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Real Football: The unknown role of a club secretary

16 April 2013

By Russell Kempson

All football fans can readily identify their favourite players - many wear shirts bearing the names of their heroes.

The manager is also instantly recognisable and probably the club chairman, the man who gets much of the blame when it all goes wrong. But the club secretary? Few fans would even know who he or she is.

Yet the secretary is one of the most important figures behind the scenes, a vital cog in the well-oiled machinery that makes a club tick over on a daily basis. Faceless, perhaps, but always there to check and double check the fine details so that the players, manager and chairman can smoothly get on with their jobs.

At Cheltenham Town, Paul Godfrey is that vital cog. A supporter since 10-years-old, the club secretary, the company secretary and a director as well. Administration is his key responsibility and nothing is more crucial than the correct registration of players. Get it wrong and points deductions could follow.

"I suppose it is a constant fear," Godfrey says. "When you send your registration off, I won't be comfortable until I've had the certificate back to say that the player is registered. I want a bit of paper in my hand to say that everything is okay. If a manager wanted to play a player without it, I'd say, 'don't play him'.

"As secretary, you have to have a certain attention to detail. The better you put in the paperwork, the more chance you've got of getting it back quickly. Transfer deadline day this January was pretty mental. I didn't get home until 11.45pm. We put through three registrations in the last hour, the last one going through two minutes before the deadline.

"The core role for most secretaries is the registrations and also anything to do with fixtures and correspondence. You are the focal point for everything that comes in from all the various football bodies and you disseminate it to all the different departments. There used to be a lot of paperwork, now there's masses of emails. I didn't get any post today but I've had about 50 emails already. Some days I can get about 100 but, once you've got rid of all the spam, I probably average 70-80 a day.

"The job is like any, really. The more you do it, the more you find more efficient ways of doing things. So that means you can do something else as well. But it certainly doesn't free up enough time to sit around reading the paper. We might be near the end of the season but as soon as it finishes, it all kicks off preparing for next season."

For Cheltenham, where next season lies is a moot point. Automatic promotion is within reach of the League Two club or at least a place in the Play-Offs, in which they lost 2-0 to Crewe Alexandra in the final at Wembley at the end of 2011/12. All is now quiet at Whaddon Road, the first-team squad having left for their away game at Plymouth Argyle the next day.

Godfrey works in a small office in the main stand overlooking the spacious car park. Files clutter the desks and shelves; if there is a sense of organised chaos, there is a mood of business-like efficiency, too. Jennie Thomas, the office manager, takes a succession of phone calls and Godfrey retreats to an adjoining room, which is used by Simon Perruzza, the community programme director, and first-team manager Mark Yates on matchdays.

Paul reflects on a lifetime at Town. He is softly spoken and nursing a cold but his passion for the Gloucestershire club shines through. Though always a fan, his career in admin only took off when he dared to criticise the match programme. Back in 1990, the Oxford University geography student could not have imagined what it would lead to.

"One day, there was an article in the programme saying that no one was buying it and that the chairman [Dave Courtney] was thinking of getting rid of it," Paul explains. "So I wrote a letter saying that the reason for no one buying it was that it was not very good. So he replied to me saying, 'well, you have a go'. So I did. I started editing it part-time.

"I'd got fed up with university exams. I'd had enough of them. But I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I certainly didn't want to be a lawyer or an accountant. I just wanted to do something different. So I worked for a marketing company and then as a journalist, for the Gloucester Citizen newspaper, covering the Cheltenham games every Saturday.

"It was in the early days of primitive mobile technology. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. I also did a bit of local radio. I commentated on Cheltenham's first goal in The Football League, against Mansfield in 1999. I remember it well - a Neil Grayson header. I'm sure it's still in the BBC archives somewhere."

Town had progressed from the Southern League to the Conference to The Football League. In 2001, Godfrey's spare-time devotion to the match programme became a full-time obsession as the club's media officer. "As we went up, more and more things needed to be done," he says. "I was one of those people around at the time who helped out. Through enthusiasm, I suppose. Or maybe it was just stupidity.

"When we got in the League, it was a bit chaotic because we'd come up so quickly and we didn't have much of an administration in place. You look at the clubs who come up from the Conference now and they're much more geared up for it. In many ways, we were still a non-league club. We had to pick it up very quickly.

"When I came in as media officer, we didn't have a full-time secretary. It was a job that had always been cobbled together by different people. But, really, it needed just one person to do it. So, halfway through my first season working full-time, I took it on as well. Someone had to take the phone calls and do the organising and I was doing some of it, anyway.

"It was a bit difficult at first but The Football League and the FA were very helpful. They gave me a lot of assistance. You could just ring up and ask them any questions and they would tell you what you needed to know. As a fan, I'm lucky in that I never have that feeling of, 'oh, I've got to go to work tomorrow. I don't really like it'. There's always that enthusiasm that drives you on."

Town drive on relentlessly in the picturesque Cotswolds, consistently punching above their weight. They are proud of what they have achieved, what they do. It is a sunny day but patches of snow still nestle on Cleeve Hill, high above the Abbey Business Stadium. James Brown, the club's media and communications officer, gives me a guided tour.

Into the modest home dressing room, which has seen better times, and the surprisingly more spacious and modern away dressing room. "The manager prefers the smaller one because it has a physio room next to it," Brown explains. "The new dressing room doesn't have that."

