Such is the extent to which it has become a horror story over the last twelve months or so, it seems somewhat appropriate that the next day of reckoning for Kettering Town Football Club should be Halloween. Last Wednesday, the Southern Football League adjourned without reaching a final decision over whether to expel the club from its league and allowed the club a further seven days to “satisfy certain conditions” and keep its place in the league. Considering that the last trickle of cash-flow into the club would cease for the the foreseeable future should the club be expelled from the league, it seems in no way an overstatement to suggest that this club, in its one hundred and fortieth year, is now hearing the sound of the bell ringing for time at the last chance saloon.
Rumour and counter-rumour have continued apace since then. There has been talk of new investors considering buying into the club, but it has been suggested over the last few days that the likelihood of anybody stepping in and paying the vast amounts of money required to keep this club afloat has started to dissipate again. Ultimately, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the club remains burdened with ongoing liabilities which render it a dubious investment. The club is understood to be paying in the region of £150,000 per year for the dubious pleasure of playing its home matches at Nene Park, and this is an ongoing cost which might have just about been considered affordable while it was playing in the Blue Square Bet Premier in front of crowds of well over one thousand people, but seems hopelessly unaffordable for a club playing in the Southern League Premier Division in front of crowds of just a few hundred people – and Kettering Town has, due to crippling mismanagement, gone from being the former to the latter in less than twelve months.
It is this which remains the ultimate sticking point for the club. There are, of course, Kettering supporters who continue to hope amongst hope that something, anything will come along and rescue their club. Some still hold out the faintest, flickering hope of a return to Rockingham Road, whilst others believe that a somewhat more sustainable short-term future at Steel Park, the tidy, new, council-owned home of another of their local rivals, Blue Square Bet North club Corby Town. The hurdles to jump in order to merely get out of this contractual bind, however, remain massive. The club cannot unilaterally renege upon its lease for Nene Park – and the amount of money promised to its owner, Keith Cousins, would seem to make the likelihood of him merely ripping that lease up slim, to say the least – and even if he were to agree to this, Rockingham Road is already a shell awaiting the demolition men, whilst Corby is nine miles north of Kettering; a similar distance to that which Nene Park is from the town of Kettering itself.
This sort of compound effect is the legacy of the clubs twelve months of madness. Any new investor would have to pay a sizable amount of money in order to get the electricity at Nene Park reconnected. On top of this, the would have to maintain CVA payments which, it is widely understood, have not been honored of late. And when all of these costs have been accounted for, they would have to pay players from a budget which has been decimated by collapsing crowds, non-appearing commercial revenues and the continuing absence of the much-vaunted – by the clubs increasingly deluded-sounding owner Imraan Ladak – missing sponsorship money from the company DRC Locum, a subject which has been one of Ladaks favourite tools for deflecting blame for the omnishambles that has occurred on his watch over the last few months or so.
When we discussed the collapse of this club on our recent podcast, the former Chief Executive of Supporters Direct, Dave Boyle, made several particularly salient points regarding the ongoing existence of a football club of the size of Kettering Town. He said:
It’s not the curse of Nene Park, it’s the curse of not enabling leagues or the FA to have any control over the people that run clubs. It reminds me awfully of Chester, a little bit more of a car crash but it’s taking place slowly, but if you’d said to somebody, this is where Kettering are going to be, they wouldn’t have been surprised, but the surprising thing is that we’re not surprised. It’s not happening out of the blue. Kettering Town in dire straits? Well, who could have seen that coming? Well, anybody who’s been following the story.
What’s surprising to me more than anything really is that this is taking place in a part of the national game which, for a few years a couple of years back, had prided itself on having its act together. The upper echelons of the non-league game took a great deal of pride at having sorted their regulatory approach out, their financial controls of clubs and so on, looked at the professional leagues above them and said, ‘We’ve done our bit.’ What we find with Chester and Kettering is that actually that’s probably not the case, and it’s another case where the group of people that get affected the most have had very little impact on this and very little ability to do anything about it – these are the fans of Kettering Town, who have basically had to be on the sidelines as relatively recently, not just the current owner but mostly the current owner, have made a series of cumulatively catastrophic decisions for the football club.
There are places where we have seen professional football clubs move a couple of miles because they’re still within their catchment area, but these are clubs who are small town clubs whose identities are rooted to a homogenous and identifiable place, and that’s almost their only point. Move them out of that relatively small and homogenous place, and what is left about Kettering Town? It’s a bit like reverse Buckaroo. What are the things that you associate with a football club called Kettering Town? Let’s list them off. They might play in Kettering. They might have their own ground. They might have eleven players, some substitutes, a manager and some fans, and slowly but surely somebody is taking away all of these bits off the football club, almost as an experiment to see what’s the actual time at which it ceases to be a football club. Their eight players who finished their last game may turn out to be six, and it might simply be that once you have less than seven players you cease to be a football club any more, but there’s a lot to be said that they’ve been heading that way for a long time.
Who knows? Perhaps somebody will find a pound coin down the back of the sofa and get the Nene Park electricity switched back on. Perhaps somebody will step in the last minute, decide that this is a near death experience to far and keep this club afloat whilst they try to put out the fires that are burning uncontrollably in the clubs accounts. Perhaps, just perhaps, this will turn out to be the greatest escape of the season. Stranger things – not many, but a few – have happened before. At the time of writing, however, the worst fears of the remaining supporters of this club remain unattended to and the prospects of this club being saved get slimmer and slimmer. Should the bells finally toll for Kettering Town on Wednesday, it will be another defeat for free-marketeering, everything-bar-the-actual-football economics that have come to blight the game at all levels over the last few weeks or so. And we all already know that those who had the power to prevent this will shrug their shoulders and look the other away.
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