Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ducking The Issue

St Albans City, it has to be said, don't really have any local rivals any more. Traditionally, going back years and years, their rivals were Hendon and Enfield, but these clubs both had other, bigger fish to fry, and Boreham Wood, whilst close geographically, were not similar enough in size and stature to form any sort of meaningful dislike for. In the early 1990s, though, this void was momentarily filled by Aylesbury United. Aylesbury had avoided The Saints' radar, having spent the majority of their existence in the Southern League, whilst St Albans were perennial members of the Isthmian League.

To everyone's surprise, and after decades and decades of (at best) mediocrity, St Albans came out of the traps on fire at the start of the 1992-93 season and went to Aylesbury on Boxing Day 1992 unbeaten in the League since the start of October. Having gone a goal down early on in the match, they'd taken a 2-1 lead before Graham Westley scored twice in injury time to snatch a 3-2 win for Aylesbury, and The Saints tilt at the championship was never quite the same again. St Albans fans still sing songs about how much they hate them to this day.

Aylesbury seemed, at that time, to have something of a charmed life. They'd experienced all the things that a non-league club would want in the previous few years - runs in the FA Cup and appearances on the television, a move into a new ground, with an opening match against a full strength England team, of all things, and a Southern League championship but their luck would eventually run out in spectacular style. Financially speaking, they should have been in a strong position. Their run to the FA Cup Third Round in 1995 and match against Queens Park Rangers got them national press, and FA Cup runs are the one way that a semi-professional club can earn a quick fix of serious money. However, there was an underlying problem that few at Aylesbury had taken much notice of, but it was a problem that would end up leaving them homeless.

Aylesbury funded the construction of their Buckingham Road stadium from the sale of their old ground at Turnfurlong Lane, and spent the rest of the money on the team that had one season in the Conference. Details on what happened afterwards are somewhat sketchy, but it would appear that Aylesbury sold their new ground to a holding company based in the Channel Islands in 1990 and started renting it back, but the club managed to spend their way through that money, most significantly in 2002 and 2003, when they spent heavily on getting promoted to the Ryman League Premier Division and getting to the semi-finals of the FA Trophy. The club's chairman, Bill Carroll, relinquished control of the club, and their slide down the pyramid began in earnest. In 2006, the ground's owners decided that they wanted to sell up, and the new owners, a property development company, evicted Aylesbury. They spent last season playing at the ground of Chesham United (15 miles from Aylesbury), while Buckingham Road sits and rots.

Aylesbury's crowds halved last season. Behind the scenes, there have been various plans made to bring the club back to Aylesbury. One of the more crackpot looking schemes is for them to merge with another club in the area, Aylesbury Vale, and play at Vale's ground in the South Midlands League (the real nether regions of English football) while they sort themselves out. However, Vale's ground cannot be redeveloped, so the problem of a new stadium remains. It's also evident that Vale are in considerable financial trouble themselves - would a finally solvent but homeless Aylesbury United want to get themselves involved with a club that could bring them long-term problems? Curiously, in May the club were offered an opportunity by Aylesbury Council to go back to Buckingham Road for a couple of seasons, but turned it down. It's believed that it would cost £50,000 to undo the disrepair that the ground has fallen into over the last year or so, and this is money that the club simply doesn't have.

This summer, Aylesbury United launched a "Bring The Ducks Home" campaign, but the wording of the campaign looks a little bit woolly to me. The aim of it seems to be to put pressure on the council to assist them in finding a new stadium in the area. Without having had the chance to look into it too deeply, my guess would be that the most economical way of doing it would be to buy the Buckingham Road stadium back for the value of the land on it, and undo the damage done by a years' worth of dereliction. I can't see how this could possibly be more expensive than building another new stadium in the area, and the council are in a position to be able effectively force this to happen. Different councils, however, work in different ways, and it remains to be seen whether the local council will seriously work with the club to secure a new site in the town.

The Aylesbury story is, of course, depressingly familiar and involves a familiar cast of characters - grasping property developers, incompetent management and a club that sacrificed its long-term future for short-term success on the pitch. Until this mess is cleared up, though, the people that are suffering are the supporters of Aylesbury United. We wish their Supporters Trust well in their continuing efforts to get them back to their home town.


furtho said...

Interesting stuff, 200%. Aylesbury's a massively unappealing place, but (and?) the club's supporters deserve all the help they can get in bringing the Ducks back to the town and thereby injecting a bit of life into the place. Depressingly familiar story, though, as you point out.

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