On to the pitch, for which Terry Roberts won the Groundsman of the Year award last year. It has staged 56 matches this season, the ground-sharing with neighbouring Gloucester City, the Blue Square North club, having taken its toll. "The terrible weather hasn't helped, either," Brown observed. Still, Roberts has again been shortlisted for the award.

Cheltenham make use of every available space. For the lounges for sponsors and players, the tidy executive boxes and the tiny kitchen that provides food for everyone. The chef barely has room to swing a pork chop, let alone a cat. In the comfortable boardroom, there is an old framed picture of Town's winning team in the 1913/14 North Gloucestershire League first division.

In the commercial department, the staff are busy. "It's the hub of everything," James says. Alan Brown, the long-serving ticket office manager, is quietly going about his business, too, near the club shop, which offers such branded goodies as Town beer, bears and chocolate.

Goodness knows what the sales of mementoes will be should Cheltenham reach yet another final. They are certainly no strangers to the big stage. And apart from the loss against Crewe last year, they have been hugely successful. In 1998, they won the FA Trophy by beating Southport 1-0 at the old Wembley.

In 2002, Town defeated Rushden and Diamonds 3-1 in the Third Division Play-Off Final at the Millennium Stadium; and in 2006, also in Cardiff, they overcame Grimsby Town 1-0 in the League 2 Play-Off Final. "It gets easier the more you do it," Godfrey says, "but it's still a much bigger operation than you'd normally be involved in. It's hectic but exciting as well.

"If you win in a final and get promotion, it's great. It's all been worth it. If you don't, it's not the end of the world. And the club does make a few quid out of it. Being on the board, you still come away thinking that that's going to come in handy financially for next year. You can then invest a fair bit back into the team.

"If you get in the Play-Offs, it's massive. Particularly if you get to the Final. We don't have a big staff so we have to pull in people to help out. Me and Jennie do all the logistics - sort out the hotels, make familiarisation visits, arrange the players' tickets. It's important for the players to just focus on the game. We take all the other stuff away from them."

Jennie pops in to check on Paul's travel arrangements back from Plymouth the next day. "She's brilliant," he says. "I go to all the games, I always have done. And if I'm away during the season and something needs doing, Jennie steps in." Bright and bubbly, Thomas looks after the accounting system, the board of directors, the management team and player liaison.

The pair appear to enjoy a classic 'good cop, bad cop' relationship. It works perfectly. "My job title covers a multitude of sins," Jennie says. "One title covers various jobs. And on matchdays, I work front of house, meeting and greeting the visiting directors, the scouts, the media, whoever. Because I've been here so long, if anything goes wrong it's a case of, 'get Jen. She'll know what to do'.

"I do have a bit of a reputation, I suppose. I don't suffer fools gladly. Paul and I are exact opposites but we do complement each other. We've shared an office for about eight years and, obviously, we do work well together."

Thomas, a Gloucester rugby union and horse racing fan, arrived at Whaddon Road 10 years ago. She survived an embarrassing first-day faux pas - calling Graham Allner, the new manager who had succeeded Steve Cotterill, 'Steve' - and stayed. And her conversion to football has become complete.

"I came here for a week as a temp and I'm still here," Jennie says. "I knew nothing about football, I'd never been to a match in my life. I hated the round ball with a passion, I was very much the egg-chasing girl with Gloucester. But I'm now Cheltenham Town through and through."

Godfrey, too. The red and white of the Robins courses through his veins. Yet there has to be a distraction, another passion, a welcome diversion and release from the daily grind. And there is. Paul travels around the world watching England, arranging his international excursions to fit in with his all-consuming commitment to Cheltenham.

Sarah, his wife, used to accompany him on most trips abroad until the arrival of their son William, now four. But they will head off for an 11-day tour to South America this summer and take in a visit to Argentina before moving on to Rio de Janeiro for England's friendly against Brazil in the Maracana Stadium on June 2nd.

"Cheltenham Town and England have always been my teams," Godfrey said. "And I don't miss many England games. Before the Play-Off Final with Crewe last year, England played in Norway the day before. I said to the guys here, 'right, I'm going to Norway. So if the Play-Off arrangements are not done before I go, then they're not going to get done'. But they were done. I went to Norway, flew back early on the day of the Final from Oslo to Stansted and the team hotel was not far from there so it was fine. It just meant that it was a long day."

Paul also attended the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and England's recent 2014 qualifying matches in San Marino and Montenegro. "Coming back from San Marino, the flight got delayed and moved from Bologna to Verona," he says. "It meant I missed our away game at Barnet. That was a bit of a disaster. I wasn't very happy about that."

Happy he is, though, to follow Roy Hodgsons's team to the end of the earth and back. And also, as a music fan, to make the annual pilgrimage to the Glastonbury Festival. "Sarah and I were regulars until William came along," Paul says. "One year, I did a blog and I watched 30 bands over the three days. By the end of it, my legs were killing me. But it was really good."

With the Rolling Stones due to debut at Glastonbury this year, Godfrey would no doubt concur with their mantra, 'it's only rock 'N' roll (but I like it)'.

Football has always struck the right chords with him, too. With his beloved England, and Cheltenham Town.

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