As sad at it is that Bashley are on the verge of collapse, no longer able to support football at Step 3, or indeed any step, we shouldn’t be too surprised that yet another non-league club looks set to bite the dust. You don’t have to look too far to see that year-by-year, the list grows of clubs that are living beyond their means or have lost the financial clout they once had.
In the mid-1990s, Wivenhoe Town’s ground was a monument to thwarted ambition. The groundwork for a stand to match their once considerable ambitions stood unfinished. Again, it shouldn’t have come as a great revelation to people, for Wivenhoe has a population of 7,000 and the standard ratio of audience to population would give them a crowd of 70. But Wivenhoe went through a spell where they were able to attract big-name players – John Lacey (Fulham & Tottenham), Paul Price (Luton & Tottenham), Lil Fucillo (Luton), Martin Gittings (Stevenage) and Steve Clark (of St.Albans fame) and others – to build an all-star squad to what was effectively a village club. When the money ran out, so did the players and Wivenhoe were left bereft.
Bashley is even smaller, around 3,000 people, and nearby New Milton has approximately 25,000 people. That Bashley rose from the Wessex League in the late 1980s to reach the top four of the Southern League Premier in 1992, is something of a fairy story, but seemingly, it has been a long struggle for a club that has defied the odds for years.
There’s a lot of bullshit in non-league football, gossip proliferates the clubhouses up and down the country. But it’s more likely the horse variety you can get a whiff of in Bashley. It’s a strong equestrian area. It certainly doesn’t look like a footballing stronghold.
So it must be tough to try and win over the locals. In recent years, they haven’t been doing too well at it – in 2008-09, their average crowd was close to 300, but this season, which has seen them cemented in the bottom three, they barely get half that figure. If Bashley don’t get a solution to their dilemma, they will become extinct. Until someone starts up Bashley AFC (2014 revisited), that is.
Bashley’s crisis comes at a time when [apparently unfounded] rumours persist that Lowestoft of the Isthmian Premier have financial problems. The rumours have been denied, but it is a sign of the times that news continues to leak out about the financial health of non-league football clubs.
Talking of the Isthmian, the current league leaders Dulwich Hamlet – it’s good to see them doing well – may have trouble ahead. Dulwich’s ground, which was one of the first new structures in the 1990s, has a complicated story behind it, and they are never too far away from a “Dulwich may lose ground” story. They are in the news again.
It’s either money or grounds that scupper non-league clubs. In the Isthmian League, clubs that have experienced financial difficulties or have risen from the ashes of other failed entities include: Maidstone United, AFC Hornchurch, Enfield, Lewes, Canvey, Carshalton and Grays. Others have had severe ground issues: Hendon, Grays, Wealdstone and Kingstonian. And this is all recent problems, we are not talking ancient history.
And the Southern League is no different, in fact is probably worse. This season, the three clubs at the bottom are all suffering from financial restrictions: Bedford Town, AFC Totton and, of course, Bashley. There has also been reports on the following having financial problems of some sort, ranging from near bankruptcy to sweeping budget cuts: Chesham (2006), St.Albans (2009), Corby (2012), Weymouth (frequent), Banbury (2012), Redditch (2012), Truro (2011), Burnham (2013), Chippenham (occasional publicised budget cuts). And don’t forget Hinckley have also gone this season. Others that have experienced stadium controversy include Cambridge City and Hitchin Town.
In recent seasons, clubs that have run into trouble included Halesowen, Kettering, Rothwell and Bromsgrove.
What does this prove? Firstly, the frequency is alarming and has probably been accelerated by the economic downturn that hit Britain and Europe in 2008-10. Secondly, it demonstrates that the business model that is non-league football is broken. Clubs that have suffered from a spate of postponements this season are undoubtedly experiencing cashflow problems at present. I would argue that most clubs do not have the luxury of excess cash, mainly because a lot of it goes on players’ wages. And then, of course, there’s the floods, which could finish off some clubs.
The solution? Not easy, because unless everyone starts to see sense and stop the madness that is paying £200 a week for part-time footballers, often relying on third-party funding to ensure the club can compete at this level, then nobody will flinch. I would suggest the leagues should get together and try to introduce some common sense to proceedings. Surely local football deserves a long-term, sustainable and realistic future? As it stands, most clubs will see the only solution as increased admission charges and the begging bowl. I ask you, is that really financial fair play?