Perusing acres of statistics that can be found in newspapers on the opening weekend of the football season can be a most enlightening way to pass the couple of hours, even if focusing on the attendance figures rather than the results themselves does require a certain degree of furtiveness. At the top end of the game, there are few surprises to be found. Most Premier League clubs will attract decent attendances regardless of any bad news that may have been forthcoming over the course of the summer, whilst lower down the Football League there will be empty seats, but on the whole if crowds are to dip this will not come until the evenings draw in and tempting alternatives such as Champions League football on free to air television start to become more readily available.
On the whole, though, crowds at bigger clubs can reasonably be expected to begin as they will continue. As we drop down through the divisions, however, crowd numbers become increasingly volatile. After all, it doesn’t need any more than a couple of hundred people to decide that they have something better to do on a Saturday afternoon during the summer for many non-league clubs’ attendances to start looking as if they were compiled by the Grim Reaper and such numbers can easily be affected by other plans or clear blue skies and the enticing prospect of spending an afternoon sitting in a pub garden. Ever was it thus and ever will it likely be.
There is, however, another factor that we should consider when looking at non-league attendances at the start of a new season, and we could perhaps call it The Death Or Rebirth effect. As we all know, many non-league football clubs live a hand to mouth existence, and this is frequently a state of affairs that is only exacerbated by the summer break. The parlous state of the finances of many non-league clubs means that the summer can be a period of considerable volatility, with questions of who will be playing in which division and in some cases where (or perhaps even whether) they will be playing at all being matters that cannot be taken for granted at all until the referees whistle blows at three o’clock on the opening day of the season. As such, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the opening day of the season can act as a useful barometer for a clubs well-being or otherwise, and last weekends attendance figures may prove to be instructive on the matter of who will and who won’t be in a healthy condition by the end of this season – in a few cases, at least.
In amongst a brief look at the attendances figures are some startling highs and lows, and the lowest of the low, perhaps, is Northwich Victoria. As regular readers, this is a club that finds itself tied up in many knots at the moment, and had to start the new season playing forty-five miles from their home town in Stafford Rangers’ Marston Road ground after a failure to purchase their previous home from the liquidators of the company that previously owned it. The club attempted to withdraw from this particular ground-share and move to Flixton in Manchester, but this was rejected by the Northern Premier League and the matter is now to go into the hands of the Council of Arbitration for Sport. In the meantime, however, Northwich have started the new season at Stafford and their opening home match at the weekend against Stamford was a source of considerable conjecture amongst the clubs support with regard to how many people might make the long journey south-east for the opening match.
The answer to this question was… not many. The attendance at Marston Road on Saturday afternoon was a meagre 86 people, and this was taking into account a free coach that was put on by one supporter for those that wanted to attend. Whether this level of attendance will increase or not or whether people might start drifting should the CAS find in their favour and they be allowed to continue at Flixton is another matter altogether. For now, Northwich Victoria have a wage bill of £3,000 per week to service and the sort of gate receipts that they can expect from crowds that fail to even reach three figures is not going to be able to achieve that. In a broader sense, a crowd of this size could be considered an expression of disillusionment with the condition of this club and this, considering the extent to which this club has been kicked from pillar to post over the last few years or so, perhaps isn’t surprising. There comes a point when many bar the most committed will look at the club from a distance and think, “Bloody hell, they can’t be in a mess again, can they?”
It doesn’t all have to be bad news, though. There were several attendances that drew attention for the right reasons – not least Chester FC taking around 800 supporters all the way to Oxford City for their first match in the Blue Square Bet North, a match won by a single goal to nil – but two really stood out, and both of them came from the relative nether regions of the non-league game. The story of what happened to Darlington FC has been documented on these pages over the last few months or so, but the club has regrouped in the Northern League as Darlington 1883 and kicked off last weekend in front of a crowd of 2,000 people with an away match at the ground that they will share this season, Bishop Aucklands Heritage Park, while many miles to the south AFC Rushden & Diamonds – whose supporters didn’t have a team to watch apart from a youth team following the late collapse of their club during the summer of 2011 – managed an extremely healthy crowd of 784 for their first match in Division One of the United Counties League, which was played at Wellingborough Town FC.
There are a couple of things that we can take from these salutary lessons. Firstly, we might conclude that the supporters of a happy club will be more likely to travel – even for home matches – than those that are generally dissatisfied with a clubs progress, even if we allow for the fact that Northwich are playing considerably further from their home town than the other two clubs are. Darlington 1883 and AFC Rushden & Diamonds might both consider this season to be the start of a clean break, whereas at Northwich we are seeing little more than the latest dismal chapter in the recent history of a club that seems likely to join Darlington FC and Rushden & Diamonds FC in footballs graveyard. Secondly – and perhaps in the long run more importantly – both Darlington 1883 and AFC Rushden & Diamonds will, through reforming, keeping the interest of their supporters and rebuilding as clubs with a specific community grounding, make a stronger case for a home of their own than this incarnation of Northwich Victoria will, for at least as long as the likes of Jim Rushe are involved with it.
Finally, and this is a case that we have seen before more than once on this site, the experiences of last weekend demonstrate that the death of a club doesn’t have to mean its end. Far more important than the limited company that owns it, a football club is the shared history, culture and emotions of those that turn out to support it. We don’t know what the motives behind getting involved are in the first place for those that are doing such a grand job of running Northwich Victoria into the ground at present. All we know for certain is that this club is now playing more than forty miles from home and with no reasonable prospect of returning home in the foreseeable future. Altogether more prosaic matters than morals may well end up being the death of this football club, and it is likely that it will take more than less than one hundred people making that tortuous round journey for every home match for the remainder of this season. The supporters of Chester FC, AFC Rushden & Diamonds and Darlington 1883 have faced that fate and have begun this season looking forward to new adventures. For Northwich Victoria, a season of purgatory in Stafford awaits. In order for Northwich Victoria FC to be reborn, however, it may have to be allowed to die first.
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