For a long time, the Surrey Docks Stadium in Bermondsey has been one of East London’s sorrier sights. Although only built in 1982, it fell vacant when the football club that called it home, Fisher Athletic, moved away in 2004 to ground-share at Dulwich Hamlet, and the fortunes of the club and its former home came to mirror each other over the subsequent years. The Surrey Docks Stadium decayed. People with nothing better to do carried out their acts of petty vandalism, and in the end car boot sales were held on the pitch in front of a dilapidated main stand. Elsewhere in London, meanwhile, after a season of chaos off the pitch and disaster on it, Fisher Athletic finished their 2008/09 Conference South season with just eighteen points from forty-two games, and as soon as the season ended, the club folded.
Were this story to end right there, we might surmise that this is merely another example of what has happened to non-league football clubs all over London with wearying regularity over the last three or four decades or so. But in the case of Fisher, the story doesn’t end there. The club’s supporters trust formed a new club called Fisher FC and, playing back at Dulwich, have been plugging away in the Kent Senior League and, from the start of this season, the South East Counties League since then. Things haven’t always gone to plan on the pitch – at the time of writing, Fisher are second from bottom in the South East Counties League – but the supporters have a club to support, and it is a club which they own. The financial mistakes of the past should never return again.
Still, though, a football club playing away from its home patch is only half a football club at best. It’s five and a half miles from Bermonsdey to Dulwich, and in London five and a half miles can feel like a long way to have to travel for home matches every other week. Fisher FC wishes to return to Bermondsey, and after an announcement made yesterday by Southwark Council, there’s now an excellent chance to do so.
In the summer, Fairview New Homes have agreed to buy the freehold of the Surrey Docks Stadium from receivers appointed by Ulster Bank following the closure of the football club. The currently disused St Paul’s playing field would turned into a community football facility with a top-of-the-range 3G pitch, which would allow not only Fisher’s first team but also their junior sides to play on a first rate facility for the whole of the community. While, under the agreement reached during the summer, the house-builders would be providing £0.5m towards funding for the development via payments to Southwark Council, there would still be a requirement for the club and the council to access additional grant funding to ensure that the anticipated total cost of around £0.75m can be covered.
This week, Southwark Borough Council allowed the plans to take a great leap forward when they agreed to the regeneration of the area, with Councillor Fiona Colley, the council’s cabinet member for regeneration stating that, “I’m delighted to recommend to cabinet this exceptional opportunity to create a brand new public park from the derelict former Surrey Docks stadium, a new astroturf football facility and improvements at the St Pauls ground Salter Road, and allow the return of Fisher FC to its home base in Rotherhithe.” The proposed site of the new stadium is barely the length of two football pitches from the still-derelict Surrey Docks Stadium, which will finally be replaced by housing.
It’s difficult to imagine how it must feel to lose your football club – not a series of close escapes from or even spells in administration, but for it suddenly not to be there any more. First there is an impending feeling of storm clouds covering the club, of rumour, bluff and double bluff. Then follows the news of a bombshell amount of debt. Costs start to get cut. The players stop getting paid and start to look less and less familiar with each passing Saturday afternoon as those that want to get paid drift away to other clubs. Collection buckets come out, but it’s not quite enough to rescue the patient. And when that moment of passing arrives, it usually comes with the stroke of a pen at the High Court rather than with the sounding of a final whistle. The dust storm world of football moves on and your club’s demise is soon forgotten, all the quicker if it only ever merited a byline in the history of the game in the first place.
The doughty few at Fisher FC, however, picked themselves up, dusted themselves up and began again. Their resources are meagre – crowds hover just in the three figure as an average – but the club still stands, and now it has an opportunity to meet its local community for the first time. It will be a full decade next year since the Fish last played in Bermondsey, and it may take a while to win back a local populace for whom the notion of this football club being on the doorstep has become little more than a memory. But the facility that the club will be moving into is on a reasonably main road, on bus routes, and is only a short walk from Surrey Quays railway station. Moreover, the community will soon get used to being close to the club being around due to sharing facilities, whilst the inclusive nature of a small club owned by a supporters trust should mean that the club itself will reach out to those people for mutual support. Over time, attendances should rise, and the club is certainly capable of improving upon its current modest place in the national league system.
The Surrey Docks Stadium, the ruin that continues to stand in tribute to the ultimate failure of Fisher Athletic, will finally be removed completely. Fisher FC, meanwhile, return to their home borough with a job to do – to reunite themselves with their community. Providing there are no further hiccups, they should have the facility to do it. It has taken some very dedicated people a lot of effort to get this moving in right decision, and those efforts have been rewarded this week by a council that sees the mutually benefits of having this facility in place. Ben Westmancott, the Fisher FC chairman, this week that, “We are delighted to be working with Southwark Council and Fairview New Homes to bring Fisher FC back home, and particularly welcome the imaginative, supportive and enlightened approach from both officers and councillors. This positive investment in sports infrastructure will enable young people to play football for their local club in their local community and will act as a force for good in the area.”
Amen to that.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.