Rumour, Counter Rumour & Market Confidence
Another week, and another batch of rumours concerning the financial well-being of clubs in the Blue Square Premier. Fortunately, at least some of the rumours flowing around over the last seven days or so appear not to have too much meat on them, though they do help to perpetuate the understanding (which comes close to being a myth) that non-league football is in a perpetual state of crisis. First, though, we’ll quickly bring you briefly up to date on the clubs that we looked at here last week. On the financial front, it has been all quiet on the Oxford United front from a financial perspective, but things have gone from bad to worse on the pitch. They lost 2-1 at Lewes on Saturday, a first win for the part-time club that had looked like getting hopelessly marooned at the bottom of the table. Oxford remain in nineteenth place in the BSP, one point above the relegation places. Meanwhile, over at Grays, owner Mick Woodward has u-turned on his decision to stop funding the club, and they have played three matches since then, beating Wrexham before returning to type with defeats against Stevenage Borough and Cambridge United. It would appear that, for now, the club’s short term future has been secured (they have taken on a new manager, Wayne Burnett, from Fisher Athletic, along with two of his players), but doubts remain over the status of their future at The New Recreation Ground. Of course, we wish both clubs all the best for the future.
This week’s rumours have concerned Histon, Weymouth and Salisbury City. Histon, from a village near Cambridge, were promoted into the BSP two seasons ago and surprised many by maintaining their place there last season. The club have had a good start to this season and are sitting in ninth place in the BSP table at the moment, within touching distance of the play-offs. However, a story that ran on the BSP website over the weekend suggested that the club was in serious financial difficulties, and was on the brink of having to enter into administration. The story was based on this story from the Cambridge United Rivals site, and stated that the club lost £250,000 on against an annual turnover of just £400,000. Today, however, the BSP site had to run this humiliating apology, stating that “the financial position of Histon Football Club was incorrect and misleading”. However, crowds are down there this season by around 25%, and the “no smoke without fire” brigade will be doing overtime on this story, regardless of how truthful it is. If the club has been budgeting for average crowds of over 1,000, it needs average crowds of over 1,000. Whether this is sustainable in the long term with Histon having a population of 4,000 is a whole different question. Histon, however, have a reputation for being a well-run club, and should endeavour to maintain that reputation.
At Weymouth, the current situation is largely unknown. The club sailed close to having to enter into adminsitration at the start of 2007, leading to the departure of the club’s chairman, Martyn Harrison. It looked as if the club had managed to stabilise itself, but the recent decision to transfer five players, including their top scorer and last season’s Player Of The Season, have again ignited a debate over its wellbeing. Average crowds are down from over 1,900 two seasons ago to 1,100 this season which, whilst not necessarily representative (it is, after all, early days for this season), has to be a matter for concerned. In addition to this, the club confirmed during the summer that they would be entering into an Aston Villa-esque sponsorship deal with a local charity, Julia’s House (though only after they had been unable to secure shirt sponsorship anywhere else). For manager John Hollins, who was in charge at Crawley Town a couple of years ago when they almost imploded, this is not unfamiliar territory. His club, however, is likely to have to cut its cloth accordingly in the medium to long term. Not that is a bad thing, and nor should it be reported to be.
Most troubling of all, however, is the situation at Salisbury City, who last week issued an extraordinary press release, claiming that the club needed to raise £100,000 in the next fourteen days. Quite what this was for remains a moot point. It is, reportedly, for covering the extra costs of moving up into the BSP in the first place, but the question of why such a short time frame was given and the lack of clarity over what this money is to be spent on is troubling. The club’s supporters seem happy enough that the club is in safe hands, but these are questions that should be openly and frankly addressed. Where, after all, is the guarantee that the club will not find itself in a similar position in a couple of years’ time. Crowds are down again (1,542 average last season to 1,272 this season), and many of the questions that face Weymouth also face Salisbury. Is it worth trying to cling onto full time football and that place in the BSP, even if it looks possible that it will destabilise the club’s future? It will certainly be interesing to see how close they get to the target by the end of next week.
Is it a coincidence that these clubs seem to be displaying signs of instability as the world’s banking systems start crashing down around our ears? Well, possibly, but probably not. The banks may be cutting back on lending, but they’re hardly likely to force clubs without assets into administration or receivership. Conference clubs have increased prices as much as most other clubs have, and this may be biting as people feel as if they’re living in more straitened times, even if they’re not. The most likely situation, however, is that minor tremors are being built into potential disasters by rumour and counter-rumour. On the one hand, it is important to ask the question of whether it is sustainable to run full-time clubs on average crowds of 1,200 and the sort of sponsorship and television money that the BSP brings in. On the other hand, however, the clubs concerned could all help to quell this sort of rumour by being open and clear with supporters over their financial affairs. Rumours, as Salisbury City have found, are likely to flourish when there is a lack of clear information coming from a club, and can be quickly be put to rest with a public announcement. The credit crunch may not bite into non-league football, but with sensible management it shouldn’t be difficult to overcome.