How a North Devon village saved its local football club

A football club in East-the-Water has been making waves on and off the pitch just two years after closing due to lack of funds. Last year DevonLive reported on the efforts of former schoolmates Sam Stephens and Danny Brown to revitalize their local club Shamwickshire Rovers – and secured a 35-year lease on the green Pollyfield site.

In the 1990s, Shamwickshire Rovers FC were a staple of North Devon football. In 1997 they achieved what the North Devon Football League called “the best title race in history” by beating Fremington 7-2 and snatching the title. The club won five North Devon Premier League titles in seven years.

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Despite their iconic status in the North Devon football scene, the club have struggled to find funds and players over the last decade as the Covid pandemic forced the club to close in August 2020.

In its first year under new ownership, the club is determined to make its predecessors proud. Still without a squad a year ago, Shamwickshire Rovers 1st Team launched the club’s new era by going unbeaten and winning promotion to the North Devon Premier League. The reserve team was also successful in the 2021/22 season and finished 3rd in the table.

Shamwickshire Rovers Ability Reserves top the table

The Ability squad has also opened up to residents with mental health issues and special educational needs and disabilities and has grown from 6 to 35 players since its launch in August 2021. Sam said the whole squad showed great commitment throughout the season, with the reserve team winning their division and receiving the Respect Award from league umpires.

The club’s concrete dugouts have been converted into dressing rooms for the club, named after club legend Brian Lacey. In the future, Sam and Danny plan to expand the number of squads to include an all-women squad and build facilities to accommodate them.

Sam said: “When you mention East-The-Water, the first thing they say is Shammy Football Club. It’s a big part of the history of this village. When the club collapsed, there was a lot of doom and gloom – the youth team was struggling and the pitch was run down and covered in dog poop. Now everyone is so positive and wants to get involved.

“We entered the league because we knew we had enough players and accepted that whatever happened happened. Every squad has just excelled massively and we didn’t expect to be at this stage after just a year.

The first-team Shamwickshire Rovers are unbeaten and will compete in the North Devon Premier League next season

“The Ability team is our biggest achievement this year and it came out of nowhere. Parents of the performance team have come up to me and said how much confidence their child has gained since joining the club, which makes all the effort worthwhile.”

As well as their achievements on the pitch, the owners say Shamwickshire Rovers’ main purpose is to bring the community together. East-the-Water is on the Taw Estuary and is one of the 20% of the UK’s most deprived areas, with many residents struggling under the weight of rising living costs. To provide support to residents, the club volunteered its dressing rooms as a base for the East the Water Community Food Pantry – a volunteer food bank run by Shammy Ability player Jack Taylor.

With more residents relying on service to get food on the table, the club is now planning to expand the building to create a permanent pantry space to support those in need. The space is also said to offer hot drinks and breakfast during the day, with a table and benches named after former players at the club.

Jack Taylor in the pantry he decorated
Jack Taylor in the pantry he decorated

Sam said: “The dressing rooms were offered to Jack for the summer but with the cost of living rising and Covid and all that, the pantry is now an essential tool for the community. She just outgrew the limits. It’s really sad and scary but it has made this building a central hub where people feel safe. Some people just come into the pantry to chat for a few hours since they don’t see anyone during the day.”

“We want to create a mini cafe with hot drinks, breakfast, sofas… and a space where the community can feel supported. In the evenings we want to offer local groups the space to meet and socialize. Success on the pitch is great, but since the acquisition we’ve realized that the need for a community space is more important than ever.”

In addition to providing a permanent space for community, the club also plans events to celebrate the community spirit of the village. The first East the Water Community Day is already slated for June 25, when residents will have access to family activities, art booths and an 18-hole golf course. An exhibition match will be held in the evening, with the legends of Shamwickshire Rovers returning to the pitch in an over-30s vs. under-30s football game.

Sam said: “From the day we acquired it, we wanted to organize a community day that was free for the people of East the Water. Many residents live in poverty and many families cannot experience these types of events, so it was important for us to organize an event that is accessible to all.”

“Local football clubs aren’t just about football – they have the ability to bring a whole community together and I think Shamwickshire Rovers showed that last year. With the rising cost of living and Covid, it’s difficult for many people here, but the club gives residents something to cheer for, follow and get involved with.

“Many village teams are closing these days because they can’t find enough volunteers or don’t have the resources to keep going. To have such community support has been brilliant.”

Co-owners Sam Stephens (left) and Danny Brown (right) join Red Earth’s Simon Friend to explain the development sponsorship for Brunswick Wharf.

The rebuilding of “Shammy” was not just about restoring the club to its former glory, but also about cleaning up its historic reputation. Over the decades, the Pollyfield site has become notorious for its litter and dog poop, and it is a common sight for players to pick up litter before a game.

To solve this problem, Sam and Danny put together a 3 to 5 year plan to create a border around the pitch that would double as billboards for local businesses. . A year later, the border is almost complete – with over 30 local businesses offering funds and services to keep the club afloat.

The perimeters are intended not only to keep the pitch clean for games, but also to allow off-game access for residents of East-the-Water.

Sam said efforts to clean up the pitch had met with overwhelming support as the site is now set to become a nighttime landing zone for the North Devon Air Ambulance.

He said: “The main objective for taking over the club was to give the site back to the community and give them the opportunity to come together. As the ambulance can land here it means the site can now save a life. Having the support of local businesses has taken a lot out of our hands. Running a club takes a lot of money and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes so we couldn’t do this without them.”

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