Raising a glass to Prescot: On the terraces with Prescot Cables (vs Mossley 1st Feb 2014)

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Prescot Cables have a long history spanning over a century. I could repeat it all to you now but Prescot themselves have covered their own pre and post war history with aplomb here. The club became run by a group formed from the supporters committee in 2005 and were transferred into a community interest company (CIC) in March 2009, going to amateur status in 2011 to secure the 130 years of history the club has. My focus is, as always, on the fan ownership part and this season they share the same league with Darlington and Bamber Bridge, both fan owned clubs very much in the playoff hunt.

On the pitch since 2009, the club has occupied the same division for the last five years. Prescot have witnessed many reformed clubs of former glories and others now higher on up visit Valerie Park since then. Chorley, AFC Fylde and Skelmersdale United who are now busy challenging FC United for promotion in the league above have graced Valerie Park. The Cables have also seen both Halifax and Chester, both on the way to being established Conference Premier clubs, face off against them.

However, success was to be for others and Prescot Cables have spent the majority of their time in the last five years in a no mans land, safe from relegation but never able to do much more than mid table. This season however Prescot find themselves fighting in a relegation battle, having only picked up three points in the five games before I went to see them. So I took the trip from Liverpool out to Prescot on what was turning into a miserable day weather wise, to go and tick them off my list.

I’d buggered off from Guildford (shudder) as quickly as possible after getting my exams out of the way to go and get this game done. I was also up in Merseyside to meet up with two mates and abuse our friendship by sleeping in their residence, without paying rent. One of them is Justin, previously mentioned in his role of undermining Shrewsbury Town FC here but the bloke I’d be going to watch the mighty Prescot with is Owen Witherow (@OwenWitherow14), who has an unhealthy obsession with Italian football. So if that’s your sort of thing you know where to find him.

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After arriving in Liverpool early Saturday morning I dumped my bags and prayed that Prescot would get their game on. As a back up, I’d planned to go meet Justin watch FC United play Marine and part of me feels bad that Owen has been denied a chance to experience the FC United atmosphere. However, I felt I would be making a journey to watch FC United in the playoffs come the seasons end so, with Prescot giving it the thumbs up on twitter, it was on the train to Prescot.

Our first sight after getting out of the train station was a boarded up pub, which looked like it had lying empty for far too long. It was safe to say it didn’t seem the most prosperous area but what staggers me more is that perfectly decent buildings are left to ruin, whilst we are constantly told the rest of the country has to be buried in concrete for housing… Never mind.

After making our way through the retail park, which is a better way of saying a plastic warehouse designed to destroy the soul of anyone who enters it, we climbed the steep hill at which Valerie Park sits atop. By this time the weather was cold but it hadn’t started bucketing it down… yet.

We entered the ground and after picking up a program which was packed with adverts from local businesses, a good sign of a club making the effort to get out and make links in the local area, we headed for the bar. The clubhouse itself is a very decent size and the club will need to start making the most of what is a sizeable place with a great opportunity for it to become a community hub.

Pints down, we made our way into the terrace that lie in front of Prescot Cables wonderful entrance gates and settled in for what would be my first football game since I saw Croydon Athletic play in miserable conditions way back in December.

It’s fair to say the harsh weather didn’t make for a particularly skilful game and nor did it make for a massive attendance. The club itself allows under 16’s to get in free but in this weather it’s hard to tempt out seasoned veterans, let alone young fans, although I did see one lad with his dad and others dotted around. Hopefully if a couple of them pick up the bug now, it’s a way to securing the future of Prescot Cables FC.

The pitch was just a mudbath before too long but Prescot were making most of the running and Connor McCarthy hit a shot from 20 yards out which had to be pushed over be the Mossley goalie. Ten minutes before half time it was Mossley who found themselves 1-0 up after Tom Pratt had got on the end of a through ball, rounded the oncoming Prescot goalie, to mean that Prescot headed in at half time needing a big turnaround second half.

The second half with the conditions worsening meant that the game was starting to resemble a re-enactment of the Christmas day truce, with a pitch decimated under the deluge of rain and cutting up quite badly. However, Prescot still huffed and puffed carving out a good opportunity but unfortunately their striker panicked and ballooned the ball high and wide.

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With ten minutes left the game started to get a little bit tasty but it wasn’t to be the Cables day. Another defeat and the relegation fears were no closer to being put to bed. Despite having arranged to speak to someone before the game and waiting in the bar no-one had made themselves known and we made a quick getaway to Liverpool in preparation for a night out with some of Britain finest drunks.

I have also emailed those at Prescot if they want to fill in the blanks of my knowledge but no reply, so you can’t say I didn’t try. There seems to be many good reasons why those at Prescot haven’t got back to me as they push ahead to make the town aware of the club in a variety of positive ways.

Firstly, at their home game against Ramsbottom United at the start of this month, Prescot pledged their support to eradicating the loan sharks who leech off the lives of others, especially in poorer parts of Britain where people on small incomes often find themselves turning to the worst sort of people.

It shows the club is continuing to make an effort to be more than just something to watch on a Saturday, it’s a serious statement about how the club sees themselves playing a positive role where they are based and I’m sure this will only grow in the future.

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The club also runs a plethora of junior football teams, providing opportunities to play football to the next generation. The ground itself has the protection of an ACV on it and who knows, with the FA finally starting to see sense on the 3G pitches, perhaps a community club like Prescot is in the perfect position to apply for funding and perhaps get a 3G pitch of their own?

As I write this, Prescot Cables are going to be making good use of their clubhouse by holding their fourth beer festival which will continue into tomorrow when they play another club who look like they will be passing through, Darlington FC.

Again, the club are exploiting fully the facilities that are available to them, perfectly timed to make sure what will hopefully be their biggest gate of the year entices more Darlington fans down for beer tomorrow and in doing so help support another fan owned club.

On the pitch Prescot aren’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, 3 points ahead with three games in hand but despite beating they who shall not be named the game after I’d gone to watch them, points are still hard to come by.

Perhaps there is a sense of fate about the club, destined to be a marking post for others as they move on their way up. They have said hello to fan owned Chester, tomorrow it will be Darlo for perhaps the last time and hopefully they can be greeting Runcorn Linnets next season as well. Whether that’s in the Evo-Stik Div One North or the impossibly-hard-to-get-out-of North West Counties Prem remains to be seen.

The club is facing challenges, with AFC Liverpool moving away which will hit the rent they receive and they still need to put some more points on the board to preserve their place in the Evo-Stik leagues. Despite this, there is still plenty to be positive about.

The club is run by people who are dedicated to not only ensuring the club survives but with it’s expansion of community activities and junior teams, thrives. Bar Darlington FC, no club has a huge attendance and if Prescot can continue to broaden revenue streams then there is no reason why they can’t challenge next year.

Overall, all non-league clubs will face the task of attracting new fans and staying relevant when the Premier League seems to consume all before it but the folks at Prescot can raise a pint tonight for doing their very best to ensure Prescot Cables Football Club has another 130 years ahead of it… Cheers.

If you’ve got nothing better to do, find me @eddyman00 or you can follow @PrescotCablesFC

Notes

All photos taken were by yours truly bar the badge courtesy of the club website and the final photo, which is promoting the campaign against loan sharks run by ‘one ark’, whose work in Knowsley can be found here. To report a loan shark you can click here.

 

Links

Prescot Cables website

Football Web Pages League Table

A pint or four with Karl Marginson (FC United Manager) 1st January 2014

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So where do you begin with FC United? If you are reading this then you probably already know the story of FC United and their formation. It’s a fan owned club who have generated more publicity and visits from media organisations as any other fan owned club in this country, perhaps only second to AFC Wimbledon.

I’m not going to link you to anything here, all you have to do is type in FC United into google (other search engines available) and you will be hit with a constant stream of reports, posts and articles all praising the club till the end of the earth and rightly so.

Both of these clubs can take responsibility for me embarking on this journey, with my visit to the last day drama at AFC Wimbledon to secure their Football League status followed a week later by an heart breaking play off final defeat for FC United the week later (here).

Perhaps those two results encapsulate in a nutshell the gulf between the two in league status. Since forming in 2002, AFC Wimbledon has managed five promotions rising from Combined Counties Premier all the way to the promised land of League 2. In this time they have had two playoff final wins, the most dramatic a penalty shootout win against Luton at the home of Manchester City in the 2010-11 season. Plus, of course, last season’s dramatic win to ensure survival in the Football league.

Contrast that with FC United, who playing their first ever season in 2005 and starting one step down from AFC Wimbledon by going into the North West Counties Div Two (which 1874 Northwich have also started their journey), managed three straight promotions.

Since then unfortunately, FC United have remained stuck in the Evo Stik Prem and in their last three seasons have seen promotion snatched away in playoff final defeats. Both AFC Wimbledon and FC United are Clubs that are run excellently, do phenomenal community work but it’s in those small moments which make a big difference. A penalty scored, a free kick missed and clubs can diverge so dramatically.

Anyway, the focus here is FC United and since I last went to watch them the club has seen what will perhaps mark a new era for the club and the lasting proof of the clubs longevity and success. As I write this, work will be going on in Moston to build FC United their own ground and there is finally a structure up at the ground (here).

The stand being used was previously the property of Northwich Victoria and 1874 Northwich fans can at least be proud that the place they used to stand and sing for their team will now be a massive part of the history of FC United.

So off the field the progress is real and FC United are on course to have somewhere they can truly call home by the start of next season but of course the question many have is: Which division will it be in?

The last five games before I headed up to watch them on New Year’s Day FC United had gained 10 points, losing to Aston United 2-1 who themselves are fighting for promotion.

So I headed up to watch FC United, still feeling rough and tired from last morning’s adventures in C21 to meet up with my mate Justin, pop on a train and watch FC United take on Trafford. Justin greatest claim to fame is setting up a petition to ask Shrewsbury Town FC to change their badge back to the famous loggerheads and stop using a crappy piece of clipart.

The club, my club, then put out a public statement saying that Justin (who was currently 17) was responsible for the clubs first promotion in the Football League  in 18 years being ‘curtailed and demeaned” here. All because he started a petition about the badge…

So I am of course delighted to be friends with someone who holds such extraordinary power and Justin can be followed on twitter @Salopian95 with the ‘Bring Back the Loggerheads’ campaign website here.

It is also a sad indictment of a club which has become such a sad shell of its former self. An identikit ground, with a clipart badge and a soulless atmosphere all for the price of £24 on the day. I can guarantee if my Stepdad had taken me to watch Shrewsbury for my first ever game at the New Meadow, I would have zero interest in football. I consider myself immensely lucky that I got to watch Town play at the Gay Meadow.

Anyway, back to New Year’s Day. As we headed on to the train at Salop we saw people who were also heading off to Manchester but they were going to watch the ‘other’ United. What saddos I thought, to be going to watch a team miles away you have no connection to in a soulless stadium, as I travelled even further to watch another team who wasn’t my own even further away, even lower down in the leagues.

Now we had not received any news the game was off and going from the twitter feed it seemed like it would be touch and go but we had already booked our train tickets so we took the chance. As we arrived in Manchester, I went to get some money out of the cashpoint but as we wanted to make sure we got to the ground I left it and got straight onto the Metro link to Bury. I’d remember to do it later…

It was as we were about to board the metro to Bury that we bumped into a bloke, who on hearing Justin go through the FC United song sheet had a chat to us. Unfortunately, he was off to watch the other team as he had got a cheap ticket to watch them and I wondered just how people could still support both. When I had previously been to watch FC United there wasn’t anyone who admitted to following the other United anymore and the youngsters were actually passionately against being associated with anyone else. For them, it was FC United or bust.

Perhaps though there are still many who still try and attend the other United and FC United is still some ‘little brother’ (a hideous phrase) but when that stadium goes up, it will be a real line in the sand for the unique identity of FC United. It would soon turn out however that the bloke we met off to Old Trafford would be feeling pleased about his decision.

It was on the metro link that doubts arose about whether game would be on, with the clubs Twitter page announcing a pitch inspection. As our phones were running low we spent the next half an hour praying for the game to be on. At this point Justin informed me about how he had twice travelled up to Bury, once on a Tuesday night, to have the game called off. The omens were not good.

We got off and it would be fair to say that Bury looked like a ghost town; the only places that were open were the bookies. Yes I can accept it was New Year’s Day but it really seemed to be a place with the life sucked out of it. The weirdest thing we saw was a bus going from Bury for Bolton Wanderers football ground… empty.

I have no idea why anyone from Bury would want to go and watch Bolton, a club in free fall and in massive amounts of debt with all the gruesome details covered by twohundredpercent here.  So we made the walk towards the ground still unsure if the game was on and into the Staff of Life, five minutes’ walk from the ground, for a pint and to wait on news.

Justin had been in this exact pub when his previous game had been called off and he was about to have the same experience when half way through my pint a man came over, asked if we were here for the FC United game… “Sorry lads, it’s just been called off.”

Needless to say, although we had started to expect it, I was devastated. Having dragged ourselves from Salop to Bury to watch what would have been a great game. New Years’ day versus Trafford, a massive atmosphere in the FC United stands and a big crowd. It was alright for Justin, being a student in Liverpool to go and watch FC United as and when but I was pretty much buggered. I would have to hope FC United made the playoffs and I could look forward to another 4:30 am start to watch them.

We tried to search for another game that we could make it to in time but despite our best efforts it looked hopeless and as I finished my pint we were about to head back to Shrewsbury, Justin wasn’t even up for drinking as he was ill. So all in all: a total disaster of a day.

However, I had already arranged to speak to Alan Hargrave who is a Board Member of FC United so I crossed my fingers and walked to the ground in the hope of catching someone. As we walked through the back entrance we bumped into Alan and it was at this moment the day finally got better.

As me and Justin were waiting around Karl Marginson came through the doors and I thought bugger it, I might as well say hello and tell him about my sad little journey this season. Karl to his credit said hello and gave me what was now a defunct match program before checking his phone for a game to go to that was still on.

After also meeting Andy Walsh, General Manager of FC United, both Andy and Karl were in conversation about a game to go to and at this point I piped up to ask if Karl fancy giving us a lift to watch Chorley vs AFC Fylde in the top of the table clash.

To his credit, Karl could’ve just told us to piss off but after realising that game was on he was talking it over with Andy. In the end they settled to go watch Salford City FC which was a bit easier to get to then Chorley.

“Fancy going to the game?” Karl asked us and since we had come all this way we thought we might as well go and watch a game of footy. Plus, from my point of view it would give me a chance to pick Karl Marginson’s brain about how this season was going in a relaxed environment. Bluntly, if the FC United Manager is going to give you a free lift to the game you aren’t going to say no are you?

So me, Justin and some German bloke who had come to watch FC United (made my journey look a little bit better to be honest) bundled into the Karl’s car and we set off down to Salford. Here’s our horrible mugs.

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We would be joined in the car by Garry Vaughan, Trafford Manager and so I started my attempt to have a chat with Karl without a) Stopping him from talking to Garry b) Pissing him off and c) Sounding like an arse kisser. I probably did two out of three.

Now, most of it snippets but the first impression you get when you meet Karl is he is just a normal bloke who happens to be a football manager. A former football league player turned fruit and veg man, he’s now full time at the club which enables him to devote a lot of time to joining in the clubs community work.

Whilst in the car, Karl let us in on a couple of his own views about formations “It’s not about a single formation but how the team plays in transition” and as it was around the time of the Malky Mackay episode at Cardiff, he was quick to point out some hypocrisy.

Brendon Rodgers had come out and said that these businessmen don’t understand football but instead of voicing support for Rodgers comments, Karl put it bluntly “Well why doesn’t Rodgers resign then?”

You could immediately tell that Karl has no time for what he sees as the hypocrisy of those taking part at football at the top of the game and I back him on this. If you are happy to take their money then why are you complaining? If Rodgers really believed in what he says then he’d manage at a club not run by ‘businessmen’ but he doesn’t, so it’s fair to call his comments hollow and meaningless.

We moved on to talk about money and FC United’s budget. Karl was quick to confirm what most of us knew in the car but those who only look at their attendances don’t, which is that FC United aren’t flush with cash.

Although, he did point out that one of his main cards to play in the deck when trying to sign players is the fact that at this level, there is no better club to play for in terms of atmosphere or support of the fans. It’s the difference between scoring a goal for FC United and having a thousand plus fans cheering and chanting your name or a couple of hundred for anybody else.

The most telling comment from Karl was as precise as it was short. “Any player that mentions money first, I put the phone down.” Again, that old school mentality that playing for the shirt and wanting to play for a big club should be worth more than a couple of extra quid.

There’s an argument that this is cutting your nose off to spite your face but it’s clear that Karl wants his players to have the same loyalty and commitment to the club that he himself shares but also that FC United have shown to him.

We arrived at the game and got out of the car. I went to my wallet to get out some notes but nothing was there, having not remembered to get any cash out earlier. I felt like a complete tit but Justin came to my rescue and I told him I’d pay him the fiver back later. What’s worse is I’d only be able to grab maybe one pint.

“Do you think they’ll take Visa at the turnstile?” I said jokingly, morphing immediately into the worse type of human being imaginable: A middle class student. “I’ll think they’ll tell you to fuck off” was Karl’s honest response.

Anyway, through the turnstiles we went and I wondered around to have a look at the ground. No sooner had I done that then me and Justin had lost where Karl was. Great I thought, there goes my meal ticket and only way back into town.

But I reasoned he’s a big bloke and you’ll be able to spot him if you see him so we headed into the club house, where we spotted him, at the bar. I grabbed myself what would have to be perhaps my only Guinness of the day until we got back to Shrewsbury and wondered over to see Andy Walsh.

I was keen not to be tripping over Karl’s toes because if you’ve now got a day off you probably want a pint or two in relative peace and not have some lanky 20 year old piss you off. Again to his credit, Karl properly introduced me to the Trafford Manager and what I was doing this season. It got better, Karl also brought Justin and me a pint so I was in my element:  In a warm clubhouse with my Guinness in hand and having a chat with the Trafford Manager and Karl. All that was missing was a dartboard.

I can’t remember everyone we met in the bar but everyone at Salford were decent people and it was a proper non-league game so hats off to all at Salford, who recently of course have had some ex-United players having some nice photo ops with rumours of a possible investment.

Anyway we headed outside and the players looked a little bit, shall we say, bleary eyed. Not all of them but plenty had clearly been out on the piss the night before. Again, Karl put it bluntly. “I can’t be too harsh on them, I did the same thing.” When he was a player of course…

Karl handed me a hot dog which had been brought to him by Garry Vaughan but had mustard on and he wasn’t a fan, so in his words he gave it to the student. It seemed appearing skint had advantages but it did mean I couldn’t buy Karl a pint back.

So we headed to sit in the art deco terrace that Salford have and me and Justin for the first half stood up at the back whilst I finished my hotdog. Unfortunately, the beams in the terrace made watching the game standing up not great so we parked ourselves on the benches in the terraces, near Karl but not next to him.

I figured that I could annoy him in the second half and Justin had come all the way out so I didn’t want to be like all those tossers I’ve met at political events, who speak to you and as soon as they see the person they actually wanted to speak to, bugger off.

The game itself, first half anyway, wasn’t great. I’ve become accustomed to watching bad football but this time it was just so frustrating. I was getting more and more annoyed at the predictability, the aimlessness of the balls. It would be passed back to a defender who would then hoof it forward, to the opposition goalie who would then hoof it up.

It got so bad that I started doing what I normally do when I watch bad football, which is comment on how shit it is. “Oh back to the goalie, I wonder where this is going then … hoof maybe?” The ball is hoofed down field. The defender has the ball. “Pass it to feet maybe, nah just fucking hoof it into the corner” The ball is hoofed into the corner. “There you go.”

My mood was not helped by Karl quite visibly pissing himself at how animated I was getting at a Evo Stik Div One match, which annoyed me even more, which led to Karl pissing himself even more and so it continued for the majority of the first half.

 Anyway, we headed back into the bar at half time and I found enough shrapnel, somehow, to buy myself a third pint. At half time I was told stories which still I find hard to believe. I can’t for the life of me remember the blokes name but he was a mate of Karl and Garry who if they were telling the truth, has some serious issues. The bloke was there with us and told us two stories from his time in the game.

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On one occasion, when he kept discovering a teammate was nicking his sandwiches before the game whilst on the team coach devised a clever plan where he would smear the contents of his baby’s nappy into the sandwiches so whoever nicked them would then be crunching on baby faeces. Nice.

The second, as a coach, was when deciding to sign a player. As a United fan, he took a player who he was interested in signing to a game to have a chat. They went in the opposition end of the ground and after watching a bit of the game then proceeded to reveal a United shirt and belt out a few songs. The player ran away and because he didn’t stay and show some bottle, he was never signed.

Like I said, it doesn’t sound likely and I take these stories with a pinch of salt, especially as Karl and Garry could think telling a few tall tales along with the aforementioned bloke in question to a gullible student would be quite amusing. But who comes up with the idea of smearing baby crap on sandwiches off the top of their head?

We headed out and had already missed a goal at the game. I had decided to try not to get angry although I had remembered that with Prescot Cables in the same division as the teams on show, I preferred a Salford win to keep Radcliffe Borough below Prescot.

