Craig Wood is 'devastated' after closing down Shaw Lane AFC but says the only part of the 'great journey' over the last seven years which he regrets is sending a mocking tweet about Barnsley FC's relegation last month.
Wood, a self-made millionaire from his Barnsley-based plumbing business Aquaforce, founded the club from the ashes of Sunday League side Wilthorpe. They earned five promotions in six years from 2011, taking them to the Evo-Stik Premier Division which is the seventh tier of English football, while winning the last two Sheffield Senior Cups and becoming the first Barnsley non-league club to reach the FA Cup first round.
Wood – who put more than £1million into the club – had the aim of reaching the National League but, after missing out on the play-offs into the National League North, he has decided to fold it. He had hoped to move the Ducks out of Barnsley to Wakefield but talks with a consortium broke down.
He told the Chronicle: "I am devastated. It's left a huge hole in my life, because the club was my life. I put my heart and soul into it. It's going to take some time to feel better and it will be really hard next month when other clubs start playing friendlies and the fixtures come out. I gave it the best possible shot but I had no other option in the end."
The main factors in Wood's decision have been the club's inability to build a fanbase, the unsuccessful attempts to change the name to incorporate the word Barnsley, and Barnsley FC fans' animosity towards him. Wood, who supports Sheffield Wednesday and initially had his team playing in blue and white before changing to just blue, said: "A big factor is the bitterness from a large section of the Barnsley fans, which should be our catchment area. They have not wanted us since day one. People say it is because I am a Wednesday fan, which is heart-breaking because I am still Barnsley through and through."
The recent application to become AFC Barnsley was rejected by the Football Association on the grounds that it would cause confusion with Barnsley FC – following opposition from Oakwell, the council and the Sheffield FA. Wood said: "When we couldn't incorporate the town's name despite all the other clubs at our level being able to do so, I started to think: what am I doing? Is it worth it? I was in danger of falling out of love with football so I had to walk away."
Shaw Lane's 2017/18 average attendance of 191 was the fourth lowest in their league. Wood said: "I can't keep throwing good money after bad, we needed more fans and we just weren't getting them. I never thought we would get thousands of people but I hoped for a gradual increase, maybe 100 over a season, especially with the exposure we got from the FA Cup first round. But the attendances have stayed the same for five years and you can't go into the National League North with 200 fans. The away support would have been more than the home support, which can't be right. There was a small group of loyal fans who went to every home game and I feel gutted for them."
Some Barnsley fans have delighted in the Ducks' demise, citing the tweet Wood sent after the Reds' relegation which read 'karma is a right bitch.' He said: "That tweet is regrettable. It was hard to take so much grief for so long from some Barnsley fans and board members past and present then not give anything back, but I should have kept it to myself. It wasn't directed at the majority of the Barnsley fanbase who I have no problem with at all."
Other than that, he said: "I wouldn't do anything differently and I have no regrets. People say 'build your own ground' but I didn't have a spare £10million. We achieved more in a few years than most clubs have ever achieved. Five years ago I said I wanted to be knocking on the door of the Conference North and to play a Football League team in the FA Cup, and that's what we've done. I then wanted another five-year plan to go further but it's not to be.
"It's been a great journey with so many highs and very few lows. Most of the bad parts have been off the pitch and nothing to do with the actual football, which has been extremely successful. The highlight has to be the FA Cup first round game against Mansfield but there was also the FA Vase run when we played at Oakwell."
The Ducks spent five years at Barnsley RUFC's Shaw Lane ground before leaving last season and agreeing a groundshare with Athersley Rec. The Ladies and junior teams, which have always been based at Shaw Lane, will continue. Wood, still chairman of the junior section, said: "There is a really good under 16s side there and maybe in a few years they will want to become a first team in the lower leagues. We will see. But I certainly won't be doing the same again."
Wood will also continue to be a trustee of the Daniel Wilkinson Foundation, named after the Ducks player who died during a game in 2016, which he set up and has so far raised £16,000 towards providing health screenings and equipment for non-league clubs. The Ducks will not be able to continue their yearly friendlies with Brighouse, where Wilkinson died.