One of these days, an article on this site won’t be categorised as “Clubs In Crisis” and “Non-League” at the same time, but it feels as if this season is turning into one long crisis for a number of semi-professional clubs. It’s getting to the stage of being a little bit repetitive, and this week’s contenders, Stafford Rangers, tick all of the right boxes. There is, you see, a set format for this sort of thing, and it has a set of stage props that is familiar enough for the seasoned observer to be able to be able to compile something like an I-Spy book. Relegation, leading to a slump in crowds and a pile of contracts that their new circumstances can’t pay for? Check. An internet forum full of arguing supporters? Oh, yes. Players being told that they won’t be paid from the end of this month? Damn straight. The most sombre of these sights is the collection buckets being dragged around their Marston Road stadium, with a rattling sound that falls somewhere between a death rattle itself and the pealing of church bells on the day of a funeral. It becomes a curiously morbid sound after you’ve heard it a few times.
For Stafford Rangers, the buckets were being dragged out for a home match against Vauxhall Motors last Saturday which they lost by a single goal – a sign of how rapidly things have declined for them. They were promoted into the Blue Square Premier through the play-offs thanks to a penalty shoot-out win against Droylsden in 2006. Starting the following season as pre-season favourites to get relegated straight away, they managed to pull themselves one place clear of the relegation places and had a run to the Second Round of the FA Cup before losing to Brighton & Hove Albion. The following season, however, their luck ran out. Manager Phil Robinson departed after five years, and an increasingly expensive looking squad failed to gel. The former Wolves legend Steve Bull was put in charge of the team but he failed to keep them up and they dropped back into the Conference North at the end of last season.
This season, they have stalled and stuttered. They currently sit in mid-table in the Conference North, but crowds have dropped by thirty per cent to 591 and a brief review of last season’s goings on, with the appointment of Bull, the construction of a new temporary stand behind one goal and several new signings all now look like cheques that they couldn’t afford to cover. The most worrying signs came when the club confirmed that they had been financially banking upon a decent run in one of the cup competitions (they’re out of the FA Cup and the FA Trophy already) and the club’s recent silence over recent rumours has been even more concerning. STRIPES, the Stafford Rangers Independent Supporters Trust, sent an open letter to the directors of the club at the start of July offering support to the club and seeking a way forward to work with them. As per their website, they had still received no response to this letter as of the middle of October. The proceeds of last weekend’s bucket collection are now rumoured to not have even made their way to the players. The club requested last week that their contracted players receive no more performance related bonuses, but after the Vauxhall Motors match the players issued a joint statement which confirmed the worst fears of their supporters:
The unanimous answer is we cannot agree to these terms. Players have commitments based on their contractual arrangement with the club and cannot afford to take these cuts in wages. Furthermore, if the state of the finances is in such a dire state given these very drastic measures, the feeling is that if we agree to this, then it is only a matter of time before further cuts are needed to balance the books. We feel we have played our part in re-establishing the club after relegation last season in very difficult circumstances.
The manager has got together a squad that lies just outside the play-off positions. We have tried our hardest for ourselves, the club, the fans and the manager to do as well as we possibly can. We are professionals and because of this and our tremendous team spirit, coupled with our loyalty to the manager, we decided to make ourselves available for Saturday’s game against Vauxhall Motors.
We believe the next step for the board is to place all the contracted players on the transfer list ASAP and circulate the names of the non-contract players around other clubs. We hope that the board reconsiders its position or is able to find other means of raising money instead of expecting the players to carry the can for the financial plight of the club.
There are small signs for optimism for the club’s supporters. Money being raised by STRIPES now seems to be being put aside, rather than being thrown onto the insatiable bonfire of Stafford Rangers’ current debt. The club’s supporters are already mobilising and fund-raising, rather than sitting on their hands and keeping their fingers crossed that a white knight will ride into Stafford on a horse and rescue them. The Trust also appears to be in a strong position and, should the worst come to the worst, they appear to be in a robust position to be able to start afresh as a Trust-owned club. It’s possible that they might not even need to go quite that far. They have a potentially highly lucrative home match against league leaders and local rivals AFC Telford United on Boxing Day. Telford’s supporters are emerging from this with almost as much credit as Stafford’s are, having already offered considerable advice (they went through a financial crisis that led to the death of Telford United and its rebirth as AFC Telford United in 2004) and support to their stricken local rivals.
Once again, it’s worth remembering that the “model” (to the extent that such a thing exists) of non-league football is not implicitly flawed, and the dedication of Stafford’s supporters to keeping the flame of their club alive is proof of this in itself. All that there is when discussing this sort of situation is maladministration, and this can (and does) happen at all the levels of the game. At the sharp end, however, there is so little room for error that even what looks like small miscalculations can have catastrophic effects. The likelihood is that clubs won’t learn from their own mistakes or the mistakes of others and the irony is that, with most sponsorship deals unlikely to be renegotiated until next summer, the effects of rapidly rising unemployment yet to bite most clubs as badly as they most likely will do and clubs still apparently addicted to throwing as much money as they can at anyone that walks onto their training ground wearing a pair of boots, things are likely to get considerably worse for the semi-professional game before they get any better.