This half I sat down to annoy Karl some more and we discussed the recently departed Jon Worsnop which won’t be repeated here and conversation moved onto various shenanigans on a FC United tour of Germany (again, not repeatable here). I also asked Karl whether he felt under more pressure next year with the new stadium and the expectation that the club now have to push on.

Karl was quick to acknowledge that the club had been fantastic to stick with him despite not going up the last three years. It says a lot about the club that all the statements about loyalty and commitment to the long term is backed up by how Karl has not joined a long list of managers, who are disposed of at the earliest opportunity.

Karl himself was quick to say that yes there would be more pressure next year but then stated that next year the club itself would be in a better financial position. The club will have a new ground and when I asked Justin whether it would be largely seated Karl looked at me as if to say ‘no chance’. “Holds 5,000, only a couple of seats, the rest will be terraces.” Karl said it with a grin and you can tell that again unlike others who harp on about the atmosphere of the fans then stay silent when the terraces are knocked down, Karl loves being at a club where the atmosphere is always fantastic.

Financially, the club will no longer be paying out dead money to Bury FC and all the sales of food & drinks in the ground can go straight back to the club.  Also, fewer matches will get called off with only one team using the pitch and the drainage will be top quality so less called off games plus the club will be in Manchester itself.

So yes, Karl admitted there was pressure but again reiterated that he will not bring in players who are looking for the money and still believed they could win the title. I’d asked about how losing in the play offs the last three times would affect them in the play offs this year but he wouldn’t have it. The aim was still the Title.

Now I was happy to tell him I didn’t think they really would catch up but I could tell wasn’t joking so I said I would buy him a crate of beer if they went up as Champions and we moved back to the new ground plus the community work. At which point, Karl told me about the project he’d been involved with in his time at FC United.

Karl had been working with kids from both our backgrounds, kids who hadn’t had the silver spoon upbringing and had fallen into drug and alcohol abuse. You could tell that Karl was really passionate about this work and took pride in being involved with it. He was quick to stress that the biggest benefit of the ground was the ability to expand this sort of work, have a base to work from to increase the coaching and community programs.

I know this is turning into a ‘Wow, isn’t Karl a great bloke?’ but I don’t care, because he is. He really lives his values and is therefore the best sort of old school left winger. Unlike the champagne socialism of Alex Ferguson, who proclaims himself to be left wing as he gladly took the Glazer shilling, Karl would call that sort of behaviour what it really is, the behaviour of a hypocrite.

  So, the game ended and had passed me by to be honest. The score ended three- all and we headed back to the bar where Karl got me one last pint before me and Justin headed off to find a bus that Karl ‘assured’ us would run (lying bastard). We managed to get a taxi before my phone died and headed back to Shrewsbury. A day which could’ve ended as a disaster ending up being a great day out in the company of Karl, Andy Walsh and a host of others. I have no idea what happen to the German…

So I know it’s been now over three months (which has flown by) but let’s try and sum up FC United progress since I’ve been there. In a word: Solid. It didn’t look likely to be so good after dropping 7 points in the three games after New Years’ day but since then FC United have won their last six games with a massive win over Chorley.

And Chorley? Well they’ve only picked up five points in their last five games and it looks like they are choking and with Skem also having problems it means if FC United win their game in hand, they will be only six points behind Chorley who they have to play again. It seems I shouldn’t have written Karl off so soon and will need to start ordering that crate.

Off the field of course the good news keeps coming. The new ground is taking shape nicely and although the club stated they need to average 2,000 each home game to stay on budget, with the run Margy has got the boys on, plus the good weather coming in that shouldn’t be too hard.

Well that’s about it, I didn’t ask Karl the five year plan question so I’ll have a stab. At this point I will say I know I’ve heard some people, say Radio Swampy, say ‘of course we want success but we’d be happy at this level.’ That’s maybe a little a very shortened version of his view but I say: Bollocks to that.

I know those following FC United now will do so through thick and thin but my interest is mainly in pushing fan ownership forward. To do this, we need fan owned clubs to succeed and that way more fans can have confidence this is the way forward. The more fan owned clubs that are winning strengthens our hand, we can’t afford clubs like FC United to underperform. Football is a zero sum game, we have to win and that means other clubs not fan owned have to lose, end of.

So my hope is that the new ground will of course mean that more people will come having being spared the trip out to Bury and potential for games to be called off, FC United break the 2,000 plus barrier as standard every week.

They are promoted this season so attendances are boosted further by playing a brand new set of clubs, plus away fans wanting to go visit FC United to sample the famous atmosphere. They get on a good winning run at the start of next season and the game against Stockport at FC United passes the 4,000 attendance mark. After a great first season they again suffer the disappointment of the playoffs before promotion to the Conference in the 2015/16 season. They join a growing list of fan owned clubs competing for promotion to the Football League.

That’s got to be the dream but we’re a long way from the end of this season. I really hope that Karl is able to get them up this season as I can’t think of a club that deserve it more. I was perhaps thinking that my FC United game would have to be another playoff final but I’ve managed to squeeze in another game which if Karl continues to keep FC United on this run may be a title decider.

Tuesday 8th April: FC United vs Chorley. I’ll see you there and if anyone sees Karl, tell him I owe him two pints.

For more bitter rambling you can follow @eddyman00

Notes

The photo of the badge, programme cover and photo of the four of us is included here with the kind permission of Andy Walsh of FC United.

 

Links

http://www.fc-utd.co.uk/

http://fcumforum.org.uk/FCForum/viewforum.php?f=2 (FC United forum, must register)

http://www.footballwebpages.co.uk/northprem

Refusing to be victims: On the Terraces with AFC Croydon Athletic (vs Dorking Saturday 21st December 2013.)

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So where do I begin with AFC Croydon Athletic? Well it is another example of a phoenix club having to be reformed from the ashes of the old but whereas other clubs went to the wall away from the public eye, the previous club found itself splashed across front and back pages in national newspapers.

I am referring of course to the (now defunct) ‘News of The World’ expose’ of the then Croydon Athletic owner Mazhar Majeed telling an undercover journo exactly which balls certain Pakistani ‘cricketers’ would bowl a no ball on. He had been boasting about how many cricket events he’d been fixing and you can see some of the video evidence here. Most disturbingly for the club, he stated that he only bought the club for money laundering purposes.

As always I am not going to go through the whole story as others have done it far better than I could and this whole series, as it were, is about what is happening now and in the future. It is that time again where I point you towards the always excellent twohundredpercent whose articles on Mazhar Majeed (here) and the whole sad story of Croydon Athletic can be found here.

Plus I have an interview with Paul Smith who is Chairman of AFC Croydon Athletic and he goes into a detail and depth from a fans eye view, meaning most of the murky story is far better told by him. What of course did happen was that after a long drawn out process (which is in bite sized form here), Croydon Athletic played their last ever game on December 3rd 2011.

It should be said that from what I’ve read and asked around there was little sympathy or perhaps less than we might expect on Croydon Athletics demise. This was largely down to the fact that Croydon Athletic had been promoted in 2009/10 season from the Ryman South to Ryman Prem on crowds which were not massive. Other teams felt after the scandal that they had been cheated out of a promotion, so solidarity was perhaps not forthcoming.

However despite the disaster of losing their club, the fans dusted themselves down and on the 6th February 2012 got together to start the process of forming a new club. They had to ground-share with Croydon FC with difficulties in getting their old ground back but they headed into the 2012/13 season with a clean slate, starting at Step 6 of the non-league pyramid in the Combined Counties Div One, two divisions below where the old club finished.

Last season probably went as well as the club could’ve hoped, a solid eighth place finish combined with the first ever silverware for the new club having won the Division One Cup 5-0 against Staines Lammas on the 6th May 2013 (Highlights here). So all in all a good season on the pitch but they still found themselves nomads, as the clubs old ground had the club house set on fire and destroyed by mindless vandals, which put back AFC Croydon’s plans to move home.

Before I went to see them the club had just played four games against all the teams that they were competing against for promotion and despite only being beaten once; they only gained three points out of those games, making them an outside bet to get promoted. So it was on a miserable and atrocious day that I made my way to Croydon for some ‘gloryhunting’ in the Combined Counties Division One.

As I arrived the weather was worsening and walking towards the ground I passed a pub packed with Palace fans who were at home to Newcastle, I was tempted to pop in for a pint but wanted to make sure I found the ground.

My biggest problem on the day was one of my trainers had a massive crack in and the other was also no longer as durable as it once had been. By the time I got to the ground my feet were absolutely soaked and to make matters worse, as I walked through the gates Paul and others were in discussion with the referee whether the game was to go ahead.

If the rain didn’t stop it’s monsoon like downpour then I would have been a drowning rat for nothing. I headed to the toilets and spent the next ten minutes ringing my socks and holding them under the drier just to give me at least a couple minutes respite from future trench foot. As I stepped out expecting it to still be bucketing down, the rain had stopped and I’d come out to a totally different day.

Confidence restored, I headed into the changing room/gym room/ cakes and tea room which was to take on another function as the interview room for me and Paul Smith. Paul, I don’t think will mind me saying, is a bit of a big bloke but doesn’t come across as aggressive at all and since the old clubs demise devotes a considerable amount of time to the football club.

So we sat down to begin and the first thing was to ask Paul to outline the demise of the old club. Paul was keen to stress the demise had its roots further back than one scandal.

“Back in 2005, Chairman Keith Tuckey who had been generous in supporting the club for a long time suddenly died. His funding dried up and the club had to find new ways of funding itself. Initially the club was sold to Roy Price, a local business man who took on the clubs debt and wiped it clean. It was only ever a short term position and he continued to look at new investment , so he owned the club fully and in the 07/08 season he sold the club to (the now infamous) Mazhar Majeed.”

So another story beginning with the drying up of an unsustainable business model, the wealthy benefactor, started the cycle of decline for the old club but initially as Paul would explain, Mazhar didn’t look like your typical villain.

“Mazhar took over a roughly 90% share in the club and Roy Price held onto 10%. So from being very much a community club, where there were a number of shareholders, the club was now effectively controlled in the hands of one owner.  Mazhar Majeed was a man of considerable wealth, he seemed to have plenty of ambition and was happy to put significant money into the team and eventually new management. From the fans point of view, everything seemed to be pretty straightforward.”

“He wasn’t interested in the club pursing any other commercial activity, he seemed to be happy to fund everything and clearly at that time could afford to do so. That enabled the club to climb up into the Premier of the Ryman League and things looked very good.”

Then for a lot of the supporters on that Sunday morning, they opened up the News of The World and there was Mazhar Majeed on the front page.

So what was Paul’s reaction when he read it? How did he feel about the whole situation? The fans had been told one thing by him and then read what he said about the club, namely that Mazhar had only bought the club for money laundering. Of this claim, Paul was sceptical.

 “Well I think what he said about the club was a load of nonsense, you couldn’t launder money through Croydon Athletic because we didn’t have sufficient incomings, so all he was doing was spending money on the club.  So I’m not convinced by that… Now whether he had the ultimate ambition to grow the club then use it for that end, who knows?”

“Essentially, it was a great shock and it put into question: Did the club have any sort of future at all? He had funded the club and it wasn’t a question that people didn’t know anything about him but what we didn’t know was this side to his activities. It came as a great shock but our concern was less for Mazhar Majeed and more for what did this mean for Croydon Athletic.”

Paul went on to explain the impact on the club after and the desperate attempts of Croydon Athletic supporters to keep the club alive until the end of the season.

“Well we played two more games under the Mazhar regime and we played on the Bank Holiday Monday, the day after the story broke and there was lots of… interest, obviously. We then played the Saturday at our ground and clearly there was a lot of discussion in the week.”

“It wasn’t the last game, at the time we thought it could be but there were those who decided it probably would be the last game. Myself and others said that no, we didn’t see this as the end. The team and management all left but we got in a team who had been involved with the club before, we negotiated with the league to give us a period of 11 days to get the club back on its feet or at least playing and it was less than 13 days later we played with a scratch side.”

“It was people who had been invited along the day before on the basis that people knew them or they came to training so we turned out a team. I have to say at 78 minutes it was still nil nil, we went on to lose 3-0 but we were very pleased. Of course that season was one of great difficulty, there was no money for the players or management. We were able to keep the club afloat on a day to day basis but we couldn’t deal with any debt that was from the Majeed regime.”

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So with a success of sorts achieved the club was in a position to look for a new owner and clear some of the debts left by a previous owner, an almost exact copy of the situation they had been in before Mazhar came to the club but just on a far worse scale.

And Mazhar Majeed?

He effectively emerged from a period of invisibility for a while and agreed we could do that.

The next owner was to be … Fodboldselskabet. They are the group which acted so disgracefully against the fans of Chester FC who had set up City Fans United and tried to do everything to prevent the fans from gaining control of the club. It could be said that Croydon Athletic fans should’ve known better but alas, beggars can’t be choosers.

What did Paul make of them?

“They were very naïve in their approach and of course they were in business with Mazhar Majeed rather than with the fans.”

As we know, that groups involvement ended leaving the club in no better position than when they had arrived and the success of Chester FC under the ownership of the fans tells us everything we need to know about this organisations (lack of) abilities.

However, we are moving ahead now to the plans of the fans to get a phoenix club up and running, as that of course was the reason I was sat in Croydon with trench foot. Croydon Athletic fans gathered themselves for what they realised would be the end.

“They (plans) were in motion before the old club failed and we knew it was going to fail. We’d had some discussions, we knew there was interest amongst the supporters, they wanted the club to live on and they didn’t want it to die. The practicalities of that were going to be tough but overall we were determined once the club failed.”

“The first issue was whether we were going to stay at the existing ground in Thornton Heath, the owners had stripped out the ground after the old club folded and took everything that was of value that wasn’t bolted down. Then they unscrewed anything that was bolted down and had taken that as well. The lease was significantly in arrears and although the council made an offer to relinquish the lease, effectively writing of any of the debt, they refused.”

So before they even begun, their old Keith Tuckey Stadium at Thornton Heath (named after their long term benefactor) was denied to them and they had suffered their first set back. Not disheartened, the fans found a solution.

“We’d spoke to the council and using this ground came up which we accepted. So we got an agreement that we would be playing here, we met with supporters and we felt that if we didn’t start playing any delay would see it die. We had our first AGM in May 2012 and we were delighted on May 10th we got confirmation form the FA they’d placed us in this division.”

 Six months after the old club had folded we knew we were back up and running playing football again in the 2012/13 season.

It was far from job done though as Paul would go onto explain, in fact you could say the real work had only just begun.

“That then starts the next challenge which was of course we have to fund it, secondly we didn’t have a team or manager so in May and June that was the priority but we were able to secure some generous donations from supporters and others. With fundraising we could meet that obligation we had to fund the club through the season as we don’t play here for nothing. Of course without a bar and a social club it’s very difficult to raise money.”

So with a ground in place and a team on the pitch, Paul summed up AFC Croydon Athletic first ever season and it’s small part in the fan owned history of British football.

 “On the 4th August 2012 we had our first game here and we felt that was quite a significant success. We flirted with the top half most of the season but our results against the teams at the top weren’t good enough but we were very comfortably placed and went on to win the cup which was a real bonus.”

Although as I’ve already mentioned there have been significant problems with getting back to the old ground Paul was confident they would be in by the start of next season. I asked him just how important that would be for the club. The first point was its massively improved opportunities for developing cash for the club.

“Currently, we gain no income out of this stadium or the clubhouse. Croydon FC has been very generous about us using the clubhouse and being able to use it for a couple of fundraisers, they obviously benefit from the bar but they’ve not charged us for that.”

The clubhouse at the Rams home is following the same design as the one burnt down whilst being brand new and Paul explained how the new clubhouse would benefit the club.

“We know it lends itself to being hired out for local events and our own fundraising, we know we’ll be able to maximise our own income from any fundraising we do. Then it opens up issues around sponsorship in a much more meaningful way then we can here, we can’t have perimeter sponsorship here and nor can Croydon FC even though there’s plenty of space. We can look at those opportunities and I think in Thornton Heath, in that area, we’ve got huge opportunities at our level.”

“We can also exploit the wider facilities with not just the stadium but we’ve got the adjacent fields which the council have confirmed we can have use of. That’s excellent for the development of our junior program.”

I have to say, I have very little hope for non-league football in London surviving but this just all sounded too good to be true. The club was heading home soon and already there seemed to be a clear plan about how to utilise the facilities that will soon be available to them. I didn’t know this until I started to write this up but Paul is a local councillor in Croydon.

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I haven’t put this to make it seem that there was some back handed deal and that’s why AFC Croydon Athletic have got the stadium back, though of course having someone who knows how to cut the bureaucracy is undoubtedly useful. No, I mention this to make a far deeper point.

It shows how a sharing of power and a greater sense of a common good allows far better outcomes then both organisations (Council & Club) operating aloof from each other. The council own the ground and it’s this fact which is the reason why AFC Croydon Athletic will have a home next season and why Hendon FC does not. However, the council will have goals of participation in sport that are far better delivered by countless local free-running organisations like AFC Croydon Athletic than the council could ever design in any office.

Paul announcing how AFC Croydon Athletic was now working in association with a thriving junior football team was a great example of this point.

“We’ve started a partnership with Wallington Wanderers Juniors FC so we’re already in partnership with a club who have previously played on the pitches adjacent to us, who are desperate to get back to playing on those pitches because it’s a nice facility and somewhere they can call home, rather than being spread out on the local parks. From our point of view we don’t have to start from scratch, we can come in with effectively a section of 8-9 teams. 

(Me) Is there going to be a clear link in terms of development with the club?

“Very much so, the intention is for it to be a partnership. It’s not us saying “Right you’re going to become our juniors and change your name” but the important thing for us is we can develop a sustainable junior program of football that’s associated with the club and we’re confident we can do that. Wanderers are very much on board with that and once we can develop geographically, so using our stadium and using our club house effectively, then I’ll feel they will be on board. One of their officials is a Director of AFC Croydon Athletic to reinforce that bond.”

So here we have it, two voluntary organisations working together to create not only a good result for both of them but for the wider community as a whole. They will both be in a position to strengthen and access grant funding, develop a skill base of coaches and a sense of vocation amongst the lads they can get grants to put youngsters through coaching courses themselves. Everyone benefits and they can do this by being supported but not subsidised nor controlled by the council.

It’s a model of mutual ownership and shared responsibility that should be spread across all forms of service provision, rather than council’s obsessions with either selling everything off or imposing reams of pointless targets to show they (the council) have obtained their goals. It relies on trusting that ordinary people are far more capable of running programs and services which create a common good than a University graduate in their office cocooned from reality ever could. Hopefully, the success that I’m sure AFC Croydon Athletic will have in their partnership will offer more proof of the superiority of the mutual model.

That doesn’t mean its all good news. I am not going to repeat my spiel about the demographic changes of London and their negative effects but Croydon itself didn’t give off the impression of being a happy place.

It was, at face value, incredibly segregated in the streets as I walked to the ground and there was no mixing or integrating of people between different colours, it manifested itself in the absurd site of white and black people not even using the same hairdressers but one for each of their separate groups.

The problems in Croydon are touched upon in BBC Three Tough Young Teachers (here) and as I discovered whilst in Croydon, the chronic shortage of school places placing a massive pressure on land availability.

With all this in mind, did Paul have confidence that they could build on the clubs now ageing and limited fan base in what is a demographically challenging situation, made harder that Sky Sports/ BT Sports have proliferated football from the sofa?

“Well I think there’s great potential and I think you have to be realistic. I know clubs have done the sort of ‘everyone comes in for nothing’ for a game where they get a big crowd and it looks attractive. It’s not something I’m ruling out but that’s not how you build a fan base, it’s to actually get people to come on a cold winter’s night rather than a sunny afternoon when they get in for nothing.”

“First thing is you’ve got to make sure you’re visible and known. We’ve worked quite hard that we’re known as a football club and that’s not easy when a neighbouring team has got into the Premiership because they dominate the local papers. Palace playing at home today will hit our attendances even more but what we can do is to make sure we’re known, increase our involvement with local business which is absolutely essential and you know I do think we’ll have something to offer.”

“The population in the vicinity of Mayfield road (the old stadium), if you took a half mile radius would be around 25,000 and I think what we can do is make sure they all know we’re there, that we’re the local team. If we have some success than people will see the facilities and what we’re offering and they’ll come back.”

So drawing this interview to a close, I asked Paul to imagine where AFC Croydon Athletic could be in 3 to 4 years’ time.

“We’ve got to look to establish ourselves at each level and it’s only at a firm foundation we can move forward. First instance, we can sustain Combined Counties Premier football, we’ve got the club to do that. We’re in the mix. Teams above us have to play each other, we’ve recently had 5 games against teams above.”

“So in 3 to 4 years’ time I’d say we’re in a position to be in Combined Premier, of course the ultimate aim would be to say we’re a club that had been in the Ryman league for a long time and that’s where we want to get back to.”

And with that Paul headed off to consult with the referee and I headed back out of the stadium to the clubhouse for what was a scandalously priced Carling. At something like £3.50 I nursed that pint before heading back into the stadium to watch the Rams fight for three points.

