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Scarborough unfair

Wednesday 29 July ~

In recent years, several non-League clubs have been liquidated and reborn with the support of fans. Often the new team enjoys a new-found vigour and increased support that goes with progress up the pyramid. But such revivals rely on a united fan base rallying together in the face of adversity; without that unity there is the potential for real damage, as shown by events in Scarborough.

The collapse of Scarborough FC was a depressingly familiar story. Mismanagement had left the club with debts of several million pounds and only one asset: their ground, the McCain Stadium. Financial irregularities had dogged the club ever since their relegation to the Conference in 1999 and the turnover in the boardroom was as regular as that of the playing squad: future Gretna owner Brooks Mileson and John Russell, later jailed for fraud while in charge of Exeter City, passed through in the early part of this decade.

Faced with declining support, chairman Ian Scobie declared in 2006 that the only way to ensure the geographically isolated club’s survival was to sell the ground off for development, pay off a proportion of the debt and hope that enough money was left over to develop a new stadium on the edge of town in conjunction with a local college. But the deal hinged on Scarborough Borough Council lifting a sporting use covenant on the McCain Stadium. They were unconvinced by Scobie’s business case, declined to do so and the club was liquidated in June 2007.

With only a matter of weeks to go until the new season a new fan-owned club Scarborough Athletic was formed by members of the Seadog Trust and entered the bottom of the pyramid in the Northern Counties East League. The group had been planning for this worst case scenario since the start of the year and had been broadly opposed to Scobie’s proposals – there had just been too many failed rescue plans. With the McCain Stadium in the hands of liquidators Athletic were forced to groundshare 17 miles away in Bridlington but they promised a new era of transparency, set about rebuilding community links and began to attract healthy crowds of over 500.

But despite their success it was clear that a substantial minority of the old club’s fans wasn’t interested in the new venture and some were actively opposed. The latter group was centred on the old supporters club and the Centre of Excellence for young players that had continued, self-funded, since the collapse of its parent club. In summer 2008 this group announced the formation of another club, Scarborough Town. The team would compete in the amateur Teesside League and function as the senior side of the Centre of Excellence. Despite Town’s protestations that they had no ambition to progress further and did not wish to impinge on Athletic’s status as the senior team there was little love lost between the two sets of supporters, a situation exacerbated by posts on various message boards.

Town began playing on a roped-off playing field and cheekily declared that football was back in the town while ignoring the fact that there was no ground capable of hosting even semi-professional football in the borough. Some Athletic fans responded by starting an internet spat over the veracity of Town’s attendance figures. Accusations were thrown back and forth before an official truce was called but the mistrust remains.

Meanwhile a protracted legal battle for the McCain Stadium eventually saw the council buy the site from liquidators Begbies Traynor for £1.3 million. But the effects of arson and vandalism have left the stadium beyond repair and both teams are now searching for a new ground. In an ironic twist the most likely outcome in the short-term is a groundshare on land near George Pindar Community College, the same plan that Scobie failed to push through more two years beforehand and the root cause of the split between the clubs.

Athletic and Town are now free of the financial woes that affected the original Scarborough FC But in a relatively poor town that has already seen one team fail and where Premier League football is widely followed, they need to be working together to attract new fans, not competing for the few that are left. Both teams enjoyed championship-winning seasons in 2008-09 but with news that Town are now considering moving up the semi-professional pyramid, they are risking further conflict and limiting the chance of success for either team. Supporters who used to support the old club together from the same terraces need to put their differences aside and come together behind a single team. But in the short term Scarborough United remains a very distant prospect. James Waterson

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