AFC Wimbledon supporters will already be aware of the occasionally intransigent ways of the Ryman League. A couple of seasons ago, when an administrative error meant that one of their players was incorrectly registered with the Football Association of Wales rather than the FA, they were docked fifteen points until an independent committee stepped in and reduced the punishment. Now, almost two years on, they’re at it again. This time, the victims are Redbridge FA, and the crime is failing a fllodlight inspection. The punishment might just turn out to be the club’s very existence.
Redbridge FC started out as a merger of Ford Sports and Brigg Sports in 1959 under the name of Ford United. The club played was semi-adopted by the Ford Motor Company and played at the company’s Ford Sports & Social Club. However, the company withdrew its funding from the club and allowed them only a one year rolling contract on their stadium. This arrangement wasn’t acceptable to the Ryman League, so they moved to the Oakside Stadium in nearby Redbridge and changed their name accordingly. On the pitch, they had been briefly reasonably successful, getting promotion to the Conference South, but they dropped like a stone between 2005 and 2007, back to the Ryman League Division One North, ground-sharing with Essex Senior League club Barkingside.
Life is difficult enough for anyone at this level without any external pressures. Redbridge’s average crowds this season barely reach fifty, even though they are having a decent season on the pitch. A routine inspection confirmed that Oakside Stadium’s floodlights were not up to the league’s standards. Redbridge confirmed that they would need to get a replacement part from Holland and they this would take approximately a month to be delivered. They requested to start their matches at 1.00 on Saturdays until the part arrived, but the Ryman League refused this, instructing them to ground-share until their lights were brought back up to standard. At the time of writing, they are aiming to return to Oakside for their match against Maldon Town on 24th January, but this is by no means certain at present.
It’s important to understand why this is such an important matter for Redbridge. Their match last Saturday against Hillingdon Borough had to be played at nearby East Thurrock United’s ground and attracted (if such a word can be used in these circumstances) a crowd of just nineteen people. This would represent a crisis in its own right. The gate receipts are exactly as feeble as you would guess. This would be unlikely, however, to even to make up the majority of their revenue on match days. Food and drink revenue would most likely make up a sizeable proportion of the match day income, and whatever was spent by the nineteen paying customers would have gone to East Thurrock.
There is a degree of logic to the Ryman League’s decision. Kicking off at 1.00pm may have been inconvenient for travelling clubs, who may have players that are working on Saturday mornings. Also, there is the small matter of the fact that ground grading regulations are always an expensive business, and there is an extent to which it could be argued that clubs that fail the grading inspections (which are made clear before the start of the season) should be punished in such a way that such shortcomings should be rectified as quickly as possible. Having said that, however, we are entering a period of what, for many clubs, could be a period of unprecedented financial crisis. Football leagues of all levels may need to start being more accomodating clubs having difficulties, or risk losing a swathe of them.