Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Lancaster Gates

In this morning's Guardian Sport Blog, there was an excellent article by David Conn about the ongoing financial crisis at Conference North club, Scarborough. At the end of last season, they became the first club to fail the Conference's "Fit & Proper" test, and were forcibly relegated into the Conference North. This season hasn't been any better for them. In administration, they now seem likely to drop into the Unibond League, but they're not actually bottom of the Conference North. That dubious honour lies with Lancaster City, and their story of the season is one that is even more worth telling than Scarborough's.

On Tuesday night, in front of a couple of hundred hardy souls at their brilliantly-named ground, The Giant Axe, Lancaster played out a 0-0 draw against Leigh RMI. It was a significant result, because it moved Lancaster (equally brilliantly nicknamed "The Dolly Blues") onto zero points for the season. That's right - up onto zero points. To date, Lancaster City have managed two wins and four draws this season, but entered into administration in December last year, and were deducted ten points. The mathematicians amongst you will already have done the hard work.

So, how did they come to be in this mess? As ever with these situations, the truth is a difficult commodity to come by amongst the rumour, counter-rumour and accusations. Little more than a few weeks into the season, the players were starting to walk out, and October 19th their manager left too, to take up a coaching role at Conference club Southport. Soon afterwards, the Conference placed a a transfer embargo on them, after a row over 100 unpaid footballs, of all things. Forced to sign players from the local amateur and Sunday leagues, they plummeted to the bottom of the table. Defeat followed defeat followed defeat, until Tuesday night, when their draw against Leigh put them onto what would be best described as "points parity". A local businessman and former manager , Mick Hoyle, is in charge of the club now, and has pledged to see them through to the end of the season, whilst former captain Barrie Stimpson is now in charge of the first team. They were relegated almost a month ago, and no-one knows which division they'll drop into but, most importantly for now, their supporters at least know that they will have a club of some form to watch next season.

The Football League introduced a automatic ten point deduction for clubs entering into administration in 2004. Leicester City had caused considerable annoyance amongst other clubs by running up £30m worth of debt in the build-up to the 2002-03 season, but managed to get most of it wiped out through entering into administration. Many companies, however, including Birse Construction (who had built their new Walkers Stadium) and small local companies that supplied the club, lost a fortune. It was widely perceived that clubs were not being punished for financial mismanagement, and that financial prudence was not being rewarded. Why bother being prudent when you can run up £30m of debt and then enter into administration to get the vast majority of it written off? Obviously, clubs in this position can't be effectively financially penalised, so the points reduction came into effect.

Currently, there are five clubs with a "-10" against their names in the league tables. They are Rotherham United (League One), Crawley Town (Conference), Farnborough Town (Conference South), and the aforementioned Scarborough and Lancaster City. It is still possible to play the system. Rotherham had the option to go into administration towards the end of last season but, needing points to stay up, elected to gamble and delay it until this season. Whether it has done them any good is open to question - they've had another season of League One wages, and are currently nine points adrift of safety. In the Conference, Crawley Town had their points deducted in the autumn, but ensured their Conference safety by making a number of loan signings during the January transfer window.

In the case of Lancaster City, though, it doesn't look as if there was any method behind the madness. With debts reportedly in excess of £700,000 and average crowds having dropped to less than 200, it is clear that their position was untenable. Recent reports on the BBC's "Football Focus" and ITV's "Granada Soccer Night" may raise their profile locally and, with Morecambe, barely ten miles up the road, being able to support a thriving Conference club with average crowds of 2,000, it's surely not too much to ask the people of Lancaster to support their local club, is it? For those of you a little further away, might I suggest a visit to their club shop? I might just put in an order there myself. After all, every little helps, as a carnivorous supermarket chain is only too pleased to tell us.


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