Cautious Reasons For Optimism At St Albans
It has been a wretched season for St Albans City. Twenty-five years at the sixth level of the English pyramid -one of which, the 2006/07 season had been spent a division higher in the Blue Square Premier – came to a crashing halt this season in a fog of humiliation, as they were docked ten points for financial irregularities and finished well adrift at the foot of the Blue Square South. As some noted at the time, even that points deduction proved to be a red herring. The final league table confirmed that, even without it, they would have finished bottom of the table anyway.
All of this felt a long way away from the scenes at The Dripping Pan in Lewes at the end of April 1986, when City, needing a big win to guarantee their promotion from Division One of the Isthmian League, scooted to a 7-1 win. They had spent the previous twelve years playing at this level. In a non-league culture that still seemed to treat the concepts of promotion and relegation as faintly dishonorable and at a club that that had a long history in that division, being one of the first clubs to be relegated from its top division in 1974 had hurt. A further relegation, again on the introduction of a new basement division had followed. This particular embarassment, however, had been quickly set straight. The promotion of 1986 was catharsis – a return to the division in which they felt that they belonged.
It took two decades for the club to get to spend a single solitary season in the Blue Square Premier. Having lost out in a narrow and at times bitter race for the Blue Square South Championship to Weymouth in 2006, they had a little luck in receiving a bye to the final of the play-offs before beating Histon in the final. It was during this season, however, that cracks started to appear in the veneer of the club again. It wasn’t the first time that this had happened. In 2002, they were suspended from playing for five weeks by the Ryman League after failing to adhere to a CVA that was in place. The club, then owned by Lee Harding (who had his moment in the sun at the end of this season in getting promoted into the Blue Square Premier with Braintree Town), was sold to John Gibson on the eve of when it was due to be expelled from the league.
Gibson, however, wasn’t to everyone’s taste. An abrasive Geordie with the apparent ability to rub almost anyone up the wrong way, he at times seemed more concerned with the club’s link-ups with the local further education college, Oaklands, and with getting a new, out of town ground built than with actually getting on with chairing the club. After its season in the Blue Square Premier, it continued to struggle whilst back in the Blue Square South, but the recession would come to bite St Albans City very hard. The club, via a very modern but somewhat byzantine ownership structure, was now a wholly-owned subsiduary of a company called Verry Holdings. At the start of the summer in 2009, however, the wheels fell off the wagon when William Verry Construction, the building company that had been meant to be the main part of the Verry Group, collapsed into administration.
Whilst this didn’t directly impact upon St Albans City, it certainly had its effects. It was reported at the time Verry had Construction had lent the club a considerable amount of money – as much as half a million pounds – to the point that it had caused considerable friction between Gibson and Verry Construction’s chief executive, Craig Jones. There was no way of recouping this money – the club, playing at a council-owned ground, had no significant assets – but the collapse of Verry Contruction meant that the Saints would have to be self-supportive in the future. Costs were slashed with inevitable results, and perhaps the defining symbolism of their decline – amid the talk of bouncing wages cheques this season – was the departure of goalkeeper Paul Bastock towards the end of the season. Bastock had been with the club since 2004 – with a brief intermission playing for Rushden & Diamonds – and his return Boston United, where he had played the lion’s share of his career, was, to long-time watchers, a signal of the club’s decline.
At the end of the season, the club was placed in the Southern League for next year. This seems to have been met with approval with supporters, who, after several derby-less seasons, can look forward to relatively local matches against the likes of Hitchin Town, Arlesey Town and Hemel Hempstead Town. More importantly than that, though, John Gibson was eventually persuaded to relinquish control of the club to two local businessmen, John McGowan and Lawrence Levy. So far, there are cautious signs for optimism from the new owners. Work has already started on giving Clarence Park, the club’s home for 103 years, a much-needed lick of paint and a forum to meet the supporters has been arranged for Friday the third of June.
With a supporters trust that was at loggerheads with Gibson (not to mention some supporters – the trust chair decided not to stand for re-election during the season, stating, of accusations made by some more voluble supporters, that, “insinuation of dishonesty, incompetence or dishonesty is unfair and destructive”, and that, “the criticism and insinuation from two people in particular was sufficient for me to feel concerned about my professional reputation, as well as my peace of mind, and that was a real contributing factor for my decision not to stand again”) on board, there is sense coming from the club that a corner has, after several fallow years, been turned.
Over the last few seasons, a smell of dry rot had started to emanate from St Albans City. This manifested itself in several different ways, one of the most notable of which was a slow decline in the club’s attendances – just 142 people, for example, saw them lose 4-1 at home to Dorchester Town at the end of March – over the last couple of seasons. There are cautious reasons to believe that a genuine corner has been turned, but the bickering – and in particular the innuendo-ridden finger-pointing at various members of the trust board – has to stop with the new season. The Saints City Trust has a valuable role to play in the future of the club, and with its involvement and sensible investment from the new owners, there is a chance that this club – which as recently as the 2006/07 season was averaging home crowds of over 1,000 in the Blue Square Premier – can have a positive future after all.
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