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.
But things sometimes 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 very 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? Actually, Woolwich Arsenal and Fulham almost merged back in nineteen hundred and sepia, so how would history have changed if that had happened?
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 reasonably fill – a stadium.
At non-league level, there’s dozens of opportunities. Does it make sense for two or three clubs, in close proximity of each other, playing in front of less than 100 people apiece? 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 (or any other form of entertainment) and they might 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 problem is, football is a game of the heart, of habitual behaviour and fierce loyalty. We are all victims of it!
The most high profile example of a non-league merger that, fleetingly, proved very successful was Rushden & Diamonds. Then there’s Havant & Waterlooville in the 1990s who have enjoyed sporadic success, including a memorable FA Cup run.
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. There are just so many distractions. But East London has long embraced the concept of mergers and the result is that Dagenham & Redbridge enjoyed a few years as a Football League club. 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. There are no end of permutations, but it may be the only way these clubs have viable and sustainable 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.
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 their domestic football, were formed in 1992 out of a merger of two giants of the Danish amateur game, 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…); Middlesex County (pick and mix from a long list), Canvey United (Canvey Island & Concord); Thurrock United (Thurrock, Grays, Tilbury and Aveley) and North Herts United (Hitchin, Letchworth and Baldock). And that’s just in the home counties. These are tongue-in-cheek, but I can see the barricades being assembled now….