The ground itself is an incredibly bleak and desolate place even in the summer I was informed, the day I was there it looked like the kind of place you’d see in Children of Men. Devoid of any way of making an atmosphere and with the main stand miles away from the pitch, it didn’t surprise me that many of AFC Croydon Athletic members would not watch them until they were back at the old ground.

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 Nevertheless, on a bleak day in the middle of winter combined with Crystal Palace at home, there were a few hardy souls who had come to watch AFC Croydon Athletic and we kicked off. Now it’s safe to say the quality of the game was not of the top draw but still I was at least glad it was on. Ten minutes in, the ball was scrambled around the Dorking box before hitting the post and staying out.

It was Dorking who went into the lead with a ball in from the corner catching the wind and bouncing in the box with neither the goalie or defenders claiming it, the ball was bundled in for Dorking to make it one-nil. Before half time though the Rams were level as they put their own cross in, which hung against the wind and was headed in by Jordan Martin.  

Second half and the game was given its first moment of class when Gareth Williams, who has been on the books at Crystal Palace and Colchester in his career, proceeded to walk his way through the Dorking midfield before whipping in a wonderful goal from the edge of the box.

Williams again showed he was the best player on the pitch by some distance when he lofted a through ball over the Dorking defence with Daniel Penfold running through and burying the ball to make it 3-1 and the game looked like it was petering out. However, it what goes down as the worst Goalkeeping (or lack of) effort I have seen for a long time Dorking found themselves back in it.

In the 83rd minute a rather tame shot was hit by a Dorking player for the bottom right corner and the Rams goalkeeper proceeded to literally stand and watch it go in. He didn’t even move for it, I could’ve saved it and what’s worse I was sat by his Dad so I couldn’t lament how dreadful his goalkeeping was.

However, another goal befitting this level of football came in the 88th minute to kill the game as a Rams player crossed the ball in, caught the wind, which then floated over a back-peddling keeper to give Lewis Goddard the easiest tap in he will ever get. So closer than it should have been but 4-2 to AFC Croydon Athletic and us few brave souls who had come to watch it could at least be glad it wasn’t in vain.

So that was me done with another adventure in the bowels of non-league football in the English Pyramid and another fan owned club ticked off the list. Since I have been there AFC Croydon Athletic have won two more games, losing one and have had a dozen postponed by the weather. I have also bought a pair of proper boots and my feet are grateful for being warm again, they had to put up with cheap holey Patrick trainers for too long.

This season, the Rams have nine games left with the majority against those in the lower half and are still in with a chance of defending the Division One Cup they won last season. In the league, three go up and one of those places looks beyond AFC Croydon Athletic but they are definitely in the hunt.

So after Croydon Athletic was effectively destroyed by one man and his ability to control their destiny, by having total domination over the club and therefore the fans, we have a story of great hope.

It’s the hope that a fan owned AFC Croydon Athletic will be able to engage the community in a way the old club never did, the hope that they can have success on a sustainable level whilst growing their work off the field but perhaps most importantly, it’s the hope that the next time you read about them in the papers…

It’ll be nothing but good news. 

 

You can follow more football ramblings and other general stuff @eddyman00

The badge is used with the kind permission of AFC Croydon Athletic and all other photos were taken by yours truly.

 

Links- Old Club

Mazhar Majeed – Video

Mazhar Majeed – Twohundredpercent article

Croydon Athletic – Twohundredpercent

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F91jlAnt3CY

 

Links- New Club

AFC Croydon Website

Rams Army

Combined Counties Div One Table

Winter Blues- On the terraces with Dorchester FC (vs. Concord Rangers Sat 14th December)

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So it’s been almost two months since I went to see Dorchester Town FC and how they were getting on in their transition to community ownership. Apologies for the delay but unfortunately with Christmas and then January exams, football write ups have had to take a back seat but I will be posting regularly from here on out till the end of the season. Anyway here we go…

 Dorchester Town FC is playing at the highest level they have even been at. Yes, it’s a long way below the glamour of the Premiership but Step 2 represents an achievement for a club used to playing lower down and also with the Conference Premier effectively becoming League 3 of the Football League, it’s something to be proud of. Last season, under the management of Phil Simkin the club finished 8th just seven points behind Chelmsford City who got the last playoff spot.

Off the field, change was afoot and in May 2013 the Chairman Shaun Hearn transferred 27.5% of his shares to the Supporters Trust, making them both joint majority shareholders and working towards full community ownership. The playing budget was subsequently reduced down to £1,750 a week and the Manager came out and said what everyone knew, that it would be hard to build on their 8th place finish.

The club clearly had to cut its cloth and once again it is another example of a club unfortunately spending beyond its means. The difference here is there was no hostile takeover but an owner recognising the situation and taking steps to ensure the long terms clubs future, by working with the Trust. For this, Shaun Hearn should be applauded.

It’s never something that people really want to do but as we have seen so many times, if football clubs aren’t run on a long term sustainable basis then they will crash and burn. So this season with the budget set, the club headed into the new season and into the unknown.

However, in one of the more troubling aspects of this story there were further budget cuts after the club were knocked out of the FA Cup. After losing 1-0 to Shortwood United (who would go on all the way to a 1st round home time vs Port Vale) in the Second Qualifying round on the 28th September, the club announced further budget cuts the very next week. The budget was to come down to £1,300 and that meant all players were on the transfer list.

A clearly frustrated manager went on non-league show to talk about the financial position of the club, saying he didn’t know if he was going to be able to pay players and stated he may even have to name himself as a sub (Here).

On the same Non-League Show, Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct went on to defend the club and assure the listeners that finances were stable. After I spoke to him via Twitter he asked me if I wanted to take it outside (well off twitter and onto the phone). We had a slight disagreement for reasons I will outline below.

 My big issue with this, in fact my outright opposition is the reason the budget cuts had to be made again. The reason given in a statement (here in the Dorset Echo) by the club was that the budget had been ‘front loaded’ to allow the ‘best possible chance of FA Cup and early league success’.

‘Front loading’ is an interesting term for what can be called something else… gambling. In this case gambling money that you don’t have. There is nothing new about this practise but I despise it. Firstly, no club has a divine right to win a game of football and it’s incredibly reckless to bank on money which, if you don’t win (and they didn’t) you are desperately trying to find. This is how clubs go bust.

Secondly, its goes against all the principles of sustainability that fan owned clubs (in this case a club moving to fan ownership) are supposed to stand for. Did AFC Rushden bank on cup money? No. Do FC United? No. Do Runcorn Linnets, Merthyr, and Chester bank on money? No they don’t. Cup money should always been seen as a bonus, never a god given right. They don’t bank for a run because it’s not sustainable as you will have a year, maybe years, where there is no cup run and what happens then?

You end up like Macclesfield Town, who two seasons ago reached the FA Cup 2nd Round before being knocked out by Bolton, last season they got to the 4th Round by knocking out Cardiff in the 3rd before losing to Wigan. They would have made a very good sum of money from the last three FA Cup runs, at least £100,000 last season and will have done far better than expected.

This season? Yet again they had to win in the FA Cup to survive till the end of the season. They won in the 4th Round Qualifying vs Vauxhall Motors, battered Swindon 4-0 in the first round which they ‘had’ to win. Then it was another must win game in the second round against Brackley which they just squeaked past 3-2. Third round they got a 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday with the Manager Andy Scott saying he had to hold on to the draw for the cash.

So you’d think they are finally in the clear right, healthy financially? Well after all these heroics over all these seasons it still led to Efe Sodje (Assistant Manager at Macclesfield) going on the Non-league Show and saying it’s given them enough money… for the next couple of months. The miracle runs will end soon and it’s done them no good, except delay the inevitable.

The underlying problems weren’t solved and in all honesty they should have gone bust years ago. So relying on Cups runs is an inherently flawed model as it is means not giving your club a long term future.

Finally, it’s just dishonest. The players at this level aren’t millionaires and to be told a couple of months through the season by the way you may be out of a job next week, when they would have believed that the budget was set for the season, is just a poor way to treat people.

It immediately puts the club on the back foot instead of being tough enough and honest enough so that the Manager, all players but most importantly fans know just how tough the season will be and to be able to look forward to FA Cup games, as opposed to needing them for cash.

Oh and Dorchester got to Round Two of the FA Cup last year but are still in debt so I would’ve thought that they would already know Cup runs are no substitute for a sustainable business model but there you go.

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Right, now I’ve got that off my chest we can carry on. By the time I went to visit the club, they had moved on 24 year old Neil Martin to high flying Poole Town of the Southern Prem and the budget was now at a ‘level the club can afford’ (Statement here). All players were off the transfer list and with no budget cuts coming for the remainder of the season everyone at the club could finally concentrate on climbing up the league. In this time, former Chairman Shaun Hearn resigned from the clubs Board which was seen as a sign that Mr Hearn was perhaps losing some faith in the decision he had made.

So, with all that behind them I went on a trip to Dorchester to see if the Chairman Neal Butterworth’s belief that Dorchester ‘belonged in the Conference South’ would get a boost against Concord Rangers.

Heading down to Dorchester on the train, I got there early and it was a short walk to the ground from the station with the weather cold but alright. I got into ground and managed to grab a pint of Guinness for guess how much… £3.50? No. £3.00? No. Ok I’ll tell you, £2.00 for a pint of Guinness. I nearly died of shock when the girl behind the bar told me. All pints were £2 before 2pm.

The reason for this deal is to try and get people into the club house before the game to start to make more use of the facilities at the ground and the clubhouse itself is a wonderful size, very homely as it’s adorned with memorabilia. With two full screen T.V’s, people can come in and watch the rubbish in the Premier League before going to watch the mighty Dorchester.

As I went to grab a chair, Dave Ring who was to be my victim for the next twenty minutes popped up and we headed out of the club door into the main stand to conduct the interview. The players were already warming up and I have to say I was surprised by just how good the ground was in terms of its maintenance and infrastructure. It’s a solid base to build from when they sort out the financial problems they have.

I asked Dave Ring, a Director of Dorchester Town FC and Trust member, to outline where the Trust had come from and how it was now partly running the club. He laid out the long road the Trust had come down.

“The Trust got involved in buying shares in 2008 when the majority shares were transferred to a property developer, alarm bells started ringing and that’s when we decided to set up Dorchester Town ST.”

“We’re very close to the current Chairman at the time Shaun Hearn; he was quite keen that the football club goes in the direction of more community ownership so we started talking to Shaun about how we would achieve this. Shaun joined the Trust board and we came to an agreement where Shaun would transfer half of his majority share to the football club to the Trust. So we both ended up owning 27.5% of shares.”

The case of Dorchester offers a different example of moving to community ownership. Instead of being a club which broke away from the tyranny of the old (1874 Northwich) or a phoenix rising from the ashes (Chester FC), this was a case of a Chairman bringing the Trust onto the board.

So, why did Dave think that Shaun Hearn had made this offer?

“Shaun still wants to be involved with the football club but the model meant that he couldn’t afford to sustain it at that particular level. What he needed was the backing of the whole community and he felt the only way he could get that backing was by involving the Trust so we all come together to push the club towards community ownership.”

“There’s no doubt that Shaun was putting money in to the club and the club was running at an artificially high level. One other things or disadvantages where someone does put money into a football club, when that runs out, the clubs tends to be in a bit of trouble and unfortunately at the end of last season, for whatever reason, the money run out.”

Dave laid out where the money was going and the gap between what was being spent and revenue streams coming in.

“The club was burdened with contracted players on high wages, the club didn’t have a lot of commercial sponsorship due to the fact football clubs run by benefactors don’t need a lot because there’s someone to  put money against the losses. Trouble is when the money runs out… you end up on the edge of a cliff and start to fall off.”

Dave moved onto explain the budget decisions this year as a club moving towards community ownership and mention what should be a banned phrase, see if you can spot it.

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“Well when we looked at the options as regards to community ownership, obviously when you build a business plan you look at projections if what the likely income is going to be and you set the budget accordingly. You can basically ‘front load’ the budget to try, if you like, to win cup games to bring in revenue. That didn’t happen, therefore the revenue that we assumed we were going to get, didn’t come in. Then we had to cut the budget accordingly and we had no option but to offload a few of the most expensive players to get a manageable level.”

I asked Dave to clarify what manageable meant and I got a philosophical rather than a concrete answer but it was all the more true as a result.

The club currently is run at a sustainable level, which means its run at the level the local community is prepared to buy into.

It was at this point I went into a repetition on my attack on ‘front loading’. Did Dave feel that the situation could’ve been managed differently or if he could go back to start of season would state: “This is our budget and if we win we’ll increase it” as oppose to being in a position where the club had to backtrack and let players go?

“In hindsight we can do many things but one of the problems the Trust had when it got involved was… when most Trusts get involved with football clubs, it’s because of a crisis situation. Usually, it’s the end of a crisis situation that the Trusts take over clubs and they start from bottom and work their way up.”

“Whereas in our situation, it’s completely unique and we’ve taken on a club which is perceived to be run well. Therefore, when the Trust got involved there were certain players on certain wages that were contracted that we had to live with. What we didn’t want to do was in the first few weeks of involvement was just slash the playing budget and disrupt it, we wanted it to be managed.”

Now I can understand the logic of a gradual transition as it were and I can appreciate the difficulty that the Trust has got. Clubs like 1874 start again and they get that virtuous circle: that positive vibe. Whereas, when they were put in a situation where instead of being able to build attendances, start winning games etc., the Trust actually were in a position where they did need to cut the budget. Without trying to put words into Dave’s mouth, did he feel that the Trust was given rope to hang yourself?

“Absolutely. When we first got involved we knew we were on a hiding to nothing. The only way DTFC could go was down and when I say down I don’t mean down through the league.  I mean it would be a struggle because the money is not there to pay for the running costs of the club when the trust got involved with the management.”

“What we’ve had to do is gradually get the club into a position where it has to start living within its means. We had no choice; there is no one out there who is prepared to throw money at it. We could’ve opted not to do that, we could’ve opted to walk away but if we did do that I honestly believe we could’ve lost our football club.”

It’s the stereotype about fans, that they always want money to be spent. Now, I’m becoming to accept this is perhaps true in a lot of cases and I lament the amazing double standard of fans who demand new ownership but only just to spend more money, basically a version of “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

At fan owned clubs however that’s not true but the Trust came in at a tough situation so I can sort of understand the front loading,  but I asked Dave that wouldn’t it have been better if you’d just been honest and said “at the start this is what’s going to happen: We’ve got to cut. If we win games, then we’ll put money into the budget.” That way the management know, the players know that they’ve got to win games to earn the right to have more money?

Dave seemed slightly frustrated with the question and I did regret my use of the word honest after his answer.

I don’t think we deliberately set out to deceive anybody.

 “When we came in, everybody knew that the money wasn’t out there anymore and the club would have to cut back. Everyone knew the club would have to cut its cloth. It’s just a shame that when it did happen, people weren’t happy about it.”

“But now there is some really good work that is going on, there is some really good management going on at the football club now and everything’s being to settle down. We fell off the cliff and we’re beginning to work our way back up again.”

With the front loading issue and difficulties exhausted, I moved onto the positives. One: Dorchester Town still have the ground and that’s not going anywhere. Now they are at break even, everyone’s been taken off the transfer list. Did Dave feel now that the club is in a situation where it’s survival this season and then we go from there?

“Everyone involved with the club and the Trust is in no doubt that everyone is working really hard to ensure we stay in this league. No one wants relegation when we took on the management of the football club, the club had quite a lot of debt, a lot of director debt, director loans, there were invoices which needed paying urgently, HMRC, Npower, Carlsberg.”

(Me): The world and his wife by the sounds of it. What were attendances last year and what were they roughly?

“To be honest the attendances haven’t dropped a lot. Attendances, barring the Plymouth cup game, were around 450.”

This season, Dorchester has a home attendance of 398 on average so it’s not been a massive drop off. I asked Dave why he thought the club hadn’t seen a dramatic drop in attendances.

People are beginning to understand what we are trying to do; they are being to understand sustainability is not such a bad idea.

Of course, the club is by no means resting on its laurels in how it is trying to engage the wider community and Dave outline some of the very positive steps.

“The actually people we’ve brought in is a good blend. We’ve been speaking to the local council as regards to sponsorship; we’ve been speaking to the local college as regards to coaching courses and working with each other, forming a partnership. And we’ve been talking to the Duchy of Cornwall who owns the stadium we pay a peppercorn rent to upgrade facilities. We’re out in the community in the schools.”

“Also, because we are moving towards community ownership we’ve actually got Dorchester Town Youth on board. They have 34 youth teams, nearly 500 kids that play football and they are partners of the football club now and it’s the first time in their history that they feel connected and part of the club.”

This does represent a massive step forward for the club and since I have been there the club has put forward proposals to turn the bar into a community facility which can be used throughout the year and not just match days. It’s all these activities which will make the club something which really is rooted in Dorchester, making it about something greater than 90 minutes a week.

Dave summed it up “It’s about engaging and making partnerships with all local business, the local authority and supporters.”

We moved onto the debt and whether attempts to pay it off were still on course.

“Yep, we’re on course to make this club debt free by the end of January 2014. It’s negotiating down director loans, paying down critical debt. Dorchester Town FC is probably in the best position financially it’s been in for a long time.”

I asked Dave to envision where he felt this club could be in three years’ time.

“Well the minimum is to play in the Conference South, that’s where we want to be in 3 years’ time. Sustainability doesn’t mean a lack of ambition. Providing we can get the community buying in, community engagement etc, we’re in no doubt that we will be fighting for promotion to the Conference. I don’t see why we can’t achieve that.”

It’s my own belief that there will be other clubs which have to cut their cloth in the coming years and some, like Hinckley, have had to start completely from scratch. So I said to Dave that it was refreshing to see a club making the tough choices now. At this point, Dave was quick to praise Shaun Hearn for his foresight.

“Well I have to take my hat off to the previous chairman Shaun Hearn. What he has done is secured the long term future of this club, he really has. He could’ve hung on like so many do, have got to the point of no return where the debts were unmanageable and possibly liquidation. Fair play to Shaun, he stopped that and we’re going to keep this sustainable.”

Dave last words encapsulated everything owners should believe in.

“We’ve got a duty of care, not just to the football club but to the whole community and we can ensure that with our and Shaun involvement we are working to make sure this club is in the best place it can possibly be in.”

With that, I asked Dave what he thought the score would be (2-0 Dorchester) and shook hands to head back inside and finish my pint. After finishing that and watching a bit of the Arsenal vs City game that was on the telly, I headed back out to see if Dorchester could find a result which would massively boost their survival chances.

The thing that did hit me was how empty the ground looked. I wasn’t expecting it to be packed but all the Dorch support seemed to be in clusters and not in a big enough groups to make an atmosphere. Most had chosen to sit down so slightly despondently I headed over to get some photos before kick-off. It was at this point I bumped into some Concord Rangers fans that had travelled on the team coach to support their club. After chatting to them I went to watch the game with them and got ready for kick off.

Chips, Coke and Concord.

Chips, Coke and Concord.

The highlights are here if you want to skip past some rambling commentary of the game… No? Alright then.

About ten of us were behind the goal and one was in an incredible dapper suit and shiny shoes which certainly not suitable for an open terrace in the middle of December but there you go. Despite some huffing and puffing from Concord who largely dominated play, having one cleared off the line, the weather wasn’t making for a top quality game.

More interesting was the Concord fans taken the piss out of a Dorch player, and to their glee he was to spoon several clearances which of course made it worse for him, the poor lad. It was also to be my first interaction with some ‘dedicated’ stewards on the day.

I had been taken a photo and five minutes later a steward came across asking who had been taken photos. I said me and he pointed out flash photos were prohibited and went back to his spot… by the half way line. He had come all the way to state that when the photo was taken at a goal kick. Like I said, dedicated.

Bar a good nature conversation with the Dorchester goalkeeper, it was nil nil at half time and we trudged our way over to the terrace by the burger stall. I grabbed a burger and chips and went to stand with the Rangers fans once again.

This time, the stewards came for someone else. A bloke was having a crafty fag with his coffee on the far side of our stand and he had purposely moved away so no one else was near him. A steward then came over and asked him to put it out. Now, I know he was technically wrong to have a fag but it was such a pedantic thing to do.

I mean, just say you thought it was the blokes coffee where the hot air was coming from. The person refuses to put it out saying he was just going to finish it. Again this carried on until the steward called over someone else. At this point it’s just been blown out of all proportion.

“You know that bloke” said one of the Concord fans. “Well he’s our Chairman.” The ridiculous situation continued and it culminated in the Chairman of Concord being ejected for having a fag and the best moment was when the steward tells him he should put it out to not hurt other fans.

Now none of us cared, he was nowhere near us and no one was anywhere near him but in the funniest thing I’d seen for a while he clears his throat and states “What, you mean all these fans?” and turns around to face the row of empty terraces all around him.

We all pissed ourselves, it was incredibly funny and the Chairman was ejected which made the atmosphere far more touchy then it should have been. While all this had been going on a football game was being played.

