Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reality Bites

I'll attempt to put something up on here about the peculiar events of the last couple of evenings later tonight, but I felt that I should focus this evening on yet another of football's very own patented financial crises. This time, the new comes from the "fifth division", and it's a story with a stupendously predictable ending. It's a story of, at best, naivety and, at worst, stupidity, and the fall-out from it might yet lead to the collapse of one of non-league football's more enduring names. The Nationwide Conference has made a habit of having its constituent members endure the occasional financial crisis over the last few years or so. Since promotion to the Football League was introduced in 1987-88, crowds have consistently grown and, with the introduction of a second promotion place, there has been an almost unseemly rush to try and get a place in the League. In the last three years, Canvey Island resigned from the Conference for financial reasons, Scarborough were relegated because the Conference didn't believe that the club was financially stable, and Crawley Town have placed themselves into administration and sailed consistently close to a winding up order. Now we can add the list of Weymouth FC to this illustrious list.

Weymouth are traditionally one of non-league football's under-achievers. Tucked away on the coast in Dorset, they have a massive catchment area for support, but consistently failed to live up to their promise. They were founder members of the Alliance Premier League (as the Conference was known at the time) in 1979, and moved to a new stadium in 1987, but they were relegated in 1990 and hadn't seriously looked like getting back into non-league football's top tier in the decade that followed. In 2003, Daily Mail sports writer Ian Ridley took control of the club, and changes started to take place. Weymouth turned full-time, and former Portsmouth and Leicester City striker was placed in charge, and the club narrowly missed out on promotion back to the Conference. At this point, things started to turn sour for Ridley. He had invited a local millionaire, hotelier Martyn Harrison, to join the board, but Harrison wanted control in return for his financial stake. After a tussle for control, Ridley resigned and Harrison took control. He sacked Claridge more or less immediately and replaced him with Steve Johnson, but Weymouth slumped in the league, and Garry Hill was drafted in during the spring of 2005. They finished the season in seventh place.

As the only full-time club in the Conference South, they started the 2005-2006 season slowly, including a 4-0 thrashing at St Albans. Eventually, though, sheer purchase power started to show through. Players such as Rafael Nade (brought in on a season-long loan from Carlisle United) and Ashley Vickers (part of Hill's Dagenham & Redbridge team that held Newcastle to a draw in the FA Cup third round a couple of years previously) were too good for the Conference South, and Weymouth powered their way to the top of the Conference South. They had a run to the first round of the FA Cup, where they picked a up a sizeable pot of loot for holding Nottingham Forest to a draw at The City Ground, before losing the replay at home, live on Sky Sports.

There was, however, a thorn in their side. St Albans City had spent the previous couple of years battling doggedly against relegation from the Conference South. On the opening day of the season, they were a 66/1 shot for the Conference South championship, but somehow their team came together at the right time. They had goalkeeper Paul Bastock enjoying an Indian summer to his career after over a decade in goal for Boston United, a 25 goal per season striker in Lee Clarke, a languid, elegant midfielder called Tom Davis and a winger, Matthew Hann, who was showing the promise that had taken him into the first team at Notts County in his younger days. To Weymouth's distaste, The Saints kept on winning. City led the table by a hair's breadth for much of the spring, but the relationship between the two clubs deteriorated rapidly. For one thing, Ian Ridley, the now much-despised former Weymouth chairman, had resurfaced on the board at Clarence Park. For another thing, the feeling grew within Clarence Park that Weymouth were exceptionally bad sports. There was a mass brawl after Weymouth lost 1-0 at Welling in March. Every time Weymouth lost, their supporters' messageboard was packed with people slating the referee, the opposition for not playing their natural game and generally, well, having the temerity to beat them.

Then there was the Tony Taggart affair. Taggart had been signed from Weymouth by rival Conference South side Havant & Waterlooville early in the season, with an apparent gentleman's agreement for him to not play against Weymouth later in the season, but a run of injuries forced Havant to play him. They beat Weymouth 2-1, and an appeal was immediately lodged against the result. Havant claimed that it had been okayed before the match, and that Weymouth were only complaining because they had lost. To general astonishment, the Conference League committee ordered that the match be replayed - completely against the normal protocol in this sort of situation. This time, Havant appealed. The issue rumbled on until the 5th of April, when the FA ordered that the match should not be replayed, and that Havant should be deducted three points. This three month period had been particularly difficult for St Albans City, who argued that they shouldn't be put in a position, with less than a month of the season left to play, in which they didn't know what they needed to do to win the league.

