the boys it has probably been an easy transition, albeit it takes a bit of time to adjust. Most of them have played at a higher level than even the one we are at now. For myself, having come from local Step 7 football [seven divisions below the league], I have probably had to adjust a bit more. However, with the quality around you and the desire to succeed, you continue to improve. I’d like to think I am still at the club after seven years as I have managed to make that transition and still offer something to the team.”
39-year-old Barry Hayles popped countless rookie defenders in his pocket last season and rattled the net 20 times; reminiscent of his Craven Cottage days spearheading a prolific strike-force with Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte.
But for every Ash transcending the leagues from footballing depths, there must be a wily pro seasoned with league experience, and in ex-Fulham hero Barry Hayles, Truro have just that. Described by Ash as still a ‘top player’ and ‘great asset on and off the pitch’, 39-year-old Hayles popped countless rookie defenders in his pocket last season and rattled the net 20 times; reminiscent of his Craven Cottage days spearheading a prolific strike-force with Louis Saha and Luis Boa Morte.
Yet in spite of his Premier League experience and international caps with Jamaica, Hayles’ appetite for non-league football is evident. Based in Beckenham, Kent, he travels the full width of the country for Truro’s home games at Treyew Road, and when I spoke to him before reporting on a recent away match at lowly Havant & Waterlooville, his reaction when arriving at the ground spoke volumes. Nursing a badly swollen arm that should have ruled him out of the match altogether, Hayles’ face and tone changed as soon as he caught a glimpse of immaculate green pitch. He described how he was suddenly “desperate to play” and how this “always happened” when he locked eyes with a playing surface; be it in the grandeur of Old Trafford, or Havant’s humble Westleigh Park that crisp afternoon. Hayles was clearly not match-ready but still forced his way onto the substitutes bench, such was his youthful eagerness to be involved.
So with the blend of young part-timers and established veterans bringing unparalleled progression up the footballing order, the ever-real prospect of playing in the promised land of the Football League must obsess the players. No?
“Quite frankly, it’s not something as players we talk about at all”, says Ash. “As per the industry itself, footballers are very short sighted. A week at this club feels like a season at most others! I am sure behind the scenes and on the terraces it is something that is talked about – and it would be fantastic for the City and the County. A lot needs to happen for the club to get to that level, so if it does happen, I hope we do it when we have the right infrastructure in place and we have a sustainable business model for it to be a success. There is without doubt a fan base to access in the County to attract very respectable crowds on which a football club could thrive.” Hence Heaney’s plans to add a sparkling 16,000 all-seater stadium to his property portfolio, providing a worthy home for Truro and Cornish football.
Ambitious maybe, seeing Truro’s last home gate totalled just 558 (turbulent recent form and complex tension between the fans and the board isn’t helping attendances) and in light of an ongoing dispute with HMRC over unpaid debts. But ten games into the new season, Truro sit just three points below the Conference South play-off spots, making a sixth promotion in seven seasons firmly within the realms of possibility. Another climb up the footballing ladder would have the AFC Wimbledon blueprint all but surpassed. The Wombles have every reason to sweat over their place in the column inches and the history books; the scent of league football is wafting up Tigers’ nostrils.
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