Barring a miracle, Scunthorpe United are staring at non-league football

THERE’S STILL 11 games to go, but the outlook seems rather grim for Scunthorpe United who sit 10 points off safety and have won just twice in 21 League Two games. There seems to be an air of resignation about the immediate future of the “Irons” and people are now starting to ask whether the club can hang on to certain players and if manager Keith Hill can get them out of the National League at the first attempt.

Scunthorpe are not alone in the struggle to avoid the drop, but they are looking somewhat isolated at this stage of the campaign. If they are relegated, it will end a 72-year stint in the Football League. A poor run of results may have brought home the reality of the situation. Unless there’s a dramatic change of form, it does look like National League football is inevitable. However, as recently as the end of January, chairman Peter Swann said Scunthorpe were not even contemplating relegation. He might be making plans now for a very different fixture list in 2022-23.

Swann has been absent from some games this season as he’s become quite unpopular. Yet he has invested (is that the right word?) more than £ 20 million in the club since taking control in 2013. He has a 90% stake and apparently, is open to anyone buying the club from him. 

Keith Hill, who was hired in November 2021, is a respected fellow, but he doesn’t seem to have strengthened the cause and his win rate of 9% merely underlines the predicament Scunthorpe now find themselves in. The January transfer window saw an influx of new faces at the club, no less than eight players arriving either on free transfers or on loan deals. These included striker Joe Nuttall from Blackpool, a former member of Manchester City’s academy, Rekeil Pyke, another forward, on loan from Shrewsbury, and defenders Ryan Delaney from Morecambe and Luke Matheson from Wolves. 

The influx of fresh talent altered the face of the team, but have not brought about a change of fortune – Scunthorpe simply cannot score goals (just 24 in 35 games) and cannot stop conceding (almost two per game so far).

The writing has been on the wall for a few years as Scunthorpe have finished lower than the season before for five years – 3rd and then 5th in League One, 23rd and relegated, 20th and 22nd in League Two. Little wonder attendances have dropped by 36% since the last pre-covid season. Crowds are currently at their lowest level since 1997. 

Swann recently transferred the club’s stadium and training site to his company, Coolsilk Property and Investment, a move that upset some fans. But this was designed to attract investors for the land adjacent to the ground and create new revenue streams. Swann intends to eventually return the assets to the club.

The financial statements for 2020-21 have not been made public yet, but the trend has not very positive. In the past five years, Scunthorpe have run up losses of £ 17.6 million and their wage bill has been dangerously above earnings. For example, in 2018-19, the wage-to-income ratio was 156%. 

A second relegation in four seasons would mean significant financial adjustments. Although any club falling into the National League has a good chance to regaining its Football League place, it is not an easy task, hence it is important to remain intact and avoid any systemic collapse. In the past 10 years, only Cheltenham Town and Bristol Rovers have secured promotion at the first attempt. The most recent relegated clubs, Southend United and Grimsby Town don’t look like they will do it in 2021-22. 

The economics of relegation manifest themselves in the form of lower revenues as a result of smaller attendances and less lucrative sponsorship. Chesterfield, when they were relegated in 2018, saw income decline from £ 5.9 million to £ 3.9 million but their wage bill still consumed 85% of revenues as opposed to 69% as an EFL club. 

Scunthorpe need some stability to arrest the slide and if that means a spell in non-league, their fans can become accustomed to winning games again. In five seasons, they have won just 58 of 210 games, that’s a win rate of 28% and the total for 2020-21 and 2021-22 is 17 league wins in 81. 

Stability also means less of a revolving door in the dugout, notably around the manager’s job. Scunthorpe have had eight managers in three years, hardly a recipe for continuity. If Scunthorpe are to stay up, they need to start winning and hope the other candidates for the drop – Barrow, Oldham, Stevenage, Leyton Orient and Colchester – embark on a bad run. As it stands, they have a lot of ground to make up and it may just be too late.

When two worlds collide: Premier meets non-league

TRYING to attract more supporters via marketing initiatives is a worthwhile exercise for non-league clubs. Projects like Non-League Day and reduced admission for certain games have their place and have proved very fruitful in most cases. Indeed, their success does raise questions around the pricing structure for football outside of the Football League. If non-league was cheaper, more people would surely attend games. 

Coalville from the Southern League launched a £ 5 admission day when they met Hitchin Town on February 5. The response was particularly good, Coalville had an excellent crowd of over 800, with only a dozen or so coming from Hertfordshire. Football for a fiver had clearly appealed to a lot of local folk.

However, while filling the ground and creating a buzz, Coalville drew a lot of fans who were unaccustomed to non-league football. It was very noticeable these spectators really did not understand the attraction of the game at this level for those that attend regularly. 

