Football mergers can work….if you let them

Mergers could mean more happy crowds and less "spot the crowds"
Mergers could mean more happy crowds and less “spot the crowds”

In Britain, the idea of a merger between football clubs fills many supporters with dread. The emotional attachment that forms between a club and its fans means that change is seen as a threat, a break from the norm and the severance of tradition. We’re all a little bit NIMBY (not in my backyard), but when it comes to football, common sense goes out of the window and status quo and comfort blankets are the norm.  Club colours, stadiums, names, nicknames, badges, away kits – any suggestion that these should change is greeted with horror.

History the pointer

But things have to evolve. If Victorian and Edwardian football folk refused to change, a lot of today’s clubs would not exist. Want proof? The name “United” is a case in point. The reason it exists is that two clubs came together to form a united organization. Pure and simple. And what about relocation? All you Arsenal fans – who actually embraced the short move from Highbury to the Emirates quite well – let’s not forget your club was once Woolwich Arsenal and played down in South London. The first franchise club? Maybe. Actually, Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham almost merged back in nineteen hundred and sepia, so how would history have changed if that had happened?

Cardiff City’s owners have got away with their own bit of tinkering in changing the club’s traditional blue to an Asian-friendly red. Promotion to the Premier means that the Bluebirds’ – or whatever they are now called – fans will tolerate life in red, until it all goes wrong.

Mergers between football clubs in Britain have taken place, but it is largely a thing of the past other than in the non-league world. But it does make sense in areas where there is an over-population of clubs. There are also a number of clubs where they cannot build the critical mass needed to fill – or decently fill – a stadium. Stevenage and Luton Town, for example, could create a Beds-Herts super club that would certainly get more than the sub-3,000 people that watch League One football in the new town. And Luton, who seem to have been a perennial crisis club in recent years, would at last break free of the stifling and restrictive Kenilworth Road. Worth considering.

At non-league level, there’s dozens of opportunities. Does it make sense for four or five clubs, in close proximity of each other, playing in front of less than 100 people? Does it constitute a genuine spectator event to have a game that attracts 25-30 people – and paying £5 each for the privilege – when you can go to the local park and watch a game that is scarcely better from a quality perspective and is likely to be watched by just as many people? Most people without an interest would question the sanity of a sport that operates like this – ask anyone who is connected with rugby, cricket, hockey or athletics and they think you are crazy.

So what’s the answer? Consolidation and recalibration. Nice buzz words in today’s corporate environment, but they could easily be applied to the football world.

The most high profile example of a non-league merger that, fleetingly, proved very successful was Rushden & Diamonds. For a while, it looked like the perfect club, two very average non-league outfits brought together, a great stadium, superb set-up all round. But it was a propped-up club, living in an unrealistic world. The fact it all turned sour was not due to the merger, it was the economics of the situation. Once the extremely genial and generous benefactor stepped away, the club could not support itself and to be realistic, the Football League was a step too far. More humbly, Havant & Waterlooville merged in the 1990s and have enjoyed sporadic success, including a memorable FA Cup run.

Capital clutter

London non-league football is over-clubbed and under-patronised. It’s hard for clubs to attract people in the metropolis for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a cosmopolitan audience – that mouthpiece of reason, The Daily Mail, would have you believe that one in four in London are immigrants. Non-league football is never going to register high in the list of priorities with people coming into the country, apart from those eccentric groups of Dutchmen or Germans eager to watch Stilton Athletic play Clapped-Out Car Mechanics XI. And then there’s geography – the Middlesex conurbation is littered with the ruins of clubs that once dominated amateur football. In short, there is little future for the majority of clubs that skirt the capital. It’s time to merge, strengthen and cast aside the burden that is the past for some of these clubs.

East London has long embraced this concept and the result is that Dagenham & Redbridge is a Football League club, although one does get the feeling that the “Just Visiting” sign may be hanging over the gates of Victoria Avenue. The Daggers’ family tree is about as complicated as the royal families of Europe during the inter-war years, encompassing Ilford=Leytonstone (1979); Leytonstone & Ilford=Walthamstow Avenue (1988) to form Redbridge Forest; and finally, Redbridge Forest=Dagenham (1992).

The Dagenham story, however complex it may appear, does show that London football at a lower level can still flourish. Perhaps clubs like Dulwich and Tooting could take note, or even Harrow and Hendon? There are no end of permutations, but it may be the only way these clubs have viable futures. One interesting merger that never happened was QPR and Brentford in 1967, which does show that even clubs at a higher level find life tough in the shadow of better capitalized, better supported and noisier neighbours.

Blame the Danes

If the English game wants any inspiration to consider consolidation, then it needs to look no further than Denmark, where  a wave of mergers has taken place in recent years. FC Kobenhavn, who now stand astride Danish football, were formed in 1992 out of a merger of two giants of the amateur game in Denmark, KB and B1903. One had the money, the other the fans. It has worked spectacularly. But in 2011-12, the Danish champions were FC Nordsjaelland, a merger of two even more obscure clubs. All over Denmark, clubs have merged and it seems to be successful, although at the same time it does confuse the casual onlooker.

So what do you say?: South London United (Dulwich & Tooting); Harrow & Wealdstone (they would hate that…); Stevenage & Luton United; Middlesex County (pick and mix from a long list); North Herts United (Hitchin, Letchworth and Baldock); and Mid-Beds United (Arlesey and Stotfold). I can see the barricades being assembled now….

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