Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Stupid Song, A Tree & A Record Losing Goalscorer

When St Albans City Football Club was formed in April 1908, few could have imagined the impact that they would have upon English football - not very much at all. In fact, were human civilisation to end tomorrow, alien archaeologists from the future would almost certainly conclude that their total contribution to that strange cultural phenomenon called "football" was minimal, to say the least. Still, they have reached the grand old age of 100 more or less intact, and while the future for the club looks shaky, the truth of the matter is that this has been the state of affairs at Clarence Park for the vast majority of at least the last thirty years, and is the state of affairs at the vast majority of non-league football clubs.

The club was founded after the failure of two smaller, local clubs. There was only one serious option as a site for the new club. Clarence Park was donated to the people of the city of St Albans in 1894 by the MP, Sir John Blundell Maple Bart. The cricket club had already moved in, and the new football club, run by one George Wagstaffe Simmons, became their neighbours. It is a relationship which continues to this day. After two years playing in the Herts Senior County League and the Spartan League, they went it alone in the Spartan League, before transferring into the Athenian League in 1920. It was the start of the club's golden age - an age during which it must have felt as if the sky would be the limit for this new football club. They won the Athenian League for two of the three years that they were members, and joined the Isthmian League in 1923. In 1922, they played one of their best known matches. Having drawn Dulwich Hamlet to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup, one might have been forgiven for thinking that a routine replay was on the cards, but it turned out to be anything but. In front of a crowd of over 4,000 people, City were disadvantaged when their goalkeeper didn't turn up and they had to play an outfield reserve team player in goal. One of the most extraordinary matches in the history of the FA Cup ensued, with City losing 8-7 after extra time, with one City player, Billy Minter, scoring all seven of City's goals - an FA Cup record for scoring the most goals and ending on the losing side that still stands and will almost certainly never now be broken.

The classical Greek names of all of these leagues,by the way, are a give-away to their amateur status. The FA had been formed in 1863 by old boys from the public schools, but by the 1880s, clubs that were desperate for success started paying players to play. The amateurs, who primarily treated football as a leisure pursuit, started to break away from the professional clubs. After the Football League, the two biggest football leagues were the professional Southern Football League and the amateur Isthmian League. The amateurs had their own cup competition (the FA Amateur Cup) and their own leagues. In the 1950s and 1960s, though, it became increasingly apparent that amateur clubs, which had long since severed their ties with the public schools and were as desperate for success as anyone else, were paying their players under the counter (it was known colloquially as "shamateurism") and the FA abolished the distinction between professionals and amateurs in 1974, the FA Amateur Cup was replaced with the FA Vase, and everyone started paying (or admitting to paying) their players.

All of this was a long way into the future for St Albans City. They won the Isthmian League in 1924, and then again in 1927 and 1928. In 1924, they beat Third Division Brentford 5-3 in the FA Cup. It was their first ever win against Football League opposition in the FA Cup, and they're still waiting for their second one, eighty-four years later. They made the semi-finals of the FA Amateur Cup - one match from Wembley - three times and lost each time. Had they shown this sort of form in the Southern League, it's likely that they would have been elected into the Football League at some point, but in the Isthmian League they were never, as amateurs, in with a chance. For the next forty years or so... nothing. In a fourteen team league with no promotion or relegation, they existed in a curious bubble, finishing bottom of the table once and never winning the title again. There was a brief flurry of excitement in 1955 when they finished second in the table to Walthamstow Avenue, but they were points behind with two points for a win and in a twenty-eight match season, so it hardly went to the wire. The following season they finished bottom of the table again.

In the late 1960s, however, the club underwent a brief revival. Under the managership of the notoriously tetchy Syd Prosser and with such players as midfielder John Mitchell (who would go on to play for Fulham in the 1975 FA Cup final before returning to manage the club in the 1980s - he ended his career somewhat ignominiously, apparently caught with his fingers in the till at Luton Town) and left back Phil Wood (who would play over 1,000 matches for the club over a twenty-one year period between 1963 and 1984), they started to finish higher and higher in an Isthmian League that had by now been expanded to twenty clubs. In 1970, they had a run to the FA Amateur Cup semi-finals where, after a replay, they lost to Dagenham. The following year, they finished in third place in the Isthmian League and won the London Senior Cup (an important competition in its day - it remains the most important cup they've ever won) but, just as in the 1950s, providence was on hand to ensure that St Albans' supporters couldn't get too excited. With the end of amateurism looming over the horizon, the Isthmian League expanded to two divisions and, in 1974, St Albans City were relegated into the Isthmian League Second Division.

The really lean times had begun. There were occasional high points - in 1980/81 they made the FA Cup Second Round, and a crowd over over 6,000 people saw them draw 1-1 with Torquay United to put them in the Third Round draw, only for them to lose the replay 4-1 at Plainmoor (it would have been Barnsley away in the Third Round, in case you were wondering). In 1983, though, they were relegated again, to the Isthmian League Second Division. This time, they had sunk as low as they could go, and in 1984 they were promoted back to the Isthmian League First Division. Two years later, another extraordinary match would take them back into the Isthmian League Premier Division. On the last day of the season, they travelled to the south coast to Lewes, needing a four goal win to guarantee promotion. They raced into a four goal lead inside half an hour and went on to win 7-1. The next few seasons were largely spent struggling against relegation, but the next "great" St Albans City team came along out of the blue.