Dorchester went ahead in the 63rd minute with the linesman judging that Josh Wakefield’s shot had crossed the line, to the general protests of the Concord players. Five minutes later and only two minutes after Concord had their Chairman ejected a long ball was played forward, flicked on and Steve Cawley produced an audacious lob to level it up at one all in the 68th minute.

Concord barely had time to celebrate as Dorchester got the ball, raced into the Concord half and it was pulled back to Josh Wakefield who conjured up a disgustingly good shot which curled its way into the top right hand corner to put Dorchester two- one up and on for a vital win.

For the rest of the game it was Concord who were in control, ball after ball came into the box with the Dorchester Town keeper producing a commanding display to win the aerial balls and produced scrambling saves, diving in at the feet of several players when it looked like he would come out with suds imprinted on his face, to keep Dorchester in the lead.

Unfortunately, Dorchester conceded a free kick in the ninety first minute and as the ball swung in James White got his foot at head height and the ball found its way beyond the despairing dive of the Dorchester keeper into the top corner.

Concord could have gone onto win it as well but for another string of saves by what was now an incredibly busy Dorchester keeper who again flew in at the feet to make a big save for his team. Seven minutes of injury time was played but no more goals and the game finished, probably fairly, two apiece.

Yes Dorchester could say the equalizer was a foul which it probably was but the defender ducked out of it. When you are down at the bottom you need to be prepared to put your head where it hurts, take the pain but get the win. If the defender had displayed the same attitude as his goalie in the challenge, Dorchester would have won. Simple as that.

I was going to grab another drink but the amount of injury time meant it was a dash to the train station after some quick farewells to the Dorchester keeper, who was a class act throughout the game, the Concord fans and Dave to get on my train back to Guildford. It had been a great second half, the bar was great and it was a good day out all round really.

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Since I’ve been to Dorchester results haven’t improved. They have managed just three points from their seven games since I went along and are rooted to the bottom of the league, four points from safety but having played far more games than those around them.

So, it does indeed look like this season will be one of disappointment and that yes, Dorchester will probably go down. I don’t want to predict too early as Enfield Town who I had predicted for the drop have just won two in a row and now look like they can stay up. It only takes a small run of form and the picture changes but I don’t think Dorchester will climb out of this.

However I am not worried about Dorchester’s future at all and here’s why. Firstly, other clubs are going to have to cut in the future and football as a sport, at all levels, needs to realise it must live within its’ means. I won’t name them all because there are far too many close on the brink but Ebbsfleet, Farnborough and most dramatically Hinckley should give all fans pause for thought.

Chelmsford in your own league this year have had to slash away after making the playoffs last year and they are only six points off the drop having played far more games than those below. Take the pain now instead of not having a club to support.

Secondly, let’s say the club goes down. Well if you look at the attendances the club is getting now and compared them with the Southern League, Dorchester will have an attendance in the top four easily. Plus winning teams will get a boost in attendances, you can get that positive vibe around the club.

Second, you are clearing or have I should say cleared the debt which means next year you can start from a completely fresh slate. So many clubs who go down find themselves in dire finiancial straights but that won’t be the case with you. We are still coming out of a recession so local businesses may have more cash to put into a club who would be winning games weekly in the Southern Prem.

Finally, the club is going to become greater than the 11 players on a Saturday. It’s going to have a thriving youth section, Dorchester FC is building links with local colleges, schools and working with the local authority to improve the whole of Dorchester. It’s going to be a club that everyone can feel involved and extremely proud of.

In conclusion then, yes I think you are going down Dorch fans BUT… Next season will be a fresh start for the club in so many ways. I am predicting a club which rediscovers how to win games, is right at the top of the table and with higher attendances coming into the club. New businesses will want to get involved and the community work will expand greatly.

I think you will come straight back up and in a good position to challenge for the Conference South playoffs over the next couple of years as others veer towards administration and instability. I am so confident that next year you will come back up I am going to bet on it at the start of next year. The difference here though and it’s a lesson that Dorchester FC have had to learn the hard way is…

I am only gambling with money that I can afford.

Notes

The club badge comes courtesy of Dorchester Town FC. All other photos were taken by yours truly. You can follow more fan owned related outbursts by me @eddyman00

 

Links

Dorchester FC Website

Dorchester Forum

http://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/sport/localsport/10454401.Simkin_s_vow_to_Dorchester_fans/?commentSort=score

http://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/sport/10712029.MAGPIES__Simkin_forced_to_put_players_on_transfer_list/?ref=ar

http://www.dorsetecho.co.uk/sport/10709743.MAGPIES__Dorchester_forced_to_make_cuts/

Dorchester Highlights- Youtube

Football Web Pages – Conference South

Half Season Review and Predictions

Alright, we are bang half way through if not further for some clubs this football season. So it’s a quick fly threw of all the fan owned clubs in England and Wales, how they have got on so far and my (what will be terrible) predictions for the end of this season. We are going from down at the bottom of the Pyramid to as high up as League 2. I am not putting them in alphabetical order because this has taken long enough. All mistakes are down to me and apology for the inevitable typo. Off we go then.

1874 Northwich – North West Counties Div 1 – Step 6:

Since I went to see them in the summer for their first ever game, they have wasted no time cracking on in their first ever season. Boasting an average attendance of 333 for the level they’re at is a fantastic achievement and as they play away from Northwich, this is all the more reason for those involved to be proud of the success.

They are currently 2nd occupying the last promotion spot with four other clubs around them right in the hunt to go up as well. They are in for a fantastic end of the season if they can stay in the race and finally the long suffering fans of this team, free of Jim Rushe, can just enjoy the football. Off the pitch, the community work continues but hopefully plans are in place to get back into Northwich ASAP and then they can really fly.

Prediction: Promotion and party at Antony Rodgers (All invited.)

AFC Croydon Athletic – Combined Counties Div 1- Step 6:

The most recent club I have been to and as I don’t want to spoil the write up I shall not put much. Short story is this is another fantastic phoenix team after the previous club was given a death sentence related to the spot fixing scandal in Pakistan cricket and lumbered on until its death.

Last year was their first season and they won the League Cup, are now getting ready to head home from playing at an athletics track to their previous home at the Keith Tuckey Stadium at the start of next season, provided yobs stop setting fire to it. On the pitch they are in the hunt for promotion in 5th with three going up and having got the toughest games in the league out of the way, this season they look well placed to have a chance of going up.

So they are going back home to a proper footy ground, building community links and have a great base to push on up the league at a sustainable basis, so everyone at that club needs to take a bow.

Prediction: Head says top five, fanatic says Promotion in 3rd Place. So Promotion.

Saffron Walden Town FC – Eastern Counties Football League Div One- Step 6:

I had never heard of this club before this season but it’s one I am very much looking forward to seeing. The club pulled out of the league in 2011-12 due to not being able to guarantee having the money in place to survive. They were back last season as a fan owned club in July 2012. After a solid year last season they seem to be going from strength to strength off the pitch. A Clubhouse generating income for the club and averaging around 150 for home league games is a good base to build from. On the pitch, they lie in 6th and with plenty of clubs around them with games on hand this could mean they drop further. Still, a good second half of the season and who knows but they will be one to watch next season.

Prediction: Top half.

Newport (Isle of Wight) FC – Wessex League Prem – Step 5

Onto the Step 5 clubs then and onto Newport, who I have no idea how I am going to get to this season, being on (as the name suggests) the Isle of Wight. Fan Owned since 2008 and have plied their trade in the Wessex Prem since the 2008 season. Last year they came 6th and this year are third but as a Step 5 league only offering one promotion place it makes it very difficult for any club running sustainably to go up (You’d be amazed at some of the money washing around clubs at that level).

Still they look like they will improve on last year’s finish and with Sholing, who only came down from the league above for ‘financial reasons’,  looking like winning the league this year (ahead of Newport IOW by 6 points and with four games in hand) then it looks like a battle for second place for the Port this season.

Prediction: Top 3

AFC Rushden & Diamonds- United Counties League Prem- Step 5

Well it’s been a great year for the Diamonds and it can still get a hell of a lot better. A memorable cup run in the FA Cup where they saw off Cambridge City of the Southern Prem (two levels above them & who are in the playoffs of their league), so a great achievement. 815 people saw them that day before they were knocked out by Dover away.

Off the pitch, the academy is in place and they seem to have solid foundations by helping their landlords Wellingborough make considerable grounds improvements. They have an average attendance well over 400 and not playing in Rushden makes it difficult. On the pitch, they are 13 points off money bags Spalding (despite being the only team to beat Spalding all season) but look well placed to be best of the rest.

More excitingly is another cup run in the FA Vase. They are only four rounds away from Wembley and if they can avoid the Northern giants of Spennymoor  Town and co, then they have every chance. It shows have far they have come with this only being their second season and they look a good shout to go up next year. When they get home to Rushden, they are really going to fly.

Prediction: Top 3 and Wembley.

Fisher FC-  Southern Counties East League- Step 5

Well the Fish have had some tough times lately and regular readers will know my hope of non-league London sides surviving is very small. Hemmed in by property developers on all sides, in communities where the traditional football fan are leaving seemingly as fast as they can and if you are homeless football club then the writing appears to be on the wall.

All the more amazing then that Fisher FC, having been formed in 2009 after the old club went bust and subsequently homeless, have managed to put themselves in a position where they could be going home to Bermondsey.

The club needs to raise a big chunk of money (£250,000) to move into their new home after they have a supportive council who approved planning permission and a property developer who have put aside a space for the club to exist.

If successful, it will be a brand new 3G surface allowing the club to generate income, a base to reach out to the community and build a fan base. With this, they will get into a spiral of success. If that get that stadium, it will be a testament to the heroic work of people to keep their club alive and thrive. I should note they have been blessed with a supportive council and a property developer who aren’t wankers. So hats off to them.

This season, they started badly but have pulled clear and with only one going down they look safe. All that really matters though, is getting that new ground.

Prediction: Safe, new ground by 2015.

AFC Liverpool – North West Counties Prem – Step 5

A club which I remain most sceptical of and I am just not sure of what the reason for existence is. Described as Liverpool FC’s ‘little brother’, they wish to be a friend of the main club but are against high ticket prices. Against millionaire owners but not Liverpool’s it seems. FC United this certainly isn’t, as they have not and have no intention of carving out a unique identity. They currently play at Prescot Cables home, another fan owned club.

They are currently 5th in the North West Counties Prem and are some way off the pace in a very competitive league.

Prediction: Top 8

Runcorn Linnets – North West Counties Prem – Step 5

Now this club is the real deal. Having been to see them earlier this season where they won a memorable game in a great FA Cup run, the Linnets have shown no signs of slowing down. They have a great stadium, building and strengthening community coaching plus a women’s team. With strong attendances for their level, it’s a club that are a blueprint for anyone else wanting to do things the right way.

On the pitch, Manager Joey Dunn has given them every chance to achieve their goal of going up. With Norton and a resurgent Glossop North End the two other clubs who look like being the main threat, they will have to stay strong till the end to achieve promotion to the league that the ‘old’ club finished in when they ceased to exist.

Prediction: Promotion for Joey Dunns ‘YellowGreenArmy’

Darlington FC- Evostik Div One North – Step 4

After playing dire when I went to watch them, Darlo have started to fly in the league and even managed to beat fan owned Bamber Bridge, who were on an 11 game unbeaten run in the league. Off the pitch, the move to go back home to Darlington gathers pace with a ground share at the Darlington Rugby Club on the cards for next season. They don’t look like catching Curzon Ashton for the title but they will be in the playoffs and it all looks rosy for Darlington from here on out.

Prediction: Play-off promotion, back in Darlington for next season pushing near the 1800 attendance mark or more.

Bamber Bridge- Evostik Div One North- Step 4

Same league as Darlo and in a similar position with far lower attendances, they occupy a play off spot with teams below them having games in hand. Can’t wait to find out what they are putting in the water up their after a miracle run. I fancy them to make the playoffs but they can count themselves unlucky to have had such a good year when to go up they will almost certainly have to beat Darlo, who have beaten them twice this season. Still, playoffs represent a huge achievement if they get them and then you always have a chance…

Prediction: Play-offs.

Prescot Cables- Evostik Div One North- Step 4

Prescot Cables are in the same league as the two above but a very different story. The club is in a relegation fight to stay up just two places above the relegation spots. Getting back up from the league below is notoriously hard so they will be doing everything they can to ensure they don’t drop through the trap door.

Still, it’s in their hands and they know that whatever happens this season they will have their club’s ground, history and heritage preserved for many years to come, which is more than can be said for most.

Prediction: Staying up (Just)

Scarborough Athletic FC- Evostik Div One South- Step 4

If there is one club which may make me fail my fan owned journey, it’s this one. Since being formed in 2007 after the old club went bust, they have played at Bridlington FC meaning a 34 mile round trip for the dedicated fans of Scarborough.

However, plans are in place for a sports village back in Scarborough being built by the council. Seeing what I can snoop up, a return to Scarborough could be a while away yet but it is certainly on track. When they do return they will, like Darlo and Rushden & Diamonds,  see a boost to their attendances and I wouldn’t bet against them being back in the Conference before too long.

With the best named Manager of all time in Rudy Funk, the club managed to get out of Step 5 last season and are one league below FC United, this season lying one place outside the playoffs with games in hand. So I fancy them to be in the playoffs come the end of the season. It would be a very good day for both Darlington and Scarborough if they both meet up next year in the league above, to see what both have achieved.

Prediction: Playoff Promotion. Back in Scarborough by 2015-16 at the latest.

Merthyr Town- Calor League South and West – Step 4

The Martyrs, since going bust 2010 had a phoenix club rise and have enjoyed great success with only one real heartbreak. They have been promoted in their last two of the three seasons, with last year being a playoff final defeat against Hungerford Town.

Off the pitch, they had a shiny new 3G pitch put in at Penydarren Park and with the revenue streams coming in from that plus less games being lost to the weather; they look in the perfect place to ensure a strong sustainable football club for their area.

This season, a great run of form followed by a recent wobble seems them in the play-off places. They are in the hunt for the title and the playoffs will be the minimum this season so hopefully they will go one better.

Prediction: Promotion.

FC United- EvoStik Prem – Step 3

Well what do you say about FC United? Having just had a pint with their Manager Karl Marginson at Salford City FC, nothing bad is the answer. On the pitch they have become a bridesmaid of the playoffs, having been beaten playoff finalists by a single goal in their last three seasons.

Off the field, the club will not compromise on its principles to cheat their way up the league but are determined to have sustainable success and do it the right way. The clubs fantastic community work has been rewarded with planning permission and work starting on a ground of their own in Manchester at Moston.

It will mean that the club will be free of high rents at Bury FC, able to keep all the money spent on food and drinks in the ground and by not being miles away from Manchester, will lead to an increase in attendances and it will be an injection of energy for a club stuck in the Evo-Stik Prem for the last 6 seasons.

You have to think it will be either this year or next that they will go up. Karl won’t like me saying it but I can’t see them catching Chorley for the title, so it will be forth time lucky in the playoffs and this will be the one… surely.

Prediction: Promotion with a playoff final win. Opening the new ground in the Conference North.

Lewes FC- Ryman Prem – Step 3

Lewes can count themselves unlucky to have such a good year when the league is so strong at the top with Dulwich Hamlet, Wealdstone and of course Maidstone United all boasting big attendances and in the case of Maidstone, a 3G facility which further boosts income streams.

Still, they looked good when I watched them and have just got to a break even situation after previous mismanagement. A strong top half finish represents a massive improvement on last year’s woeful campaign and as the club starts to generate a profit the club is only going one way in the future, up.

Prediction: Top 10, good bet for next season for the playoffs.

 

Hendon- Ryman Prem- Step 3

The club with the toughest circumstances of any club I will visit this season, everyone involved deserves huge credit for battling on. With no signs of any support from the council or even councillors who represent Hendon, they find themselves in a very hard place.

An FA Trophy run which ended disappointingly in the First Round at home to Whitstable, it still (to my knowledge) has given them enough in the kitty to be around in this league for at least another season. Without help from a council or outside body, it remains to be seen how long Chairman Simon Lawrence and co can hold back the rising tide.

Still, on the pitch they have done remarkably well in the league sitting one place behind Lewes and can spend the rest of the season looking up, not down, at the table. Then next season, another cup run will be needed.

Prediction: Mid-table before next seasons FA Cup game away at Man United followed by Barnet Council actually getting off their arse to help the club.

Enfield Town FC- Ryman Prem- Step 3

The first ever fan owned club on these shores (of the modern kind) have not had the best of it recently. A terrible season led to the removal of Steve Newing to be replaced by George Borg, who at a recent game ended up with both being involved in a slanging match.

This season, I can’t see them getting out of the relegation places on what I saw and they haven’t picked up too many points since the switch. They lie nine points from safety without a win in a very long time.

Still, they have a secure future with the stadium and a line of youth teams and development teams playing, attendances are holding up remarkably well averaging 370 a game despite the performances and debt incurred in getting the stadium is gradually being cleared. I fancy them to come straight back up and be in a stronger position for it.

Prediction: Relegation this season, followed by some soul searching on and off the field. Promotion the next.

 

Dorchester- Conference South- Step 2

So not fan owned but moving towards it with the Trust playing a big role in the running of the club. Having had their highest finish last season, it was inevitable that there was always going to be a bit of stick heading the trusts way when they had to cut their cloth. Unlike many other fan owned clubs, they didn’t start from the bottom and instead had to struggle in the same league.

Off the pitch, they have now stabilised after more budget cuts and can approach next season, whichever division they are in, as a fresh start and get an air of positivity around the club. This year they are six points from safety and (heresy) perhaps going down wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Prediction: Relegation and a fresh start next season with their off field finances sorted.

AFC Telford- Conference North- Step 2

Despite a slowish start to the season Telford, under Liam Watson who dropped down from Manager of Southport (an encouraging sign), are beating all comers. Off the pitch, the club is run by fantastic people and is in a great position plus recently hosted Women’s International football to much praise from all involved.

10 points from the last four games having played Boston, Brackley and handed out a football lesson to Hednesford in how to be successful (got a point away and won at home) and they are now the team to beat.

Still the league is incredibly tough with Boston, Altringham as well as Hednesford all with big followings and 6 points separate the top six. Remember, this is the division that Stockport County find themselves in and they will be lucky to finish mid-table. Telford will be in the playoffs minimum and I will stick my neck out to say: If they go up to the Conference Prem this season, they will stay up.

Prediction: Play Offs minimum. I will owe Liam Watson an apology pint for the review I gave them earlier in the season if they go up.

Chester FC- Conference Prem- Step 1

Since I’ve been to see Chester, they have been battling tooth and nail at the bottom of the Conference Prem and the gulf between Step 2 and 1 has been revealed. After some shenanigans which I can’t comment on, they lost a bit of money not related to the clubs management and will post a financial loss but are in good financial health.

They are ahead of schedule in getting back to the Conference Prem before they had planned with three promotions in a row, an amazing achievement. They have a right to feel aggrieved, as they run the club prudently clubs higher than them in the Conference (Hereford, Macclesfield and others) are financially in the shit. Chester fans have to take the long term view of this and if they do go down, the club will still be in a very strong position.

I’ve made it sound like I think they will go down when in truth I think they have every chance of staying up. They have a lot of away games against those around them in the table with a home game against Wrexham on the 19th April which could be a season defining game.  If Neil Young manages to keep them up then he deserves a statue to go along with those three medals he already has. Whatever happens, I bet if you told Chester fans in 2010 that they would be back in the Conference and beating Wrexham at the Racecourse ground, they would have bitten your bloody hand off.

Prediction: Survival and another pitch invasion.

 

Wrexham- Conference Prem- Step 1

Poor Andy Morrell, one game away from a double Wembley success in a single season and hero status as the man who took Wrexham back to the Football League, he now faces lifting his players for a season which is all but over.

Too much inconsistency combined with some painful results (lost to Chester at home and drew against Hyde). They look like being safe but they could get dragged into a relegation battle if they are not careful.

Still, look at Northampton who lost their playoff final last season, Leeds a couple of years ago who lost a playoff final then relegated the year after and this play-off blues is not just a Wrexham problem.

Off the pitch, two years of fan ownership has seen the club debt free and the FA Trophy win by Andy Morrell was a big part of that. The club celebrate its 150th year this year and considering how they might not of existed this is a huge achievement.

So, this season is a chance to bleed some new players and make the 2014 season one where the club has a clean slate. Plus, they could end up sending Chester down, at Chester, which may soothe the pain of this season.

Prediction: Mid table and go again next year.

 

We move away from non-league now to the four fan owned football league teams. I have to admit, I have been delaying visiting these because I thought that they might find themselves in playoff games or games for promotion. If I had been cynical, I should have gone to these first to build a bigger readership but meh.

AFC Wimbledon – League 2

So probably the most famous of fan owned teams with a fairy-tale story to match. 5 promotions in twelve seasons, with the most special days being a play off final victory against Luton in the 2010-11 season to see them back in the Football League. The fans saw justice done masterminded by the legend that is Terry Brown (now back in Management at Margate).

Last season, the club stayed up on the last day with a win against Fleetwood which has a lot to do with me taking up this project this season after I went to watch. After the game, Neal Ardley got the plaudits he deserved for keeping them up.

