They’ve been here before, but those that can remember it are getting older as the years go by. It was in May 1982 that the original Bedford Town played their final match, the lease on their ground, The Eyrie, ran out and the club folded after seventy-four years. It took seven years for the club to reform and they made steady progress through the leagues to the Conference South. Their stay in that league was comparatively brief and they dropped back into the Southern League. Now, like so many other clubs at that level, they are finding that the stresses of day to day living are getting to them.
Having only been spared relegation back to the Southern League Midland Division by the financial collapse of Nuneaton Borough in 2008, The Eagles find themselves back in a relegation battle. Crowds at The New Eyrie have slumped to around the 300 mark, and the club recently took matters into their own hands by releasing four players, whilst others in the squad have taken a pay cut. It has taken BEST, the club’s supporters trust, to point out the gaping holes in the club’s financial position and also issue a stinging critique of the way that the club is currently being run.
Bedford Town has an unusual ownership structure. A shade over 75% of the shares in the club are owned by the Howell family, with the remaining quarter being owned by other shareholders. The club voted for a Football Management Committee to be formed, but how much actual influence this has over the running of the club is very much open to question. BEST has put the club’s current financial shortfall at around £40,000 and points out that promotion to the Blue Square South would only bring higher running costs. The club, says the trust, cannot continue to run like this and it seeks a more active role in its affairs. Whether it will get this before it becomes too late, however, is a different matter.
One of Bedford’s biggest problems would seem to be the location of The New Eyrie. The club’s new stadium is not far short of being as far from the centre of the town whilst actually remaining in Bedford itself. This, however, is where they find themselves and it means primarily that they need to work harder in their community in order to cement their position at the centre of it. Their crowds have fallen by a third since 2006, and in a town with a catchment of over 150,000 people, there must be potential for more than a hardy core of just over 300 people to turn out and watch the local football club.
A feature in their local newspaper last week saw a heartfelt plea from their manager for the people of the town to turn out in force for their next couple of matches. Such a plea combined with the releasing of four players hardly engenders much confidence in those that are running the club at the moment. Moreover, big crowds for the next couple of home matches will only apply the tiniest of sticking plasters to a situation that appears to resemble a state of long-term decline than anything else. Something needs to give if Bedford Town are to avoid a slow, quiet fall through the divisions and back into the South Midlands League, from whence they came in the early 1990s.
What seems to be happening at Bedford Town is far from unique, and there is little to suggest at present that what is going on at The New Eyrie is anything but a slow decline into obscurity. The fact that the so-called “Football Management Committee” doesn’t seem to hold any influence over anything betrays the lack of faith that those owning the club seem to have in anybody else but themselves to try and repair the damage done. Meanwhile, with nobody looking likely to to come in from outside of the club with any money and a growing sense of mutual distrust unlikely to foster an atmosphere that will bring in many new supporters, the biggest question facing Bedford Town before it all becomes too late.
Bedford Town supporters have been in here before, in 1982. At that time, their nearest natual predators, Luton Town, were on their way to the First Division. Now, The Hatters are in the Blue Square Premier amid rumbling discontentment at their first season in the non-league game. It’s an opportunity for Bedford Town to bring some local support back into the club, but a lack of inspiration both on and off the pitch seem likely to kill any chance of them bringing local people back into the fold. As difficult as it may seem for the majority shareholders of the club to believe, the supporters trust at Bedford Town may be able to bring a little enthusiasm back into the club – it is time for them to be officially recognised and brought on board at The New Eyrie. A united front may only be the first step in breathing some fresh life into the club, but it would be a start.