Thursday, January 31, 2008

To The Manor Born

Grosvenor Vale is about as far from the Premier League as most people could imagine. The pitch there is surrounded with a wooden picket fence that harks back to a long-forgotten era and the club that uses it, Ruislip Manor has a long (if inglorious) history. Their neighbours Wealdstone are former non-league giants who found themselves homeless through a mixture of underhand dealing and exceptionally bad luck. Now, however, one of them faces closure and the other faces the possibility of (largely unfairly) being labelled a "club killer". How the fate of these two clubs became intertwined is a story of greed and neglect, and one of them is now in such a desperate state that it is touch and go whether they will even be able to see their way through to the end of the season.

Wealdstone are the bigger of the two clubs. In 1985, they became the first side to win the non-league "double" of the Conference and the FA Trophy and gave the world the dubious mixed football talents of Stuart Pearce and Vinny Jones. In those days, however, there was no automatic promotion to the Football League, and the the Stones soon faded into relative ignominy, being relegated back into the Southern League in 1988. In 1991, they lost their Lower Mead stadium. Chairman John Morritt, a property developer, sold the site to Tesco, claiming grandly that the club would have a new home within a couple of years. Lower Mead was a prime piece of real estate, in the heart of one of North London's most affluent areas, but the club itself received very little of this money (Morritt resigned and the company handling the sale went into liquidation, though whether these two events were related is largely unanswered by the history books), and the club entered into a financially ruinous groundshare at Vicarage Road, Watford. The club failed to attract the support that they had hoped for, and left there two years later. They've spent the years since then as nomads, ground-sharing at the altogether less salubrious homes of Yeading, Edgware Town and Northwood.

Ruislip Manor's history is less illustrious than Wealdstone's. Founded in 1938, they joined the Athenian League in 1965. The Athenian League had been a strong amateur league, but by the 1960s it was in decline, with many its biggest clubs (such as Barnet, Enfield and Dagenham) frequently decamping to the Isthmian and Southern Leagues. They stayed there until 1984, when further expansion of the Isthmian League to four divisions forced its closure. At this point, they joined the Isthmian League, where they stayed as solid, if unspectacular members until 1996, when they took a voluntary demotion to the Spartan League for financial reasons. They remain there today. Their decline has been a slow one. The club's ground was run by the Ruislip Manor Sports & Social Club, who allowed the football club to use the pitch but kept the receipts from bar takings. It was a precarious arrangement, and the S&SC was rumoured to be in debt to the tune of £60,000 after years of neglect.

The two clubs' paths crossed when Wealdstone completed the purchase of the Ruislip Manor Sports & Social Club earlier this season. Ruislip, struggling near the bottom of the table had been struggling by on gates on that had fallen as low as 25, but Wealdstone had been paying the football club ground rent for their reserves and youth teams use of Grosvenor Vale, and without this source of income, the club suddenly found itself with no income other than gate receipts. The committee running Ruislip Manor resigned and, at an emergency meeting held on the 29th of January, no-one came forward to fill the vital administrative posts (chairman, secretary and treasurer) that are required for the club to carry on playing. The Spartan League have allowed them to call previous matches off in order to allow them to find people to fill these positions, but at the time of writing it looks unlikely that they will be able to continue. Wealdstone, it is worth pointing out, are not as bad as they could be painted here. They have waived any rent charges for the remainder of this season, but they run on a very limited budget themselves. There is no particularly good reason why they should "bail out" Ruislip.

There comes, I guess, a point when you have to wonder whether it is worth carrying on. If the support and the will to keep the club going isn't there, is it worth the few people left that care about Ruislip Manor FC busting a gut when the end reward might well be beyond their reach? These are tough questions, but there are tentative signs that they might not quite be done for yet. The messages coming from the Ruislip forum are encouraging, with several people having volunteered to help out on match days, with the hope being that they at least be able to carry on playing until the end of this season, giving them a critical couple of months in which to regroup. They can resign to the very base of the pyramid, which would free them up to use the considerably cheaper option of hiring a public pitch, but they would also have to consider that there may be no way back into the senior game should they do this. In the present day, though, time is running out, and it seems likely that, after 70 years, last orders are being called on Ruislip Manor FC. On the off-chance that there is anybody reading this that might be able to help, there is more information here.


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