In 1992, Aldershot Town emerged from the ashes of the Aldershot club that struggled in the Football League. It was the start of a brave new world for the Hampshire club, who vowed they would not spend what they had not earned. In the Isthmian League, they were big fish, despised by most clubs because they were big, loud and aggressive about their goals. But at the same time, clubs welcomed the money that a big crowd against the Shots would bring. They were that rarity in non-league football – a crowd-puller.
Equally, when pitting their wits against minnows, Aldershot came across as arrogant. One official said to me, “no disrespect, but we consider this level (Isthmian Premier) is part-time football, the Conference is semi-professional football.” Another added: “You never win anything with youth team players.” That day, a Hitchin side won 2-1 at Aldershot with the winning goal scored by a youth team product. Afterwards, Aldershot barely acknowledged the result, so stunned were they to lose at home to “little Hitchin”. It was this kind of superiority complex that made Aldershot Town unpopular. Wherever they went, controversy was never far away, notably when they employed explosive, high-profile managers like George Borg.
Aldershot regained Football League status for the garrison town in 2008 and they spent the next five years trying to re-establish themselves. Sixth place in 2010 was their best finish. Last season, they finished in 92nd place and towards the end of the campaign, the club went into administration with debts of £ 1 million.
So what went wrong for Aldershot, the club that was not going to repeat the failings of the past? Just 21 years after the phoenix rose from the ashes, it came crash-landing back into the mire.
There’s no clearer illustration that the fire had gone out at Aldershot since the enthusiastic days of their reformation than their dwindling support.
Their average crowd last season was around 2,300 – roughly what the club was attracting in its Isthmian League days and down from 2,900 in 2011-12. In 2013-14, it is doubtful that a return to non-league football may not appeal to younger fans that have been brought up on Football League action (albeit none too successful league football). It does pose some questions about where Aldershot’s natural home is – Football League or Non-League?
I think that Aldershot Town should come to terms with the fact they cannot afford to be a Football League outfit. The past 20 years’ should have taught them that much. You had to feel sorry for the people that re-ignited the club in 1992, especially the distressed official who broke down on the radio as he explained what was going on at Aldershot. Now their president, Terry Owens, one of those characters that all clubs could do with, is trying to lead a supporters-backed bid to gain ownership of the club. It’s a laudable effort, but isn’t this what happened in 1992?
Community ownership is an idealistic way to run a local club, and in some ways, it represents the future of small-town football. But unfortunately, it is unlikely to hold much water at a higher level than semi-professional level in England. Why? Purely and simply, money – especially with crowds of 2,300. Local MP Sir Gerald Howarth (any relation to old Aldershot legend Jack?), demonstrated his lack of knowledge of the game when he cited the example of the Bundesliga clubs that are operating as community clubs “these days” – this has long been the model in Germany at the highest level. But then he also believes Aldershot attract 3,500 people to the old Recreation Ground.
That’s why Aldershot should settle for survival at a lower, sustainable level. It might look like lacking ambition, but right now, those very brash fans would surely accept being a big fish in a small pond than being consigned to history as a club that couldn’t hack it at a higher level.