Raw ambition or refusing to “Know your place”?

Photo: James Boyes (CC BY 2.0)

I WAS fortunate to be at the recent Soccerex conference in Manchester where non-league football came under the spotlight in a session featuring club chairmen and renowned Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague.

The timing of such a panel discussion was appropriate, for the much-publicised events at Billericay Town have commanded considerable attention and provided plenty of talking points. Billericay for the Football League? We have seen very bold ambitions coming from non-league clubs in the past, notably in Essex where “crash and burn” stories are not uncommon – witness the tale of Grays Athletic.

Can a club of the size of Billericay reach and sustain a place in the Football League?  There are reasons why a certain size of club does not naturally climb to that level, and many have found their natural home long ago. More often than not, that status will not change dramatically unless there is the sort of inflated investment that propels a club sky high. In some ways, it’s no different to the big-time, where perpetual under-achievers Chelsea and Manchester City were suddenly thrust forward because of a massive shift in the financial structure of the club.

When the Football League was created in 1888, it was on the back of the industrial revolution with the clubs coming from Lancashire and the Midlands. The game was the recreation of the mill towns of the north and central England, so there was a certain logic in professionalism taking root amid the smoking chimneys and factories. Most became large towns and cities and generally, the pecking order in football has belonged to locations with sizeable populations, hence clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have been “big” for decades. There are some remarkable exceptions, but there is some correlation between population and football success.

For football clubs to flourish, you [invariably] need critical mass, in terms of people who are interested in the club, and money. Some clubs have one or the other, but the real giants of the sport have both. You could also make a case that one needs the other, unless inflated investment creates a lop-sided model that can rarely go beyond the short-term. Unless you are an Oligarch, an oil-man or, in today’s environment, from China, throwing in huge sums of money cannot be sustained.

If you look at the more recent Football League new boys, there are clubs from relatively small towns that have worked their way up the ladder – Fleetwood (26,000), Morecambe (35,000) and of course, the most curious case in Forest Green Rovers (8,000). Others such as Stevenage (88,000), Crawley (110,000), Cheltenham (117,000), Wycombe (124,000) and Accrington (55,000) play more to the theory that big towns equal bigger clubs. Billericay has a population of 28,000 and is, essentially, a town of commuters, many of whom will have allegiances to London clubs. It’s a nice, aspirational town whose football club has enjoyed success in the past, especially in the 1970s when the FA Vase was won three times.

Automatic promotion has undoubtedly been good for ambitious clubs and a succession of new Football League members have been created since 1987 when Scarborough replaced Lincoln City. Not all have lasted the distance, but non-league, over the past 50 years, has provided some wonderful moments for the Football League. Since 1967-68, the League has lost people like Wrexham, Aldershot, Workington, Barrow, York, Bradford Park Avenue, Torquay, Tranmere and Leyton Orient. At the same time, non-league clubs like Barnet, Wigan, Cambridge United and Morecambe have all risen through the ranks. So the landscape can change and the amount of churn in the Football League proves that clubs can rise and fall. The question is, how should that be achieved – organically or artificially?

If, as pointed out at Soccerex, non-league is “the essence of football”, then surely creating something “artificial” goes against the grain? As we have seen in Europe this summer, paying vast sums of money for a player can trigger off a spiral that makes football even more of an unrealistic financial model than it currently is. Some non-league clubs are already paying far too much money to their players. The danger is that in pursuit of “the dream”, a dangerous precedent could be set and the economics of non-league football could be blown out of all proportion, and that would surely create more “crash and burn”…

This article appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday, October 9

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