Non-league, generally, is a more sedate affair, there is a good natured atmosphere at the majority of grounds and civility tends to dominate. This seemed lost on the horde of fans who concentrated on foul-mouthed abuse of the Hitchin team and the gaggle of supporters who travelled up to Leicestershire. To be honest, the language was worse than any Football League/Premier League ground I have visited in the past few years. 

Clearly, they were not Coalville fans, for their chanting also included “We hate Forest”, which implied they may well have been Leicester City fans. Nottingham Forest were hosting Leicester the following day in the FA Cup. It is doubtful they were fans of Coalville, because Forest do not move in their immediate circle of clubs!

The Hitchin fans were a little intimidated and their expressions told the locals they were not impressed. “If you don’t like it, f*** off to the way end,” said one fan. Again, this comment only served to confirm the influx was largely unused to the non-league system, where fans change ends to stand behind the goal their team is attacking.

Meanwhile, the high-vis gang who were stewarding the game just stood and watched as abuse poured from the terrace. What is the point of employing security staff if they do nothing but grin? 

It has to be said, there were no prudes among the Hitchin contingent, but essentially, the age group is late 50s, early 60s. In other words, they were not going to trade insults with dozens of teenagers and 20-30 year-olds. They did Coalville no service, which is a great shame as the club itself was as friendly as any non-league outfit. Coalville took a bold decision to cut prices to encourage more local football fans to come along and it worked. Unfortunately, cultural differences undid them to a certain degree, even though they did get the three points.

Hitchin have had their own experience of Premier fans turning up and making a nuisance of themselves a few years ago when a gang of Everton supporters, on route to Stevenage for a FA Cup tie, barged their way into Top Field. For those who went to Coalville, they must have returned home appreciating their own club.

Hitchin Town v Hednesford Town: When a club becomes trendy

WHEN you can draw over 600 people to your home game when your club is languishing in the foothills of the league, you know you are doing something right. Hitchin Town met Hednesford Town on a cold, bright day and although the Premier League was having a winter break, which may have contributed to the impressive attendance, the growing interest in the club is starting to become very noticeable.

When I was involved with Hitchin, the demographic at Top Field was worrying. The average age of the regulars was as old, if not older, than my own age, there were few young people and the ground was damp, shabby and ill-equipped for the modern age. The clubhouse leaked, the floodlights were out-of-date and matchday catering was poor. Furthermore, Top Field was a place for ageing men, there were few women around. The club did not represent the modern, diverse audience.

However, the club has changed remarkably in the past few years and things look much healthier and more future-proofed. They seem closer to the idea of “community” than ever before, people bring dogs to the ground, for Christ’s sake. Furthermore, the club has its own dedicated chaplain and there are murals created by children depicting what looks like angel’s wings. Cynics will see it as gentrification (Hitchin has become a smashed avocado town, after all), but it is obviously enabling the club to appeal to a broader section of the public.

One long-time exiled supporter returned to Top Field for the Hednesford game and didn’t recognise the club he had followed for decades. “Have we become hip all of a sudden?,” he asked. The truth is, the perception of the club has changed for the better. 

Hitchin Town have moved on, out of necessity and also in recognition the future isn’t about crumbling terracing, dangerous corrugated metal and leaking roofs. People eulogised about Top Field and its quaint appearance, but I always felt it was just downright shabby. Today, the ground is better than it has ever been, thanks to a new sweeping bank of portable terracing, proper fencing and a coat or two of paint. 

There is a very positive movement in progress, but hopefully it will not become political or get lost in idealism, but I actually noticed the presence of a well-known local political activist sitting in the ground.

You get a sense that results don’t seem to matter too much anymore. The 2021-22 season has been poor for Hitchin, but there’s no calls for the manager to be sacked or claims the club lacks ambition, sentiments which were often the soundtrack of the past. Indeed, any criticisms are usually unwelcome, not necessarily from the club itself, but from supporters who urge people not to break the spirit of community. In many ways, that’s a very good thing, but that isn’t just what football is all about – all said and done, the game is about competition, healthy combat and rivalry. Being positive is all very well, but when you pay for your ticket, you expect a certain amount of quality for your money. If clubs want people to be true stakeholders, they have to expect criticism and comment and they have to be accountable for what they deliver to their audience. 

Hitchin lost 2-1 to Hednesford and they really didn’t deserve to be beaten. Their team is looking better than just a few months ago when relegation looked a certainty. They may still go down, but I don’t think it will affect the new-found affection people appear to have for the club. The mood has changed and Hitchin Town are creating a new model for the future, one that plays to more than a platoon of middle-aged men. Clearly, the only thing to look forward to is not the past at Top Field.