York City’s Uncertain New Beginning
From a psychological viewpoint, one of the most pervasive ideas of this pandemic that any of us have had to get our heads round has been that there is no escape from it. There are certainly plenty of people who have had it worse than others, but relatively few who might be considered to have had it better, but the idea that severe restrictions have been impacting to some extent upon almost everybody on the planet is difficult to take in. The truth, however, is that to a lesser or greater extent almost all of us have been living in purgatory for the last twelve months, waiting with varying degrees of impatience for things to return to whatever normal turn out to be.
This has been the truth for football clubs, as much as anybody else. The top six divisions have now had a full year without crowds in attendances for matches, those below that level only had a few weeks of being able to admit a restricted number of people, last autumn. Not all football clubs, however, are built the same. While there have been very few who be described as having ‘thrived’ in this severely restricted world, a couple have at least seen their performances on the pitch improve. The vast majority of clubs have suffered to some extent or other, whether we’re talking about the multi-million pound financial losses being posted by Premier League clubs or the necessary furloughing of players and cashflow crises that have blown through many non-league clubs.
Some clubs were already stuck in some degree of footballing purgatory when the pandemic struck, though, and no club has been more half-forgotten in recent years than York City. It seems difficult to believe that it’s only been five years since York were an EFL club, but the team’s decline on the pitch since then has been of the sort that seems to occur as though by osmosis, while their protracted departure from their home of almost 90 years ended up happening while no-one could even attend matches, meaning that no-one was even able to say goodbye to the ground that they’ve called home for their entire lives. It can feel, at times, as though York City is, whether deliberately or through a series of elaborate accidents, a football club set up to perpetually needle its supporters through a series of footballing micro-aggressions.
The answer to the question of what caused the decline that has led the club to where is now might be summarised as, “How long have you got?” In July 1999, York’s ownership of Bootham Crescent ended when all of their property assets were transferred to a holding company called Bootham Crescent Holdings by former chairman Douglas Craig, who stated two years later that he would resign the club from the Football League at the end of that season unless a buyer was found and then evict it from Bootham Crescent.
Buyers were told that anyone wishing to purchase the club and the ground together would have to pay in the region of £4.5million for it. This led to John Batchelor and his bizarre “York City Soccer Club” experiment, near closure, rescue by the Supporters Trust, falling from the Football League, the return of the club back into private hands, and then relegation back down again.
There was little drama surrounding the club’s relegation from the EFL in 2016. York finished bottom of League Two on goal difference from Dagenham & Redbridge, but both were nine points adrift of safety. The following season, however, brought no improvement, and York finished in 21st place in the National League, relegated after failing to win any of their last three matches.
There was some degree of light relief in them beating Macclesfield Town to win the FA Trophy at Wembley, but increasing rancour between owner Jason McGill and the Supporters Trust, who retained a 25% shareholding in the club (which resulted in McGill threatening to sell the club in 2018 if the Trust didn’t gift him their shareholding) didn’t bode well for life in the National League North. McGill resigned his chairmanship, put his shares in the club up for sale, and added that he was unwilling to foot the bill for any losses beyond the end of the 2017/18 season. He returned a couple of months later.
Life in the National League North at least slowed the team’s downward spiral of the previous couple of years, but it hasn’t yet provided a springboard back to success, either, and this has far from being for reasons beyond the club’s control, as has apparently been the case in the past. York finished in 11th and 12th place in their first two seasons back, with the club financially hamstrung by the loss of money coming through as a result of dropping from the Football League.
Last season, however, saw the return of a title-challenging team. York were in second place in the table when a halt was called upon proceedings, two points behind Kings Lynn Town, although having played two games more. The play-offs were finally played at the end of July, but York lost in the semi-finals to Altrincham. The vote to preserve the league’s “elite” status would come to hit the National Leagues North & South hard this season, because it meant that – amongst other things – no spectators would be allowed into Bootham Crescent while they would at all lower levels, at least temporarily.
This carries an additional sense of poignancy for York supporters. The club’s move from Bootham Crescent had been a remarkably drawn out affair, stretching back more than a decade (it was originally hoped to be completed by 2012), but the end of this season was the point by which the move had to finally be made. There are sound reasons for having to do so. Bootham Crescent hasn’t had any serious work done to it for more than 20 years and was costing tens of thousands of pounds per year just to maintain.
But none of this will have meant an enormous amount to supporters who didn’t get the opportunity to give their old home a proper send-off. The club has promised that this will take place when fans are properly allowed back in, but the loss of the ground, but how satisfactory will this be, compared to what they might have hoped for? In the meantime, York played their first game at The York Community Stadium in the middle of February. They lost 3-1 to Fylde. It was their first league match since the 5th January, and they haven’t played again since.
This season’s National League North season, of course, barely got going. By the time is was null and voided, York had only played 13 league games. They were in 8th place in the table with games in hand on all the teams below them. Had it been decided to somehow extend the season so that promotion and relegation could take place within the National League, they’d have found themselves in the play-offs on points per game, but this didn’t come to pass, so the team will play (at least) next season in this division as well. Considering everything, it’s hardly surprised that McGill was ‘disappointed’ that hopes of a mini-league continuing the season ended up being rejected by the FA.
Three weeks ago the clubs players and staff were put on furlough, and considering what was to follow, this was hardly surprising. A week after the furlough decision was announced, the club’s accounts for the year to July 2020 were published, and they didn’t make for especially pretty reading, with the club having lost more than £1m for the year to that date, and being £10.4m in debt, all in all. Of course, these losses will likely be even higher for the year to July 2021, but these won’t be published until this time next year. The statement from the accountants accompanying them reads:
At the time of approving the financial statements, the directors have a reasonable expectation that the company has adequate resources available to continue in operational existence for the foreseeable future, although this ability is entirely dependent upon financial support being maintained by the parent company, JM Packaging Limited, who have provided an assurance funding would be made available for 12 months from the date on which these financial statements are signed (November 25, 2020).
So York City are surviving only due to the munificence of Jason McGill, who has agreed to continue to underwrite the club’s losses until at least November 2021. But the problems at York City go back much further than the outbreak of this pandemic. The club has lost its most significant asset and the last set of accounts, whilst not immediately calamitous, confirm that York remain in debt and completely dependent on an owner who has threatened to (and briefly did) walk out, should he not get his own way. McGill’s desire to get his club back to playing when he agreed to underwrite their losses at the end of last year, but that ship sailed over the first three months of this year.
But what sort of York City will emerge into the post-pandemic world? The match day experience of the fan will certainly be different. Whereas Bootham Crescent was only a short walk from the city centre, the new stadium is three and half miles away in Monks Cross, on the north-eastern outskirts of the city. There aren’t many car parking spaces – only 400 for an 8,000 capacity stadium – and the ground is adjacent to a retail park, so even getting there on a Saturday afternoon may prove to be something of an adventure. Once inside the ground, some – perhaps many – will be left indifferent by the decision to make the stadium all-seater.
Bootham Crescent may have been falling down in places by the time the club decamped, but it was home, and what supporters get from a ground isn’t always looks good in a glossy prospectus for a new-build, multi-purpose sporting arena. Perhaps York City will emerge from the ruins of the pandemic in a strong position, with thousands of people queuing to take their seats at a new stadium which points the way towards a new era that sees the club reclaim some of its former glories. Considering the club’s recent history, though, this isn’t quite guaranteed. This isn’t a situation in which a football club leaving for a new stadium normally finds itself. But then again, York City hasn’t been a ‘usual’ football club for quite a long time, now.