It has been a busy day for non-league football at the Royal Court of Justice in London. Both Lewes and Fisher Athletic were before the judge to explain themselves in the face of a winding up order and, whilst both managed a stay of execution for a few weeks, a huge question mark hangs over the viability of both clubs. Indeed, this question mark is so great that non-league football in general has to start asking itself some very serious questions about its financing, because this is all starting to get a little bit beyond a joke. These two particular clubs are just the tip of the iceberg. There have been ongoing problems at numerous non-league clubs over the last couple of years or so, and the unfortunate truth is that no-one seems to ever learn anything from the mistakes of others. Something is going to have to change.
For Fisher, the end is already nigh. For their home league match against Weston-Super-Mare last Saturday, they attracted a crowd of just 89 people. Their problems, however, run deeper than a mere lack of support. They moved from their own Surrey Docks Stadium to groundshare at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium a couple of years ago with grand plans to redevelop the site into a Football League standard ground. It seemed like a perverse decision (and there may well have been more to it than met the eye), and Surrey Docks remains derelict and now overgrown and vandalised. Success on the pitch (they were promoted to the Blue Square South via the play-offs in 2006 and made the play-offs again the following year) seemed peculiar given their low attendances, and the full extent of their financial difficulties has become apparent as the season wore on. Their players haven’t been paid since November, and their descent turned into what looked like a publicity stunt when they made turnstile operator Donna Powell manager for one match last month after she raised £500 for the club.
The creditor bringing the petition is the Inland Revenue, with the club owing them £250,000. The judge at the hearing gave them 49 days to pay them in full, meaning that Fisher will almost certainly fold at the end of the season. This is something that their supporters have been prepared for, and most had been merely pinning their hopes upon finishing the season with at least the dignity of being able to complete their fixtures. Their final league match of the season against Braintree Town is due to be played three days after the next hearing, and supporters are hoping that the league will bring their match forward to enable them to complete their fixtures. Fortunately, Braintree – fifteen points from the play-offs and ten points from the relegation places – are likely to have nothing to play for, so there seems to be no logical reason to not let them do this. The club will most likely reform at the bottom of the pyramid, hopefully under the ownership of its supporters who, it is hoped, will be less profligate than the current ones.
Lewes season has been covered on here before, and has limped along from crisis to crisis in the Blue Square Premier. On Saturday, they were beaten 3-0 at home by Histon in front of a record low Blue Square Premier crowd of just 345 people – their twelfth successive defeat. Relegation seems a certainty, but this is the least of their concerns. They were also in court yesterday, with a winding up order having been brought by Portakabin. This turned into something of a farce when the club claimed to the local newspaper not to be aware of the petition. Another stay of execution was granted, this time to April 1st, but where they go from here remains unclear. They have until March 26th to enter into administration, which would at least stave off the threat of cloure. However, the rot seems to have thoroughly set in at The Dripping Pan, and it is clear that they cannot continue to function unless drastic changes are made.
These two clubs may have been the highest profile cases of non-league insolvent (and they are both insolvent in all but legal status), but they are far from being the only crisis clubs in the non-league game at the moment. Weymouth, Northwich Victoria and Leigh Genesis, Merthyr Tydfil & Bognor Regis Town are just five clubs that have found themselves in drastic positions for a variety of different reasons this season alone. Who, then, is to blame for this? The answer, sad to say, seems to be “everybody”. An increasing number of non-league clubs themselves continue to run themselves in a wholly irresponsible way, spending money that they do not have (and, moreover, give no impression of being interested in actually paying back) on wages whilst not paying basics like their tax bill and the basic upkeep of the stadium. Supporters have a degree of responsibilty, too. How many, as a proportion, take any interest in the running of their clubs until it is too late, or join or form supporters trusts to take a more active role in the running of their clubs? None of these are comfortable questions, but the pressing issue for non-league clubs is whether they can evolve into something more sustainable than they are at the moment. The current state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.