Off the pitch, the difficultly of being in London is once again shown with the club ten years away from being back in Wimbledon according to their Chief Executive Erik Samuelson, with an application to turn Wimbledon Greyhound Track into their new ground.

What the demographics of Wimbledon itself look like, (as areas such as Enfield and Hendon will testify to) means for actually attracting fans is a question in itself but it is another step in a long road for the Dons.

Other moments of contention since reformation was of course the game against you know who at their home in the FA Cup, which led to much soul searching about the correct course of action by fans and a lot of ignorant media coverage by the tossers at Sky Sports about how this was somehow a great game to see.

This season, AFC Wimbledon started well and looked in the playoff hunt but with only 3 points from their last six games they are looking down rather than up. Another year at this level would be a great achievement for the club and the thing about League 2 and it’s four promotion spots, is that the playoffs at Wembley and League 1 is only one good season away.

Prediction: Mid-table safety, no last day drama here.

Portsmouth FC- League 2

Well it’s been an interesting season for Pompey already but not in a good way. They have sacked Guy Whittingham after a very poor start to the season. I’ve heard off some ‘sources’ they gave him a playoff budget and he struggled to keep them mid-table. Surely after the collapse in recent times mid-table should have been the aim and it certainly is now.

The club is still having to fork out millions to ex-players which will take till May 2016 to clear, with many small businesses receiving a fraction of what they were owed so millionaires like David James and Kanu can still pick up money.

That is a just part of the debt they need to clear so Pompey fans need to be patient and realise that now having finally got ownership of the club, securing it’s financial future is the most important thing.

Eventually, the club will rise up the pyramid but a relegation this year would be a massive hammer blow and make no mistake, they are in a relegation dogfight. If they lost the Football League money as well, it may get even tougher.

So, survival is the aim of the game and I do fancy them to stay up partly because all else is unimaginable.

Prediction: Survival.

 

Exeter City FC- League 2

The club which has the accolade of being the highest placed fan owned club in Britain whilst they were in League 1 for a spell. Since taking over in 2003 they can consider themselves rightly proud of their achievements with promotion from the Conference achieved in a playoff final in 2008 at Wembley in front of over 40,000 people.

The season after they went up again after finishing second in League 2 and enjoyed three seasons their until relegation in 2011-12 season. Last year they finished 10th just five points off the playoffs and long serving Manager stated that the club ‘had to look at its ownership model’ if they want success.

Ignoring the fact others clubs around them are in debt left, right and centre and all lower league clubs are going to have to cut there cloth, Exeter City started strongly this season but have fallen off the pace in 13th, six points off the playoffs.

Too strong to go down and perhaps not enough firepower to get in the playoffs but the last 10 years of fan ownership have been a roaring success and long may it continue.

Prediction: Mid table, looking up rather than down.

Wycombe Wanderers – League 2

In June 2012, the fans took over at Wycombe and appear to have given the club stability and security as an established League 2 club. I don’t know what to say much really about Wycombe apart from they are doing a solid job this season after Gareth Ainsworth steadied the ship to finish mid table last season.

They are five points off the relegation places but with two games in hand and if they win one of those they are as close to the playoffs as they are to relegation, so I think another mid-table season beckons for Wycombe as Gareth Ainsworth has his first full season in charge to put under his belt and look to next season.

Prediction: Mid Table consistency.

So that’s it. Except of course it isn’t, with the mighty Barry Town and Monmouth both fan owned and both doing well in the League of Wales. Barry Town is a wonderful story of fan heroics and they will get their own piece soon, as will Monmouth.

If I have missed anyone out let me know. I am going off Supporters Direct plus others that I definitely know are fan owned, like Barry.

Plus, they can look forward to being including in the Fan Owned round up of Scottish and Northern Irish clubs which will get done at some point, so you haven’t been forgotten Dunfermline fans or Gretna, or … and on it goes.

All I will say for now is that I wish all fan owned clubs all the best for the rest of the season. I hope some of you prove me right, some of you prove me wrong and I look forward to some wonderful games for the rest of the season.

In fan ownership we trust, amen.

If you want to tell me where I have got it right or wrong, or just call me a bellend you can do so on Twitter @eddyman00

We get the owners we deserve

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Firstly, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year. Also, a quick apology to Dorchester and AFC Croydon Athletic whose posts I still haven’t got done but they are on their way folks so rest easy.

This is a quick post before I put up a quick review of fan owned clubs this season. This is also a rant of sorts against the fans of Cardiff City and others in general. I could call this: When did football fans become such a bunch of spineless tossers? However I don’t think that rolls off the tongue.

So Cardiff City have an owner who has done what most consider vandalism, by changing the badge and removing the traditional colours of the club it has become another hollow imitation of the club it was. There is of course a long list of things, including his treatment of the manager and I am not going to go into all the details because that has been better done elsewhere. Twohundredpercent is here so you know.. nudge,nudge.

My focus is on the lack of response from Cardiff fans, the continuing support for Vincent Tan by them and the bullshit ‘protests’ which are worthy of middle class champagne socialists, in that they appear and pronounce themselves as radical but are hollow and meaningless.

So, let’s begin. If you still give him your money, then you support his actions. It seems a simple point to make really but seems to have been missed by far too many people. When the club was rebranded last season with the logo and the badge being changed, people were outraged, outraged I tell you. They were so outraged that their average attendance went from 22,100 in the 2011-12 season to 22,998 last season. (Here)

So despite all the ‘outrage’, all the fury and all the ‘protest’ the simple reality is that tens of thousands of Cardiff fans still gladly paid their money into the pocket of Vincent Tan. The radical protests continue with 27,500 now showing up to obviously express their disgust. And what better way to show you don’t approve of something by giving them money?

Now I can understand working for the devil. I know what it’s like to do a job you don’t really want to do but need the money and a lot of us down at the bottom don’t have the luxury of choice. Giving the devil your money? That’s a new one.

It’s not good enough to say you can protest against the changes and still give him your money. I will accept that if there have been conversations or intents that the club may change back (ie Shrewsbury) then it is possible to do both… just.

However, Vincent Tan has made it quite clear this isn’t happening so you cannot do both. In the real world, businessmen and economics have this thing called price signals. Vincent Tan is a businessman so the only thing he understands and needs to understand is that if you keep giving him money, then he can keep getting away with it.

Put it this way, you go to a restaurant and they give you a plate of shit to eat… You are furious, you are outraged and then… you go back next Saturday to go eat shit again. Then you go back next week and over and over until you are constantly eating shit.

It would be reasonable of the owners of the restaurant to presume you actually don’t mind eating all that shit, so they will keep on serving it to you and you keep lapping it up.

Am I making it clear for you?

Vincent Tan has made all his money by introducing franchises to the Asian Market and has been very successful at it. He doesn’t care about your club; he cares about using it as a vehicle to build a ‘brand’ and you let him do it. So spare me the ‘Tan Out’ signs as you spend £30 a game to come and watch them play, you are just embarrassing yourselves.

So what are the alternatives? Simple, you all stop going. Yes that’s right, you boycott. The days when working class people could withdraw their labour in this country are long gone, globalisation and an eager army of Polish and countless other un-skilled workers emigrating to Britain means that it is a thing of the past.

What you can do however, is withdraw your custom. This may be hard but since the club is virtually unrecognisable to what you will have known as Cardiff City (which Vincent Tan will almost certainly look to continue to franchise for the ‘Asian Market’ or just because he can) it can’t be too different to following whatever the club is now.

That is the only way to get rid of him. This does mean yes in the end game, driving the club to bankruptcy and starting again or walking away to form another club. There are more difficulties with this being based in Wales and whether a true Cardiff club would be forced to play in the Welsh system or the English one. A Cardiff team in the Welsh system would have a far greater chance of getting into the Champions League though, which so many people seem to fetish over now for reasons unknown to me.

You are being treated like a customer, you are being treated like a fool and you are lapping it up and celebrating it every time you work through those turnstiles.

There are now many clubs which have shown you the way. FC United of Manchester, 1874 Northwich and Enfield Town. Yes they are far smaller and none are guaranteed success but the principle is the same and in actual fact it would be far easier for a proper Cardiff club to raise finance and capital, even if a fraction of you did the decent thing and went your own way. Also AFC Wimbledon anyone, they haven’t done badly have they?

If that is too much pain for you to feel responsible for destroying the club or don’t want to set up a new one whilst the ‘real’ Cardiff City FC still stands then how about doing something honourable with your Saturdays instead? Take a short trip and go and watch Barry Town, who you could argue are the exception that proves the rule about standing by a club run by a man who wanted to kill it.

Why not give your money to a fans run club who have gone through hell and back to keep their history, tradition and more importantly honour alive. Imagine how much more good you would do if even 100 of you made the trip to go watch Barry Town. How much of a morally better choice you would be making in helping that club?

I wish this would happen but I am almost certain it won’t. No, you will continue to keep giving that man your money and he will continue to laugh at you. In a generation, Wales has gone from producing people who fought desperately to defend their way and life and community (regardless of the economics) to a bunch of cowards.

They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

The above is a simple quote from Benjamin Franklin about how people who would trade off that which is most precious for a temporary gain or a quick fix are unworthy of either.

Well those who would give up history, heritage and identity for a little temporary ‘success’ deserve neither. When the time comes and Vincent Tan leaves you high and dry it will be no more than you deserve.

You’d think that by doing this fan owned journey I’d be someone more sympathetic to the Hull fans who are against the name change but keep giving the owner their money, the Cardiff fans who do the same and the countless other times this will happen at an increasing rate at the top of the game but I’m not.

You pay your money, you make your choice. I know it is impossible to do this with every commercial interaction, the amount of hours that would be needed to find out if every pint you got or packet of cereal is of a good moral standard but what is happening to your club… It’s staring you right in the face.

 I don’t see why sacking a manager is worse than trashing your clubs heritage. There is still time for you to redeem yourselves, it is a new year and you can make a brave new stand against those destroying football. At the moment though, in the words of the Super Furry Animals – People like Vincent Tan? You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else. And if you keep supporting them?

Sympathy, sympathy. You want some? Don’t come to me.

 

You can explain how giving him money is in fact some radical protest to me on twitter @eddyman00

 

Links

Premier League Attendances- ESPN

Football League Attendances

Twohundredpercent.

Darlington FC via… Bishop Auckland? On the terraces with Darlington FC (vs. the ‘other’ team Sat 9th November)

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Darlo

So it’s roughly around 10:30 am and I have managed to drag my sorry arse out of bed at my mates flat in Newcastle, to get myself on the train to Darlo. As tempted as I was to stay in that nice warm bed, I had already arranged to use this long weekend I was spending up in Newcastle to cross Darlington Football Club off my list and they were to be fan owned club number ten.

Darlington Football Club in their current guise have only been ‘reformed’ since January 2012. They were forced to change their name by the FA and chose Darlington 1883 (the year of the original clubs conception) but they do not recognise this as the true club name and in their eyes (and mine) they are a continuation of the old club. So from here on out I am going to be talking about Darlington FC and not Darlington 1883.

How did Darlo find themselves in this position? Well again I will be pointing you in the direction of the always useful twohundredpercent website where Darlington’s trials and tribulations have been documented as well as you could hope to see. (Here) I will also give a nudge towards David Conn and his piece in the Guardian back in 2009 on the folly of George Reynolds. (Here)

To put this briefly, the death knell or crippling of the club happened the moment the club headed from Feethams, their home of 120 years which had served them grandly, to what would be the white elephant of the Reynolds Arena.

The club moved at the behest of their owner George Reynolds who borrowed money to finish the ground but his dream/ delusion of Darlington FC filling a 25,000 stadium or even getting close to doing so was always doomed to failure.

 George Reynolds found himself sentenced to prison in October 2005 for tax evasion but by this point he had already left the club in 2004 having led them into administration. The folly of one man and his promise to take the club to the Premier League had become the clubs nightmare from which they could never escape.

A host of characters came in and out of the sorry show with spiralling debts, unsustainable costs and a seemingly never ending crisis off the pitch. Administrations, insolvency and eventually Darlington FC could dodge no more bullets.

Although there was a shining moment in all this period of darkness, with the club managing to win the FA Trophy in 2011 1-0 against Mansfield in front of just under 25,000 at Wembley. During this run they were to knock out AFC Telford and how many of the fans who made the long journey looked on with envy at what had been achieved by the supporters at AFC Telford in rebuilding their club.

The club was in administration and although the club found enough money to see out the 2011- 12 season it was all over. Only, it wasn’t. Darlington 1883 Limited has stepped in to purchase the club but without a CVA in place which the FA require for clubs leaving administration.

As a result, the FA stated that Darlington were in their eyes a ‘new’ club and placed them in Northern Football League Division One for the 2012/2013 season, representing a drop of four divisions from the Conference.

The club was now owned by a Community Interest Company and being the majority shareholder it was fair to share that Darlington was fan owned but not fan run. The club moved area from the Darlington Arena and took up residence at Bishop Auckland’s Heritage Park fourteen miles up the road.

The club still had to find money to pay £300,000 worth of debts that were carried over from the ‘old’ club and at one point in March of this year, had managed to put themselves in a position where £50,000 of cash needed to be injected into the club to ensure its survival.

There were changes at boardroom level in March also but here is where the real difference can be seen in how the club is run. There was no cloak and dagger here but a fully open and frank fans forum, which was held in the same month giving fans the chance to ask tough questions of those running the club.

The on goings in March have had good coverage of both the boardroom changes (here) and also the fans forum where the new Chief Executive laid out the state of the club clearly (here and in a clearer format here).

On the pitch, the club managed to finish on 122 points last season fending off Spennymoor Town who went onto win the FA Vase at Wembley and any other year would’ve cruised to the Title. The club did not have the chance to compete in the FA Vase because as a ‘new’ club, the FA barred them from entry.

 This season, by the time I was set to visit them the newly promoted club had made a reasonable start to life in the Evo-Stick Div One North Division by collecting 27 points from their first 15 games. They were in and around the playoff hunt with the real disappointment of the season being dumped out of the FA Trophy in the First Qualifying Round after surrendering a 3-0 lead to Buxton, going on to lose on penalties. Highlights can be seen here.

Off the pitch, it was really nothing but positives. Having got over the issues of March the club announced to an open fans forum that plans were in place which would see the club back in Darlington for next season. They are set to move in to Blackwell Meadows and share facilities with Darlington Rugby Football Club. Blackwell Meadows is closer in terms of walking distance and a car ride from Darlington Arena and will be a dam sight easier for fans to get to then Bishop Auckland.

As we will go into later, it represents a real chance for Darlo to push on and re-engage with the Darlington area and community. All the people that matter are on board with the local MP and local Council all in full support of getting Darlo back home. The debt now stands at £100,000 but is under control.

Ok, we’re up to date and it’s back to the part where I’m dragging myself out of one of my mate’s flatmates bed after staying out in Geordie Town till 4 am…

So 10:30am and after grabbing some cereal I checked my phone to see if anyone from the club had got back to me. Normally I give the club about 5 days’ notice of whether I am coming and in this case I did the same thing. However, I was not going to be taking in another Darlo game this season and when I saw that no one had got back to me via Twitter or email I was a little peeved.

My one good chance to speak to someone at the club and it had gone, I also didn’t know if the game was going to be on. I sent another panic message to the Twitter account and they eventually put me in touch with Dave Mills at Darlington FC confirming that the game was on and yes, he could meet me.

However, time was running out to be able to actually get to Bishop Auckland in time for kick off. After arriving at Newcastle train station I found out I had missed the train that would allow me to get to Auckland in time for the game and I thought I was buggered.

Nevertheless, I hopped on board to Darlington and begged via twitter and off Dave Mills if someone could pick me up. Dave lived nowhere near Darlo so he was out and as I arrived in Darlo I thought to myself how much of a muppet I had been. I had come all this way, yes to see a mate in Newcastle but I’d planned it to take in this game and I’d cocked it up.

As I got to Darlo I headed for the town centre praying to find a bus there. By this point in the day it was hailing and a bad day just seemed to be getting worse. I was cold, hung-over and my only source of food was a Mars bar left in my pocket. My luck took a turn for the better when a lad walked me to the centre of town and there was indeed a bus which went right to the ground. So I had somehow managed to be on time for the game and get to the ground for two o’clock as the bus went direct to the ground.

As it happened, just as I got on the bus a bloke called Paul Moss had just agreed to pick me up and I said thanks but because of the offer I’d buy him a pint. I didn’t meet him at the game so Paul, if you are out there, next time I am up in Darlo there’s a pint in it for you.

So where was everyone?

So where was everyone?

The bus was full of Darlo fans and as we got off I heard the game had been delayed till 4:00pm so all that dashing around like a headless chicken was for nothing as I would’ve made it to the game anyway. I didn’t really fancy having to be out in the middle of nowhere with the temperature already bloody freezing.

Anyway, I headed over to the pub and agreed to meet Dave Mills at 3pm. I say pub but it is more in fact a gastro bar called the March Hare. It was absolutely packed and I can only think how grateful they will have been over the last year to have Darlo playing right opposite them.

I went in, got my (what I felt was) well-earned Guinness and spent the next hour or so talking to middle aged men about football which seems to have become my only form of meaningful social interaction since I started this project… oh well.

I took the short walk to the ground and was greeted by Dave Mills, who is the fan liaison officer for the Club. He was quick to sympathise with me and perhaps I shouldn’t reveal this but didn’t charge me. I will note I made sure I put money behind the bar to more than make up for this shortfall, you have my word.

As we walked out through the tunnel and onto the pitch Dave let me know it would be better to do a quick interview after the game but before he left me to take refuge in the upstairs bar, he did stress that even though Darlo were outside of Darlington, they were still engaging with local groups in their area.

As if to prove his point a young girls cheerleading group which the club is supporting and promoting, performed on the pitch and were given a warm round of applause. I said cheerio to Dave and headed upstairs where I spent more money on Guinness and even more time chatting to middle aged men. Someone even got me a pint, so cheers to that man.

I can appreciate this is not going to be the most interest post to read when it’s essentially me, telling you, about me having lots of Guinness but I was having a great time. It was warm and the bar was again packed. You could barely move in there and I wasn’t expecting that many people to drag their way out to Bishop Auckland to come out in the middle of November. They are a dedicated bunch these Darlo fans and everyone who drags themselves out to Bishop Auckland is worthy of praise.

Getting ready...

Getting ready…

 Right, to the game then and after grabbing a burger I took up my position behind the goal that Darlo were defending. There was a drummer, a group of lads who looked as if they had come to make a bit of noise and the terrace was full. So I was hopeful that after this long delay, the lads could give something for us to get behind and I was especially hopeful for a win against this lot.

A team owned by a man who after hearing about from the lads at 1874 Northwich  and reading about for myself, I had nothing but loathing and hatred for the man. I thought to myself, if there was to be a day when I wanted a win then let it be against this &%*t.

To save you the suspense you can watch the highlights (for want of a better word) here. Darlo were poor, I mean really poor. They didn’t create any real chances, didn’t look comfortable on the ball and were resorting to long aimless balls after coming under pressure from the ‘other teams’ strikers.

Although it pains me to say it, the ‘other team’ looked the far better team. Crisp passing and fast direct play meant they looked the more likely to score. When they did score it will be one of the most disappointing goals Darlo will concede this year.

In the 30th minute, Brian Summerskill picked up a clearance outside the box and proceeded to walk it into the net as Darlo players waved at him as he passed by. For ducks sake! Not to this team, not to him. Please…

For the remainder of the half Darlo offered nothing and the only thing that the fans in the terrace had been able to talk about was whether the club was going to be banning more people and whenever anyone said anything the response was: “Ban Him!”

It was a terrible first half but I hoped that with Darlo attacking the goal we were stood behind in the next 45 there would be a response. The answer was… not really. Although there was maybe one or two good chances I can’t say Darlo ever really had momentum or were putting the ‘other’ team under sustained pressure. The game ended with a whimper not a bang and I will be surprised if Darlo play as bad as that again all season.

So we moped are way out of the terrace as people all around me tried to justify having given up a Saturday to come watch it. I headed for the bar to conduct my interview. The day was to get worse as I sat there in the corner waiting for Dave to get a chance to speak to me and I wondered when the next bus would show up.

It got worse because who after the players and officials did I see come in? None other than Jim Rushe grinning like a chimp and pumping his fists. I should’ve gone up to him, turned on my Dictaphone and just put him on the spot but I was in no mood to speak to anyone, let alone that man. Darlo had lost to him… it made me sick.

Dave appeared 15 minutes later to inform me that he wouldn’t be able to do an interview and I thanked him for agreeing to meet me anyway and trudged off to the bus stop to wait for a bus which never came. 

... Oh, they were all in the bar.

… Oh, they were all in the bar.

I was stood with two old ladies for an hour, one whole hour. There was no bus timetable, it was freezing and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Then the old ladies buggered off to see if they could order a taxi from KFC. As they came out I asked them if they were going to Darlo (No) but then I was saved.

Some lad had his mate come all the way from Darlo to pick him up so I walked up to the car, paid the random stranger a fiver and told him to get me the hell out of there. He did and despite his… err, (how do I put this?) lax attitude towards drink driving laws I was back in Darlo, back to civilisation and on the train to Newcastle. Whoever you are fella, you didn’t lead to my death in a hideous crash and for that I will be eternally grateful.

