This morning, non-league football’s least surprising bankruptcy was confirmed at the High Court in London, as former Blue Square South side Fisher Athletic were finally put out of their misery out wound up. For many, Fisher had been little more than a shell of a club since they left their Surrey Docks stadium in 2004 to ground-share at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill, five miles away from their traditional Rotherhithe base. Crowds had fallen to barely 100 people since their move away from Surrey Docks and, ultimately, the question of what the point of Fisher Athletic was became a more and more pertintent one as their support dissolved away and a move back to the Docklands area of London became less and less likely. Certainly Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs, who eventually forced through the winding up order over an unpaid £250,000 tax bill, had their patience tested to breaking point.
Fisher Athletic were founded in 1908 to provide sporting opportunities for underprivileged children living in the Docklands area of East London and were named for St John Fisher, a Catholic martyr executed by Henry VIII for refusing to accept the King as the head of the church of England. They remained an amateur club until the early 1980s, playing in the Parthenon League, the Kent Amateur League and the Spartan League before joining the Southern League as they moved into the purpose-built Surrey Docks stadium in 1982. The were promoted into the Football Conference in 1987 and lost narrowly to both Bristol clubs in the First Round of the FA Cup as well during this period. They lasted until 1991 in the Conference, and were the hosts to title contenders Barnet on a dramatic last day of the 1990/91 season. Fisher were already relegated and Barnet needed a point secure promotion to the Football League for the first time, but Fisher took the lead before two goals in the last five minutes gave Barnet a 4-2 win in front of a crowd of over 4,200 people.
Following their relegation, they descended swiftly back to the Southern League Southern Division. It took them until 2000 before they were promoted again, but relegation soon swiftly followed again. In 2004 they were taken over by Sami Muduroglu, a London estate agent. Muduroglu’s company, Quest Residential, had collapsed in 2002 with debts of £328,000, but Muduroglu had great ambitions for Fisher. He moved them from the Surrey Docks stadium to Champion Hill, which was owned by a former business associate of his, Nick McCormac of Dulwich Hamlet FC. Surrey Docks fell into disuse (and remains derelict today) but Muduroglu had ambitious plans to build a 10,000 seat stadium near their home in Southwark Park. However, in 2005 he was disqualified from acting as a company director for five years and the running of the club – on paper at least – passed to his brother Eren.
Whilst unsavoury rumours continued to circulate about the motives behind the Muduroglu brothers’ involvement in Fisher Athletic (ranging from the illegal to the merely immoral), money was poured into the playing side of the club, who were promoted back into the Blue Square South in 2006. In November 2007, the plans for Fisher’s new home were made public but, at an estimated cost of £35m, very few people within the game felt that anything would ever come of it. Fisher’s crowds had only risen from an average of 98 in 2005 to 217 in 2007, it was one of non-league football’s worst kept secrets that Fisher were living on borrowed time, and spending money that they didn’t have. When the brothers pulled the plug on any further funding for the club last year, the debate switched from whether they would survive to whether they would even be able to finish their fixtures this season. They crawled over the line after a couple of High Court adjournments, but their eventual winding up was inevitable.
The full extent of what was actually going on at Fisher Athletic during this ruinous five year period may never be known. The supporters are believed to be organising themselves into a Supporters Trust to form a new club called “Fisher Dockside”, although what league they would be able to play in is unknown at present. They are said to be looking into the ownership of the Surrey Docks Stadium (which remains, as with so many thing related to Fisher Athletic, shrouded in mystery), and would ideally like to move back there and bring it back up to scratch. Fisher Athletic , it should be remembered, ultimately cheated. Their recent promotions were achieved off the back of money being spent on players at the expense of paying their bills, and there can be little question that, ultimately, they gained an unfair advantage over well run rival clubs that did things the right way.
This chronic mismanagement, however, isn’t the responsibility or the fault of the supporters of the club. They now have an opportunity to take the name of their club back and build it up as Michael Culiton, the school headmaster that founded Fisher Athletic in 1908, would have approved. We shall keep our fingers crossed that they can navigate a route back to Rotherhithe and to Surrey Docks, and we can be reasonably certain that if they have learnt one thing over the last few seasons, it is that a successful football club has to be financially sustainable. It should, perhaps, come as little surprise that a football club named after a Catholic martyr should be in need of resurrection, and the Fisher supporters certainly have a lot of mistakes from which they can learn.