Divided They Fall: The Fight For Gainsborough Trinity’s Northolme
This year is supposed to be a special one for Gainsborough Trinity Football Club, marking, as it does, the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of a club which spent sixteen years in the Football League between 1896 and 1912 but now resides in the Blue Square Bet North, two divisions below League Two but a comfortable distance from the one man and a dog territory that marks out the flotsam and jetsam of non-league football. Celebration, however, is the last thing on the mind of many concerned with the club at the moment, though, and the source of discontent is a wrangle between the club’s owner and the owners of the club’s Northolme ground over its proposed sale which has led to a row which has now gone so far as to drag in the club’s first team manager.
The Northolme is about as close to the archetypal non-league football ground as could be imagined. A short walk from the town centre and railway station, it has cover on two sides and a stand which seats just over five hundred people. It’s not football’s most glamorous venue and, like many other homes of football at this level of the game, it could do with a little care and attention, but it has been the club’s home for a very long time and it is, in many respects, perfectly fit for the club’s needs. The ground has been owned by The Blues Club, who purchased it for £4,000 in 1959, but of late this ownership has become, to put it mildly, a bone of contention, not only for the club’s owner Peter Swann, but also for an increasingly large number of the club’s supporters and now, in a turn of events that borders on the bizarre, the club’s first team manager, Steve Housham.
Swann has been the owner of the club for the last four years, and it has been reported that he has put £1.75m into the club during this time. Certainly, there have been fruits to his largesse, even if these may not have been to quite the extent that such a sizable level of investment – for this level of the game – might have brought. At the end of last season, the team was beaten in the final of the Blue Square Bet North play-offs and this season Trinity sit just outside of the play-off places with the season entering its home straight. He has been keen to take ownership of The Northolme for some time, and in October of last year it was reported by the Lincolnshire Echo that Swann, who had already stated that he was to step down at the end of this season “for health reasons”, intended to make a final offer to The Blues Club to purchase the ground, although the interview hinted, in phrases such as “I am sure the Blues Club will moan that I have made this public” and “I also believe that the Blues Club think I want to buy the ground just to sell it down the line, but I can tell the Blues Club that is not the case” hinting at existing tensions between the owner and the Blues Club.
Perhaps the important aspect to remember about the Blues Club is that it is, perhaps, not a supporters club in the sense that some might believe one to be. It is a social club which has members which do not necessarily support Gainsborough Trinity FC, and it has been suggested that this may be one of the driving factors behind their reasons not to sell. Since The Blues Club seems to have been practically silent on the matter over the last few weeks, however, it is difficult to gauge exactly what their reasoning for their rebuttal of all offers might have been. The last offer made by Swann – an offer of £250,000 (a price which Swann states reflects covenants on the ground which prevent it from being used for any other purpose, although covenants can and have, as other clubs have found to their cost in the past, been in the past – was rejected by The Blues Club’s committee, with, apparently, three committee members voting in favour of the sale, three voting against it, and six voting – as we might suspect would be the most sensible option, given the increasing acrimonious and entrenched positions that were clearly building at the club – to put the issue to a vote of all of its members.
This week, however, the state of uneasy detente that existed between the two groups has exploded. Swann told the Gainsborough Standard this week that, “It’s a shame, but I’ve got no choice really, I’ve said it all along,” and has now stated that he will be withdrawing from the club in the summer, while the club’s first team manager, Steve Housham (who, it should be pointed out, isn’t necessarily a completely independent party, being, obviously, an employee of Swann), has now called for a boycott of the club by Gainsborough Trinity supporters and described the Blues Club’s committee as ‘dinosaurs’, telling the press that, I will say it publicly the players will not be going in there (the Blues Club) for drinks after the game.” At the time of writing, The Blues Club is maintaining the radio silence that it has done on the matter over the last few weeks or so. It is not a policy that is winning them a great deal of support amongst the supporters of the football club.
Both sides in this unseemly row have questions to answer. Swann has stated that owning the asset is now a deal-breaker in terms of what he does with in the club’s near future, but he should explain more clearly what difference, exactly, this makes with regard to the ground improvements that he has stated himself that The Northolme needs. He should also clarify how a football club can continue to operate at the level at which Gainsborough Trinity does whist requiring the level of investment into it that he has had to put in over that period of time. £1.75m would be a lot of money to be leaking at any level of the game below the Championship. The Blues Club, however, should answer questions that supporters of the club have concerning whether this refusal to sell is more to do with clashes of personalities with Swann and historical events relating to the running of the club. Indeed, The Blues Club needs to break its silence, because at the moment it seems likely that it will lose all support from a majority of the football club’s supporters unless it clarifies why it is acting in the way that it is.
At this stage, and looking in from the outside, what is most striking about this story is just how entrenched everybody has become in their positions. It would, presumably, be mutually advantageous for both the supporters club and the football club for both parties to be moving in the same direction towards a prosperous football club which brought increased revenue to both. However, with one side of the argument using such combative language and the other apparently refusing to comment on the matter, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion other than that the two sides in this argument need their heads knocking together. This level of intransigence is already doing a pretty successful job of dividing the fan base, and we have certainly seen the ruinous effects of dividing supporters elsewhere. For the good of Gainsborough Trinity Football Club, it is down to all concerned reach an arrangement that benefits everybody. It cannot be that difficult, surely.
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