The bulldozers moved in at College Grove in Wakefield last week. This, of itself, should probably not have come as too much of a surprise to those that have been watching the recent difficulties of Wakefield Football Club of the Northern Premier League for most of this year, but as a visual analogy it was depressingly appropriate that a club which has had a disastrous year should have seen its home almost completely razed to the ground in favour of a multi-sport complex by its owners at the same time that those running the club confirmed that it was on the brink of closure. The problems facing this club, however, are no flash in the pan, and the near-levelling of College Grove marks what can only realistically be regarded as the conclusion of a set of circumstances which began more than a decade ago.
In the beginning, there was Emley FC. This club was a perennial winner of the Yorkshire League throughout the mid to late 1970s through to the early 1980s, and their upward trajectory continued through the Northern Counties East League and into the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League – which was, at the time, just one division below the Football Conference – in 1991. These were the club’s halcyon days. They remained members of this division throughout the 1990s and managed an appearance on Match Of The Day in 1998 when they landed an FA Cup Third Round match against West Ham United, which they lost by two goals to one. Three years later, they managed one hundred and one points in the league but still missed out on promotion by one point to Stalybridge Celtic.
Storm clouds, however, were growing at the club. Emley FC shared its home, The Welfare Ground, with a local cricket club and a change to ground-grading rules with regard to three-sided grounds (of which there used to be a couple in the Football League, at Northampton Town and Sheffield United) meant that the club needed to leave their ground or face ejection from the Northern Premier League. The club moved to Belle Vue, the home of the Wakefield Trinity Rugby Football League Club, in 2000, with its name being changed twice, first to Wakefield & Emley and then to Wakefield-Emley. Supporters from the original village had at least been able to seek solace from the fact that the club’s reserve had side had continued to play at The Welfare Ground, but the decision of the Northern Counties East League to scrap its reserve league led to a new club, AFC Emley, being formed by disaffected supporters in 2005.
Restructuring had spared Wakefield & Emley from relegation in 2004, but the perhaps inevitable contraction to Wakefield FC followed in 2006, along with a change of colours from the old Emley FC colours of claret and blue to yellow and blue, and a move to College Grove, the former home of Wakefield RFC, a rugby union club which had folded in 2004. Any anticipated increase in attendances that might accompany a move from village to down, however, failed to materialise. Whether this is down to Wakefield being a “rugby town” or because most locals already have their affiliations will probably never be known (a combination of the two seems more likely than not), but attendances failed to increase, and the club fell into greater difficulties earlier this year.
College Grove is owned by Wakefield Sports Club, a multi-sports club based in the town which runs amongst others, hockey and squash clubs. They were keen to redevelop the site as an all-purpose facility with an artificial pitch and opted not to extend Wakefield FC’s lease to play there beyond the end of last season, even though the club had just paid £40,000 on improving facilities at the ground. So it was that the club left Wakefield during the summer to ground-share at nearby Ossett Town, and with this money having gone down the drain and a sponsor having failed to pay them a further £40,000 in money owed, the club’s future became considerably less secure than it had been. After all, if they were struggling to manage crowds of much higher than 150 people whilst playing in the town, how many would follow them away?
The answer to that question was “not many”. Although the team’s form hasn’t been catastrophic on the pitch – at the time of writing, they sit in fifteenth place in Division One North of the Northern Premier League – the collapse in crowds has been, with just 56 people turning out to watch their match on the second of November against Salford City. Two days after that match, the local newspaper, the Wakefield Express, reported that there were just “seven days to save Wakefield FC”, with the club president, Peter Matthews, stating that, “This is the last gasp for us now. If nobody comes forward the doors are closed, there’s absolutely no point at struggling on.” Sixteen days after that date, the club is still with us, although the players are not being paid at present – on Saturday, they drew 1-1 at Bamber Bridge in a league match – but for how much longer this club can be considered viable is another question altogether.
The problem that Peter Matthews, and by extension Wakefield FC, faces is now one of ongoing viability. If Wakefield FC could only attract crowds of 130 or so whilst playing at College Grove last season and can barely scrape into three figures this season whilst playing at Ossett (which in itself is hardly surprising, considering that Ossett already houses two non-league clubs – Ossett Town, with whom Wakefield FC are ground-sharing, and Ossett Albion), then why should any investor get involved with Wakefield? This may sound like a harsh question, but it is one that needs to be asked. With no ground in the town and no prospect of anything like an immediate return there, the likelihood is that any money poured into the club would be lost in a black hole of paying off debts and wages to players, with no prospect of any immediate return. Unless Wakefield FC can find themselves an individual a group of individuals or a company that is prepared to pour money into this black hole, then it is difficult to see how the club can be returned to an even keel, especially should it be hoping to continue to play at the level at which it currently does, where players expect to be paid.
During the summer, it was reported that Wakefield FC would be merging from the end of this season with West Riding County League club Wakefield City with a view towards establishing something more akin to a community club, with an under-18 team, a womens team and a reserve team playing under the Wakefield City FC name. Perhaps this would have given the club the chance to expand interest in the town, to build a hub around which the senior mens team could grow and prosper. As things stand, however, even if the club’s immediate difficulties can be overcome, it is difficult to see how Wakefield FC, playing to tiny crowds four miles away in Ossett, will ever be able to find its identity. Unless it can return to Wakefield, any club with this name seems destined to struggle and there are not even any guarantees that a return to their home town will reap many significant benefits for the club. Unless this circle can be squared, it seems difficult to believe that there can be a happy end for association football in Wakefield in the immediate future.
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