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The bulldozers moved in at College Grove in Wakefield last week. This, of itself, should probably not have come as too much of a surprise to those that have been watching the recent difficulties of Wakefield Football Club of the Northern Premier League for most of this year, but as a visual analogy it was depressingly appropriate that a club which has had a disastrous year should have seen its home almost completely razed to the ground in favour of a multi-sport complex by its owners at the same time that those running the club confirmed that it was on the brink of closure. The problems facing this club, however, are no flash in the pan, and the near-levelling of College Grove marks what can only realistically be regarded as the conclusion of a set of circumstances which began more than a decade ago.
In the beginning, there was Emley FC. This club was a perennial winner of the Yorkshire League throughout the mid to late 1970s through to the early 1980s, and their upward trajectory continued through the Northern Counties East League and into the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League – which was, at the time, just one division below the Football Conference – in 1991. These were the club’s halcyon days. They remained members of this division throughout the 1990s and managed an appearance on Match Of The Day in 1998 when they landed an FA Cup Third Round match against West Ham United, which they lost by two goals to one. Three years later, they managed one hundred and one points in the league but still missed out on promotion by one point to Stalybridge Celtic.
Storm clouds, however, were growing at the club. Emley FC shared its home, The Welfare Ground, with a local cricket club and a change to ground-grading rules with regard to three-sided grounds (of which there used to be a couple in the Football League, at Northampton Town and Sheffield United) meant that the club needed to leave their ground or face ejection from the Northern Premier League. The club moved to Belle Vue, the home of the Wakefield Trinity Rugby Football League Club, in 2000, with its name being changed twice, first to Wakefield & Emley and then to Wakefield-Emley. Supporters from the original village had at least been able to seek solace from the fact that the club’s reserve had side had continued to play at The Welfare Ground, but the decision of the Northern Counties East League to scrap its reserve league led to a new club, AFC Emley, being formed by disaffected supporters in 2005.
Restructuring had spared Wakefield & Emley from relegation in 2004, but the perhaps inevitable contraction to Wakefield FC followed in 2006, along with a change of colours from the old Emley FC colours of claret and blue to yellow and blue, and a move to College Grove, the former home of Wakefield RFC, a rugby union club which had folded in 2004. Any anticipated increase in attendances that might accompany a move from village to down, however, failed to materialise. Whether this is down to Wakefield being a “rugby town” or because most locals already have their affiliations will probably never be known (a combination of the two seems more likely than not), but attendances failed to increase, and the club fell into greater difficulties earlier this year.
College Grove is owned by Wakefield Sports Club, a multi-sports club based in the town which runs amongst others, hockey and squash clubs. They were keen to redevelop the site as an all-purpose facility with an artificial pitch and opted not to extend Wakefield FC’s lease to play there beyond the end of last season, even though the club had just paid £40,000 on improving facilities at the ground. So it was that the club left Wakefield during the summer to ground-share at nearby Ossett Town, and with this money having gone down the drain and a sponsor having failed to pay them a further £40,000 in money owed, the club’s future became considerably less secure than it had been. After all, if they were struggling to manage crowds of much higher than 150 people whilst playing in the town, how many would follow them away?
The answer to that question was “not many”. Although the team’s form hasn’t been catastrophic on the pitch – at the time of writing, they sit in fifteenth place in Division One North of the Northern Premier League – the collapse in crowds has been, with just 56 people turning out to watch their match on the second of November against Salford City. Two days after that match, the local newspaper, the Wakefield Express, reported that there were just “seven days to save Wakefield FC”, with the club president, Peter Matthews, stating that, “This is the last gasp for us now. If nobody comes forward the doors are closed, there’s absolutely no point at struggling on.” Sixteen days after that date, the club is still with us, although the players are not being paid at present – on Saturday, they drew 1-1 at Bamber Bridge in a league match – but for how much longer this club can be considered viable is another question altogether.
The problem that Peter Matthews, and by extension Wakefield FC, faces is now one of ongoing viability. If Wakefield FC could only attract crowds of 130 or so whilst playing at College Grove last season and can barely scrape into three figures this season whilst playing at Ossett (which in itself is hardly surprising, considering that Ossett already houses two non-league clubs – Ossett Town, with whom Wakefield FC are ground-sharing, and Ossett Albion), then why should any investor get involved with Wakefield? This may sound like a harsh question, but it is one that needs to be asked. With no ground in the town and no prospect of anything like an immediate return there, the likelihood is that any money poured into the club would be lost in a black hole of paying off debts and wages to players, with no prospect of any immediate return. Unless Wakefield FC can find themselves an individual a group of individuals or a company that is prepared to pour money into this black hole, then it is difficult to see how the club can be returned to an even keel, especially should it be hoping to continue to play at the level at which it currently does, where players expect to be paid.