It all came to a head with a winner-takes-all match at The Wessex Stadium between Weymouth and St Albans on Easter Monday. A crowd of 3,500 turned up for it, the biggest crowd at this level for years, but the ill-will that remained at the end of it left many in St Albans wondering whether they should have bothered making the journey in the first place. In spite of a 200 mile journey, over 300 St Albans supporters made the trip down to Weymouth, only to find that they had not been allocated any seats in the stand, and that they hadn't even been allocated a full terrace behind the goal - merely half a covered terrace, separated from the home supporters by little more than a sheet of chicken wire held together with plastic ties. In the rain. The stewards did their best, but as those of us from St Albans stood, having coins thrown at us from the other side of the laughable "segregation", tensions mounted, and eventually the fence started to be torn down. Stewards and the police rushed in to separate the two sets of supporters, and the area was eventually cleared. Whether this had any effect on the players is unknown, but Weymouth won 3-2 to go five points clear with just two matches left to play. They wrapped up the title a week later, and St Albans followed them up through winning in the play-offs.

By the start of this season, the cracks were starting to show. Their wage bill was rumoured to be a clearly unsustainable amount of over £20,000 per week, and the pressure was clearly starting to show on Harrison, who launched an astonishing public attack on the people of Weymouth after "just" 1800 people turned out for their second home match of the season against Cambridge United. On the pitch all was going well, and they received another little windfall in November when the BBC chose their FA Cup first round match against Bury as its live match for the round. They drew 2-2, before losing the replay 4-3 at Gigg Lane.

Off the pitch, though, tension were still rising with their newest rivals. Paul Hakim had signed for St Albans in the summer of 2004, and broke into the City first team in the autumn of that year to provide an extremely effective partnership with captain Lee Clarke. Upon promotion, he adjusted to life at the higher level much more quickly than Clarke, and was the top scorer when he was suddenly and inexplicably spotted at one of Martyn Harrison's hotels in Weymouth. That Saturday, he missed St Albans' match against Rushden, but the outrage in Hertfordshire was growing rapidly. Hakim was contracted to St Albans, and was their best player. What was he doing in Weymouth, and how had Weymouth found out that the FA had allegedly lost their copy of his contract? Quite where the answer to the second part of that question originated from, no-one can say for sure, but Weymouth had apparently received notification that the FA didn't have a copy of Hakim's contract, so they claimed to believe that he was not, in the strictest sense, a contracted player. It felt as if Weymouth were trying to manufacture a truth - that Hakim was a non-contract player that they could sign with no more than a seven day approach (which they hadn't done at the time that he was spotted in Dorset anyway). The saga ran on for a couple of weeks, with City stating they would take the matter to court if necessary, until the FA confirmed that they did after all have a copy of the contract. The move was off, and Hakim sheepishly returned to Clarence Park. He's back in the City team, but to say that he's unpopular there now would be an understatement, and his reputation is now, shall we say, "tarnished".

Weymouth's form in the league has been slipping slightly of late, but it's fair to say that seventh place in their first season after promotion was a pretty good performance. It was, therefore, a major shock when Garry Hill was sacked as their manager on Monday. On Tuesday, they announced that their entire first team squad had been put up for sale. The meltdown has started. The rumour mill has it that all of the full-time players have to go if they are to finish the season. The key issue here is the timing. The situation must be grave. They're well placed in the Conference, and a place in the play-offs, (and, therefore, possible promotion) is not beyond them. My best guess is this: someone has taken a look at the accounts and realised that they won't make it to the end of the season. The transfer window offers them their only chance to get some money in before the end of the season. They have, currently, 46 points. They probably need another five or six to avoid relegation, and then, during the summer, they can re-group. However, should they enter into administration, they'll be docked ten points and, with a team of youths and local players, a battle to stay up could be yet on the cards for them. If they do stay up, they then have to persuade the Conference that they will be able to fulfil their fixtures next season.

The blame, of course, lies squarely with Harrison. He has been at best naive, and at worst recklessly stupid. His supporters (and, surprisingly, there are still plenty of them amongst their fans) argue that Ian Ridley started the era of "spend spend spend" at The Wessex Stadium, but Harrison has been in charge there for getting on for two and a half years, and the debts have multiplied and multiplied. No-one makes money out of non-league football. There's no TV money to speak of (apart from FA Cup money), and sponsorship is almost negligible. Most clubs subsist on gate receipts and bar money. It's a massive achievement just to keep your head above water. What the hell must he have been thinking as the overdraft climbed up and up? We may find out in the fullness of time, but so far he has been tight-lipped. Notably, he hasn't resigned as chairman yet, though that can surely only be a matter of time.

