It was one of the longest journeys that any club in this country had to make over the weekend, but there can be little doubting that supporters of Blue Square North club Workington AFC will be in no doubt whatsoever that it was worth it. Their trip to South London on Saturday afternoon was to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Trophy required leaving their Cumbria outpost in the early hours of the morning, but it ended with a win that was a tiny bit of revenge that they have waited for over thirty years to deliver, for it was Wimbledon that were voted into the Football League in their place in 1977.
It would, in all honesty, have been a little rich for anyone connected with the club to hold a grudge against Wimbledon for taking their place. Workington amassed just 106 points (under a system of two points for a win) in their last four seasons in the Football League, a period during which they hadn’t finished above second from bottom in the Division Four table. Crowds had dropped to three figures, and there was serious competition from the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues. Wimbledon, meanwhile, had won the Southern League championship for three years in a row, and beaten (then First Division) Burnley at Turf Moor and held Leeds United to a draw in the FA Cup in 1975. On the seventeenth of June 1977, Wimbledon were voted into the Football League in their place.
Since their relegation from the Football League, Workington have had more struggles than successes. They fell as far as the North West Counties League in 1998, but they have slowly improved since then and worked their way back up to the Blue Square North. Key to the club’s further development is being able to leave or redevelop their crumbling Borough Park ground, but work towards a new ground has been a long and painful process. The club itself would rather play at a revamped Borough Park, but the council had seemed intent on moving them into a new stadium with the Workington Town RLFC.
There would have been legitimate concerns for the club over being forcibly moved into a new stadium. They would have been considered to be junior partners to the rugby league club should they have moved into the new ground with them, but even this would have been less important that the possible loss of revenue that they may have suffered from moving to a new facility. If they had ended up renting rather than leasing the new stadium, any money made from match days apart from gate receipts would likely have been kept by the owners of the lease. The club would have had to find new supporters to cover such a shortfall. A lease would have been more beneficial to the club, but would the council (or those that they appoint to manage it on their behalf) have agreed to a lease if it were to cost them money? Many looked to the disastrous Leigh Genesis experiment as a warning against the dangers of such an agreement.
Such arguments are now largely irrelevant. Last month, the council indicated that, rather than building a stadium for the two clubs, it will instead be building a leisure facility and leaving the football club and the rugby league football club to their own devices. Workington have already confirmed their intention to upgrade their floodlights and build a new stand at Borough Park, but this will be an expensive business for them. Staying there will, however, preserve their identity and their independence from the rugby league football club. Against this backdrop, the reasoning for every penny being critical to the club becomes obvious. The prize money for negotiating the various hurdles of the FA Trophy doesn’t even run into tens of thousands of pounds, but having a run in this competition raises the club’s profile locally. With a reasonable mid-table position in the Blue Square North, they seem unlikely to get drawn into a relegation battle this season (they have games in hand on most of the teams surrounding them), but it is in this year’s Trophy that they have raised the most eyebrows.
In the Second Round of the competition they beat Rushden & Diamonds of the Blue Square Premier, a result which should have made some at Wimbledon sit up and pay attention, even if their nine match unbeaten run in all competitions didn’t. The Wimbledon manager Terry Brown had expressed his desire to win the FA Trophy this season very vocally and Wimbledon took the lead twice, but the Workington team battled on and won the match by three goals to two. Their reward for the win is another tricky tie, and an away match against current Blue Square Premier leaders Stevenage Borough may prove to be a step too far for them, but the hope of a day out at Wembley remains on the horizon and with two wins against BSP clubs already behind them, they are unlikely to be lacking in confidence going into their match at Broadhall Way in three weeks’ time. A win in that match would leave them just a two-legged semi-final from Wembley and £8,000 better off into the bargain.
No matter what concerns there may be for the future, there is no question that Saturday was Workington’s day and that long trip back to Cumbria will have been made all the more satisfying for the feeling of a job well done, a deserved win and idle dreams of Wembley. After thirty-three years in the wilderness, those that made that long, long journey home may just feel that they got something – just a little bit, but something nevertheless – back last weekend and, on days like that, concerns about the future can usually be put on the back burner for the day.