National League beckons for Southend and Grimsby… but there’s a way back

SOUTHEND UNITED have rehired Phil Brown as their manager with six games to go this season, but whether he fancies a stint in the National League remains to be seen. Southend would appear to have one foot in the non-league structure. They have hordes of unhappy fans, an unpopular target of a chairman and they are unloved by the tax man. In these troubled times, a club with so many problems could find itself victims of a train wreck.

There has been talk of a new stadium for some years, and in November 2020, the club announced a new home would be built at Fossetts Farm with the Roots Hall site developed for housing. They’re still waiting for things to become clearer on when the project will move forward. The last thing they will want is to open up a new era with the club residing outside the Football League. Southend is a town with almost 200,000 people, it should be able to accommodate football at a reasonably high level.

Grimsby Town, another coastal club, are also in the mire and although they currently have a game in hand on Southend, they are still bottom of League Two. They are in the process of being taken over by a consortium, although some doubt was cast on the deal as one of the key members recently resigned. Grimsby have been in the National League before, but they are now approaching the end of their fifth season back in the Football League after winning promotion in 2016.

The other main relegation candidates are Colchester United, Barrow and Walsall. Colchester have hit a bad run at the wrong time, but there are increasing rumours they are about to go into administration, which may affect the relegation battle. The club have denied they are in trouble.

Relegation to the National League does not have to be a death knell, indeed it can act as a springboard for revival and a chance to reset. Clubs who have not been accustomed to winning can suddenly acquire a new habit, crowds can regain their enthusiasm and off the pitch, a club can regroup. However, if the club in question is on a downward spiral and has deep-rooted problems, it can be the start of an extended lost weekend. 

There have been a number of clubs who failed to recover from the psychological blow of losing Football League status: Boston United, Halifax Town, Darlington, Chester, Hereford United, Macclesfield and York City. Some have gone to the wall, reforming as phoenix clubs, Macclesfield Town being the latest victim. 

It certainly can take time to acclimatise, both on and off the field of play. Since 2000, only four clubs have won promotion at the first attempt: Shrewsbury Town (2004), Carlisle United (2005), Bristol Rovers (2015) and Cheltenham (2016).

There’s been a lot of churn between the EFL and National League over the past 20 years. Of the current League Two constitution, 17 have seen step one of the non-league pyramid and 11 of the National League have tasted life in the Football League in some shape or form. And of the 92 Premier/EFL clubs, 29 have modern non-league experience. 

On average, the teams that have won promotion after relegation do it between three to four years. But some find it hard to get back to where they once belonged. A classic case is Wrexham, who have now, surpriisngly, been in the National League for 13 years. 

To some, Wrexham are simply too big to be playing outside the EFL. In 2018-19, their average gate at the Racecourse ground was 5,077 – that’s higher than when they were last in the EFL. But go back 40 years and they were drawing over 10,000 – which shows you the potential of the club.

Wrexham were taken over by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney earlier this year and the duo have invested £ 2 million into the club under the terms of the deal. They tried to incentivise the players by promising bonuses if the team wins promotion in 2020-21, but that may be beyond them now. Needless to say, Wrexham may be installed as favourites for 2021-22.

Who will go up this season? Sutton United are currently top, a club that has a rich non-league history, but would be unlikely EFL members. However, it is often a club on a roll that can emerge as surprise winners. Hartlepool, Stockport, Notts County, Chesterfield, Halifax and Wrexham are all in with a shout at the top end. Sutton is the only town with no Football League heritage among the pack, but its population runs to 200,000. Close proximity to London clubs may be something of a disadvantage.

Sutton have an artificial pitch at their Gander Green Lane home, so if they do win promotion, they will have to take it up and replace it with a natural surface. The question is, can they sustain EFL football and stay solvent? If they win a place but refuse to take it, they will be penalised, but where will the logic be in ripping-up a facility that has clearly played its part in revitalising the club if Sutton United are relegated in season one? A difficult situation, especially in 2021.

