TRIBUTES have been paid to former Tonbridge Angels Football Club Chairman Billy Wheeler, who has died at the age of 81. His funeral took place at Vinters Park Crematorium in Maidstone on Monday (January 29).
Mr Wheeler was a pivotal figure in the history of the club and was instrumental in finding a new home for the team when it was turfed off the Angel Ground.
He took over the chairmanship of Tonbridge FC in 1976, after the club had experienced financial difficulties and went into voluntary liquidation. It was reformed as Tonbridge Angels FC but more bad news was to follow when the council decided shortly afterwards that it would end the lease on the ground.
Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council wanted to develop the Angel into a shopping complex – it is now occupied by the Sainsbury’s superstore and car park.
The club was to play its final game at the old ground in 1980 with the last goal there being scored, appropriately, by Micky Angel.
The council was unwilling to help the Angels find an alternative stadium, at which point the newly remodelled club could easily have folded. Legend has it that Mr Wheeler, a passionate football man, threatened to chain himself to the railings of the council building at Kings Hill.
The club issued a statement saying: “Bill Wheeler and fellow director Frank Davis courageously took the local authority to the High Court and won.
“One might describe it as the biggest victory the Angels have ever had. Out of the legal
proceedings came the current ground at Longmead.”
The council offered a lease on a field near where housing estates and the Baptist Church
were being constructed.
The existing floodlights at the Angel Ground were relocated, as was the main terraced stand, which remains in use to this day.
Steve Churcher, who stood down as Chairman last month, said: “At the time, relations
between the council and the club were not good. There was no compulsion to find any other land.
“The council suggested the team played on the sportsground and put a rope up around the pitch. “They didn’t understand the level the club played at in the Southern League.”
He added: “Without Bill Wheeler it’s fair to say there would not be a club at Longmead that we have today.
The council has commented on the High Court Action: “Tonbridge Urban District Council took ownership of the Angel Ground in 1947. “The football club had been granted a licence to use the Angel Ground by the council.
Sometime later, the council sought possession of the ground to develop.
“The club then claimed tenant’s rights under Landlord and Tenant law. The matter was taken to the High Court where judgement was given for possession but a right of appeal was granted to the club, which they then took.
“Both sides subsequently agreed that, rather than taking the matter any further through the courts, the council would offer the club an alternative site at Tonbridge Farm, which they owned.” The club paid homage to its outspoken hero from the North-east, saying: “We all tend to moan when the team has a disappointing afternoon on the pitch.
“But perhaps at those moments we should remember that without people like William
Wheeler we might not have a club to enjoy today.” Mr Wheeler, whose younger sister was called Angel, originally came from Newcastle and played football for Northumberland County. He was also on the books at Middlesbrough. He was conscripted into the 9th Parachute Regiment which reinforced troops during the Suez crisis in 1956.
After leaving the army he worked in sales for Thompson newspapers and was head-hunted to join the Kent Messenger Group, so he moved south with his wife Maureen.
The group owned Maidstone FC and he worked there for six years as Vice Chairman and General Manager.
Then he and Maureen ran the Eagle pub in Maidstone from 1976 to 1993 when they retired. He leaves his wife, two sons, Carl and Jason, and four grandchildren.