When a football club folds, it requires a lot of hard work from a lot people to get a new club up and running. The excellent work of Supporters Direct and the still rapidly growing supporters trust movement has been invaluable in providing a network of people with practical experience that can help those that are starting again from scratch to negotiate their way through the minefield of getting back to simply having a football club again. It wasn’t, however, always this easy and it is only in the last seven or eight years that the notion of a “new” club being run by those that love it the most has gained any significant hold in the psyche of British football. Prior to that, it was, for most supporters, largely to be hoped that local grandees or those in a position to be able or willing to start a new club. Sometimes, as at, for example, Aldershot Town, this worked, given time. At other clubs, however, it has proved to be more problematic.
Baldock Town Football Club had a troubled history. The club first joined the Hertfordshire Senior County League in 1921, but folded four years later, rejoining for one season in 1946 before resigning from the league again a year later. The club finally began to make progess in the mid-1970s, playing in the South Midlands and United Counties Leagues before joining the Southern division of the Southern Football League in 1987, nurtured the future England striker Kevin Phillips before selling him to Watford for £10,000 in 1994 and managed two seasons in the Premier Division of the Southern League (which was, at the time, only one division below what we now know as the Blue Square Premier) during the late 1990s before being relegated back. They folded in 2001. The club’s Norton Road ground was, after a legal wrangle, lost and is now the training ground and a source of revenue for nearby Hitchin Town.
To keep football in the town alive, a new club, Baldock FC, was formed in 2003 and changed its name to Baldock Town three years later. They started out playing on local school playing field, but were given a chance to move to a better facility when they were offered the chance to move into the County Ground in Letchworth in 2008. The County Ground was already a ground with an unfortunate history. Hertfordshire County Football Association took over the lease to it in 2000 while it was still being used by local club Letchworth Garden City. Two years later, Letchworth Garden City, who had been formed in 1906, folded after a dispute with their landlords. It was understood, however, that a condition of the Herts FA having their lease on the County Ground was that a club side had to be allowed to use it. Baldock Town, therefore, changed their name to Baldock Town Letchworth and moved up the road to the County Ground.
It has taken just two years for Herts County FA to work their magic again and, at start of September, Baldock Town Letchworth were given notice to leave the County Ground at the end of this season by their landlords. The agreement for them to play at the County Ground was only to stay there for three years and the local FA have decided that they don’t want them there any more. The club now has until the end of next season to find itself a new home and register it with the Herts Senior County League, in which they play. If they are unable to this it seems at least possible, if not likely, that Baldock Town will die again. A return to Norton Road seems impossible, and other grounds in the area seem to be fully booked already. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.
Why, though, do Herts County FA seem so keen to get rid of their tenants? In what way is starting action that killed one club in 2002 and may yet do for another one next year fulfilling their remit as a Football Association? It has been said that the local FA wants to keeps clubs off the ground to keep the pitch in its best possible for their end of season county cup matches and so that they can use it for coaching. Why, though, does the Herts County FA even need a football ground of its own? The County Ground is a tidy little ground, but it is hardly the best in the county (Watford’s Vicarage Road, Stevenage’s Broadhall Way, Barnet’s Underhill and St Albans City’s Clarence Park are all better-appointed) and most players and many spectators it would not be anything like a step up from they are used to. Gary Norman, the chairman of The Herts County FA, when asked by the local newspaper, The Letchworth & Baldock Comet, had this to say on the matter:
It’s an agreement where they would get notice for the end of the season if either party wished to cancel the agreement. That notice was issued. The Hertfordshire FA wish to promote coaching across the county for everyone. By having a club permanently based here it was proving detrimental to the coaching here.If the club were promoted to the Spartan South Midlands League they would struggle to find dates as the league insists on full availability and it would mean that the children’s cup finals held at the County Ground would be disrupted. They came close to promotion last year but I understand they would like to come closer. If they had finished in the top two last year they would have moved up the ladder and would not be playing at the County Ground this season.
Won’t somebody please think of the children, indeed. It seems odd that Norman would place the coaching of children above the ongoing existence of one of his FA’s senior clubs. No-one is suggesting that children shouldn’t be coached or that the coaching of young players isn’t important, but isn’t there room for both to be accommodated? “Children’s cup finals” do not, no matter what he might think, fall into the category of “coaching”. Quite aside from this, Baldock Town Youth FC runs dozens of youth teams itself. Would the future of those teams be more or less secure if Baldock Town Letchworth were to run aground? At the absolute best, one would think that they should be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves down and carry on. Fingers crossed for that, if the worst happens.
Hertfordshire’s indigenous football culture suffers from the county’s proximity to London. To an extent, it is somewhat odd that Letchworth is so closely guarded as the headquarters of its Football Association. Letchworth is tucked away in the north of the county, while the larger population areas of towns/cities such as Watford, Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City are clustered together in the south, centre and west of the county. Herts County FA may take the opinion that clubs in the area need to be self-supportive and that Baldock Town Letchworth need to work to build their own home. Things aren’t that easy in Hertfordshire, however. Practically the whole county is considered Green Belt land, and getting planning permission simply isn’t as easy identifying a site, submitting plans and getting it built, even if the money and the will are both present and correct within the aspirant club. Hertfordshire County FA should know this – everybody in Herfordshire knows this – and there is still time for them to change their minds. Baldock Town FC may not survive the level of body blow that eviction at the end of this season may bring, and who exactly would that benefit?