Monday, January 14, 2008

Shots In The Dark

Last Saturday, Aldershot Town beat local rivals Woking 4-2 at Kingsfield in the FA Trophy, to keep alive their hopes of a double of the Trophy and the Conference championship. They've lost just once in their last thirteen games and are currently seven points ahead of second-placed Torquay United. Should they get promoted at the end of this season, they will take their place in the Football League sixteen years after the original Aldershot FC became the first Football League club to fold in the middle of the season since Accrington Stanley, some thirty years earlier. Curiously, Aldershot's renaissance coincides with the redemption of Spencer Trethewy, the former "property developer" whose recklessness acted as the catalyst for the original club's closure.

The original Aldershot FC, it's fair to say, never really set the world alight. They reached the FA Cup Fifth Round in 1980 (losing to Everton after a replay), but only spent a few seasons above the Fourth Division in their fifty years in the Football League. In 1987, they raised many eyebrows for charging a £9 admission fee (a pretty huge sum at the time) for an FA Cup Third Round match against (then First Division) Oxford United. They won 3-0, but less than 2,000 people were there to watch it. They were promoted into Division Three the same year, and this is where their problems started. They started paying Third Division wages, but were relegated two years later with a considerable number of players still on Third Division wages. Suddenly, their debt became unmanageable, and by August 1990, playing in front of sub-2,000 crowds, the company that owned the club was wound up at the High Court with an outstanding debt of £490,000.

Enter, stage left, Spencer Trethewy. The nineteen year-old described himself as a "property developer", drove a sports car, and rolled into the Recreation Ground waving an affadavit underwriting the club to the tune of £200,000. He appeared, famously, on "Wogan". Unfortunately, though, all of the promises were built on fresh air. By the time Trethewy left the club, they were in free-fall both on and off the pitch, with crowds now both well below 1,500, the Inland Revenue and the banks circling, and the team just off the bottom of the Football League. They didn't own their ground, so all of their debts were unsecured. The banks and the tax man pulled the rug from under their feet. Even with the sales of players such as Tony Lange to Wolves for £150,000 in 1989, David Barnes to Sheffield United for £52,000 at the same time and Steve Claridge to Cambridge United for £50,000 in February 1990, and a potentially lucrative FA Cup Third Round match against West Ham United in 1991, the club was now haemorrhaging money. The final straw came on the 25th of March 1992, when the club was finally put out of business and resigned its position in the Football League.

Aldershot wouldn't remain without a football club for long. The club was reformed that summer as Aldershot Town, still playing at The Recreation Ground, and in the Ryman League Division Three. It took them eleven years to get promoted back into the Conference. Trethewy, meanwhile, was imprisoned for two years for fraud in 1994, after a series if incidents at top London hotels. Exactly what he has been up to since his release from prison isn't exactly clear, but Trethewy has clearly built himself up to some substance again, as this report from last year seems to indicate. He has resurfaced at Combined Counties League side Chertsey Town, where has had a beneficial effect on the club after taking over from previous incumbent Roy Butler. There will be still be many at Aldershot who will shudder at the idea, but the question remains of whether this particular leopard has changed its spots.

For Aldershot Town, the future isn't necessarily as rosy as one might hope - they still don't own The Recreation Ground, which (the last time I went there, at least) could at least have done with a lick of paint, and this means that their financial structure is built on thinner ice than it might otherwise be. Having said that, though, an FA Trophy win this season could net them at least £100,000 and promotion back into the Football League could be worth more still. One would hope that they are managing themselves a bit better this time around than they were in the early 1990s.

This short film is about their closure.


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