Two promotion places (and relegation places) have shown there can be a two-way flow that works reasonably well. It may not be an enjoyable experience for those that fall through the trapdoor, but at least it should make clubs conservatively provision for failure, rather than assuming the status quo will never be challenged. Clubs like Luton Town, Leyton Orient and Cheltenham have all shown it can be done. As the fans of Southend, Grimsby and Colchester make their journeys for the final run-in, they may wish to take some consolation in knowing they can get back. The wheels may come loose, but it is important to ensure they don’t come off the wagon if and when relegation is confirmed. In the uncertain post-covid football environment, prudence and pragmatism will never be more important, as well as calm heads.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Alamy

League Two: The looming crisis

THE coronavirus pandemic has highlighted many things in the football world: the ongoing imbalance across most of Europe’s major leagues; the vulnerable business models of some clubs; the extravagant wage-to-income ratios; and continued aggression in the transfer market.

While the top clubs have the means to recover from huge losses of income brought about by an absence of matchday income and associated commercial revenues, smaller clubs have far less protection in a crisis. Matchday revenues form a larger part of overall income for smaller clubs than for the elite clubs, therefore the effect of the pandemic can be comparable to falling off a cliff.

Many football industry professionals have predicted a collapse of lower league football with dozens of clubs having to overcome existential obstacles in the aftermath of the crisis. Bury and Macclesfield have both fallen over in the past year and it is nothing short of a miracle that others haven’t gone the same way. One can only assume that creditors have adopted a reasonable approach and banks have accepted the current crisis impacts us all.

But the pandemic should teach us a few things, not least that many football clubs live beyond their means and struggle to handle the unexpected. While a lot of people hope for life to return to normal, the post-crisis environment should also act as the catalyst to improve businesses, reshape financial models and also build-in risk management functions.

League Two is a very vulnerable division in the UK, although the Championship – with its track record of spending more than the clubs earn – may yet prove to be the English league’s most financially risky area. Many fourth tier members are just a bad season away from experiencing severe financial pressure.

Southend United have been making the wrong kind of headlines in recent months and have more red flags flying than their local beaches. Southend have been waiting for a new stadium to emerge for some years and although the plans are in place, the club is in a precarious position at the moment. Southend’s wage bill is high but the club has been in decline for a couple of years and was relegated in 2019-20.

Indeed, the biggest concern is the £ 493,000 owed to HMRC, a debt that cannot be ignored for too long. Southend have until the end of October to pay this sizeable amount and if they do not, a winding-up petition will surely come their way. Ron Martin, the club’s chairman, has said that Southend’s parent company will pay the HMRC. 

Southend started the 2020-21 season disastrously, losing 4-0 at home to Harrogate Town and are perched near the bottom of League Two. Ron Martin says they are light years away from Macclesfield in terms of their outlook, but people are worried about the future of the club.

Oldham Athletic were seemingly in danger of being evicted from their Boundary Park home earlier this year, but their new CEO, Karl Evans, believes they are no more worse off than any of their rivals in terms due to the pandemic. The Latics’ fans want owner Abdallah Lemsagam to sell-up and there have been interested parties who were interested in taking the club off his hands, but the threat of administration still hangs over them. Oldham have also been warned about late payment of wages by the EFL. 

Morecambe are the EFL’s smallest club and struggle to draw 2,500 people to their home games. The club voted in favour of salary caps and also hoped for a rethink of English football. Although they’re losing money, they also have the smallest wage bill in League Two. In order to ease their problems, Morecambe launched a crowdfunding campaign, which proved to be successful.

The crisis has hit Scunthorpe United hard as their wage bill has exceeded their income to the tune of 143% and they have more than £ 11 million of debt. The club deferred around 20% of players wages as the pandemic took hold of Britain.  At one stage, the club was losing £ 50,000 per week. 

Tranmere Rovers’ Chairman Mark Palios has been very vocal about his concerns and has envisaged a loss of between £ 400,000 and £ 500,000 for his club. Exeter City are anticipating a deficit of some £ 700,000 and Colchester United are bracing themselves for a £ 400,000 loss. Bolton Wanderers, now in League Two, expect income to drop by £ 1 million. 

