Ask the majority of people living in Falmouth and Penryn to name a football club, and you’re likely to get one of two answers.
Falmouth Town, they will say - some through gritted teeth - or Penryn Athletic. The odd interloper might even suggest Helston Athletic or Porthleven, but generally speaking the answer will be one or the other.
And with good reason. There’s no denying that historically they are the area’s most successful football clubs. Their names are known throughout the county, and beyond. They boast trophy cabinets brimming with silverware, and between them they have more than five decades of experience playing senior football in Cornwall.
But there’s another, arguably more important, local club you may not be so familiar with.
In terms of player numbers, it’s bigger than Falmouth Town and Penryn Athletic combined.
It’s a club with fifteen teams across a dozen age groups; a club with 270 players on its books, more than two dozen FA qualified coaches, and a proven record of nurturing footballing talent - indeed, half a dozen of Penryn Athletic’s current first team are among its former alumni.
It’s name is Falmouth United, and it was founded in 1994 by Julie Buckingham and Lee Harris. United’s goal is simple: to provide a safe and happy environment for children in the area to learn how to play football.
Tommy Matthews, now sports development officer at Falmouth School, joined the club in 1995 and helped it earn FA chartered development status - the Football Association’s kitemark of excellence in youth football.
“One of Julie’s sons wanted to play football,” said Tommy, “and Lee, who was a good player and a keen coach, used to take some kids for football practice and training. One thing led to another, and the kids asked if they could for a team and join a league.
“The year after that, I joined, as did a few others, and we started training at Union Corner. I took an age group, someone else took another, and the club started to flourish.”
And 20 years later they’re still going strong. United has since forged partnerships with both Penryn Athletic and Falmouth School as it looks to get more of the area’s children involved in grassroots football.
And 2014 is set to be another big year in the club’s short history as its numbers continue to swell.
So much so that club chairman Jason White says they’ve been forced to turn some new recruits away due to a lack of volunteers to coach them.
“It’s sad but yes, we do find ourselves turning kids away from some of the age groups because we’re so oversubscribed,” he says.
“The club’s in such a good state facilities-wise, what with the tie-in with Penryn Athletic, and now Falmouth School. We have everything in place to grow, but what you need is those coaches to get them through. If we had more volunteers we woulnd’t have to turn kids away, but there’s also a fine line between coaching football and it just turning into a creche.”
United club secretary Sue Stivey agrees. Sue has a long history of involvement at Penryn Athletic, where husband Andy started out as a player, and Falmouth United’s graduates have the option of playing senior football when they turn 16.
“It’s of real benefit to Penryn that we’re providing good footballers for them, and for us it’s fantastic for our kids to have the option of going to a really well-run club, but that’s a side issue, really. It all falls flat if you don’t have the volunteers to help run our teams,” she explains.
“It’s hard to find people who are willing to come forward and take a coaching course and then take on a team, because it’s not a short-term thing. If you’re taking on a group of under-eights, you’re potentially looking at the next eight years to take them through to the under 16s. That’s a big commitment.”
“We always need more volunteers,” adds Jason. “A sporty parent who wants to get involved, is committed and wants to learn can get in touch. You don’t have to be a footballer, male or female. Anyone can get involved, even if you’ve not played football before.”
It’s an important point. Although United is a football club first and foremost, at its core its about much more than just the game itself.
With some children joining as young as four, it can play a big part in shaping childhoods, and many youngsters make friends for life along the way.
“My son started high school this year,” said Jason, “and obviously that can be quite scary, but he just breezed through it because he already knew everyone from football.”
Sue agrees. “You make friends in football wherever you go,” she says.
“I’ve been involved with Penryn for 25 years and I’ve always said it feels like a family. Now with Falmouth United too, I’m part of both families, if you like. We’re one big family.”
“It is nice when you see people progress,” says Jason. “You get very attached to the kids as you watch them grow up and move on to the next stage in their lives. I coach an under-14s team and they’ve been with me since they were five or six. They become like an extended family. And the fact is a team sport like football opens doors for you.”
United train on the all-weather pitches at Penryn College. Children are divided up according to their age groups, starting at four years-old, with sessions for kids aged between 4 and 15 years-old taking place throughout the week, and matches for the older children at weekends at both Penryn college, and the club’s Union Corner pitch.
“There’s no competitive football for U9s and down,” explained Sue, “and next year the FA have deceided there won’t be any for under-10s either, which I think is right and proper. That competitive edge comes in later. Unfortunately there are coaches out there who see winning as the only option. They can be aggressive and competitive. At that age the scoreline should be irrelevant. It should be about how they play the game.”
Jason admits: “When you come across that kind of coach it makes you wonder why you bother.”
This year promises to be a busy one for United as the club looks to build on its newly-forged ties with Falmouth School, and develop its established relationship with Penryn Athletic.
“We have two under-16 teams this year and they did their pre-season training with Penryn’s first team, which gave them a huge lift and a bit of inspiration for the coming year,” says Jason. “With those teams graduating next year there are some moves afoot for Penryn to have a fourth team.”
“I gather Penryn are keen on the idea,” adds Sue, “so that’s really great progression.
“It’s funny,” she says with a smile. “I sat in the car down at Helston at the start of the season when Penryn beat them, and out of that squad there were nine ex-Falmouth United players.
"I was so chuffed to see that, so proud as the secretary because I thought “it works, what we’re doing here works.””
Anyone interested in getting involved at Falmouth United can contact the club via its website at falmouthunitedfc.co.uk under the section titled ‘contact.’