Yeovil Town: The Forgotten Relegation

It’s been more than thirty years now, and still there is a distinction. League and non-league. The professionals vs amateurs of the modern game. The British sure do love a class distinction. Prior to the 1987/88 season, the clubs that finished at the bottom of Division Four were insulated from any further downward trajectory by re-election, a process by which the other clubs had to vote them back in, along with giveing consideration to applications to join from non-league clubs. Every once in a while someone would get tripped up, but it didn’t happen often, and as often as not the club getting tripped up would find that something as banal as being in a relatively remote geographical location could be enough to end much sympathy from their fellow clubs.

The introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the Football Conference was a venture into meritocracy that has had an interesting affect on the bottom of what is now known as League Two and the top of what is now known as the National League. Some, such, as Kidderminster Harriers and Barnet have come and gone. Football League stalwarts have dropped still further. Stockport County, who two decades earlier had been playing – and beating – Manchester City in a league match, won the National League North title at the end of last season, for example. The National League is now mostly full-time. Talk that the Football League would have to go part-time proved to be overstated, though the financial predicament of many lower division clubs has significantly deteriorated, over the last thirty years.

Yet still that place holds an allure. All relegations are presented as human interest stories on the television these days, but few are more so than that gap between the Football League and the National League. The Premier League broke away in 1992, but the Football League chose at that point not to expand itself back to four divisions by simply incorporating The Football Conference. It stayed at seventy-two clubs. Indeed, only one promotion and relegation place continued to be the case until 2003, when it was finally increased to two. With one automatic promotion place available and the National League play-offs now played between six teams, the difference between “League” and “non-league” still exists.

Until 2003, Yeovil Town were perhaps the quintissential non-league football club. Representing a market town of 45,000 people near the Somerset-Dorset border, they had a heavily sloping pitch upon which they’d knocked First Division Sunderland out of the FA Cup in 1949, and an honorable record of occasionally applying to join the Football League without success whilst regularly performing with distinction in the Southern League. Founder members of the Alliance Premier League, they underwent a decline in the early 1980s which ended in relegation in 1985. There then followed a frustrating three years in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, finishing as runners-up twice before finally getting promoted back in 1988.

Towards the end of their first season back in the Football Conference, Yeovil received the news that would come to change the club forever. The Huish, that sloping pitch, was to be demolished, and Yeovil Town were to move to a new stadium, Huish Park. In August 1990, the club moved into its new home. Initially, it didn’t seem to have a particularly beneficial effect. Indeed, the club was relegated from the Football Conference in 1995, and the following season could only finish in fourth place in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League. This time, the club built on their promotion back, finishing as runners-up behind Rushden & Diamonds in 2001 before winning the title in 2003, finishing seventeen points clear of joint-second-placed Morecambe and Doncaster Rovers. For the first time in its history, the quintessential non-league football club was a Football League club.

Sixteen years on, Yeovil Town are a non-league football club again. Promotion and relegation issues at the bottom of the Football League always generate interest, but most of us primarily fixated upon the race to avoid the drop between Notts County and Macclesfield Town, this year. Notts County, the oldest professional football club in the world and founder members of the Football League. Macclesfield Town, managed by Sol Campbell, whose first managerial role was high profile for reasons that we’ve discussed on these pages before. Sol won, but the reason why one of these two even had the opportunity to survive in the first place was that Yeovil Town plummeted straight down between them.

They actually had a reasonably good start to the season. By the middle of September Yeovil were in fifth place in League Two, having won four and lost only one of their seven matches up to a six-nil win at Newport County. Newport, of course, will be playing in this year’s League Two play-off final against Tranmere Rovers. To say that this was as good as things got for Yeovil would be an understatement. They only won five further matches throughout the entire remainder of the season – an away win at Carlisle in October, two straight wins against Mansfield Town and Notts County in January and a further two straight wins against Cambridge United and Morecambe at the start of March.

