Tales From The Deep End: Non-League Football’s Difficult Start To 2012
This year has been a difficult year so far for several of our non-league clubs. Mike Bayly has a round-up of what has been going on at the foot of football’s food chain.
By any measure of austerity, it’s been a fairly turbulent week in the world of non-league football. On Sunday evening, the main stand at Rossendale United’s vacant Dark Lane ground was completely destroyed in what police are treating as a suspected arson attack. The fire was just one in a long line of depressing incidents at the ground over the last couple of years. In June 2011, the programme sellers hut was burnt out following an “arson incident” with other acts of theft and vandalism causing significant damage to the troubled venue. Coupled with accusations that the club was being mismanaged and left to stagnate, the Lancashire side were expelled from the North West Counties League at the end of last season after failing to pay their membership fees.
There had been talk of a Phoenix Club – Rossendale FC – reforming in the near future, though whether their intention was to play at the Dark Lane ground which is still owned by Rossendale United’s former chairman Andrew Connolly is unclear. As an epitaph, there was a macabre inevitability about it all. Set against the backdrop of a gloomy windswept housing estate, the club struggled for long periods of its history with falling crowds, financial problems and ground ownership struggles. Quite what effect this has on the future of football in the area remains to be seen, but the outpouring of genuine anger and sentiment at the burnt out corpse of this once proud club suggests that there could yet be hope of a supporter’s owned venture rising quite literally from the ashes.
Ground problems of a different kind abound at Darlington FC where the Northern Echo Arena – a quintessential totem of the madness engulfing post Taylor report football – continues to blight the precarious existence of yet another Conference National club. The finer details of this story have been well documented elsewhere on this site, but on Monday, the club’s administrators, Rowlands accountants, made every member of staff redundant, including the caretaker manager and former long-serving defender Craig Liddle, as well as all the players. Such is the pantomime nature of modern football, filled with heroes, villains and a fair share of Widow Twankeys, that barely a day goes by without a new protagonist entering the stage.
On Wednesday afternoon, The Northern Echo website broke the story that the club had been thrown (yet another) lifeline. Administrator Harvey Madden revealed he was leaving the stadium for “secret talks” adding: “The only thing I can say is there has been a 13th hour possibility that this club can be saved”. As dramatic exits go, it’s up there with Kevin Keegan departing the St James’ Park pitch in a helicopter, though Darlington fans could be forgiven for not getting too optimistic about this latest manna from heaven. Since moving to The Reynolds Arena (as it was known) their existence has been a long running farce; one would almost expect the latest suitors in these last ditch talks to be a West End theatre production company.
These may well be grim stories from up North, but things aren’t much better down South, either. Croydon Athletic of the Ryman League Division One South were finally put out of their misery on Tuesday when they gave formal notice of their intention to quit the Isthmian league with immediate effect. Unlike other crisis clubs, there has been mixed reaction to recent events in South London; a lack of historical stature (the club was only formed in 1986) irregular player payments, and the Mazhar Majeed scandal has left most neutrals indifferent to the side’s downfall. With a fan base that rarely troubled three figures one could argue that few will mourn the passing of this relatively embryonic club, but this would be a disservice to the fans, volunteers and committee members who stood by The Rams for the last three decades. If modern history is anything to go by, the chances of seeing an ‘AFC Croydon’ reforming in the local county leagues is fairly high, though one would hope it contains a more democratic and autonomous structure than its predecessor.
No sooner had the dust settled on this fait accompli, when Northwich Victoria – a club more synonymous with administration than Peter Ridsdale – dropped another bombshell on their thick skinned supporters. On Tuesday afternoon, the Cheshire based side announced they had been issued with notice to “vacate the Victoria Stadium after learning from…Deloitte Touche that a third party bid for the land ha(d) been accepted”. According to reports in the Northwich Guardian, Deloitte, hired by Clydesdale Bank, had originally been asked to recover £1.2m in debts owed by Beaconet Ltd, a company set up by Vics’ former chairman to manage the site with the club as tenants. In August last year, Deloitte confirmed that Northwich Victoria Developments Ltd, a company registered by the club’s owner Jim Rushe in March 2009, had agreed a deal to buy the ground, subject to contract. However, the deal collapsed when the terms of the mortgage could not be agreed by the two parties. With no other solution forthcoming, Deloitte were “left with no option but to consider alternative offers for the site.”
The purchasers of the site are rumoured to be a local chemical company called Thor, who are already in situ next door. Latest reports suggest the club have until Friday to vacate the premises, which throws serious doubt on how the Vics’ will complete the season’s remaining fixtures. A ground share is a possibility, assuming the Northern Premier League will acquiesce to a major administrative upheaval at such short notice. With Andy Preece, assistant Andy Morrison and first team coach Darren Ryan all departing to take over at Welsh Premier League club Airbus UK, there is also the small matter of who will manage the team should they find suitable tenure.
And finally, what of Kettering Town, for which no Annus Horribilis would be complete without a cursory mention? Faced with a winding up order next month, newly appointed manager Mark Cooper advised earlier today that he could no longer take charge of the team with so much off-field uncertainty. Whilst stressing he was not resigning, Cooper seems almost certain to be missing for Poppies game at Wrexham on Saturday. Ironically, Wrexham – who until a few weeks ago were the Blanche Dubois of non-league football – have announced via their supporter’s trust they will be holding a bucket collection before the match to help out their cash strapped opponents.
It would be easy to look at these stories in the context of a financial and social malaise; an avarice born from the vulgar promises of football’s new world order. There is no doubt that since the inception of the cash rich Premier League, incidents of financial mismanagement have increased at an alarming rate as speculators relinquish common sense for a nuzzle of the golden fleece. Furthermore, the reorganisation of the non-league pyramid by way of the meritocratic National League System has encouraged previously amateur clubs to become aspirational, often to the detriment of their finances. Yet reckless ambition and mismanagement of football clubs have been bedfellows since football first set root in this country. As far back as Middlesbrough Ironopolis in the 1890s, the history books are awash with clubs who have spent disproportionate amounts in an attempt to better themselves before combusting on the steps of their creditors.
At times it can be easy to point the finger without accepting a degree of responsibility for our own actions. For every club that overspends will be an owner pointing to a lack of interest from the local community, increasing operational costs, the saturation of teams in a small area or an unrealistically demanding fan base. The board of directors who live within their means and resign their club to mid table obscurity or even relegation will rarely be popular with their supporters, yet prudency is a commodity in short supply in the modern football world. As Oscar Wilde once noted, “ambition is the last refuge of failure”. And how football courts ambition.
Disaster – whatever form it might take – can often be the catalyst for change. If any good can come of the problems facing non-league football (or indeed any level where finances and ownership are a significant issue), it is that governing bodies, money men and supporters may be forced to re-evaluate their relationship with the game. This doesn’t mean reverting to Hovis-tinged nostalgia of when football ‘belonged’ to the fans because this is invariably a misnomer. Rather, it might make the authorities review the precarious nature of ownership, speculators think twice about chasing an impossible dream, and fans realise that supporting a well run but realistic club is infinitely more preferable than ending up with no club at all.