Gosport Borough & A Familiar Non-League Story
Sometimes, there can be such a thing as too much honesty. Speaking to the Portsmouth News at the end of last month, Alex Pike, manager of National League South side Gosport Borough had a comment which seemed to speak volumes about the condition of his club at the moment. “The chairman has got us into this mess and I trust he will get us out of this mess,” Pike said in a moment of refreshing candour, but the condition in which his club his finds itself at the moment is a matter of concern to supporters as one of non-league football’s success stories of the last two or three years threatens to unravel that will feel wearyingly familiar to seasoned watchers of the game at this level.
Gosport Borough have been here before. Founded in 1944, the club rose to the Premier division of the Southern League – which was then, unlike now, a division below the Conference – before plummeting down to the Wessex League in the early 1990s. It took a long time for the club to get back on its feet. Promoted back to the Southern League Division One South & West in 2007, the club seemed to have found its level despite sponsorship problems brought about by the economic downturn of the following year, before two successive promotions in 2013 and 2014 took it into the National League South, the same level of the game that the club had reached during its last successful spell in the late 1980s.
This was accompanied by success elsewhere. In 2014, Gosport caused one of the non-league upsets of the season merely by reaching the final of the FA Trophy and, although a four-nil defeat at the hands of Cambridge United in the final poured cold water on hopes of a “fairytale” ending to the club’s cup run, it was at least a day at Wembley that supporters will be unlikely to ever forget. And last season the club reached the First Round of the FA Cup for the first time, before losing by six goals to three at home against League One club Colchester United. These cup runs were accompanied by steadily improving performances in the league, a mid-table finish in its first season in the National League South, followed by finishing just short of the play-off places at the end of last season.
The current campaign had been following a similar pattern, with Gosport looking plenty capable of securing a play-off place for a chance to go into the National League at the end of the season, but last month events behind the scenes at the club started to overtake what was happening on it. It was confirmed that, in spite of being in fourth place in the National League South, Gosport had been under a transfer embargo for the previous six weeks on account of an unpaid bill to HMRC and that the club’s players had not been paid for the previous two weeks. The club’s response to this was to issue a statement confirming this, and that arrangements to repay both HMRC and its players were in place and being upheld.
The club blamed the issues that it was having to address on unpaid invoices from its own creditors, stating that, “If this money had been paid to the club by the payable invoice date then the club would not be in this temporary financial struggle,” and also that a part of the problem was that it had only had two home matches – at a level of the game at which match day revenue still outstrips all other income as the biggest – in the two months since Boxing Day. This wasn’t, however, the first time in the recent past that the club had failed to pay money that it owed when it fell due. In December 2013 it was reported that the club had received a county court judgement against it over non-payment of a debt of £14,210 payable to a company that had run a fundraising event for it in 2012. Earlier in the same year, it was reported that the club had run up rent arrears of £7,000 to the local council for the non-payment of rent for use of its Privett Park ground. Somewhat ironically, the club’s chairman, Mark Hook, is a local councillor and the leader of Gosport Borough Council.
With interest in the club’s financial affairs building, Hook spoke to the local press at the end of that week, stating that, “My fellow directors know my view of new investment, and providing it is a football person who wants to invest in the club, then we are always willing to talk to them,” and that, “I am more than happy to stand down should someone want to come in and say “here is a substantial sum of money”.’ The club’s outstanding tax bill was confirmed at that time as being £5,000, and the transfer embargo was clearly having an adverse effect on the club, which has now won just one of its last seven matches and is clinging onto a play-off place by the skin of its teeth. At the time of writing, Gosport Borough are in fifth place in the National League South table, but the clubs below them all have games in hand and form isn’t on their side. Furthermore, no more signings are allowed after the end of March, so Gosport Borough needs that transfer embargo lifted unless the club is willing to gamble on
Should Gosport Borough’s push for the play-off places in this division may well tail off should the club’s recent cashflow problems not ease in the very near future, and there are likely few outside of the club itself that would have a great deal of sympathy if this did happen. After all, the rigorous financial controls now used by the Football Conference are in place for a reason, and those who inhabit the top end of any league table whilst not paying their players and/or the taxman for anything like an extended period of time whilst others are making ends meet are tilting the scales in their own favour. And this is where financial issues become an issue on a broader scale that merely the effect on the club that is going through them. Some clubs have played Gosport twice this season already whilst others may play against a team of reduced means.
This sort of imbalance has been a part and parcel of the non-league game for as long as anybody can remember, but this fact in itself doesn’t make the recent circumstances at Gosport desirable in any way. And, whilst it is probably not something that anybody wants to read, it should be reiterated that football clubs at all levels of the game must be made to find their level. If this club can sustain National League South football, then this is all well and good. The players of this club, however, are part-time. They’re not the millionaires of the Premier League or the Championship, and they should be paid on time, without fail. If Gosport Borough can sort out their current financial issues, then there may yet be a place for the club in the play-offs at the end of the season. If they can’t, though, it would not be completely surprising to see the end of this season mired in the sort of controversy and confusion that the supporters of clubs at this level of the game are all too used to seeing.
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