During the summer, it was reported that Wakefield FC would be merging from the end of this season with West Riding County League club Wakefield City with a view towards establishing something more akin to a community club, with an under-18 team, a womens team and a reserve team playing under the Wakefield City FC name. Perhaps this would have given the club the chance to expand interest in the town, to build a hub around which the senior mens team could grow and prosper. As things stand, however, even if the club’s immediate difficulties can be overcome, it is difficult to see how Wakefield FC, playing to tiny crowds four miles away in Ossett, will ever be able to find its identity. Unless it can return to Wakefield, any club with this name seems destined to struggle and there are not even any guarantees that a return to their home town will reap many significant benefits for the club. Unless this circle can be squared, it seems difficult to believe that there can be a happy end for association football in Wakefield in the immediate future.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
I’ve always thought that Wakefield FC would have a limited shelf-life. It’s akin to a franchise – moved into an area well away from it’s traditional home with no connection to the community it placed itself in. Not a good start for a non-league club. Especially in an area full of other well established non league clubs with strong community roots.
The Wakefield postcode area has a thriving non-league scene and Wakefield FC were always going to struggle to attract support within an area that already supports nine other clubs that play in the National Football System.
Yes, the word “franchise” has come up several times whilst reading forums trying to get a handle on the situation at the club. The question that I find difficult to answer is “Who does this club serve?”, because if its local communuity wasn’t interested and much of the original support stayed with AFC Emley or returned after the new club was formed back in the village, it’s difficult to see why it should still be playing at the level that it is. Perhaps the only answer is to drop back to the amateur leagues.
Wakefield is a city, not a town. Most follow Leeds, Huddersfield, Barnsley or the Sheffield clubs, and have for generations, so it would always have been a battle to establish a club here. That said, there were noises of trying to get football in the new rugby stadium that is planned for near the M62, but i think that’s more the rugby fans wanting to legitimise the stadium as for the ‘community’ when that’s a load of nonsense.
I don’t see any reason why Wakefield couldn’t sustain a Step 1-3 non-league club, in the same way the likes of Guiseley, Stocksbridge, or Farsley have done. Personally I don’t really go along with the argument that locals already supporting league teams means it would be doomed to failure. The likes of Handsworth, Sheffield FC, Bradford PA, as well as the aforementioned, have managed decent crowds despite being close to league teams, and a large section of their support also following a league team concurrently. People go to non-league as much for its removal from the ‘big club’ characteristics as anything else.
The most obvious way to build in this day and age is through the kids/junior sections, and the community involvement aspect, which Wakefield FC appeared to be trying to do. But it’s in its current league position it’s identity is unclear due to the Emley connections, which it may be better to cut and start again afresh from a lower level.
In response to this article and in particular Max’s comment, Peter Matthews was at Belle Vue last night and was asked to speak to a meeting about Wakefield FC and their current plight and possible bright future. I can confirm that Wakefield FC, along with the majority of other prominent amateur RL teams in both Wakefield and the adjoining Leeds area have been invited to be part of the Newmarket Community Stadium and sports facilities project. There is an open standing invite for any sports club to use the proposed facilities. Wakefield College are keen to move their sports and leisure students out to Newmarket site as they are vacating Thornes Park. If the project is given the go ahead they will be a large indoor sports hall built along with lecture space, dance studios and gym facilities. As such, Wakefield Netball and Wakefield wheeled cats have also been invited to get behind the project as they are losing their home when Lightwaves closes early next year. As well as the stadium itself, there will be two fully flood lit pitches, a grass pitch with a small spectator stand, perfect for hosting amateur football, RL, RU finals and also a new 4G fully synthetic pitch (same as the new Widnes Vikings RL pitch) suitable for fully contact Rugby and football. This means that the grass pitches can be in kept in first class order for hosting competitive games.
So sorry Max, this is not a load of nonsense to legitimise anything, this is a true community facility for all and the more clubs and sports that get involved the better for the sustainability of the project. The Community Trust WANT the facilities to be used 16 hours a day, with Wakefield College and Wakefield Trinity being able to train during the working day, as anchor tenants for the project, with other sport clubs using the facility early mornings, evenings and weekends.
Peter Matthew is keen to make Newmarket Wakefield FC’s new home and the Community Trust have invited them to make it their new home!
Even between Wakefield FC, Trinity and Wakefield College, there still won’t be able to affoid the Stadium.
You can all the other facilities eslewhere – they are simply being added on to legitimise Trinity’s desire to have a Stadium – one that they can’t afford as they are are club that is always on the brink of a financial mess.