This is where my story should end then with me exhausted having watched one of the most disappointing games of football in a long time, losing to the worst club imaginable and generally from 4pm till 9pm having a nightmare.

It made me realise something about Darlington FC. Yes I had been disappointed not to speak to anyone in the Trust or those running the club but I spoke to the people who mattered most all day… the fans.

From Paul Moss who had agreed to pick up a stranger to take to the game from the  blokes who had a chat with me at the March Hare, to the bloke who grabbed me a pint in the bar before the match all of them were top class with me to a man.

Not forgetting the guys on the terraces who attempted bravely to try and create an atmosphere even down to the lifesaver who got me back to Darlo, everyone I met connected with the club was fantastic.

And how many people had made the trek out to Bishop Auckland on that bitterly cold day? 1046. Having had to put up with going out to Bishop Auckland for just one game I had nothing but praise for all of you who get yourselves there to support the team, week in and week out.

It also shows starkly how the return to Darlington is more important than ever. How many fans that would maybe pop down to a game and get re-engaged with the club are understandably put off my having to make that journey? A significant amount I imagine.

 Since I have been to the club, Darlington have gone on to win their last 4 league games putting them right in the promotion/playoff hunt along with six other teams. Tomorrow they play one of those teams in Bamber Bridge, another fan owned club who are on a miracle run in the league. I think that with the club playing so well and with a game of such importance, the attendance might break the 1000 barrier again.

My day was one of many negatives but the story of Darlington FC is one of great success and hope for the future.

Darlington are set to go home and when they do I know that attendances will jump massively and what’s more is that those fans will stay with the club. How do I know this? Because the club will make that final transition from being fan owned to fan run and if the fans were as decent to newcomers as they were to me they won’t be able to stay away. The buzz around the club going home will lead to more people signing up with the trust, becoming members and getting involved.

Darlington FC will be able to hugely expand their community work and build the next generation of fans, with an army of volunteers bolstered by new members and a new positive atmosphere surrounding the club.

The debt is on course to be paid off on time and with increased attendances Darlington will be able to have on field success, which will again increase involvement and attendances at the club and so it goes on. Having spent nearly a decade trapped in a negative sprial since 2003 Darlington FC can now look forward to a virtuous circle.

I fully expect Darlington to be back in the Conference in the not too distant future and in a years’ time I think Darlo fans will agree with me that they will be glad never to have to go out to Bishop Auckland again.

People have got all touchy over the Auckland comment so I will clarify: I am sure Darlo fans will agree they will be glad not to have to go miles away from Darlington to Bishop Auckland, on a cold and freezing day in the middle of November to watch Darlington FC play. It’s not an attack on Bishop Auckland… get over yourselves.

You can find more ramblings by me in bite sized form @eddyman00

Notes

The Darlington Badge is from the Wikipedia badge here but is the property of Darlington 1883. Use of the logo in this I believe qualifies under fair use as being only for informational purposes and it is the primary means of identifying the subject of the article.

All other photos were taken by yours truly.

A special note of thanks should go to the Northern Echo whose fantastic recent coverage has made my overview possible. Their main website is here.

Also a good interview with manager Martin Gray can be found on the Daily Mail website here.

Links

Darlington Website

The Darlo Trust (Darlington Supporters Trust)

BBC News- DFC 1883 Complete Purchase of Darlington

Darlington Youtube Channel (Match Highlights & More)

On the terrac… err… In the office with Supporters Direct (Wednesday 6th November)

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Throughout this journey that I have been on, at almost every club, the name of Supporters Direct has been referred to and is immediately followed by how much help they have offered clubs.

Whether it’s the now established AFC Telford or the relatively new AFC Rushden & Diamonds they have all sung the praises of this organisation. As their name kept popping up over and over I thought it made sense to try and pay a visit to the good folks at Supporters Direct to find out a little bit more about them.

It was founded in 2000 and since then has grown from an organisation which focussed on setting up Supporters Trust to a now far more active role in helping clubs become fan owned. Over this thirteen year period there have been and lows for the organisation, with funding difficulties which threatened the organisation but also wonderful success stories such as Chester and AFC Wimbledon for which Supporters Direct can claim a measure of their success.

Supporters Direct doesn’t just operate in football and has helped several Rugby League clubs walk down the path of fan/community ownership but as my interest here is football, that’s where our focus will be.

So, I found myself back in London for the umpteenth time and thankfully the last before I was off to see a mate in Newcastle (and Darlington FC), to go and speak to James Mathie at Supporters Direct.

James Mathie is Development Manager at Supporters Direct and his job is to be the guy who goes around visiting clubs who are looking to become fan owned, explain how it works and help them on their way. He basically has the job I want. I first came across James way back in June of this year when I went to see the Shots Trust (Aldershot) embark on a plan for fan ownership. In their case it didn’t happen but after discovering my unhealthy knowledge of the subject gave me his card and he has been regretting it ever since.

Walking into the office where Supporters Direct is based (sharing with Sport England) I was surprised by how swanky it was, if it was me I would have them buried in some hovel in Hackney to save money but James ensured me that Supporters Direct were in the broom cupboard of the building.

After grabbing a cup of tea we sat down and began. I asked James to take me through the potted history of where Supporters Direct came from.

“So Supporters Direct came from a task force report, one of the many reports that were drafted looking at football and how it could be changed for the better. Most of the recommendations in the report were ignored and I believe two were taken up. One was the creating of SD which was set up to help supporters who had become disillusioned with their clubs in the growing commercial game to give them more support and be better organised. That way, they can have a role to play at their clubs.”

The second was the Football Foundation who James was quick to praise for having “gone on to do great things”. Our focus here though is of course Supporters Direct who in their origin had a far less ambitious role then they occupy now as James went on to explain.

“Back then it was set up as a pilot project to see how many of these Supporters Trusts would form. The original target was something like 20 and quickly it became apparent that were far more than a couple of groups that wanted to set up trusts.”

“This was back at the start where Brian Lomax who is seen, I suppose, as the spiritual leader of the movement because of the work he had done at Northampton Town in getting the first Supporters Director democratically elected onto the board of a Football Club.

To those of you who don’t know and I will admit to not knowing about Brian and his efforts before the start of this season, Brian Lomax can be seen in many ways as the father of this movement. I have no wish to plagiarise this excellent post by Tom Young on Sporting Intelligence about Brian, just to say you should all have a read and it’s clear that Brian truly was “ahead of his time.” (Here)

“His model was looked upon favourably and he along with the first member of staff including Dave Boyle, were going around the country helping supporters set up Supporters Trusts. Quickly, the numbers took off.”

Which led us to where the money was coming from, I stated that it was largely funded by the Premier League and James was quick to correct me.

“No, not back in 2000. It has been funded by the Premier League but the funding situation at SD is quite an interesting journey so back in 2000 we were funded by Football Pools and we’ve not really had a consistent funding partner. At one point there was a funding arrangement where essentially the FA, Premier League and Government all put money into a pot. So there was some funding from Premier League but there was money from the Government and FA too.”

However, when Setanta (remember them?) pulled out of their TV deal after going bust in this country, both the FA and Government pulled out their cash which left the Premier League as their only serious funders.

Not a position that Supporters Direct wanted to find themselves in I suggested.

“Exactly, so this kind of coincided with a well-known story where our CEO at the time …

(Me) Top Bloke by the way…

The reason for this little interruption is because I was aware of what was coming next. Dave Boyle who was mentioned before as working with Brian Lomax went on to become CEO of Supporters Direct. When AFC Wimbledon got back to the football league he had a few choice words to share with certain people.

I won’t reveal any more primarily because I am going to meet Dave Boyle some point this year and don’t want to ruin a good story which will be better told by the man himself. Here all I will say is that it led him to falling on his sword and resigning from Supporters Direct. James was quick to praise Dave.

“Fantastic guy and helps many of our members out and everyone I think personally likes Dave but he put himself in a difficult position by comments he made through Twitter. That I suppose shone a light on our funding situation at the time and none of us particularly wanted to be funded by the Premier League to the tune of 90%.”

 The Premier League said they would be pulling their money after the Twitter comments which would’ve effectively crippled the organisation. I am not the only one to think this was a good excuse to stop funding an organisation who had become a group that the Premier League hadn’t bargained for.

The fact that Supporters Direct by this point was now involved in not just doing the nice things like helping them set up Trusts or buzz phrases like ‘giving fans a voice’, actually it’s become a lot more about ownership and control. Which is why the Premier League saw it’s chance and pulled the plug. Is this something James would agree with?

“I don’t know, not necessarily because to be honest some of the more ‘aggressive’ Trusts are the ones who are outside of ownership and have shone a large light on some of their clubs. That is what Supporters Trusts were set up to do.”

“They were there to increase transparency at clubs so, you know, I think they’ve always known that and they’ve just had to deal with it. They have dealt with it in their own way by rolling out various achievements of what the Premier league has done.  It doesn’t answer our questions.”

  Moving back to the funding issue just to wrap it up, James was quick to point out that it was only a very limited time that the Premier League held the purse strings over the organisation and now although they still receive funding through what’s known as the Premier League Fans Fund making up roughly 35% of their funds, the organisation is in a better position as James pointed out.

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My now battered book on club development from Supporters Direct.

“We have strong funding from The Co-op group, from UEFA, from our members which brings in a bit but it’s only a symbolic amount. Through the work we do with the clubs now where we bring in other grant money for that work or some of them pay fees for it which is where we need to get really.”

Supporters Direct have recently announced that their Chief Executive is to leave you have to feel that finding these diverse revenue streams is going to be one of the top priorities for whoever ends up taking the post as James stressed in the conversation.

“I think the key point is that funding needs to diversify and I’ve got no problem us being grant funded by different people but it shouldn’t be making up the sort of percentages that we had before.”

I asked about the possibility of one day Supporters Direct becoming self-sustaining with its member Trusts being able to chip in enough to run operations. James was sceptical, at least in the medium term.

“It would be nice in a way to think that members can contribute more to our funding but equally people would rightly argue there’s enough money in the game already, surely there’s a funding solution that doesn’t involve smaller clubs paying more.”

The vast amount of money washing around in the game is often noted and criticised with the most recent example of this being an excellent little four minute video here put together by Kris Hofmann and Phil Wall. I would agree with James that there is enough money in the game to make funding not be an issue for Supporters Direct and other good causes.

Having discussed funding I wanted to get onto, well… Just how does Supporters Direct help Trusts and Clubs become fan owned? Before that though, James took me through the various ways in which Supporters Direct are approached and the challenges involved.

“There are different reasons for an approach. Historically, talking about clubs becoming supporter owned, it would be one of our members who’ve already set up a Supporters Trust, there’s a crisis at their club and we provide support to that trust to get them into a position of ownership.”

“Now in the last year really we’ve had a consultancy arm of Supporters Direct which is called Club Development where we’ve formalised the help that we’ve been giving to these members and I suppose actively promote the model. Particularly to lower league clubs who are just interested in what is the best ownership model for them.”

James cites the example of Tranmere Rovers Trust and their ongoing campaign to take the club into fan ownership.

“There are different routes in which an opportunity might present itself. So, obviously at the moment you’ve got someone like Tranmere. Here’s a great opportunity but there’s all sorts of barriers to it looking like becoming a community owned club. There’s picking up the pieces of the existing club, due diligence exercises where we’d bring in a consultant to work with the Trust to look at exactly what they’re taking on.”

“Helping to raise capital, this involves advising them how to raise that money. Then there’s the whole communication to create a buzz around it happening. We could meet some of the stakeholders who might have a role to play in the Trust getting that opportunity, so like getting a supportive council.”

Tranmere Rovers Trust

James pointed out another interesting development, whereas previously it was about a crisis or the organisation going to the club now there has been a shift.

“Now where we’re getting more and more interest, which is fantastic, is lower leagues where people are phoning us up and saying “We’re X, Y and Z club, we think we’re doing a good job but we’re wondering whether you can help us”.”

“So it might not involve a crisis and it might not involve a supporter’s campaign. We might be speaking directly to the owners, to the directors of these clubs and effectively making the case for why the community owned model is the better model to run a club.”

Focussing on lower league clubs for the moment, it is undoubtedly true that (for me anyway) the bigger the global game gets, the Premier League gets, the harder it is for these clubs to survive. So does James feel this model will help the vast wave across the country in the non-league pyramid survive?

“Well, yes. I think that this model, with the right people involved, allows a club no matter what its size connect (or re-connect) with its community and ultimately it’s that community which is going to sustain the support for the club. By being community owned, there’s an opportunity to strengthen the connection by giving them a chance to have an equal say, an equal vote, more transparency, more trust and potentially raise investment together which creates a stronger allegiance with that club.”

“So these clubs are in difficulties because they are competing with TV and bigger clubs but in a different way there’s an opportunity for them to take the bull by the horns and be something different. I think there is an opportunity, if you get the right people on board, if you get the right structure then it can bring about opportunities all over the place.  Be it more active volunteers or funding due to the not-for-profit model there’s opportunity out there.”

We’re getting carried away with ourselves here and there is, despite all of the ruin of where this argument has led us, still a case against the idea of fan control of clubs or having a stake. The argument goes: I may have a social connection with say a restaurant or I may be a vested consumer in a designer label or something like that but I don’t have a right to a stake, I don’t have moral control. So why should we have a special say? We’re the consumer; if the owner wants to move a club then he’s perfectly within his right to do that.

James responded in two distinct ways by firstly, focussing on the business aspect of running a club. “One way I’d approach this is as a business model, we believe it’s better to follow the model of being owned by the community for various reasons which we’ve covered. So there are actual business benefits to being community owned and it’s a better brand for sponsors to be associated with, better partnerships with local stakeholders including the council, opportunities for grant funding that you don’t get if the club is privately owned.”

“So, then the question is: If someone is in control and it’s privately owned then why should supporters have a say? What right have they got? Well you know for us, owning a club is a custodian role, most clubs are private companies, we think that legal structure is essentially the wrong legal clothes for what a club is. The difficulty here is and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this but we don’t consider supporters to be customers, they are supporters.”

We could go into the theoretical and philosophical viewpoints which there’s a time and a place for but James was purely focussed on the real world.

“The problem is if you don’t give supporters, a group that aren’t going to move to another product, if you don’t give them any voice then really they’ve only got two choices. One is to disassociate themselves with it completely which if you are an owner of that club is not a good thing.”

 “Or if there’s no voice then people will actively campaign and again from a private owner prospective, you can create a lot of negative noise around a football club say around Newcastle United where the whole community is pretty much up in arms at the way it is being run.”

A more recent example we can look at now is Hull City whose owner has been embarked on a one man mission to outdo Mike Ashley and be the most hated man owning a football club, with Vincent Tan at Cardiff Red Dragons having been the model that Hull are seemingly set to follow.

The problem with James and his argument for me which we will return to later is that people are still putting up with it. We might think that we have moral ownership but being realistic, if you keep giving these people your cash then the message they are getting is that you will take it. You’ll take the name changes, the kit changes and you may not like it but you will continue to line their pockets by buying a ticket. My opinion is protests where you still give people your cash are hollow protests but we’ll come back to it.

Club Development

The other issue is that, like good old fashioned pubs and as my last blog post on Hendon FC makes crystal clear,  the issue for us that care is if you are the owner then in many cases there is more money to be made in asset stripping the club and shutting it down, rather than running it as a business.

For fan owned clubs this season there has been many highlights with Scarborough and Darlington both announcing they are going home for next season. More recently Fisher FC are one step closer to being back home after planning permission was granted for a state of the art 3G surface which will start a virtuous circle for the club.

There are plenty of good stories I have already but for James, what is the biggest success story for Supporters Direct now?

James was understandably cautious. “That’s a difficult one; I’m going to upset everyone.” So I allowed him to break it down with the first focus being the policy areas.

“Football would never be honest enough to give us any credit for any of the suggestions we’ve made really but what we have seen from our policy work is that a lot of things that we talk about our happening, albeit not necessarily we’ve be given credit for.”

“Things like financial fair play, quarterly HMRC tax reporting which now goes on and was a massive issue, the supporter liaison officer roles have got miles to go in our book to be effective but at least there’s a formalised position the supporter has at the club which they never had before. Insolvency rules are coming more and more advanced but there’s still a huge way to go…”

On the flip side of the clubs themselves James gave his own personal experience and was quick to point out that a lot of the success stories “it’s really the work of our members”.

“In my personal work since I’ve been here I’ve been lucky enough to work on some of the recent takeovers. So Portsmouth, Wrexham and it’s difficult for me to single out one of the clubs because each in their own right is a fantastic story.”

At this point James pre-empted my next question by turning to look at the failures but also taken a broader view of what can be considered a success or failure.

“Often what gets over looked is what is defined as a ‘failure’. So with each one of the clubs that have been in community ownership and then it’s gone back to private ownership. Within each of those stories there’s actually massive success which has sometimes been perceived as ‘failure’. We’d love those clubs to still be community owned and perhaps in a small part we are better equipped to help clubs which are community owned.”

 This of course was always going to be the case. At the start when it’s only a small amount of clubs it was going to be a challenge in terms of how to raise finance and aid a clubs development. Now, we’ve seen AFC Wimbledon enjoy success to reach the football league and I have no doubt that when Portsmouth gradually clear off the debt to ex-players they will be back in the Championship inside the decade.

So we’d talked about non-league teams but did James feel there’s momentum within the Football League, looking to the four examples that exist in League 2, for this to become the model?

I think one good barometer is when I started here 5 years ago I felt like we were persuading people this was the right model.

“Now, I feel like the majority of people who speak to us feel this is the right model and we don’t have to make the case. It’s about trying to make sure that the opportunities that present themselves to us will work.”

James was however keen to stress how much easier it was for non-league teams to transition into fan ownership.

“The lower leagues are much easier because the amounts to raise are much less and you know there’s a lot less…there’s still some unpicking to be done around loans, debts, asset stripping and all sorts of things but it’s more manageable. It’s multiple and the interest is multiplied the further you get up the league.

“Your also then competing with people who also might be interested in taking on the club for whatever reason and they’ve got access to the capital that takes you time to raise, immediately.”

My fear is not of course with the increase in fan ownership at any level but how it could be categorised by those at the higher levels because, as James points out, it’s inevitably easier to make fan ownership happen in the non-league. Then fan ownership will only become seen as for the ‘little’ teams.

That’s not to mention the joke of the two up two down of promotion from the conference which I fear will create a bottle neck of fan owned clubs who can’t break through because the amount of money having to gamble on one of two promotion spots is completely unsustainable.

I stated that there’s no way that Man United will ever become fan owned and it was at this point James stepped in.

“I would actually disagree.”

(Me) Really?

“What I’d say is as we know, in countries like Germany this model isn’t for little teams, this model is for Bayern Munich, this model is for 36 out of 38 Bundesliga clubs. So the problem isn’t the model, it’s the landscape in which we operate.”

(Me) Although you accept for that to happen (for Man Utd to be fan owned), the law will have to change?

“Yeah. I mean it would it much easier if clubs couldn’t get into that much debt but the amount of money in Premier League makes it more difficult because owners want to hold on until every last bit of the parachute payment is gone. So, in some ways it (a law change) would make it a lot easier. A slight concern I have is it might cement the position of owners who are not allowed to get a club into more debt and turning it into an arms race would almost by virtue make it profitably and then it becomes a different proposition, it becomes more of an investment.”

I am not sure I share that as a concern. I mean what is the reason for clubs becoming fan owned if not for it to be a long term investment. If a club can have its assets protected whereby the owner can’t run off with them, clubs drastically cut their wages as they have a debt ceiling and therefore (hopefully) prices can come down. Is fan ownership a means to an end or an end in itself? The answer probably is both.

Back to James though to outline not a hypothetical situation but the reality of the here and now and how Supporters Direct will respond.

“What we can do is: Try our best to change the landscape that exists mainly in the Premier League and Football League. Keeping pressure on the government, to keep an eye on what’s going on. There’s been this long running governance review which is tiresome but important that it maintains its place in keeping a watching eye.”

Until things like licensing and better distribution of the money (in football) comes into the game then we’ll constantly keep pushing for changes.

We talked about Man United but I gave FC United of Manchester as an example of in many ways proving the point, although they would be loath to put it in these terms, that the only real choice as a consumer is to break and do it yourself. FC United will be moving into a swanky new stadium next season and like most I now expect them to progress to the Conference within the next four seasons (including this one). With this in mind, would James advise people if you really are that frustrated then the best thing to do is actually to… go make your own?

1874 Northwich

Breakaway club 1874 with their first piece of Silverware.

James was balanced in his response but was reaching a conclusion that he didn’t appear to feel particularly comfortable with.  He appeared also to be arguing it out with himself.

“It’s a very interesting question. What I would say and this is the problem because often people can’t understand that we do this but if you look dispassionately at the problem. We will always, and alongside the supporters trusts and many other people try and change the game but dispassionately…”

“If you sell a vision to a big community of people that want to see a football club run a different way and you can keep those people together it’s quite, it’s the simplest way. Set up your own football club, climb through the pyramid and be a formidable force.”

