As the main football club in a city at the centre of a nerve agent attack earlier this year, it has been a challenging time for Salisbury FC.
Nearly seven months have passed since a former Russian spy and his daughter were found seriously ill on a bench outside Zizzi’s restaurant. They had been poisoned by Novichok.
Police have since linked the attack to another poisoning in June, in which a couple were exposed to Novichok in nearby Amesbury after handling a contaminated perfume dispenser. One person later died in hospital in July.
Salisbury relies on thousands of tourists visiting the cathedral with a medieval spire every year. But this year, hotel bookings are down and the restaurant trade has been hit badly.
It has had an impact on the city’s football club too, with players thinking twice about going into Salisbury for shopping and food, the chairman’s family reluctant to visit and a key sponsor conceding the “luxury” of being involved with them is threatened by the downturn in tourism and the subsequent financial consequences.
But amid all the turmoil, there is relief to be found at Salisbury FC, a club helping a city come to terms with finding itself at the centre of an international scandal.
‘I’m always asked about Novichok’
Founded in 2015 after Salisbury City went into administration, ‘The Whites’ have gone on to win two promotions in three seasons and now play in the seventh-tier Southern League Premier Division South.
They are one of the best supported teams in the league, with average attendances of around 700, and are managed by former Portsmouth, Birmingham and Millwall striker Steve Claridge.
Away games in the first few weeks of the 2018-19 season have included trips to Beaconsfield Town, Harrow Borough and, in the FA Cup, Weston-super-Mare.
And according to Ian Hammond, a retired businessman and chairman of the club since June 2017, Novichok is a popular topic of conversation in opposition boardrooms whenever Salisbury FC visit.
“I’m asked: ‘Is Novichok affecting you?’ ‘Is it reducing your support?’
“I just say: ‘Let’s talk about football.’
“Most people have got on with their lives. It’s the businesses that have been caught by it. The tourist numbers have been down, shops have been closed.
“Salisbury is the type of place people come in coaches to go to the cathedral.
“My wife’s cousin comes every year to a caravan site just outside Salisbury for a week in July and they decided not to come this year. I said they’ve got more likelihood of being killed in a car crash on the drive down than they have of being affected by Novichok.”
‘This has brought the city together’
Manager Claridge is also a director and shareholder after ploughing tens of thousands of pounds of his own finances into the part-time club, which is based about three miles outside the city centre in Old Sarum.
And until last season, he played for the team too, at the age of 51. But he gave up that position in August 2017 when he broke two ribs and a bone in one hand during an FA Cup preliminary round win over Fareham Town.
“What’s happened in Salisbury this year, these sorts of things actually bring people together – they don’t push people apart,” said Claridge, who does not receive a wage for being a manager, a role he has held since the club was founded three years ago.
Has he had any problems trying to persuade players to sign because of what has happened?
“People are wary but they’re not stupid. I think they understand there’s no risk anymore.”
As is often the case in football, opponents have found a lighter side to such a serious issue. Claridge says other managers ask ‘is it safe to shake your hand? Are you playing in big protective rubber suits or your normal kit?'”
But for the manager himself, the realities of such a major incident so close to home are ever-present.
“Your first thought is with the people who have been directly affected,” he said.
“Then you think about the shopkeepers, the businesses in the city – these people have got to survive. It’s tough times in normal circumstances without something like this happening.
“You’ve got to support the community, support the city. I’ve made trips into town just to eat.”
‘We’re down tens of thousands of pounds’
The club’s match programme, of which more than 200 copies are sold each home game, relies on local businesses for advertising.
Sponsorship and adverts are a key source of income for a club with a playing budget of around £3,300 a week.
Salisbury taxi company Value Cars Group ploughs £7,000-£10,000 annually into the club. In return they have adverts in the programme, get exposure on the club’s website and have advertising boards around the ground.
However, the company has been hit hard by events this year.
“My industry relies on customers getting from hotels to restaurants, to pubs, to nearby Stonehenge,” said Adrian Sainsbury, 49, a Salisbury FC fan and chief executive of Value Cars Group.
“All that disappeared in large periods of the spring and summer to the point we have drivers disgruntled and unhappy.
“Normally we’re busy and our income is really good. This summer it’s been in the doldrums. We’re down tens of thousands of pounds – at least 30% down.”
Will he reduce the amount of money he invests in Salisbury FC as a result of the downturn in trade?
“Football is a luxury and if people like myself cannot afford to give the team money, they’re not going to be around much longer are they? It’s going to have a massive impact on them,” said Sainsbury.
‘I’d think twice about going into Sailsbury’
Few of Claridge’s squad live in Sailsbury.
At least one travels 50 miles from Bristol for home games. Others commute from the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth. The manager lives about 30 miles away, between Southampton and Portsmouth.
Midfielder Lewis Benson, who is in his third season at the club, commutes from Winchester.
So what’s the feeling in Salisbury’s dressing room about what has happened in the city this year?
“I probably go into Salisbury city centre once or twice a year just for a look around the shops,” said Benson.
“Would I go there now with my family?
“From my point of view, it would definitely make me think twice. It gives you that slight worry that something could happen.”
‘We’ve made world news for the wrong reasons’
Salisbury FC have more than 180 season ticket holders, including Gary Nunn.
“You hear stuff like ‘when are you going to turn green?’ and ‘is it safe to go out?’ he said.
“Most opposition fans are actually sympathetic. It’s been quite devastating for a city that is usually lively with people having fun eating and drinking. It’s stopped quite a lot of that.
“Salisbury is on everyone’s lips. We’ve made world news for the wrong reasons when we have lots of other things to offer.”
Having won promotion from the Southern League West Division at the end of last season, the football club has at least provided some positive news in a year to forget for the city.
“The club just being there is a help in itself. It’s an outlet for people,” said programme editor and press officer Alec Hayter.
“If anything it’s a means for people to take their minds off what’s been going on.”