The Continuing Tailspin of York City
Three minutes into stoppage-time at Prenton Park last Saturday, a header from Tranmere Rovers’ James Norwood proved to be a goal of no little National League significance. Not only did this goal keep the home side well and truly in touch with a title race that has narrowed considerably over the last few weeks, but it also marked something symbolic at the other end of the table, where a win for North Ferriby United against Gateshead shunted York City, who conceded that late, late goal on Merseyside, to the bottom of the table.
It’s been eighteen matches now since York City last won a league match. Relegated at the end of last season, the club has already made a managerial change for the season, replacing Jackie McNamara with with the return of Gary Mills, whose previous spell in charge at Bootham Crescent had resulted in a Wembley double of promotion into the Football League through the play-offs and an FA Trophy win at Wembley in 2012. This time around, though, Mills is apparently being expected to apply the skillset of an alchemist to a desperately floundering team. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has thus far been unable to turn this base metal team into anything more precious.
Perhaps this loss marked the point at which the last few remaining scales fell from the eyes regarding the club’s condition at the moment. The symbolism of dropping to the very foot of the table must surely have seen the scales fall from the eyes of any last remaining stragglers who were continuing to cling to the idea that this run – which comes, of course, on the back of relegation from the Football League at the end of last season – may still be a blip, rather than a full blown slump.
The rush to the bottom that is the National League relegation race remains tight enough for of those involved to be able to consider themselves still in touch with the rest of the division. But being at the bottom of the heap altogether can be a psychological barrier to have to overcome on top of everything else that may be going wrong within a football club. At York City, however, the smell that has come to permeate through the club has an air of rot about it, and how or even whether that rot can be arrested over the next few weeks or so – because that, realistically, is the maximum amount of time that Gary Mills has before this calamitous season slips beyond anybody’s reach – is really anybody’s guess at this precise moment in time.
The Jackie McNamara story, in which the club’s now former manager was given one match to turn things around, then didn’t and wasn’t sacked, then was but stayed on as caretaker-manager, then finally was replaced but was moved upstairs to become the club’s chief executive, seemed to exemplify a culture within the club that was uncoordinated and sketchy. The return of Mills to the club pacified some – but by no means all – dissenting voices, but Mills’ inability to pull the team out of this particular tailspin has hinted that the issues currently facing the club may be far more deeply ingrained than a mere football team manager could reasonably be expected to be able to arrest.
This feeling of delay has been further accelerated by news this week that the construction company that had been due to work on the club’s new ground at Monks Cross, to the north of the city, have pulled out the project. This follows confirmation that there will be further delays to a project that is looking increasingly troubled, which have most recently been stirred by an application for judicial review of a decision by planners to approve plans for a larger cinema alongside the stadium than was originally proposed. A statement from the company, ISG, stated that:
Our commitment to the stadium has never been in question and we have worked diligently to explore every opportunity to bring the scheme to site.
However, with further delays caused by the Judicial Review and increasing cost pressures, we’ve been unable to reach a consensus for the next phase of the project. We will continue to support our partners as they seek an alternative contractor.
The new York City stadium was supposed to be ready for the summer of 2018, but it now seems unlikely to the point of inconceivable that it could be ready by then. The new stadium can be traced back to 1999, when ownership of the Bootham Crescent was transferred into the name of a holding company by former chairman Douglas Craig. A Football Stadium Investment Fund loan allowed the club to buy it back, but this came with a proviso that the club was to identify a site for a new stadium, which came to pass with the Monks Cross site, early in 2007.
The tenth anniversary of this will soon pass without the ground at the new site having been broken, and with no date in sight by which this will ever happen. Again. And the club’s circumstances right now do not feel particularly conducive to those that are healthy for a club leaving home for pastures new. Whereas the fantasies of those who have been dreaming of this move for so long might have been for the club to arrive at Monks Cross in the Football League and dreaming of climbing up through the divisions, it seems as likely as anything that York City are now tumbling towards the regionalised football of the National League North, where attendances are more normally counted in hundreds rather than thousands. Attendances have, perhaps unsurprisingly, already dipped below the 2,000 level this season. And there’s little to stop them falling further still.
This is a point at which the future of the entire club starts to look shaky. If York City were to find themselves at a level at many supporters now feel the club to heading towards, then how is it going to be able to attract thousands to make a lengthy trek out of the city centre when it can barely scrape a couple of thousand people to its current home in the city centre? At its most severe, this could almost start to feel like it has similarities with another North Yorkshire club, Scarborough, where a padlocked stadium which sat rotting for years came to represent the death of a football club after its relegation from the Football League.
Might York City – or, in what some might consider to be an ultimate dread scenario, a new club called AFC York, or similar – end up ground-sharing miles from home with Bootham Crescent having been demolished and replaced with housing and the site of a new stadium still sitting derelict? This would most likely all be considered scaremongering were it not for the fact that there still doesn’t seem to be much of an end to the club’s on-pitch difficulties in sight. And with a Judicial review now looming, further delays, expected costs having risen from £37m to £44m and no construction company now in place, we can only start to wonder whether this troubled project will ever lift from the ground, and what the ramifications might be for the football club should it finally be shelved. It feels as though some heads could be doing with being knocked together at York City, both on the pitch and away from it.
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