Forget El Clasico, the meeting of the Merseyside giants or the Old Firm rumble… The most eagerly anticipated clash of last season for Cherry Red was the League 1 meeting of AFC Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers. Why? Because it was the Cherry Red derby!
The label had been Wycombe’s away shirt sponsor since 2018, having first established links two years earlier, while the ties with AFC Wimbledon go back to the club’s very formation in 2002. And those links are personal: Cherry Red MD Adam Velasco grew up close to Adams Park, while label chairman McNay was an enthusiastic supporter when Wimbledon fans, disenfranchised by the original club’s betrayal, re-started at grassroots level and proudly reclaimed both their history and League status in 2011. He is currently a club vice-president, chairman of AFCW PLC and runs the Blue and Yellow club fundraising initiative.
For the record, the Cherry Red derby last year finished honours even. But it was a different matter – just – in a musical quiz, where Wycombe triumphed by a 9-8 scoreline. You can still catch it on YouTube…
While the Chairboys ended the Covid-curtailed season with a Wembley playoff win to secure Championship status – Adam was pictured enjoying a socially distanced celebration – AFC Wimbledon had a different reward. They ended their 18-year sojourn in Kingston and returned to their spiritual home, Plough Lane, in an impressive new stadium. Their rebirth at the Cherry Red Records Stadium (formerly Kingsmeadow) was no coincidence, since the label had sponsored the shirts of the original residents Kingstonian for some time.
Kingstonian are well worth a mention, as their success pointed the way for Cherry Red to become involved at non-League level. They twice won the FA Trophy at Wembley, punching well above their weight in the Conference; what’s more, chief executive Chris Kelly – the famed Leatherhead Lip – was, on occasion, persuaded to grace Cherry Red’s office 5-a-side team. Chris Whyte of Leeds also turned out on a couple of occasions.
As Cherry Red is a left-field, some would say niche, record label, they have always lent their support to the less obvious areas of football populated by real fans. Both AFC Wimbledon and Wycombe Wanderers have proud non-League roots, and Cherry Red have sponsored several different League and Cup competitions beyond the ‘92’. The Combined Counties League, where AFC Wimbledon began their rebirth, bears the Cherry Red name today, as does the Middlesex Counties League, while the Chiltonian and Hellenic Leagues have been among the recipients of the label’s sponsorship.
In addition, many of these leagues’ associated cup competitions are or have been named after Cherry Red labels – for example the Anagram Records Trophy, the Esoteric Records Div 1 Challenge Cup and the él Records Premier Challenge Cup.
Your writer recalls accompanying Iain McNay to a Hellenic League celebration and prizegiving dinner, where the guest of honour was Peter Shilton. The much-capped England goalkeeper impressed the assembled players and officials with tales of Brian Clough, Alf Ramsey et al, but even he tired of every trophy presentation being punctuated by wags yelling ‘Don’t drop it!’ More successful was Cherry Red’s employment of another England legend, World Cup winner Martin Peters, to give a surprise speech at a Pinnacle sales conference.
Best of all, though, was when Cherry Red persuaded Wimbledon FC hardman Vinnie Jones in 1993 to record his own version of the garage-band classic ‘Wooly Bully’. Life-size cardboard cutouts were commissioned to promote it, and one was taken to the MIDEM music-business convention in the south of France. Long-time CR associate and Captain Oi! label boss Mark Brennan recalls the queues of record executives queuing to ‘have their photo taken with Vinnie Jones’ – a publicity coup that certainly proved cost-effective in those days of excess.
Mr Jones was well acquainted with the referee’s book – and since Cherry Red branched into print some two decades ago, it’s no surprise AFC Wimbledon have been the subject of a couple of volumes, Spirit of Wimbledon and This is Our Time. The label also sponsored a non-League handbook and is the current sponsor of Football Traveller magazine.
As anyone who’s ever played will tell you, there’s no substitute (sorry) for lacing up your boots. And Cherry Red, an office full of football fans, is no exception. Tales are still told of the mythical Wednesday-evening games at Hyde Park back in the day, under the supervision of A&R chief Mike Alway. The likes of Sounds and New Musical Express provided the opposition, and names like Ben Watt and Bid from the Monochrome Set were spotted on the team sheet.
With Cherry Red then signing contemporary artists, Alway would invite prospective new signings to take part alongside staff and others connected with the company. Ability was, it seemed, secondary to attitude. “I wanted to check out their commitment… I wanted to see if they really wanted to be successful,” he explained.
The synergy between music and football bore further fruit in 1989 with the release of ‘4-2-4’, Mike Alway’s compilation subtitled ‘The él Records Compendium Of Soccer’. It was a particular favourite of John Peel – not least because, in light of the events at Hillsborough in the year of release, all profits went to the Liverpool FC Relief Fund.
But if they thought it was all over with ‘4-2-4’, it wasn’t. Ten years later, Peel was playing music from ‘Singing The Blues: The Songs Of Ipswich Town FC’ His airing of the title track of the club compilation released Cherry Red came after Ipswich, his wife’s favourite team, had beaten Barnsley 4-2 at Wembley to secure a place in the Premier League.
The CD bore the catalogue number GAFFER 32, evidence of how fast the Football Collector series had grown since it began in 1995. Mark Brennan was instrumental in its creation. ‘I remember going to Beano’s record shop in Croydon and buying up every football record they had – except one, which we already owned!’