Walsall’s chairman has commented in public that his club have done remarkably well during the pandemic. The Saddlers’ players volunteered for the club’s cost reduction programme.

It is difficult to find good news from among the League Two membership, although Port Vale admitted their club was strong because of the financial support it receives from Carol and Kevin Shanahan.

The combined revenues of League Two clubs amounted to £ 91 million in 2018-19, less than half of the League One total. When you consider that the top six clubs in the Premier League (Manchester United and City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) generated almost £ 3 billion between them, it is clear there is enough money in the game to help every club in financial trouble.

While a fighting fund is a perfectly reasonable thing to suggest, if only to ensure the eco-system remains intact, it smacks of democracy, the very thing football is not about. The game is all about the survival of the fittest and meritocracy, with a little dose of schadenfreude thrown in for good measure. Although some fan groups champion a form of socialism, it doesn’t represent the ethos of most clubs.

The EFL and the clubs also have their future in their own hands. Carlisle United’s co-owner said that “The Armageddon scenario is pretty close” when describing the current situation among small clubs. But while financial directors wring their hands and squirm in their seats, the transfer market rolls on with the Premier League spending £ 1.45 billion in the recent window, far more than the other big European leagues. With so many of England’s clubs living a precarious existence, does this really feel right?

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Crewe Alexandra and football’s class divide

EVERYBODY has changed at Crewe at some point in their lives, or at least, that’s the popular myth. It was once one of the key railway hubs of Britain, the point where train lines intersected. At one stage, the railways employed thousands of people, more than 10% of the local population. It’s no real surprise that Crewe Alexandra’s Gresty Road stadium is among the closest to a train station, sitting adjacent to railway property and overlooked by an office block known as Rail House. Apparently, you cannot travel from any part of town towards the centre without passing under or over a railway bridge.

From a footballing perspective, Crewe Alexandra is one of those romantic names that once proliferated lower league football, evoking images of flat caps, rattles and cups of Bovril. The beanie hat has succeeded the flat cap, despite a renaissance in natty headgear by order of the Peaky Blinders, and rattles are nowhere to be seen, but Bovril is still on sale at Gresty Road.

In the past, the ground had wooden terraces courtesy of the nearby railway works, who provided chunky sleepers for the fans to stand on. Today, Gresty Road is as modern as it is possible for a small, homely club to be, neat stands all round with a giant structure that overhangs the rest of the ground and indeed, stands almost alone on the Crewe landscape. No smoking chimneys in this corner of the north, the horizon is strictly low level.

Crewe’s history is a modest one. They reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1888, losing 4-0 to then-mighty Preston North End and they’ve had a few seasons playing in the second level of English football. Above all, they’ve been known as a club that develops young players and hence, they’ve got a state-of-the-art training facility. “Bloody Premier class,” insisted a long-standing Crewe fan when explaining that the ethos established by Dario Gradi has continued at the club.

Model

There was a time when Crewe was seen as a role model for small-town football clubs in finding their place in the modern football structure. Gradi, an excellent mentor, brought through a number of players who won international honours. David Platt, for example, was released by Manchester United as a youngster but made his name with Crewe under Gradi’s management. Geoff Thomas was nurtured by Crewe before joining Crystal Palace, winning nine England caps. Liverpool signed Rob Jones from Crewe for £ 300,000 and he was also honoured by England. There are others who came through the Crewe system.

Prior to the arrival of Gradi in 1983, Crewe were perennial strugglers and were forced to apply for re-election to the Football League 10 times between 1956 and 1983. “Without Dario, I’m sure we would have become a non-league club,” says Nigel, who has supported Crewe since 1967. “He had some good ideas and wanted to build the club up.”

Crewe became one of the most admired clubs in English football, not just because of their ability to develop talent, but also for a distinctive style of play. Gradi was a disciple of Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea, Manchester United and QPR manager. In fact, the Italian-born former schoolteacher, who was an accomplished amateur footballer in his youth, was appointed assistant coach at Chelsea at the age of 29 in 1971.