I know why it’s tough for James in his position to reach that conclusion and perhaps it’s not really possible to advocate what would essentially be an open rebellion against football if, as Supporters Direct is, you are in the business of engaging with owners as well as trusts. Being seen as militant probably won’t do the organisation any favours.

Nevertheless, I was keen to press James with a very recent and ongoing example. I gave the example of Coventry City FC. What would James say to Coventry fans and the Sky Blues Trust? They were set to play AFC Wimbledon in an FA Cup match are couple of days after the interview with AFC Wimbledon being the club who was moved originally. The ground itself in Coventry is owned by the council and a trust so wouldn’t that be an example of in the long term: Your never going to be able to take control of that club and now that it’s not playing in Coventry, could that be an example where they should walk away?

“As I say, I can’t make that decision…”

(Me) But would you make that argument? Not the decision…

Eventually James gave a fuller response.

“If you knew, personally, if you knew that the hedge fund SISU were going to continue running that club for generations and be playing out of the city, then I think everyone would say that’s not the club I remember supporting and we’ll do our best to create a genuine continuation of Coventry City we love and play in the City and run it as proper custodians.”

However even after this comment James was still hopeful of another resolution which wasn’t so drastic and also was keen not to let the Football League off the hook for their role in this increasingly sad and sorry affair at Coventry City FC.

“But you know it’s so difficult to not consider there is solution to bring that club back is just… In saying that there’s a number of questionable decisions that have led to them playing there.”

(Me) Football League?

“The Football League, I find it difficult to see how they’ve justified that within their rules. I think…”

(Me) It’s AFC Wimbledon all over again.

“Absolutely. There is a kind of catch all clause within their League Rules to give discretion to the board but… I think they’re in a very difficult position but they shouldn’t be in that position because at the moment it seems like their argument is: “Well, there wouldn’t have been a team next year and we would’ve got lots of flak for that” but you expect more from a regulator.”

With all the money that’s going into the game they should be able to put up a stronger defence then that otherwise what’s the point in having the rules in the first place?

Moving off the subject and towards the end of the interview, we looked to the future. I commented how fan owned clubs really felt like a football family with all of them helping each other. Every club I have been to (bar Enfield Town FC) had been the first to praise the help they received of other clubs from their first meeting about whether becoming fan owned is the route to take, all the way to the present day.

So I asked James to paint my a picture of where this movement could be in 10 years and how far can it go?

“We’re extremely excited; I mean there is so much going on at the moment. There are two sides to this and they’re interlinked: There’s the groups with Supporters Trusts that don’t have ownership of their clubs which is the vast majority to be fair. They will continue playing an absolutely critical role in keeping a watching eye and in some cases have a decent working relationship with owners of the club, like Swansea.”

“There’s that side of things and it would be good if every club had a Supporters Trust that were active, that was credible and was either working towards ownership or some degree of influence.”

Moving onto the other side reveals the extent of James and Supporters Directs ambitions for just how much more they intend to see fan ownership develop in this Country.

“Particularly through the club development, I would love to see us have hundreds if not thousands of clubs throughout the non-league pyramid reaching up into the league at whatever level they can sustain themselves being community owned.”

Now if thousands seems like an overestimation then perhaps it’s a good sign of the bold plans that Supporters Direct have for football. I don’t know if there’s enough clubs out there that exist to be converted but James presses on.

“There’s enough reasons for the smaller clubs to incorporate, their sitting on assets which need protecting or they want grant funding, there’s enough reasons to become community owned. These clubs all buy into the same principles, as you’ve seen travelling around, they will help each other.”

“Lots of people have got skills, that want to help and like this model who can be brought in to help. So there’s a real space for this and it breeds better run clubs and potentially it brings lobbying from within the game. It might start in the lower leagues but it will grow.”

“If we can combine that with changes to the regulatory system and more and more grounds protected, more transparency which stops unscrupulous owners getting hold of the bigger clubs then at least we’re flushing out people who don’t have the best interests of that club at heart and we can run them out of the game.”

James indeed did point out that there were of course good owners who run clubs well and he had no desire to “stick two fingers up to those guys” but stressed that in his last words of this interview that Supporters Direct wants to see “people who own these clubs have got the clubs interests at heart.”

There can be no better model for ensuring that then being run by the fans.

Update

James was recently helping fans of the now liquidated Hinckley FC embark on coming back as a fan owned club. On Monday 9th November, over 150 people showed up to agree that Hinckley should start again as a fan owned club. So watch this space.

You can follow more football ramblings by me on Twitter @eddyman00

Notes

Both pictures from the Club Development Magazine are (obviously) from Supporters Direct.

The Tranmere Rovers Trust Logo is from their website here.

The 1874 Northwich Photo is the property of 1874 Northwich and having granted me permission to use it previously I am hoping that hasn’t changed. 1874 Northwich can be found here.

Links

http://www.supporters-direct.org/

Brian Lomax: A profile by Tom Young.

A Game of Numbers Video- A New York Times Op- Doc by Kris Hofmann and Phil Wall

The luck of the draw: On the Terraces with Hendon FC (vs. Bideford 3rd November)

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hendon-fc

Firstly, massive apologies to those (brave few) regular readers of this, I have had essays to get done and therefore the write ups have taken a back seat. I now intend to put my arse into gear and get four (yes four) up by the end of the week.

In this one, we go back a month to see how fan owned club number nine, Hendon FC, were getting on…

So, I found myself on a rather bleak day making the visit back into London, to Harrow Borough FC. Not to watch them of course but Hendon FC. Starting their existence in 1908 as Christchurch Hampstead, the club has gone through several name changes with Hendon FC being the name of choice since 1946.

The club has plied it’s trade in the Isthmian League (Ryman) ever since 1963 when it was first accepted into the league, although they have enjoyed exploits in the FA Cup with a 3rd Round tie against Newcastle in 1974 going to a replay being the greatest highlight in the post war era.

Long gone are the heady days of FA Cup runs though and in modern times the club is fighting for the right to live, having to groundshare with Harrow Borough and no concrete plans or hope of moving back to the area from where it takes its name.

I think that the story of Hendon may be the most depressing of all that I face this season, only improved by the heroic efforts of those involved in keeping it alive. The club previously played at Claremont Road until 2008 when 81 years of history was disposed of with the clubs eviction.

This season, the club after a poor start in the League had come back strongly so that by the time I went to see them they were nestled comfortably in mid-table, adrift from both the play-off spots but also the relegation zone. Today though was not about the league but the FA Trophy.

Having knocked out Cray Wanders in first round qualifying 4-1 they had the chance to advance in the FA Trophy but they would be up against Bideford, who were flying high in the Southern Premier which is the same Step in the football pyramid as Hendon. Having been dumped out of the FA Cup second qualifying round against Bishop’s Stortford 5-0, the FA Trophy represented the last change for prize money which can be crucial at this level of football.

So another visit to London beckoned and this time on a Sunday, I made my way to Harrow Borough FC via a petrol station to enquire if anyone knew where the ground was. Luckily for me, someone did know where it was and after a short walk I was outside Harrow Borough FC. The ground itself is tucked away in a residential area and so hidden you could walk right past and miss it.

I stepped into the bar at around 1:00pm to be greeted by a few nods and such. There was a group of elderly Hendon supporters who turned out to be mother and son, with the son taking care of his Mum in the wheelchair. It was a cosy enough space and more people trickled their way into the bar, some of them headed straight over to the telly to watch whichever match was on Sky Sports (I don’t care), others to catch up.

It was a very elderly crowd with weathered faces all keen to take refuge from what was an increasingly chilly day. I went up the bar to grab a pint of Murphy’s for what is in London the very cheap price of £3.15 or around that.

As I went back to my seat I was asked by a group of lads, slightly older than me I thought asked if they could take a seat. After talking, I discovered that they were in fact Norwegian blokes who were over in England and were keen to take in some football. They had been to Portsmouth vs. Exeter (two fan owned clubs) and had now found their way to be watching Hendon FC.

We ended up discussing football and how it’s run in Norway, with me enquiring about how clubs are run there and whether Rosenborg were fan owned. They said they weren’t and that there is a members control in most clubs in Norway but it was all good pub talk. They were more pre-occupied with finding out if their team was losing, as Steinar Sol (here) didn’t want his teams players (can’t remember which team) to get bonuses this season as they’d been “shit”.

With that done, I went upstairs to go and find Simon Lawrence, who is Chairman of Hendon FC and had been decent enough to agree to speak to me. After walking up the stairs I approached the board room and was greeted with a “No Jeans” sign. Unfortunately, I was once again dressed like a tramp but luckily enough the tea lady let me in and gave me… a cup of tea (hence the name).

After listening in on the officials whining about the FA, Simon appeared and we made our way into the secretaries room looking out onto the pitch. Simon himself is a fairly big guy with a few dots of grey hair on his head, probably due to the stress of running the club and today seemed quite nervous.

Anyway, cup of tea to one side and having shuffled some papers around, we were ready to begin.

Hendon Pic 1

So, first question, how did the club turn to fan ownership and what were the reasons behind that?

“The reasons were straightforward. The club was owned by a company called Arbiter group. Chairman called Ivor Arbiter; he came into club as sponsor. Club had Fender Guitars as its sponsor and that was one of Arbiters brands. When the previous owner Victor Green left the club, Ivor stepped in.”

“The club did very well from the mid 1990’s through to the early 2000’s, some good FA Cup runs, some great memories but in the mid 2000’s it became clear that the club was not financially sustainable and Ivor at every opportunity was reminding the supporters that, for there to be long term sustainability the club had to be viable without an injection of cash from a benevolent owner.”

“Eventually, the message was heard. Ivor’s health also started to deteriorate at that time and from what we understand the business also started to deteriorate so it was a bit of a perfect storm. A group of supporters decided that the way forward was to form a Supporter’s Trust. Our motto was plan for the best, prepare for the worst.”

“At that time, a deal was being hatched whereby the Chairman would retire from the business and retain ownership of the club. In retiring, he would take cash from the business for his own retirement but also to help secure the club by moving us from Claremont Road to Copthall Stadium which was a 12 lane athletics track stadium.”

Copthall Stadium is now the home of Saracens Rugby club and is clearly too big for Hendon.

“We had all watched Hendon play at places like Harlow, Croydon and the one thing we knew was that represented the death nail to the club because there’s no atmosphere in those kind of stadiums, when there’s only a couple of hundred people watching and that was our attendance at the time. There were no transport links either, we were very nervous about the move to Copthall.”

“Fast forward a little bit and Ivor sadly passed away , and fast forward a little bit further still and we’d set up a trust and the position we were in, in having no expenditure whatsoever as a trust but having the opportunity to raise some income. So we raised a fighting fund in the order of six figures.”

“We were then told by the then owner that there was no money left, the bank was not allowing them to spend any more money on the football club and the club was going to close.”

I am always amazed at how a small band of people can raise such a staggering amount of money. Stuart would continue to lay out the details of what was a very disheartening story and I could tell by his voice that it wasn’t one he particularly enjoyed reciting. He ploughed on regardless.

   “We took the club on for a pound. No debt but no ground. The deal was we would take on the football club: The history, the memorabilia, the website, the kit but the main asset of the ground, would not be available to us.”

So here it is again I thought, another story of asset stripping and more vandalism of history. This is part of the reason why it has taken me a long time to finish this off. I am a very depressive person anyway and the story of Hendon FC is crushing on the soul.

I asked Simon if he could just confirm the inevitable.

(Me) The ownership of the club retained the only viable asset?

“Correct.”

(Me) Is that an example of asset stripping? Or is it to clear the debt because it doesn’t… I mean you’ve laid it out very clearly that they have given you the club but they’ve taken the only asset and there doesn’t seem to be any recompense there?

Simon, who my sympathy for was growing  by the minute tried, as he put it, to be “as even handed as possible.”

“Your analysis is not far off our own. There were a number of years when that company incurred costs net of playing operations. In the accounts of Hendon Football Club limited, there was a debt of around about four million pounds accumulated… We don’t know exactly how that was accumulated. We don’t believe that debt came about through purely football operations. We think there were other items that were attributed.”

Again, we have heard of crazy numbers of debts on this site before but four million pounds? That amount of debt on a Ryman League team? Something here just doesn’t add up. I asked Simon whether he felt that debts may have been ‘transferred’ onto the club by the ownership.

Simon was understandably cautious in his response.

“All I can say is, given the way the club was run at the time, given the quality of the squad we had, no-one in the higher echelons of the trust could figure out how such a significant debt had accumulated at Hendon FC Limited.”

I asked Simon whether the trust had any access to any financial documents or transparency when they took over.

The question seems, even to me, a bit rude and naïve. Here is Simon and the Trust, having managed to rescue their club by the skin of their teeth when they had been told that it was to be made extinct. Then here’s me, who had done nothing, demanding they could have done more. Luckily for me, Simon wasn’t taken aback and responded with frankness.

“Effectively it was the opportunity to secure the clubs existence by taking on the club for a pound but nothing else was available to us. I should backtrack slightly, when the deal was being hatched with the original chairman, there was an email sent stating that the plan was always, having gone their separate ways the club and the business (the business owning the lease on the ground) would then one day or another redevelop the ground for residential use.”

So far it’s simple enough. Here’s where it gets slightly interesting or ambiguous from the email.

“The idea was that if the ground was redeveloped and if there was “enough”, if the profits were enough then part of that profit would be passed along to the football club.”

Unsurprisingly as Simon would inform me, “‘Enough’ wasn’t quantified in that email but the former owners agreed to pass on that obligation.” Simon’s voice didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that this obligation would be honoured anytime soon.

(Me) There’s no contractual basis for that (the obligation in the e-mail), that’s just pie in the sky?

“Correct. It’s not going to happen.”

What about Hendon FC’s old home of 81 years, Claremont Road?

“Initially my understanding was that the London borough of Barnet would buy the leasehold from the Arbiter group and the London Borough of Barnet would arrange for the land to be redeveloped. The Arbiter Group would receive a cash lump sum for the remaining leasehold.”

 (Me) Everyone wins…

Everyone wins except us.

What can you say to that? At this point, I was completely drained. A council had got a nice deal to make itself a cosy earner along with property developers. Hendon FC was an inconvenience to be removed so that both parties could continue their brave new worlds of property speculation. It is everything that is wrong with this country and London in particular.

All that history, an institution spanning so many years was earmarked for extinction so that, well for what? I’d love to have someone explain to me how providing a couple more houses which no working class person could ever afford is worth the destruction of all that heritage is a good thing. How is that better?

Bluntly, the people involved in this should be ashamed of themselves and if they were Conservatives who passed this (who are supposed to, you know, be in favour of conserving stuff) then they are unworthy of the word and should just get another title of ‘money grabbing $*!#%.

I was however very pleased to hear that the two parties involved in this nice arrangement had not had it all their own way as Simon elaborated.

“The deal was then swapped around and is still in the process of being sold to a successor to the Arbiter group and then the successor company will develop the ground but that transaction has been beset by all sorts of problems from their point of view.”

“Restrictive covenants that needed to be overturned and were overturned by a combination of the former owner and the London Borough of Barnet. More recently in the public area were various squatters and travellers who’ve taken up residence.”

The old ground.

The old ground.

The club played the last ever fixture at Claremont on the 20th September 2008, it is now over five years since that day and still the old ground remains undeveloped. This article from ‘Barnet Today’ here gives but a snapshot of just how fraught this has been. Bids and counter bids, lack of information and awareness of the public tender, judicial reviews and appeals of those judicial reviews.

In fact as Simon has noted, the only thing that has changed is whereas once there stood a proud and well-kept football club, it has been left to become a ruin and very recently a group of Romanian immigrant’s new home as you can see here (and if you want some cheery photos here).

“So we found ourselves in the 2008-09 season of being evicted from our ground quite early on in the season in September. We had in place an agreement in principle with Wembley FC but because that wasn’t set in stone, the fixtures weren’t synchronised and that meant there were far too many clashes for it to be feasible. So we effectively played as nomads for the 2008-09 season. We played a few games at Wembley, here at Harrow Borough, at Northwood. Very kindly, we were invited to play at Staines Town, when every other local ground was in use.”

“We started our groundshare at Wembley in 2009-10 and we were there until now when we decided to set up residence here at Harrow Borough, this is the first of a three year agreement that we have.”

The fact that the club is still here, still in existence, is truly amazing. The amount of work that has to be put in to run a football club, let alone one in Hendon’s precarious position is as I said to Simon himself, the highest compliment I can give him.

Unfortunately, my questions meant the negatives just kept on coming. I asked how difficult it was to keep and attract a fanbase when not having a ground they could call their own.

“It is as close to being impossible as you can find. If we had more resources available to us we’d be able to do a bit more community outreach. We’ve tried a number of things but without a great deal of success. We’ve tried setting up youth football and we were able to run youth football teams for a couple of seasons in the recent past but none this season.”

Everywhere I have been, having youth teams or youth development was a vital part of ensuring not only potential players of the future but indeed potential fans to ensure a club can be handed to the next generation. It also allows a club to gain a profile in its local area that it’s about more than the 90 minutes, which can help in terms of access to grants and funding.

Again, the club has been unable to achieve this and Simon outlines why this has not been possible.

“It’s a combination of things, the person we asked to spearhead our youth set up was a very successful part of a very successful youth set up in previous years. The individual found it very difficult to attract youth team players, clearly there is a dilemma. We’re Hendon football club but we’re going to be playing our games somewhere other than Hendon.”

“By Claremont Road ground there’s playing fields of three or four pitches and our youth teams would automatically play there, that’s been difficult. The individual is working in a different paradigm. You know, from 10-15 years ago things have just changed fundamentally. Back then, kids would kill to play football, they would kill to play for their local club. I don’t think kids do kill to play football anymore.”

Simon then embarks on recounting the various changes from when he started watching Hendon FC to the situation now.

“I think over a period of time, prior to the trust taking over, I think the relationship between the local community and the football club was also damaged. When I first started watching Hendon in 1970, the clubhouse was almost in constant use with bingo nights etc., the bar was almost the focal point of the community.”

“Demographically, the community was very, very different. It was typically white, working class who like their pint at night and go and watch the local football club Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening. The floodlights were like a clarion call that there was football and they’d flock over. As many inner city areas have changed there are now a lot of ethnic minorities, there is no cultural association with the local football club.”

There are two main things I will say about this. Firstly, if Simon’s trip down memory lane sounds like nostalgia… So what? There are many people who have seen areas and communities change and people have a right to a sense of loss and yes, sorrow at what has happened in their areas. There will be many people who feel that areas they live in or lived in are worse places now than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Those who say that people should move with the times should be aware that most people didn’t sign up to this lovely little project that massively changed areas across Britain, especially London. No one asked for it to happen, so for those ‘progressives’ to come sniggering along about how wonderful all this change has been should really try, if it’s possible, to have some humility.

Secondly, I will concede that technology cannot really be controlled. I am not asking people to ban video games consoles to get kids playing sport outside on cold days again nor that football on T.V should be banned. However, demographics and specifically immigration which has led to this massive change can be controlled.

I am not going to go on a sermon about immigration in this piece. I certainly will have to get writing about it purely because of the effect it is having on London clubs and it’s something that if I didn’t look at this season would be cowardly. To completely sidestep it’s impact would make anything written about London fan owned clubs intellectually bankrupt, it cannot be ignored but I don’t want it to take away from Hendon FC who are the point of this blog.

Gone before it's time...

Gone before it’s time…

Before we move off the subject another comparison with Enfield came up again, this one being the futility of the serious efforts by Hendon FC to engage the immigrant/ 2nd generation/ ‘diverse’ (whatever the progressive term is) community.

“You know, it’s a situation that was already quite tricky, has become impossible. We have tried hard in the past; we tried hard to engage with the local communities at Wembley and Sudbury when we were there. We tried earlier in the year to engage the Harrow community but again it’s the same kind of issues. We’ve door stepped, giving free tickets out and out of 2,000- 3,000 vouchers, 3 were returned.”

“You know, I’m just not convinced that there is anything more that we can do, given the resources we’ve got. We’re a small supporter base and even smaller volunteer base. We have one full time employee and all the rest have day jobs.”

 It’s the same story as Enfield. It’s not as if the clubs haven’t tried here. Again, you could just say: Well maybe people don’t want to watch Ryman league football on a cold November day but why is it that I keep hearing this from London clubs on a regular basis?

The difference between Enfield and Hendon is of course that Enfield, despite not playing brilliantly, has the long term security that the Queen Elizabeth Stadium provides. This leads us onto a potential plan for Hendon.

I was desperately trying to find some positives, some straws I could cling to. I asked Simon, well pleaded really if we can see a future for Hendon FC.  Short term it is survival but is there a plan to move back to Hendon? Is Hendon FC trying to speak to people? Is the local council actually involved, do they want to be involved?

 Again, like waves over King Cnut, the bad news just kept on coming. Simon laid it out.

“Barnet Football Club, as I am sure you can imagine, as the Premier football club in the Borough. I think it speaks volumes that Barnet Football Club, the flagship sporting operation in the London Borough of Barnet is now playing it’s football in the London Borough of Harrow.”

