More sad news from the lower reaches of the football ladder, where yesterday’s Non-League Paper reported on the crisis facing Conference South club Farnborough Town. Farnborough scratch a living on the outer edge of what many of you would regard as “real” football. Their woes go back, ironically, to what might otherwise have been their finest moment – their FA Cup match at Highbury against Arsenal in 2003. Their owner-manager, Graham Westley, had taken them over a couple of years earlier, and he was nothing if not an excellent self-publicist. He certainly hoodwinked the FA, who allowed him to switch his club’s FA Cup third round match from their own, somewhat humble, Cherrywood Road ground to the somewhat more palatial (and, significantly, more lucrative) Highbury. They lost the match 5-1, and in a matter of days, Westley was off: decamping to Stevenage, and taking a staggering seven of his players with him. He also made up with a sizeable pot of cash, leaving the club with a sizeable debt. From then on, the financial mis-management has been sizeable. It has left Farnborough having to put forward a proposal for a CVA (Companies Voluntary Arrangement), which has been reportedly rejected by the club’s biggest creditor, the Inland Revenue. As it stands, they have seven days to persuade the IR to change their position, they’ll be closed down.
There is, of course, a propensity for non-league clubs to do this. The history of non-league football is dotted with teams that have collapsed amid a flurry of bouncing cheques, from the infamous Colne Dynamoes in the early 1990s (who invested everything in having one of the strongest teams in non-league football whilst investing nothing whatsoever in their ground – when they were rejected for promotion into the Conference, their backers pulled the plug and within a few weeks were back playing park football), through to Hornchurch, who went professional in the Conference South, and were running away with it until their owner’s double glazing firm went bust and they were forced to resign from the league.
In theory, running a non-league football club, for a reasonably wealthy person, looks like an attractive deal. You get a bit of the status for a small percentage of the price required to invest in League club. The supporters will be remarkably loyal. It helps grease palms locally, should you be a locally based businessman. And then, of course, there’s the dream. Your club might just become the new Wycombe Wanderers, and shoot up through the divisions like a rocket. You might even get a run or two in the FA Cup, and end up being interviewed by Ray Stubbs on a cold January lunchtime. The reality, of course, is somewhat different. Even more than League football, the non-league game is a bottomless pit into which the wildly over-ambitious can pour their money. There’s no TV money at all. Well, below the Conference, there’s no televised football at all. The sponsorship money is negligible. Non-league clubs are almost entirely dependent on gate receipts and bar money. If four hundred people pay £9 to get in and spend the same again once in the ground, that’s £7200 per fortnight. This sounds like a lot of money, until one remembers that increased wage bills have trickled right the way down from the Premiership. The facts are hard to come buy, but there are certainly players in the Conference on at least a grand a week. Lower down, the wage bills are likely to top £5000 per week. There’s no get-out clause. It comes as no surprise to me that bills don’t get paid, and that clubs end up massively in the red.
This happened at St Albans five seasons ago. The ground had been brought up to Conference standard. Money had been lavished on the team, but promotion was not forthcoming. The club entered into a CVA which it couldn’t pay. In January 2002, the club was suspended by the Ryman League. In the end, a local businessman stepped in and saved the club, under-writing their debts. We had a couple of very lean years, narrowly avoiding relegation two years in a row before last season’s somewhat astonishing tilt at the title, which ended up in promotion to the Conference. The decision was made some time ago that the club would stay semi-professional in the Conference. There are only semi-pro teams left in the Conference, and this season promises to be a long, hard struggle. We were the pre-season favourites to go down, and bookies aren’t wrong very often. Our current record shows two draws and five defeats in our last seven matches, and it looks like being a long, hard winter, Having said that, though, we expect to finish the season on an even financial keel. The promise of something approaching a degree of financial security is much more important that chasing a dream that, in view of the state of Clarence Park, is unattainable anyway. Remember that, the next time you’re imploring your board to break their wage budget on shiny new strikers. As the proverb goes: be careful what you wish for. It may just come true.