In praise of volunteers…Mike and Les from Dronfield Town!

On Saturday, eighth-placed Dronfield Town host Swallownest, 10th in Toolstation NCEL Division One in a fascinating local clash. Before, during and after the ninety minutes however, matches at this level rely massively on the efforts of committed club volunteers; so ahead of another busy Saturday weekend at the HE Barnes Stadium, the Bootiful Game took the opportunity to sit down with Mike Payne (left) and Les Benn, two of the many key people behind the scenes at upwardly-mobile Dronfield Town.

TBG Editor, Craig Kendall caught up with Les and Mike in the clubhouse overlooking the Stonelow Road Ground, and began by asking them a little about themselves.

Mike is secretary of the adult teams at Dronfield. Originally from the Wirral, Mike’s other love is Tranmere Rovers, who returned to EFL League Two after winning last season’s National Football League Play-Off Final. He came to Sheffield to study 25 years ago, left and came back to the area. He’s married with two adult daughters.

Les is a local from Coal Aston/Dronfield, and although he “retired” 21/2 years ago he still has a part time job. “Just a few hours per week,” he told us; he’s married with a son and a daughter.

Both Mike and Les were originally involved with the coaching and management of teams at Dronfield Town; Mike coached the girls’ teams (his daughter played football, aged 7) from the ages of 12-18 years. Les stopped playing himself around ten years ago (“worn out,” he told us), and managed the adult team for six seasons when he stopped playing 10 years ago. He was invited to help out at the club, and started on the turnstiles.
Mike revealed that he had first met Les on that same gate duty when the club first got promoted to the NCEL (“I was Les’s assistant!”), and they have been firm friends ever since, although it’s difficult to decide who is in charge. Mike is also the programme editor, and drives the team minibus to away games.

Dronfield Town Manager – Chris Millington. (Photo by Jon Knight)

This is Dronfield’s fifth season in the NCEL, and both Mike and Les recognise the massive administrative and organisational workload resulting from Northern Counties League status, even though the Central Midlands was no walk in the park. Although they have designated roles at the club, their workload extends much further. Adult team administration covers 8 of the 35 teams affiliated to Dronfield Town, covering the NCEL, the CML, the Hope Valley League, the Chesterfield Valley League…and so it goes on.

Dronfield Town has an astonishing 400 players registered at all levels, including women’s and girls’ team, starting at under 8’s. There’s also a “Nursery” team, for 4 -7 years – you can generally see them at the side of the main pitch on first team match days. The club is run by a Committee with a clear Community focus. The Committee meets monthly, but the volunteers enjoy great autonomy in the day to day operation of the club.
There is no financial benefactor; in fact, Mike “struggles to see how better the club could operate even if it had one.”

Before Swallownest even set off for the H E Barnes Stadium this weekend, Mike and Les will have been at the ground from 9.30 a.m. They’ll treat themselves to a cuppa as they consider their duties for the day ahead, including preparing the changing rooms. The groundsman – Mark Pearson – who, over time has cultivated an excellent playing surface at Stonelow Road, will get on with any rolling, cutting and marking on the pitch, and the team will put out the bins around the pitch. Electrician and master craftsman, Rich Milnes will take the opportunity to grab an hour or two of ground enhancement – the wooden fencing on the technical area side of the pitch is all Rich’s handy work.

As midday comes and goes, attention turns to the food for sale, and for half-time and post-match hospitality. Frequently, the guy’s wives will be helping out with the catering – Mrs. Benn on sandwiches, and Mrs Payne in the kitchen.
Around half past twelve, the Management Team – Chris Millington, Nick Siddons and Chris Bullock arrive at the ground, and the rest of the club staff and volunteers are on site by one o’clock at the latest. Volunteers touch base, team sheets are prepared, and the traffic management process – cones and signage – are all positioned as the visiting team starts to arrive.

Mike and Les then make themselves available to welcome visiting club officials – and spectators -ahead of kick-off. Dronfield’s sponsors – including long term supporter HE Barnes, the Sheffield–based electrical engineers – are also treated to a warm greeting.

The guys see this welcoming approach as key to the club’s philosophy – and the notion of being “good ambassadors” for Dronfield Town goes much further than that. Chris Millington’s men are a close second in the Toolstation NCEL Division One Fair Play standings, and Mike believes the fact that the Manager and his staff place “heavy priority” on representing the club in the right way is crucial; and Chris, Nick and Chris Bullock are ever-present at the club’s presentation evening and routinely engage with match day mascots.

RETFORD, ENGLAND – RETFORD UNITED 2-4 DRONFIELD TOWN 28th October 2017: Dronfield Town Manager – Chris Millington. Northern Counties East League Division One clash between Retford United and Dronfield Town at Cannon Park, Retford, England. (Photo by Jon Knight)

Asked about the club’s ambitions, Mike is crystal clear. “We want to make small strides year on year,” he told us, “little steps – but better every year. We are ambitious on and off the field -but we want to have fun, whether we win or lose. Longer term, of course, we want to improve the facilities – and although we are thrilled with what’s been achieved on the field over the last two seasons, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The Women’s team has qualified for the FA Cup for the last four seasons – and it would be fantastic if the Men’s First Team could qualify for the FA Cup this season. We sit down with Chris and his team at the beginning of the season and set some objectives and agree what we’ll do – collectively – to achieve them.”

Les is convinced that there is a common denominator which underpins the club’s progress. “We have a team ethic from top to bottom,” he told us. “There are no egos – and even the players are volunteers – even our unaffiliated over 35’s Men’s side has taken on our ethos.”

The guys are thrilled by the club’s progress this season. “We are in our highest League position since we joined the NCEL, (fourteenth in 2017/8) and we had a tremendous run in the FA Vase (going out in the Second Round to Walsall Wood),” Mike noted. “Attendances are up between 60- 70%, and our disciplinary record is one of the best in the League. Our targets are realistic – and the stability of the club really helps.”

The club continues to fundraise, with great success. The “Last Man Standing” competition is popular and well supported; the playing staff are involved, as they are with raffles and evening events. The Dronfield Town 10k has been running for over ten years, and this year’s event on Mon 6th May has already attracted close to 90 entries.

The “fun-run “on the same day is also an important occasion, not only to enhance the reputation of the club, but to attract children to the ground and the organisation. The Club is closely examining and utilising the development of 4 or 5 new volunteers on how it can work with Local Charities to give money and time back to the Community. “Under 16’s has been granted free and unconditional admission for three years now, so we recognise the importance of young people – and we’ll be announcing a special promotion for our home fixture with Nostell Miners Welfare on 26th January,” Mike told us.

Asked what Swallownest can expect come 3 pm on Saturday, Les and Mike were almost word perfect. “They’ll face a hard-working side which will have been well set-up tactically,” Les insisted, adding, “and a management team which isn’t afraid to change things.”

The Dronfield Girls Under-11’s side will act as mascots for the game. “We’ll have pretty much our strongest squad available,” Mike warned. ”And we’ll have a young centre-back, Arran Bovill, in the group. He’s played for us from seven years of age – and he used to be one of the “Stonelow massive” behind the goal!”

So, there you have it; volunteers, enthusiasts and fans. When Saturday’s game is over, the guys will still be at the ground tidying up, putting away and thinking about the next game.

The game would be a lot poorer without the likes of Mike, Les and the team at Dronfield Town. We wish them continued success.

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