Gradi is no longer at Crewe after retiring in October 2019. Sadly, his name became somewhat tarnished by recent sex scandal enquiries although nobody will have a bad word said about him. “This is effectively Dario’s club, we owe him plenty,” said one Crewe loyalist.

Gradi stepped down as manager in November 2011 after four separate spells that included 1,359 games. Since then, Crewe have had just two managers, rather unique in today’s football world but arguably a sign of the underlying stability at the club. The current manager, Dave Artell, a no-nonsense character who was described as a classic lower-league central defender, has been in the job since January 2017. “This is a club that has a reputation for being sensible, one that tries to live within its means at all times and not make rash decisions,” said Nigel.

Local

That must be a tough task, for one glance around Gresty Road tells you life is very different at this end of the English game. For a start, there’s an absence of global brands and international companies. In the club shop, porridge oats are on show, an indication of the type of sponsor the club attracts. Mornflake, a company that mills high quality oats, is based in Crewe. Then there’s the Whitby Morrison works, a Crewe company that makes Ice Cream Vans. There’s no Emirates Airlines, Chevrolet or BMW-type company looking to attach themselves to clubs like Crewe. “Money goes to money. These are local firms who have shown their loyalty to the club.”

But then, a town like Crewe loses people to the big guns every weekend. Manchester (United and City) is 36 miles away, Liverpool 48 miles and Stoke-on-Trent just an 18-mile journey. Crewe has a population of 72,000 and with nearby Nantwich, has a combined total of around 90,000. The Crewe & Nantwich political constituency was heavily featured in the media during the recent general election because it was deemed to be a “marginal” seat. Crewe is predominantly a working class town, but Nantwich is an aspirational place with strong Conservative links, so the constituency is somewhat torn. Like many similar areas – Crewe and Nantwich voted to leave the European Union to the tune of 60% – the electorate voted Tory.

With a 70,000 population, Crewe Alexandra are drawing around 5% of it to Gresty Road, not a bad percentage. Their average gate in 2018-19 was 3,762 but earlier in the 21st century, they were attracting between six and seven thousand. The usual gate is around 4,000 this season, a campaign that has started reasonably well.

Crewe’s team is a tribute to their youth system. Against Mansfield Town on December 14, 10 of the 14 players fielded were 23 or under. Eight were home grown and four were free transfers. One player, Chuma Anene is on loan from Denmark’s FC Midtjylland. Experience comes in the form of the much-travelled Nicky Hunt (36) and Eddie Nolan (31).

A general view outside of the Alexandra Stadium, Gresty Road, Crewe.

Next?

Crewe fans like Nigel anticipate that Tom Lowery will be the next major sale for the club. He’s just 21 years old and a relatively slight player, but he is very skilful. He’s started the season well as Crewe have forced their way up the league table. Their home form has been good and they’ve already won five times away from home. The Mansfield game ended 1-1, but was a lively and entertaining 90 minutes. Anene opened the scoring after eight minutes but a nicely taken goal by Mansfield’s Andy Cook drew the visitors level. Both teams missed several chances in both halves. Crewe were without their leading scorer Chris Porter, another experienced hand (36 years old) who has averaged a goal every three games for Crewe.

Gresty Road seems to have a healthy atmosphere where expectation is realistic and people have real pride in their club. Make no mistake, though, clubs like Crewe are in the survival game. They need to generate income from selling talent higher up the food chain in order to keep going. Their turnover in 2017-18, for example was just £ 4 million – compare that to clubs like Manchester United and the huge imbalances in the English game are very visible, and indeed, worrying. The situation at Bury, along with the recent news about the financial position of Championship clubs, was a reminder that the 92-club structure is under constant pressure. Yet we need clubs like Crewe, Accrington, Rochdale and Scunthorpe to exist, we need an eco-system that is financially robust. If nothing else, we need the likes of Crewe Alexandra to remind us there is another way.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: GOTP and PA