As I said at the top of this piece, this seems to happen every year in the Conference. Clubs are over-spending in a bid for what they think will be fame, glory and riches in League 2. I've mentioned this fact before on here, but it needs to be repeated. Twenty years ago, when Enfield won it in front of average home crowds of 800, there were no professional teams in England outside the Football League. Now, there are twenty full-time clubs in the Conference, and only four part-time clubs. There is more money in football, but 90 per cent of it is in the Premiership, and 90 per cent of that is in the hands of the top four. We should be proud of the fact that we have over one hundred professional clubs in England, but the clubs themselves have a responsibility - they should never threaten their very existence chasing a dream.


Lieutenant Dub said...

Your article is as interesting and well-written as ever, but I think you're being a little harsh on the club in a couple of instances.

Firstly, Weymouth's catchment area isn't that big. The town of Weymouth has about 60,000 residents, many of whom are elderly retirees who are unlikely to attend football. Drive 30 miles to the north, east and west and you've a historically bigger club in each direction - Yeovil, Bournemouth and Exeter. In between Weymouth and these towns there is literally nothing, just mile after mile of green desert and a tiny number of angry yokels. The only significant nearby town is Dorchester, which has around 7,000 people and a sizeable non-league team of its own. In these circumstances, attendences of around 1000, which Weymouth achieved prior to Ridley's arrival, aren't too bad, and this makes Harrison's frustration at low attendences even less understandable.

Regarding the Tony Taggart affair, for instance, Havant clearly breached a written agreement - although, admittedly, not a contract as such - between the two clubs, and as such most Weymouth fans were pretty annoyed with the long, drawn-out decision making process of the Conference board. Weymouth fans were adamant that they'd been soundly beaten on the day, so there was no real desire to recover the points, but as Havant were in breach of an agreement, it can't really be said there were no grounds for the action, and blame for the inefficiency of non-league football administration, whilst fairly predictable, can't be laid at Weymouth's door. It's a bit of a stretch to say this made St Albans position much more uncertain than it was previously - especially as they ultimately finished eight points behind Weymouth and several clear of Havant (even without the eventual points deduction).

As for the Weymouth - St Albans game last year, whilst the behaviour of a few Weymouth 'fans' was very poor (and it seems it was more if a case of a few local yobs being attracted by a big crowd: in all the years I've lived in Weymouth there's never been any serious problem with hooligans), it was a admittedly serious failure of stewarding rather than the dastardly machinations of the club. That portion of the ground is given to all away fans, and it has held more than the 300 from St Albans, though as you say it isn't very comfortable (and the home fans have mentioned this to the club on many occasions). You say it's unknown whether this affected the players: I think it's very unlikely. Most people at the ground were unaware of what was going on until after the game (including myself: I was standing at the other end of the ground) and I'm sure the players were more concerned by what was going on on the pitch. From what I remember of the game, Weymouth gave pretty good value for a 3-2 win, and looked quite comfortable even after having a man sent off. The Hakim affair is a good example of the club getting a bit too big for its boots, but at least some of the responsibilty should lie with the greedy player as well as the club.

I don't think Weymouth will be relegated or will go into administration this year, and there's no threat to the club's survival. Harrison is resigned to the fact that he won't see his money again - most of his expenditure was just that, rather than loans to the club, and as a result even now the club is in less debt than it was during the Ridley era - Ridley's mismanagement was just as bad as Harrison's, maybe even worse, and had Harrison not arrived to bail him out, like the low-rent Abramovich he probably is in his own mind, this situation would have been arrived at much earlier. They'll flog all the players - and there'll be a market, most of them would look good at Conference or League 2 level -get a bunch of part-timers in, and revert to how their low-rent, low-expectation non-league existence they enjoyed prior to Harrison. At what level remains to be seen - there's no reason why they won't fulfil their conference fixtures next season, at at the very best a few years of Forest Green style slog at the foot of the conference will follow - I think it's more likely they'll be relegated next season. The crowing of other clubs' (including St Albans, sadly) 'fans' on various non-league messageboards that they'll be in the Western or Dorset league in future is very unlikely to be realised.

I think the last couple of years will be remembered by fans of the club as a period of idiocy and hysteria rather than the end of Weymouth football as they know it. Weymouth's era in the top tier of non-league football ended in 1989, and I think in ten years time, they will be playing in the sixth tier of English football in front of crowds of around 1000, just like they were 10 years ago. But they'll have some good memories, of being on TV and being a national draw for a while, so in the long run, the harm to the club will be minimal. As you say, the fifth tier of English football can't sustain 24 professional clubs. But whilst there are people like Harrison, willing to throw away their money living an impossible dream, there won't be a realistic reassessment of football at this level, and a couple of clubs will continue to fall by the wayside every year.

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