An interesting article by David Conn in The Guardian yesterday highlighted steps being taken by the Football Conference to limit the boom and bust culture which has blighted the league over the last few seasons. They have lost Scarborough, Canvey Island, Halifax Town and Boston United in recent years, and drastic measures have been put in place by a league that is keen not to be seen in the wider press as the home of some financial basket cases. These moves are most welcome, as they seek to force a more responsible form of management upon its member clubs, yet the suspicion remains that life in the Blue Square Premier is still not as rosy as some might want us to believe.
The league is currently headed by Crawley Town, a club whose financial misdeeds have been much reported over the last two or three years, but it is the goings on at two other clubs, Oxford United and Grays Athletic, that are causing alarm bells to ring, with the possibility of one or both of these clubs being unable to continue in anything like the medium to long term being a very real one. Both are clubs that have spent heavily since entering the Conference from very different routes, and both provide distinct warnings to others that seek to take the “spend, spend, spend” route to what is perceived within the world of football as “success”. Other clubs are also believed to be in a financially perilous position, but Oxford and Grays are both currently at the centre of news stories which threaten the clubs’ very existence.
When Oxford United tumbled out of the Football League in 2006, many believed that their stay in non-league football would be a brief one. They spent heavily on the team and led the Conference for much of the first half of the 2006/07 season, before fading in the league and imploding in the play-offs. Last season, they could manage no better than a mid-table finish, and their start to this season has been little more disastrous, with the club currently sitting in nineteenth place in the table. The club was purchased by Ian Lenegan and Nick Merry just before relegation from League Two, but relations between them and OxVox, the Oxford United Supporters Trust, have deteriorated to such a point that the Trust recently met with the owners and voiced their concerns over the long-term stability of the club. The exact extent of the club’s woes remain unknown – Lenegan and Brown refused to advise what they thought that losses would be for this season, citing “confidentiality clauses”, but they did admit that losses for last season were even greater than losses were for the year before. The debt is rumoured to currently be in the region of £4m, with the club possiblt losing over £750,000 per year. To put this in perspective, a debt of under £2m was enough to force the closure of Halifax Town at the end of last season. Their stadium is still owned by the club’s previous owner, Firoz Kassam, and rent there has just increased. Should the club go out of business, whether Oxford council would be able to resist the temptation to allow planning permission for Kassam to build houses on a piece of land in a city which, to put it simply, doesn’t have enough housing, is open to question. The BBC’s “Non-League Radio” show attempted to contact the owners to comment on the situation on Monday, but were unable to.
In Essex, Grays Athletic were briefly a very successful club. They won the first Conference South championship in 2005, and the FA Trophy in 2005 and 2006, but rumour and counter rumour and now encircling The New Recreation Ground. The club is owned by Mick Woodward, who was also the club’s manager until last weekend, when they lost 3-1 to Woking in the league and he resigned. More worryingly for those concerned about the club’s future, he also offered his resignation as chairman and benefactor in an interview with the local radio station, although this stance may have softened slightly since then, with a public meeting having been called this evening to discuss the club’s future this evening. Setting aside the extraordinarily sycophantic nature of the interview for a moment, it’s worth briefly look at the background behind the decision. Grays recently sold Danny Kedwell to AFC Wimbledon for £10,000, and it was rumoured that a couple of supporters contacted the non-league press to inform them that the proceeds for this sale had gone straight to Woodward rather than to the club. It seems enormously unlikely that this would have happened – Grays is, after all, a limited company that has to submit full accounts to Companies House every year – but the question remains as to whether this is the real reason for his sudden volte face. The club’s ground appears to have been sold earlier this year to two property developers, Galliard Homes and Fairfield New Homes, who remain as main sponsors of the club, but plans to move the club five miles to a new stadium at Aveley fell through because it was felt to be too far from their current site and, while there has been talk of moving to a new stadium in the Blackshots area of Grays, there are no concrete plans for a new stadium and, in the current financial climate, it could take some time to find the funding or the council support required to build a new stadium. In the meantime, crowds at The New Recreation Ground have fallen from an average of almost 1,500 three years ago to an average of under 600 this season. This is, to put it simply, an unsustainable course for the club to chart should it wish to retain a full-time playing staff.
The Football Conference, ultimately, can put in place whatever rules it wishes to try and secure the long term viability of its member clubs, but the end repsonsibility for the running of those clubs ends with the people that sign the cheques. Through the smoke of rumour and counter-rumour, it is difficult to see what the exact truth behind the health of the likes of Oxford United and Grays Athletic is, but it is difficult to offer either of them a positive prognosis based on what we know, and the situation at neither club is helped by the apparent intransigence of the owners of either of them to communicate openly with their supporters. Oxford United may yet prove to be beyond help, but it is impossible to say when the owners stop taking calls from the press and allow relations with the Supporters Trust (who, it should be remembered, only really have the long term future of the club at heart). Grays Athletic’s supporters, on the other hand, still have the time to mobilise and organise themselves into a Supporters Trust, which may ensure that football of some sort continues to be played in that particular corner of Essex. Their meeting this evening should prove to be an interesting one. There are many questions that need to be asked there, the most important of which is, “what are the plans for our new home?”.