Plus ça change. As ever, it impossible to even attempt to frame the start of the new season in the Blue Square Premier without talking, in more detail than even we might particularly want to, about the financial condition football’s de facto fifth division. This summer saw the expulsion and subsequent folding of Rushden & Diamonds, which was followed by the bizarre and in some respects unedifying sight of Imraan Ladak hastily moving their former rivals Kettering Town into their ground, a chaotic couple of months at Wrexham which led to a desperate race against time in order to keep the club alive, and the lingering suspicion that there are a number of clubs playing at this level that are still struggling to come to terms with the new, tougher financial regulations that have been introduced in this league by the Football Conference.
It is occasionally forgotten outside of the league and its immediate environs that the Blue Square Premier is a division that is just as divided between those at the top and those at the bottom as the Premier League. At one end of the spectrum, we have the likes of Luton Town, who, with home crowds that sit at around 6,000 people on average, have a constant stream of match-day revenue that will sustain the paying of players that could easily be capable of playing at another level. At the other, meanwhile, we have the somewhat sad sight of Hayes & Yeading United, exiled twenty miles away at Woking FC’s Kingsfield. The old Hayes FC ground at Church Road, the club’s home until the end of last season, was demolished by the middle of July and, while work has begun on redeveloping the former Yeading FC ground at The Warren, the question of who, asides from the hardest of the hardcore of their support, will travel that distance to watch them seems difficult find a positive answer to. A record low attendance in the entire history of the league would not be a massive surprise, over the next ten months.
The matter of match-day income matters for the clubs of the Blue Square Premier, if for no other reason than that it makes up a far great proportion of their total income than it does for clubs in higher leagues. The amount of money received by most clubs under the Premier Sports television deal that the Football Conference signed last year can be so minimal that some supporters seem concerned about whether it will even cover the lost gate revenues from people that can’t or won’t go to matches at inconvenient times, and commercial and sponsorship revenues are, on the whole, low to minimal. As such, and with tight regulations on financial reporting in place from the league itself, a steady cash-flow is essential. Some clubs, such as Fleetwood Town – who signed Richard Brodie on a year-long loan at the very start of the summer – still continue to reap the benefits of the patronage of a benefactor in the form of energy company (or, if you are the Daily Mail, “controversial energy company”, or “unscrupulous energy broker”) owner, Andy Pilley, but for most the bread and butter income is what comes into the clubs every other Saturday afternoon.
With the practically genetically-modified Crawley Town having gobbled up everything in sight last season like a footballing Pacman on amphetamines, Fleetwood Town are probably this year’s recipients of benefaction most likely to repeat the achievement, and the signing of more than half a dozen new players over the course of the summer will do little to silence those that have criticised their spending methods in recent times. Similar criticisms may well end up being levelled at Stockport County, but the supporters of the club seem to have taken a “last days of Rome” attitude towards recent goings-on at the club and after the last few seasons this is perhaps understandable. Whether this nonchalant attitude would persist were the club to run into serious difficulties yet again is, however, debatable. At the time of writing, Stockport are understood to be trying to acquire the services of the former Manchester City player, Benjani. They could end the season as champions or out of business, and neither would be terribly surprising. Fleetwood and Luton are the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion.
If the flip-side to Crawley Town last season was AFC Wimbledon (and we hardly need to compare and contrast the outpouring of goodwill that greeted their promotion in comparison with the collective shrug that Crawley Town found in winning over one hundred points in the league whilst also making the Fifth Round of the FA Cup), then there will be at least two supporter-owned clubs in the division again this season, and more than likely within a few weeks, three, presuming the Wrexham Supporter Trust take-over of Wrexham goes through. Trust-owned AFC Telford United finally made it up from the Blue Square North after several years of stalling in the play-offs and they are joined by Ebbsfleet United, who, it could be argued, found their feet again as a club as the MyFootballClub membership started to drift back towards being more like that of a conventional mutually-owned club – down from 32,000 at its peak to 3,000 by earlier this year – and it became more down to earth again than the publicity-hungry experiment started by Will Brooks in 2007 had been.
Everywhere you look in the Blue Square Premier, though, there are clubs that have been pock-marked with financial disaster over the years, including – but not limited to – Barrow (Vaughan, 1999), York City (Craig/Batchelor, 2002), Darlington (Houghton, 2009) and Mansfield Town (Haslam, 1991 on). Some of these clubs had their problems whilst in the lower divisions of the Football League and fell into the Blue Square Premier as a result of them, whilst others have had difficulties in merely getting by as non-league clubs. The temptation to spend, spend, spend in order to try and keep up with those at the top of the table remains as difficult to resist for clubs in this division as in any other – indeed, it could be argued that this temptation is greater in a league which houses the dividing line between full-time and semi-professional clubs. It seems difficult to believe that there won’t be casualties of some description this season – the only question is which club (or clubs) will be involved, how serious any problems may be, and what sanctions will be imposed upon any miscreants. The Football Conference’s recent treatment of Wrexham’s woes would seem to indicate that the concept of “zero tolerance” may be a running theme of the season.
What we can say about this season’s Blue Square Premier with a degree if confidence, though, is that at least the title race looks more open than it has in recent years. As well as Luton and Fleetwood, who head the bookmakers’ lists, York City and Darlington both look stronger than they have done for some time, and Grimsby Town have had a year to acclimatise to their new surroundings – they will be aiming to improve upon last season. They will be resuming something of a local rivalry with the newly-relegated Lincoln City. The prognosis for clubs relegated into the Blue Square Premier from the Football League in recent years hasn’t been a particularly positive one, but it has been a long time since a club relegated from League Two has bounced straight back at the first attempt, so maybe, just maybe, we’re due that.
As well these clubs, there is a tranche of those that may look to steady improvement. Kidderminster Harriers and Newport County may have one eye on a play-off place, while the likes of Bath City, Tamworth and Cambridge United may well look to security from relegation as being sufficient for this year – Cambridge in particular underachieved last season and ended up closer to the relegation places than many would have expected. At the bottom of the table, meanwhile, the possible (or likely) financial issues at different clubs may well have an effect on the league table at the end of the season, and the now seemingly enshrined “AGM Cup” (which refers to the possibility or likelihood of a club being expelled at the Football Conference’s AGM after the end of the season) could prove, yet again, to condemn one club whilst saving another from the drop. Calling the relegation places, however, remains a permutation bet of any four from six or seven clubs.
All of this could lead us to the conclusion that the Blue Square Premier is chaotic, a frontier of football’s wild west with those that run it making decisions that inspire derision from the supporters of its member clubs. There is an element of truth to this, but the Football Conference has at least led the way in terms of cracking down on the financial incompetence of its member clubs and that there will be likely to be further casualties of some description of another is perhaps more a reflection on the fact that the clubs need to get their act in order than on the league itself. It seems unlikely, however, that this will be happening at any point in the near future.
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