This crash came hard and fast. They only dropped into the League Two relegation places for the first time following a one-nil home defeat against Crawley Town on the 13th of April. Two weeks later, a two-all draw at Northampton Town (in which they threw away a two-nil lead) combined with results from elsewhere relegated the club from the Football League altogether. Ten days earlier, the club’s womens team had been relegated from the Women’s Super League. April, it’s probably fair to say, was not a good month for football in the town of Yeovil. The mens team, meanwhile, eventually finished at the bottom of the League Two table, three points adrift of second from bottom Notts County and four points from safety.

Such events don’t take place in a vaccuum, of course. Darren Way had been the manager of the club since 2015, but the club’s reaction to the calamitous collapse in form last autumn was to (which included a home defeat against Stockport County in the FA Cup) grant Way a two year contract extension in November. A month later, with the club having come under considerable fire from supporters over this decision, a meeting held at Huish Park and joint-owner John Fry was gate-crashed by Way who, according to Supporters Trust notes, proceeded to tell those present that:

“…he had saved the Club from relegation for the last three seasons. He said he was a hero. He said that he could walk into any other club and that he would not be at Yeovil for ever and when he left he would be missed. He stated that the fans knew nothing about football.”

Way was relieved of his duties the day after a two-nil defeat away to Milton Keynes on the 23rd of March. He was replaced by Neale Marmon, whose playing and managerial careers both primarily took place in Germany. Too little, too late. There was, however, already somebody waiting in the sidelines. American businessman Rob Couhig has been involved in sport before in his home country with interests in both football and baseball, and his group Feliciana EFL Limited’s interest seemed genuine. On the 19th February, the club released a statement in which they stated that:

Yeovil Town Football Club wishes to issue an update on the status of a proposed takeover, which was reported last month. An agreement has been reached between the club’s current ownership and Feliciana EFL Limited, headed by Rob Couhig, subject to EFL approval. The YTFC Board is pleased to be advancing and both parties anticipate completion within the next month.

Couhig was getting busy in the media at the same time. Shortly afterwards, interviewed by Westcountry News, he stated that:

On the pitch, I believe in written definitions as to the type of team we’re going to have, the type of players we want, where our expectations are from the manager and I’m going to work with Mark Palmer (a consultant to the club) and one other person to try and implement a defined, strategic approach to it.

Off the pitch, which is where I feel most comfortable, I’m going to make sure it’s the most exciting experience that people go to in English football.

By the end of April and relegation, though, doubts were starting to grow over whether this deal was actually ever going to go through. In the immediate aftermath, Neale Marmon – who was said to have close links to Couhig – said following the Northampton game which relegated the club that: “The deal will not be affected by relegation. Whatever league the club are in, the deal has been done.” Over the coming days, though, the rumours continued to grow that something – nobody seemed to know what, exactly – had gone wrong with the takeover. By the start of this month there were said to be “serious doubts” over whether it would go ahead or not following the club’s relegation. By the 8th of May, the deal was off. Couhig would only confirm that the reason for the sale not concluding was nothing to do with relegation, all of which rather begs the question of, “Well, what was it to do with, then?”

It would be understandable if relegation from the Football League was enough to throw a spanner in the works of the takeover. After all, relegation into the National League is expensive. Yeovil Town will lose £450,000 per year from losing their Premier League “solidarity payment” whilst their television money will be slashed, down to just £7,000 per home appearance for home matches and £1,000 for away matches from BT Sport’s deal with the National League. Commercial and sponsorships will fall accordingly. Automatic promotion and relegation may be more than thirty years old, but that class distinction between League and non-league remains as real as ever.

It has been reported that former director Andy Rossiter has a bid for the club that is ready to go, but with Marmon now having gone, has the club put any thought whatsoever into who the new manager might be? It is expected that a club losing its Football League status will be losing players, but has scouting been taking place to identify replacements? What is the chain of command at Huish Park at present? Is there a chain of command at Huish Park at present? Are there appropriate controls in place the mitigate the effects of the forthcoming drop in income? Yeovil Town seem set to re-enter the world of non-league football with a large number of question marks hanging over the club’s head. It’s not a particularly healthy position to be in, at a time of such transition.