In late June, Wolves and Kidderminster Harriers announced a new official partnership which would see the clubs work closely together, including Wolves playing their U23 home fixtures at Aggborough, the home of the Harriers, next season. This announcement was also combined with news from down the M54 as AFC Telford United informed their fans that they would no longer be working in partnership with Wolves and the New Bucks Head would no longer play host to Wolves youth games having done so for 16 years. Aggborough has a capacity of 6,444, a similar capacity and distance to the New Bucks Head and with the teams playing in the same division, some may wonder why Wolves have made this change.
The news came as somewhat of a surprise to Wolves fans who were unaware of plans to search for a new official feeder club. However, it was less of a surprise to fans of AFC Telford United, many of whom were pleased to see the end of what was previously a healthy working relationship between the neighbouring clubs, but a relationship which had become strained in recent seasons. AFC Telford United fan columnist for the Shropshire Star, Luke Gregory gave his thoughts on the previous link between Wolves and Telford, and why there was a positive reaction from the Telford fanbase when the termination of the link was announced.
“There had been a very fruitful relationship for 13 years when Wolves would play U23 games regularly at the New Bucks Head stadium and often help with maintaining the pitch and facilities, the partnership was very successful with both clubs benefitting, financially from a Telford point of view and logistically from Wolves’ point.
“However, at the beginning of the 2017/18 season, everything changed. Telford were struggling financially, and Wolves came in offering more financial support but in return effectively took over the running of on-field matters of the club. Rob Edwards was appointed manager while a number of Wolves’ youngsters were sent down the M54 to join what was dubbed as ‘the project’. Telford even used Compton as a full-time training base. This hugely divided the Telford fanbase with some people even deciding to boycott games, I myself lost a sense of love for the club as It just felt like somebody else’s.
“The project lasted just one season after a poor campaign in which we spent most of it battling relegation and ultimately finished in 14th place, ever since there has been a sense of friction in the working relationship between the two clubs. This season seemed to be the final straw for Wolves with the poor pitch condition at the New Bucks Head meaning many games scheduled to take place in Telford were actually played at Compton or Molineux.
“It is clear that Telford will suffer to some extent as, while the money may have been very little from a Wolves perspective, it was absolutely huge for us. Telford continues to have a link to local EFL teams, noticeably a growing relationship with Shrewsbury. I think we will only know whether this is good news in the coming years. I will be keeping a close eye on Kidderminster to see how their relationship with Wolves develops.”
Time for change at Molineux
So perhaps the time was right for both clubs to move on. Wolves certainly seemed to think so and wasted no time in praising the work of Kidderminster CEO Neil Male and his team, stating that they have already developed a good working relationship. Academy chief Scott Sellars praised the ‘impressive’ facilities that Kidderminster boast for a side in the sixth division. He went on to say that the facilities and the direction the club was heading was: “pivotal to the development of our young players and, in addition, it has never been more important for clubs to work together and support each other, and that’s what we’re looking forward to doing with Kidderminster next season.” This shows a clear intention to work in conjunction with Kidderminster, rather than just have a stadium to facilitate youth games. This is something that was clearly missing from the previous link with AFC Telford in previous years. It is perhaps surprising that, with the increased statue of Wolves in recent years, they did not look for a feeder club in a higher division to really test the young players in need of first-team football at Molineux. However, the ability to send players to a local club where they will play in a progressive team and professional club who are aiming to gain promotion to the National League next season while also supporting a local club through players and finances is too good to turn down.
People often question the benefit of feeder clubs to larger clubs and the truth of the matter is, privileged clubs who play at a higher level and have wealthy owners perhaps do have little benefit from working relationships with clubs in lower leagues. However, they are supporting the development of a local club, something that is important now more than ever. Despite this, Wolves are not a typical Premier League club, particularly when it comes to player development. Executive Chairman Jeff Shi has spoken on numerous occasions on the importance of the academy for Wolves and even admitted it was one of many factors which contributed to Fosun buying the club. In recent times he has spoken about the need for the academy to be self-sustainable, meaning that should players make it into the first team at Molineux, or be sold elsewhere, the academy will benefit financially and therefore improve as a result.
It could almost be described as a step into the unknown for both Wolves and Kidderminster and even for AFC Telford. It is certainly a move of excitement for both clubs, as Wolves look to develop players and make best use of the impressive facilities Harriers have to offer, while the Kidderminster fans are looking forward to benefitting from any players who could make a difference without any financial burden in addition to the financial benefit of hosting Wolves academy games. One thing is for certain, as we emerge from this pandemic and return to stadiums, clubs in the lower leagues will be fighting for their futures and are not backed up by the wealth of Fosun. So, whenever we get the chance, we should support our local non-league clubs when Wolves are not playing on a Saturday or during international breaks. Go to Aggborough, go to the New Bucks Head, go and support non-league sides whenever possible and enjoy the VAR-free football whilst also helping to keep non-league alive. These clubs are just as important as any Premier League or EFL club and they need the support now more than ever.
Ciaran Barker is part of the Talking Wolves editorial team – you can follow him on Twitter here.