In retrospect, the team had been developing for a year or so, but after years of torpor, it all seemed like a bit of a shock at the time. Steve Clarke had been signed from Wivenhoe Town in 1991 for £5,000 (and would go on to score 322 goals in 488 matches for them over the next nine years), whilst Allan Cockram (whose career had stalled at Spurs in 1984, but impressed sufficiently during his first spell at Clarence Park to signed by and feature for Brentford in an FA Cup quarter-final at Brentford in 1989) returned to Clarence Park in 1992. Manager John Mitchell took full advantage of the wide Clarence Park pitch by playing wingers, and the team played some outstanding football during the 1992/93 season. In truth, they never looked likely to win the Isthmian League that season. The eventual champions, Chesham United, were too strong. However, Chesham declined promotion, stating the cost of renovating their ground as being too high. City, in second place, were therefore eligible for automatic promotion to the Conference for the first time, but there was a problem.

The story of the trees was one of those novelty news stories that makes national headlines for a couple of days, and then gets forgotten about. Clarence Park is, as you may recall, part of a public park, and there were two trees within the ground itself. One was tucked away in a corner and out of harm's way. The other, however, was slap bang in the middle of the terrace behind one of the goals, and overhung the pitch slightly. The club fought fiercely, coming close to making slanderous statements about the Conference's ground-grading committee, but everyone knew that they couldn't go up with the tree there and, since the tree was protected, that was that. The ground was nowhere near Conference standard. It had no medical room and didn't have enough enough turnstiles or any segregation. The team disbanded, and the club stayed where it was. In the late 1990s, though, the tree was diagnosed with a mysterious disease and dispatched with hilarious speed. New turnstiles were built, and Clarence Park was converted into something approaching a proper football ground.

The good times seemed to continue to go hand in hand with the bad. In 1999, the club made the semi-finals of the FA Trophy, and were 3-1 up on aggregate in the second leg of the semi-finals against Forest Green Rovers with fifty minutes to play. City had a perfectly good goal disallowed when 3-2 up with twenty-five minutes to play and, of course, lost 4-3 on aggregate. In 2002, they nearly folded. Chairman Lee Harding put the club up for sale for £1, after they failed a CVA that he had entered them into. Barred from football by the FA for an agonizing five weeks, they were one day away from a winding up order when John Gibson, a property developer, bought the club on behalf of his company, William Verry. Gibson has become more and more unpopular as time has gone on. Rumours have circulated that he is only interested in building the club a new ground outside the town (St Albans, smack in the middle of the Green Belt that surrounds London, is one of the most difficult places in Britain to get planning permission to build upon and is also one of the most desirable and expensive places in the country to live - you don't have to be Einstein to make the connection), and even that he is running the club into the ground. Reports like this - never refuted - and his abrasive manner with the club's own supporters and other clubs has left him isolated at Clarence Park and the club unpopular in wider non-league circles.

On the pitch, City surprised everyone in 2006. Since Gibson's take-over, the club had seemed to be fighting a perpetual battle against relegation. However, when Colin Lippiatt took over at the start of 2005 and took them clear of relegation, things started to look up. A mixture of older players, such as the experienced former Boston United goalkeeper Paul Bastock, players that hadn't quite made it at a higher level, such as winger Matt Hann and youngsters such as striker Lee Clarke combined to make an attractive team which was unlucky to finish second to full-time Weymouth in the Conference South. With a bye to the final of the play-offs, City comfortably saw off Histon by two goals to nil at Stevenage Borough's Broadhall Way in front of a crowd of 3,200. To say that the Conference season was a disaster would be something of an understatement. The club refused to go full-time, but with players starting to accept better offers from elsewhere, they plugged the gaps with loan players and cast-offs from elsewhere. Playing at a higher level than they had ever experienced before, the result was predictable - their defence was amazingly porous (they conceded at least five goals on three occasions at home) and, whilst there were high points such as an opening day win at Kidderminster, a home thrashing of York City, an away win at Cambridge United and a derby win away at Stevenage, they were relegated with games to spare.

Lippiatt retired during the summer of 2006, and St Alban's City's prospects took an immediate downturn with his departure. With just seven registered players, Gibson brought in an untried 29 year old, Ritchie Hanlon, to manage the team in July 2007, and they started the season disastrously. It was the 23rd of October before they won a Conference South match, and Hanlon was replaced by former AFC Wimbledon manager Dave Anderson. Anderson was a curious choice. He had failed to take Wimbledon up from the Ryman League the year before and left "by mutual consent", with the general opinion being that he had taken them as far as he could. Quite how he was considered a good enough manager for a team a division above them that was clearly in a state of flux is an outstanding piece of lateral thinking. The club replaced him in January, and Steve Castle (who had overseen the worst St Albans City team I've ever seen in 2004) took control for a second time. It was the return of striker Paul Hakim (who had left under a cloud in 2006 - an attempt at poaching by Weymouth left his position at Clarence Park untenable, and he ended up warming the bench at Stevenage Borough) and Paul Bastock, the goalkeeper, that would prove to be the catalyst for an extraordinary revival. Since Bastock's return, they have won five and drawn two of their seven matches - their seventeen points in seven matches comparing favourably with the twenty that they had managed in the previous thirty-one. They currently sit three places above the relegation places with four matches to play and a six-pointer away to Bognor Regis Town on Saturday.

So, a hundred years on, that's St Albans City. Still plugging away at English football's sixth level, still getting average crowds of 500, and still occasionally threatening to make it to the big time or go bust, without ever quite managing to do either. They may not have many (or, indeed, any) trophies to their name, but St Albans is an excellent place to go drinking in and Clarence Park remains one of the most unique and attractive places to watch football in England. In that respect, I guess we're winners simply because they have lived to be 100 years old. Ah, and the stupid song? Well, they've been singing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (yes, by Band Aid) at St Albans matches for a few years now, and no-one can quite remember why now.


Anonymous said...

I think this article is worthy of a booker prize nomination, or something similar - Cliff Rhodes

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