It has been a difficult summer for Northwich Victoria Football Club, two months of ongoing rancour which remains seemingly destined to end in the eventual closure of a club that is two years shy of celebrating its one hundred and fortieth anniversary but has been kicked from pillar to post so much over the last ten years or so that it is difficult to imagine any scenario which doesn’t end with the club being put out of its misery as being very remote indeed. The latest chapter in this story began when the club was reported to have failed a previously agreed CVA by its administrator and evicted from The Victoria Stadium, its home of the previous six seasons, after failing to purchase it from the liquidators of Beaconnett, the company owned by the clubs previous owner Mike Connett. After a few weeks of playing wherever it could, the club eventually signed a bizarre ground-sharing deal for next season with Stafford Rangers for next season, but was then barred from taking part in the Northern Premier League’s end of season play-offs and was subsequently relegated one division by the FA over failure to comply with the terms of its previously agreed CVA and a failure to comply with the conditions of the transfer of membership from old company to the new.
While the rest of the football worlds head was being turned by the European Championships and the Premier Leagues new television deal, though, Northwich supporters were enduring a summer of uncertainty which hasn’t yet been satisfactorily been concluded. May saw the release of an open letter signed by more than one hundred members of the Northwich Victoria Supporters Trust to owner Jim Rushe, outlining their concerns regarding the failure of the CVA, misgivings about the decision to share a ground more than forty miles from Northwich itself and the loss of the Victoria Stadium itself. This followed on from the increasing involvement of the company that had bought the site in January from the administrators following the clubs failure to come up with the money required to buy it, Thor Investments, who committed to preserving the stadium assets – the stands, floodlights and so on – rather than merely demolishing it. At the end of June, Thor confirmed their intention to convert the land upon which the stadium stands into a packing centre, but by this time the attention of many Northwich supporters was focused upon where the club would be playing the following season again.
In May, Jim Rushe stated publicly that “The FA says we can’t play at Warrington” following the breakdown of an attempt to move Northwich a little closer to the town itself, although this was later contradicted by the CEO of Warrington Town FC, Toby Macormac, who stated that, “We as a board decided that logistically it’s not right for us at the current time and the matter will not be pursued any further,” while the Northern Premier League itself told the Northwich Guardian that, “Northwich Victoria has not made an application to ground share with another club”, an application that would have been far from cut and dried itself when we consider that the league has a rule stipulating a deadline of the end of March for any clubs seeking to change home grounds for the start of the following season. Meanwhile, an exodus from the club had already begun in earnest. Manager Andy Preece departed for Welsh Premier League club Airbus UK and was followed across the border by six of his former Northwich players, while the former Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Andy Mutch was brought in to replace him.
By this time, however, Rushe had other plans for the club. Flixton FC had been members of the North-West Counties League, playing at a ground called Valley Road on the west side of Manchester. However, they resigned their place in the league for the end of last season. Rushe identified Valley Road as a possible new home for the club, but there were major problems with this. Valley Road only held an “F certificate” (which would mean that no higher level of football than Step 5 – the top division of the NWCL – could be played there), whilst no-one seemed to know how many improvements would need to be made to it before it would reach a higher grade or who, exactly, would be paying for them. The FA and the Northern Premier League subsequently confirmed that Northwich Victoria would not be playing next season at Flixton, but there would be one club carrying the name of the town playing there – Jim Rushe’s other club, Northwich Villa. Villa, who play in the NWCL, had no such difficulties with a move to Flixton for obvious reasons. They had shared The Victoria Stadium but had played the second half of their season at Winsford Uniteds Barton Stadium, but a deal for the club to play there fell through after Winsford requested payment in advance to use it for next season.
Meanwhile, the continuing involvement on the periphery of the club of Steve McNally continues to irritate and confuse a sizable proportion of the clubs supporters trust membership in roughly equal measures. McNally parachuted into the club from nowhere – well, Liverpool – towards the end of last season, offering a proposal for a new ground in the town and setting up a new group, the “Official Supporters Club” (a vehicle , in apparent direct opposition to the clubs supporters trust. Indeed, McNally has spent much of the summer so far turning up on the supporters trusts own forum seeking to discredit it in a variety of different ways, usually at about the time of the trusts meetings. He remains on the edges of this story, and his reason for getting involved it – since very few people seemed to believe the back-story that he gave himself – remains a mystery, but the possible reasoning behind his desire to remain involved with a club at which he had no prior involvement has become clear over the last week or so with further clarification from Thor over what they intend to do with the remains of The Victoria Stadium.
Thor, who both McNally and Rushe have repeatedly sought to paint as the villains of this piece, retain the ownership of the assets of The Victoria Stadium and what happens to them in the long term probably represents the best chance that Northwich Victoria has of returning to its home town in the foreseeable future. For Thor, with one eye on complex negotiations over the the site that they now own, seem keen to do the right thing and their original plan was to hand the assets of The Victoria Stadium to the local council – which is Cheshire West And Chester Council, who long-time readers may remember from their classy involvement in the formation of Chester FC in the first months of 2010 – but they have since confirmed that they could yet change their plans and award these prized assets to a single body which represents the support. Some have paused to consider whether this might by the reason why McNally was so keen to get the “Official Supporters Club” up and running, but such considerations can only take second place to the news last week that the supporters trust is setting up a Stadium Development Committee with a view to working towards finding the club a new home in the Northwich area to replace the Victoria Stadium. Whether either Thor or CWAC would rather work with McNally and Rushe than the supporters trust, however, remains to be seen.
It seems likely that the new season will start with more questions than answers concerning Northwich Victoria. The biggest single question – that of how a club that will be playing more than forty miles from its home town and which seems likely to have very few people actually making that journey every other week can possibly manage to pay its bills over the coming months – is still one that hasn’t been satisfactorily answered, though Jim Rushes apparent desperation to get the club anywhere nearer to the town than Stafford would appear to underline the importance of it, while the question of why anybody in the world would travel from the town to Manchester to watch Northwich Villa if the club will not be returning to the town is similarly unanswered. The ideal solution would be for Northwich Victoria to be handed to its supporters trust, who could then start working with Thor and the council to identify, fund and build a new ground in the town, but even this remains unlikely for as long as the support-base remains divided by McNally and his small grouping and the clubs financial position following the failure of the CVA and the disputes left hanging by that are resolved.
One thing, however, seems likely. No matter how bad things might have got for the supporters of Northwich Victoria FC, the lack of harmony amongst the clubs support – some natural and to be expected, some manufactured by outside and possibly malign influences – is only now likely to result in a drawing out of its death throes. At the time of writing, it seems impossible to see how this incarnation of Northwich Victoria is going to complete next season and with division remaining amongst the support being egged on from the sidelines, quite what the future of football in the town may look like in, say, five years time is currently even more unclear than we might have thought it could ever be.
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