“Again, when we were evicted from Claremont Road I engaged with the then leader of the Council, as to what the council might be prepared to do in terms of helping to secure some kind of toe hold in the borough. I can probably dig out the email but I was told we would be able to hire a park pitch from them.”

You know, it speaks volumes. They had no interest in Hendon FC.

I didn’t know when I would do it in this post as twohundredpercent has little on Hendon football club but if you look a Barnet there is a wealth of information about how obstructive and contemptuous the local council has been of that Football club. You can see all the happy details here.

Barnet football club are no longer playing in Barnet and as Simon went onto explain when I asked if there was any chance of both clubs ganging up to get something done, he doesn’t see a return being likely for Barnet.

“It’s a very sensible suggestion, it’s something we’ve thought about but again I think there… I personally anticipate a number of issues with that. I’m not necessarily 100% convinced that Barnet Football Club is disappointed that it’s now playing it’s football outside the borough.”

It should be noted fairly on Barnet’s behalf that you can’t blame them either.

“The Hive is a fantastic facility. It’s an enviable facility. I suspect it’s the best facility in non-league football and it represents a significant opportunity for Barnet to consolidate and push on. I’m not sure that would be available to them if they continue to play at Underhill or sought to play there football somewhere else in the London Borough of Barnet.”

“I think there all sorts of political problems with the council bringing in a tenant. Simply because the Hive was originally earmarked to be Wealdstone’s ground. Wealdstone supporters would say they have that stolen from them. I think the reality is, is that Wealdstone were not able to consecrate the deal and Barnet did. So there’s a lot of tension between Wealdstone and Barnet.”

I don’t think it would be in Barnet’s interest to engage with Hendon football club.

So, is there any hope for Hendon FC? Simon makes an observation which I think will be true.

“Where I think Hendon Football Club will be very different as a fans owned club to others your visiting is that we’ve reached the conclusion that for Hendon Football Club to be successful, it can’t be fan owned.”

Now of course this blog is about fan ownership and extolling its virtues but one thing they lack is shed loads of money from a few individuals. Normally, this is mitigated by grant money and a healthy relationship with stakeholders like the local council who… Well, we know that’s unlikely.

It should be noted that this is not a knock on the model of fan ownership at all and again Hendon FC for all the negatives is still a success story. This club is supposed to be extinct now and it was supposed to be killed off several years ago.

It’s through the superhuman efforts of Simon and the hard-core that have kept the club alive off the pitch and fairly successful on it. If the club had been owned by the fans, whilst still in possession of the ground, I can be certain that they would have done a fantastic job of it. They would have that base to build but I am going to stop myself there. It’s no good daydreaming about what might’ve been and Simon himself is very much focused on creating some sort of future for Hendon FC.

He lays out the options. “I think what we need to find is a partner, which may be a new owner but a partner who would invest in the community. That’s the only sustainable basis.  Someone who would say that Hendon Football club is not the be all and end all but that Hendon football club needs to become the focus of a community asset.”

“For Hendon to become a community asset then someone needs to have a bigger heart than probably we have and certainly deeper pockets than we have. Who is prepared to invest not in the traditional dream of Premier league football and Europe but the dream needs to be an asset that is available to the community. Inevitably, it needs to be an artificial pitch which can be used seven days a week to generate that income but also something out there for the community.”

So, if there are any super rich people who can actually afford to buy land in London unlike the rest of us mortals then there’s a football club that could do with a helping hand.

The finances are again something which hangs precariously as Simon explains.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the last 3 or 4 years that we’ve had very good cup runs. Two trips to the 4th Qualifying Round and two to the First Round Proper. And they bring their rewards, the FA Trophy… not so much.”

“This season, we were out of the FA Cup very early. We’re about to go and watch an FA Trophy match and an awful lot hinges on it.”

So how important was the game today?

“Very. It’s very, very important. Rightly or wrongly, most would say wrongly, we would say justifiably our playing budget depends this season on success in the FA Cup and the FA Trophy. It’s not a position that we take lightly but you’ve got to try and balance. We want to stay in this league for as long as we can and you have to balance off the risk of falling out of this division against the benefits of staying in this division. So we’ve taken a decision over the last two or three seasons that the budget is boosted by the promise or the potential of FA Cup or Trophy runs.”

Normally, in fact in virtually all other situations, I would be heavily critical of this and would go on for an age about how it’s the wrong ethos, unsustainable and all the rest of it. I really mean it and those things matter but sitting there with Simon, I couldn’t criticise or fault him. He had the look of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, trying to defy gravity and when he told me they want to stay in the league for as long as they can, I could feel the desperation in his voice.

Who was I to say anything about how to run this club? The man is truly amazing how he continues to battle for his club, surely they deserve the luck of the draw which throughout this story has eluded them.

I tried to find some way of concluding in a way which allowed for some hope to come forth. So I asked the dreaded ‘if’ question.

(Me) If someone from Barnet Council was here and they were sitting in this chair and they actually gave a toss, what would you say to them?

“I would say now, we have been an asset to the London Borough of Barnet for over 100 years and it’s now time that you recognised the history and the tradition and what we’ve brought to the table, to the extent that you sit down with us and help us to work out a survival plan that enables us to be that community club that we want to be.”

“Kids, Juniors, Under 21’s: they can play there earliest games of football on our 3G turf and we can make this club a credit to the London Borough of Barnet.”

It can be something the Borough is proud of.

“That’s what I would say to the London Borough of Barnet.”

So with that, we shook hands and I headed back to the bar, for a quick pint before kick-off. I have to say, having heard that story I wasn’t looking forward to the game. At other games I could enjoy it if the game wasn’t terrible and win, lose or draw it wasn’t the end of the world. Here, the result really mattered in a way that a game in the FA Trophy in November shouldn’t. This was about survival.

I stepped in and paid my £5 for the game and went to stand on the halfway line, right by the Norwegians who had come out. The game kicked off and Hendon were 90 minutes away from being in for a very tough season.

Within side the first ten minutes, things took a turn for the worse. After going up for what looked like a fairly innocuous challenge from Hendon’s Casey Maclaren, it led to his instant dismissal by the referee. There was contact but no reaction from any players and we all thought it would just be a free kick.

So, Hendon were going to be up against it. Only they weren’t. Despite being down to ten men Hendon were playing some very decent football and looked just as good as Lewes in terms of confidence on the ball and creative play. They were hitting the channels very well and if they had done at bit more on the set pieces they could’ve been heading in a goal to the good.

As it was they went in to half time at 0-0. Emerging for the second half, I wondered around the ground to go behind the Bideford goal and spotted Simon, whose face was considerably paler than it had been around an hour earlier. He was not enjoying the game at all.

It wasn’t to get any better as the extra man began to show for Bideford and they penned in Hendon, who were dropping deeper and deeper into their own half before Bideford seemed permanently camped outside their area.

It took some very smart saves from the Hendon goalkeeper and very solid defensive headers inside the box from central defenders Chris Seeby and James Fisher to keep it at nil nil. Gradually though, Bideford seemed to run out of ideas and looked increasingly toothless despite having a monopoly on possession.

It was to get better for Hendon when Rob Farkins of Bideford was sent off in the 70th minute for a challenge which looked like a mirror image of the challenge which reduced Hendon to 10 men, which is to say it in no way looked like a sending off.

The Bideford goalie turned to us, furious and said “We knew he was going to try and even it up.” Even up the referee did but Hendon didn’t go any more attacking. There was no taking advantage of the teams being even as Hendon still sat. Bideford in fact looked hungrier and spurred on to grab a winner.

That was until Hendon got the ball down (my view) the right flank, when the ball was whipped in perfectly and the first time that Hendon had committed players all game to get in the box, Dave Diedhiou arrived unmarked and rose to hammer a header into the Bideford net.

The goal in all it’s grainy and amateur glory can be seen here.

It’s safe to say that Simon was going mental, as all of us were. Now I’ve been to games at other fan owned clubs and celebrated goals. There are not my teams but I obviously want them to win but here it was different. On a cold Novembers day in Harrow I went nuts, hugging random strangers, Simon and generally being ecstatic.

I knew how much the game mattered, really mattered, to Hendon FC and its survival and I was just, well I felt Simon deserved it for all the work he had put in to keep this club going, to get the rub of the green. It wasn’t over yet though and with ten minutes on the clock we expected a barrage from Bideford.

However, it never came and in fact Hendon were for the first time in the match dominated the game by winning corners, free kicks and going close a couple of times to making it 2-0. In the end, Bideford had nothing left and when that final whistle blew Simon, for the first time on that Sunday, had a smile on his face.

Hendon had done it and as we walked through to the exit by the players, Simon was (along with everyone else of course) elated. The manager and the players got a deserved chorus of approval in what was becoming a very cold November evening and Hendon were through to the next round.

I offered to get Simon a well-earned pint but he had to dash so I retired to the nice warm lounge and stayed to be the last person there along with my new mates from Norway who even got me a pint. (What? I’m a cheap date.)

We headed back on the tube and a couple of hours later I was back in Guildford, very pleased that I had made the trip and allowed myself to have a little hope or Hendon when I had spent all day feeling incredibly down about their future.

They had won in their second round qualifying FA Trophy match and had won £3,250 in prize money. Add that to last rounds £2,700 and they had made roughly £6,000 plus half of whatever they got from ticket money, which wouldn’t be huge.

Since I have been there (and it was a while ago now) they were able to beat Oxford City, who play a step above them in the pyramid, 2-1 and earn themselves another £4,000. In the 1st round proper, where you can draw a big team like Wrexham or Cambridge they could count themselves very fortunate to be drawn at home (again) against Whitstable Town FC.

Whitstable were won of the lowest ranked teams left in the competition and this represented the best chance to go through. However, so often in football we know that who should win on paper and who wins on the field isn’t the same. Hendon lost 2-1 conceding two goals in the space of five minutes.

Again, there is no point in looking at what if’s now. It will be hugely disappointing to everyone at the club they have missed out. They made £10,000 in prize money from the FA Trophy this season and I have no idea if that’s enough. I really hope it is.

I’m not sure really how I sum all this up really. It is I am sure going to be the most, I don’t want to say negative but toughest story of a fan owned club this season without a doubt. Everywhere else the council is on board and everything seems to be in place for a surge but here Hendon FC is fighting for the right to live.

I know what I want to happen. I want Barnet Council to actually do something to help this football club, or at the very least the three Councillors of Hendon to actually, as I said earlier, give a toss. I want some super millionaire (the only time I will want this) to ring Simon and say “Would you like a 3G pitch in Hendon? Here you go then.” Or, I would like a good chunk of the money that will be made from the development of Hendon’s old home to go to the club.

However, I think all of the above options are as unlikely as the other. I felt crushed for Simon when I spoke to him. What could I say to him? Sorry? The club doesn’t need any sympathy, although perhaps some sense of acknowledgement and shame from those involved in bringing the club to the wall wouldn’t go amiss.

There are many who will say: “So what? How many people were there when you watched them? A couple hundred, then let it die.” Well that’s a viewpoint which many at the council probably approve of but it’s just such a cold and heartless position to hold.

In 1955, at the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, 100,000 people went to watch Hendon play against Bishops Auckland. 100,000. I know that they would all vote for Hendon to be given a chance of surviving but history and heritage doesn’t get a vote.

I also know, that every single one of those 100,000 people would turn in their graves if they knew what Barnet Council and others had done to Hendon FC and what’s perhaps more important, is they would applaud Simon Lawrence for carrying the torch for Hendon FC into the 21st Century… for however long he can.

You can follow hopefully more happy football ramblings on twitter @eddyman00

Notes

The logo of the club was taken from the Bishops Stortford FC club website here.

The second picture of Claremont Road was taken from the creative commons page on Wikipedia here.

The first and third pictures of Claremont Road were taken from Hendon FC images page here but the layout may slow down your PC.

I couldn’t find a place to put it in the article but here is evidence that Hendon FC gave to Parliament about how football is run and it’s worth a read.

Links

http://www.hendonfc.net/

Hendon FC Images

The FA Trophy

Barnet – Today: Council Agrees Sale

Daily Mail Article

BBC News

Two Hundred Percent

Tranmere Rovers FC: The Race is On.

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So after I got back from Lewis I was exhausted and ready to go to bed but something had showed up on my twitter feed which bolted me up. It was the news that Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust had declared their intent to buy their club. If successful, they would be the highest placed fan owned club in the English pyramid.  The Trust held a meeting on Saturday, announcing that the owner of the club fully intends to sell and the trust is up for a bid. They have stated they need to raise £500,000 by the 31st December, looking to have £250,000 raised by the time they play Bristol City at home on the 16th November.

Tranmere Rovers are currently plying their trade in League 1, the same league as the mighty Shrewsbury Town (stop laughing). Despite spending a lot of last season around the play offs they had a nightmare run in the second half of last season. That form has continued with them lying 21st in the table on twelve points. The attendances have dipped from just over 6000 last year to just over 4500 (link here), although they are still to play Wolves or Sheffield United which could boost this number.

The current owner (Peter Johnson), has been at the club in two separate spells and has had the club up for sale since 2002 or at least looking for that catch all phrase of investment. Why anyone would want to invest in a club that is, according to the Liverpool Echo, saddled with a £5 million to Johnson himself and around £2 million to the Allied Irish Bank I guess was never fully answered.

This again is one of those absurdities and myths which persist amongst some people. The idea of a rich sugar daddy giving his money to the club. If it’s a loan, he isn’t giving free money, he is transferring the liability onto the club. The club itself is reported to be making a £500,000 a year loss and you have to ask what kind of sensible businessman would allow this to happen if he wanted it to survive.

Of course, the fact that football at all levels pay absurd wages and deals to those involved means that to ‘compete’, then this sort of financial recklessness is unfortunately par for the course. The planned way of removing this debt is of course to sell off the assets of the club and this appears to be the plan to remove much of the debt to the soon to be former owner.

To the Tranmere Rovers Supporters Trust Prospectus then. One of the Trusts key aims is splashed across the first page of their plan.

We’ll run the club on a financially prudent and transparent basis.

On the transparency side, they are the only bidder to come out and announce their plans. Noone else has even though their is suggestions/ rumours there are other parties. The trust has had to sign an agreement meaning alot of details have to be withheld but they are being far more open than any potential “investor”.

Secondly, financial prudence. To do this, the trust plan to be in a position where the club is debt free by 2016. This would be a huge achievement and as the Trust notes would lead to a significant saving. Over £200,000 could be saved per year on what is currently spent on loan repayments and interest. With Tranmere having one of the lowest budgets in their league, this could represent a significant opportunity for on field investment in future years.

The trusts focus will be on engaging with their community. No longer run by an aloof owner but fans, whose passion for their football club doesn’t come from any individual gain. If you’ve been on this site you will know exactly how much difference that can mean.

Not only in terms of the added investment from local and regional commercial partners who may have been sceptical before (the trusts financial model predicts a 12% increase in income by 2015/16 season) but the ability to access grants which are not available to a sugar daddy.

A desire to make football affordable for every generation will create that strong fan base of the future. As clubs like Liverpool turn their focus to extracting as much as possible and whose interests lie in appeasing the ‘global market’, Tranmere will have an opportunity to build something that creates a real loyalty amongst younger generations in their area.

This represents a fantastic opportunity to become part of the ever growing family of fan owned football clubs and already messages of support have been sent from Andy Walsh at FC United and AFC Telford. I am sure behind the scenes expertise and advice is being given as well.

However, there will always be those who come up with criticisms which are in many cases a simple lack of understanding or a deliberate ignorance of the facts. That is not to say some are not valid but most of them can be dismissed quite easily which I will now do.

Firstly, the absurd notion that: “I don’t want the trust running the club/ not got the skills.” The trust won’t be running the club, it will own it. Through them they will then appoint Football Club’s board directors, charging them with executing the business plan and working within agreed budgets. Three members of the Trust Board would be on the executive board to ensure fan representation.

For the sake of argument let’s say that the trust was running the club? Would it be run by a bunch of amateurs, with no business experience…the answer, is no.

The Trust board contains businessman who’ve made big money and have high financial turnovers and the head of the trust, Ben Harrison, has been a Chief Executive at another operation for over a decade. The clubs financial plans are being over seen by Nick Igoe, a former financial director at West Ham who has been involved with assessing the viability of the Shots Trust taking over Aldershot earlier in the year.

Hardly amateurs and if anything you could argue it’s too gentrified, how many Tranmere fans are going to have been Chief Executives and investment managers?

Second, the list of fan owned football clubs is a list of teams without success. In fact the comment on one of the forums was “Wrexham, Portsmouth. I don’t want to end up like them”. This argument is backwards. It was not the fan ownership model which put them in that position. The fans did not send Portsmouth or Wrexham to the brink, private ownership and asset strippers did. All these clubs are examples against private ownership. You don’t want to end up like them, well you better buy the club as fans now before you find yourselves really in the shit after a buyer comes in, sells the ground and leaves you pretty much dead to rights.

In fact, fan owned clubs have been remarkably successful in cleaning up someone else’s mess. Wrexham Supporters Trust? When the WST took over in November 2011, the club was £1.5m in debt and losing £750,000 per year. Two years later, the club is debt free and losses have been stabilised. On the pitch they won the FA Trophy which meant that £50,000 for winning the final plus all the other extras (gate receipts, other rounds prize money) went directly back into the club. They have been in the play offs and were 90 mins away from being back in the football league. Two years.

The Conference itself is one of, if not the hardest league to get promoted from in British football and would anyone like to tell me how money bags Forest Green or 6000 plus attendances Luton have done over the years?

Onto Portsmouth, I’d advise you to have a look here at the mess PST has to clear up. Go on, look. It’s roughly 7 million quid. Now, when that has been cleared do you really think that Pompey won’t be successful? They average around 16,000 fans in League 2. That’s more than two years ago in the Championship (Link here).

Those fans at Pompey have moved mountains to save that club and when those debts are cleared and they start playing bigger teams who bring more fans… well that club will be in the Championship within the decade.

Look at Tranmere, attendances down from last year and with debts which hurt the side. Now I’m not saying they will be a Championship club but I can defiantly see you being a team in a couple of years who can be consistently challenging to get out of League 1 and enjoy a couple of years in the Championship.

The final criticism that unfortunately does have resonance is that you need to have someone flush with cash to compete. With the astronomical levels that other clubs pay, any team is forced to live outside its means to obtain the level that the fans have become accustomed to.

This in some cases is true. Back to Wrexham for an example of this because as only two teams go up there is always one each year who buys their way up. Crawley, Newport, Fleetwood and then the other teams are forced into a race of unsustainability. Parachute payments that the Premier League doles out are another example of this.

However, those days are going the way of the dodo. The figures of BDO LLP (see here), make for sobering reading. Over a third of club owners in League 1 are planning to sell up in the next 12- 18 months and one of the reasons is the sheer competition for promotion, pushing up players wages.

Well that will eventually be over because it will be unaffordable. Players are going to have to simply come back to earth with wages in line with the new financial reality. Now you can be ahead of that trend and have years on the clubs who have to make the transition… or you can wait until the wolves are at the door. Your choice.

This is to say nothing of the moral case for not being owned by some of the money men. Man City’s owners run Abu Dhabi where mass arrests have taken place (Here). Chelsea are owned by a man who has already declared he couldn’t care less about Chelsea and is used it for political protection after being involved in a cartel for Russian mineral rights. (Here)

Do you really think so little of your clubs proud heritage and tradition that you would hand it over to these kinds of people? For what? A few trinkets? Do you want that blood on your hands?

The Trust already has £100,000 in the bank. Money has been coming in for the £50 membership/ £300 share offer and I will put the link at the bottom to sign up. It’s time to pick a side and for all those times you’ve said that the fans are the club or that the ownership doesn’t listen or you are treated like a consumer and not a fan, you can now put your money where your mouth is.

I am someone who is passionate about fan ownership so when I come up to Liverpool to watch Prescot Cables (fan owned) play I hope I can catch the Trust to see how their getting on. When I meet them, I hope they bring a form so I can give my £50 to put my money where my mouth is, in the same way I am calling on you to do the same.

So, the club stands two months away from a change of owner. The race has begun for the soul of Tranmere Rovers Football Club… it’s one we can’t afford to lose.

You can follow my other ramblings on Twitter @eddyman00

Notes

http://www.tranmereroverstrust.co.uk/index.php/takeover/how-you-can-help The place to buy shares can be found here, if it doesn’t succeed you will receive money back.

http://www.tranmereroverstrust.co.uk/images/docs/trust_prospectus_v4.5.pdf The Trust Prospectus can be read in full here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmCtci6cen8 A broad outline of Matthew Syed detailed case against the Chelsea owner, his written work is behind a pay-wall.

 

Links

http://www.tranmereroverstrust.co.uk/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/23669759

http://thecowsheds.co.uk/forum/index.php (Tranmere Rovers forum)

http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/tranmere-fans-hoping-raise-500k-6246287

http://www.football-league.co.uk/page/DivisionalStats/0,,10794,00.html

http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/jul/30/manchester-city-human-rights-accusations

http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/sport/pompey/player-by-player-breakdown-of-what-pompey-owe-1-5468027

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