Arsenal fan Tim Madgwick lent a hand as Tottenham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Everton and England were added to his favourite club, the combination of obvious and obscure tracks finding immediate favour with fans. There were also two cassettes of interviews with past legends – one featured Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, the other Sir Stanley Matthews.
Amazingly, the 1996 Cherry Red interview with the World Cup winners led to a headline-making ‘tabloid war’ between the Sun and the Daily Mirror. Each was determined to locate the ball hat-trick hero Hurst revealed he had never possessed, sending reporters and helicopters in a battle to repatriate said item. Among the characters involved were German midfielder Helmut Haller – who had taken it from Wembley 30 years previously – Mirror editor Piers Morgan and millionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, seeking publicity for the Eurostar rail service in which he was an investor. The Mirror won, for the record…
There had been many releases by clubs, players or supporters when their team got to a Cup Final, but no-one had come up with the idea of collecting these tracks on a CD. As record retailers initially proved resistant, Cherry Red began selling directly to the fans by mail-order. Local press, fanzines and radio got involved, the now-interested record shops were supplied with football-logo’d dividers to put in their racks, and the Football Collector series grew to some 60 titles.
There’ve been fascinating individual stories too, such as Everton anthem ‘Spirit Of The Blues’ storming to Number 1 in the iTunes singles chart in September 2020 thanks to a supporter-led social media campaign. The song, penned by Liverpool Express and performed with the team, was originally released after Everton secured the First Division title and European Cup Winners’ Cup double in 1985 season. It appeared on the ‘Forever Everton: 22 Goodison Classics’, number five in the Football Collector series, and, when fans bought the track on download to celebrate Everton’s great start to the current season, became Cherry Red’s second Top 75 football hit. Award yourself bonus points for naming the first: ‘Niall Quinn’s Disco Pants’!
The Football Collector mini magazine, launched in conjunction with Total Football, was an attempt to provide football fans with a counterpart to Record Collector. It only published two issues, being perhaps ahead of its time. Something else you may not realise Cherry Red were influential in popularising is…groundhopping! The first Chiltonian Groundhop took in four games in a day – 150-plus grown men demanding badges, burgers and programmes, and not necessarily in that order. Clubs like Penn and Tylers Green registered their biggest attendance, and this started a fashion that continues generating grass-roots revenue to this day. (A John Bentham documentary DVD about non-League groundhopping released on Cherry Red Films, The People’s Game, is well worth tracking down.)
Back at the exalted end of the game, Adam Velasco co-produced a feature-length documentary film celebrating Arsenal’s epic title win of 1989. ’89 was released via Universal and Big Shot Features/Cherry Red Productions in 2017.
The label loves an underdog, and Kilmarnock and Colchester enjoyed bespoke releases when they sought to transcend their status thanks to Mark Brennan’s Captain Oi! label. Millwall FC had two bites of the cherry (sorry), dancing down Wembley Way to a ska version of terrace chant ‘Let Em Come’ when they reached the final of the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield and again – at Cardiff – five years later for the FA Cup Final.
Cherry Red staff are regulars at Wembley Stadium, and England games of old were always preceded by a block booking at a nearby curry house. Up to 30 invited guests would partake of the label’s unique version of corporate entertaining.
At club level, Cherry Red-sponsored teams can claim four wins in four Wembley appearances – Kingstonian in the FA Trophy against Forest Green (1999) and Kettering (2000), AFC Wimbledon in the 2016 League Two play-off against Plymouth and Wycombe against Oxford last year for a place in the Championship.
The Cherry Red office football team started to take the game even more seriously at the turn of the millennium. After winning the Music Business 5-a side cup the team, helmed by production manager Jon Roberts, became Winter League champions in 2006 for the first time. With one defeat in 16 league fixtures, the Reds claimed the title by ten clear points. You could say eat your heart out Jurgen Klopp, but Man United fan Jon clearly modelled his managerial style on an earlier icon – Sir Alex Ferguson.
The loyalties of current staffers range from Matt Bristow and Jon Sidwell’s Wolves through Paul Robinson’s lifelong Hornet obsession (Watford) to Matt Ingham, who keeps it local with Brentford. Suffice to say, keeping the Monday-morning office banter in check would challenge even Jeff Stelling!
To end on a personal note, your writer has a couple of memories of ‘matchday with McNay’. The first was when Frimley Green, a Combined Counties side playing in a fenced-off corner of a public park, hired Farnborough’s Cherrywood Road ground to host their game against AFC Wimbledon in their inaugural season. Iain and I were among the four-figure crowd, and I have returned there many times in the following two decades to support Boro…though rarely to see them hammer five goals in front of a four-figure crowd, as AFCW did that day.
A few years earlier, when Cherry Red were based in Fulham, Iain invited me to see the Lilywhites play Manchester City (in their third-tier days) in the company of Chris ‘Frank Sidebottom’ Sievey. My son Drew, 11, was also invited, but it’s arguable which was the bigger shock – Fulham’s race to a 3-0 half-time lead (Chris loudly predicting a second-half comeback to all those within earshot) or Drew being presented with a signed copy of Frank’s Greatest Hits! All was later explained…
So as we hope and pray for an end to the pandemic and the return of fans to football grounds, Cherry Red continue to prove there’s a lot to be said for singing when you’re winning – and even when you’re not playing!