On Saturday afternoon at Twerton Park, Bath City beat Team Bath by a single goal. It was a win that maintained City’s proud record of never having lost to the university team, and this is a record that seems likely now to last forever following Team Bath’s announcement last week that they are to resign their place in the Blue Square South from the end of this season. The decision to fold follows confirmation from the Football League that they would not be allowed to play in the league, should promotion ever become an option, which has led the Blue Square Premier to confirm that the club would not be allowed into that division should it ever become an option.
Team Bath have certainly polarised opinion. A small minority of supporters have supported a club whose stated aim was to assist ex-professional footballers to rebuild their careers by offering them degree programmes at Bath University whilst playing for the university football team. The vast majority of supporters, however, have come to regard them as “Team Tax”, a football club that has artificially inflated its position within non-league football to the detriment of other clubs using taxpayers money. On the pitch, there can be little argument that they were successful, rising from the Western League to the Blue Square South in the ten years of their existence and, in 2002, becoming the first university team since 1881 to make the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, where they lost at home to Mansfield Town.
Off the pitch, however, they have failed to attract the support that they might have hoped for from the students of the university. Their average home crowd this season has been 201, a crowd inflated by a home match against Bath City and the large travelling support of AFC Wimbledon. A normal Saturday afternoon will see crowds barely topping the 100 mark. They also failed to bring their own facilities up to scratch and had to move in to ground share with Bath City at Twerton Park. If their stated aim was seriously to assist young players to get back into the Football League, then they can only seriously be regarded as a failure. The handful of young players that have managed to get themselves contracts at Football League clubs is no better a record than most other clubs playing at their level.
For now, we can only speculate as to the reasons behind the Football League’s decision. It has been reported that it was due to them not having their own stadium, whilst it is also possible that the League was unhappy with the way that the club is financed. Such concerns appear completely justified when we consider the haste with which the university appears to have pulled the funding on the project. There is also a case for considering that Team Bath’s home crowds may not have risen that much higher no matter what league they were members of. The idea of a team playing in League Two in front of crowds of a couple of hundred probably wouldn’t have been very palatable to the Football League.
The Blue Square Premier’s is easier to explain. Automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the non-league game took a long time to come, and the expansion of this to two clubs each season took still longer. Current BSP rules are in place to ensure that this drawbridge isn’t pulled back up and that clubs of a status and structure appropriate for membership of the Football League are involved. Put in simple terms, if a club has no chance of being admitted into the Football League, it will not be admitted into the Blue Square Premier. The ground grading fiascos of the 1990s – in which several clubs were denied promotion because their grounds weren’t up to Football League standards – has meant that still now the rules of entry for the BSP are exceptionally stringent.
Ironically, the demise of Team Bath isn’t all good news for Bath City. City have been earning £20,000 per year from their rivals’ use of Twerton Park, and also benefit from use of their training facilities. Bath City have had several financial close shaves over the years and money there remains tight. However, this isn’t a completely unbridgeable amount of money for a club with Bath’s potential to find, and it’s difficult to imagine that their long term survival will be threatened by this reduction in revenue. The flip side to this is that Bath City are, once again, Bath’s only truly senior club, and that a couple of Team Bath players may be available to join City’s squad for next season. Overall, any reports stating that the demise of Team Bath will either significantly benefit or hurt Bath City would appear to be over-exaggeration.
In a wider context, it is difficult to imagine that Team Bath will be sorely missed by many. For most football supporters, the minimum expectation is of a level playing field and, whilst there has never been any suggestion that there was any financial impropriety, there was always a sense that this was a club that was using the vast resources of Bath University to artificially inflate its status as a football club. Without any significant support, it is difficult to say how “the game” benefited from their existence and success above and beyond the ego of those running the club. It is also worth mentioning as a final aside that, in an era in which education cuts seem to be becoming more and more savage, Bath University as an academic institution may also benefit from the end of what has given every impression of being an expensive waste of resources.