Viewed as romantic story in the FA Cup, Team Bath are considered very differently at league level. Tim Lezard explains why they are attracting hostility from their opposition
You probably remember Team Bath FC as the plucky students who lost to Mansfield Town in the FA Cup back in 2002, in front of 5,000 fans.
It’s a different story today. Despite a remarkable rise through the leagues – they sit just outside the play-offs in Conference South after five promotions in ten seasons – their average gate remains stunted at 203. Yet that crowd, swelled by the visit of more than 500 Newport County fans in August, somehow manages to maintain what is one of only two full-time squads in the league.
Other teams are struggling to raise money to keep their squads together – Fisher Athletic have just announced they can no longer afford to pay the wages and Salisbury City players are taking a 30 per cent pay cut. So opposition fans are increasingly questioning what a university side, subsidised by the taxpayer, are doing playing semi-pro football.
“I hate the bastards,” says one Newport County fan. “They don’t have their own ground, they say they are students yet they loan players from League clubs. The whole thing stinks.” Philip Weaver, a director of Bath City, who loan their Twerton Park stadium to Team Bath, is more eloquent, but no less angry. “The general gripe against them is that they are running a professional [full-time] football team under false pretences,” he says. “They used to claim the players were students, but now they don’t even bother.”
So how, exactly, do Team Bath fund their full-time squad of 25 players, team of professional coaches and world-class facilities, including eight senior pitches, five junior pitches, two fully floodlit astro pitches, two swimming pools, a state-of-the-art fitness suite, a sports-injury clinic, a hydrotherapy pool and an ice bath?
Well, no one seems to know. A Freedom of Information request reveals Team Bath’s accounts are all muddled up with the University of Bath’s other football activities. It is therefore difficult to pinpoint exactly where the money comes from, other than to say Team Bath players last year received sports scholarship payments amounting to £80,978, leading rivals’ fans to dub them “Team Tax”.
Ged Roddy, Team Bath’s director of sports development and recreation, declined to speak to WSC, but a source at the university said the programme was “launched” to give former professional footballers the chance to learn new skills while still playing at a decent level. “This is an admirable aim,” agrees Bath City fan Chris Stone, “but they are a full-time professional outfit who pay their players, several of whom aren’t on a course anyway. They recently signed on loan a goalkeeper from Reading the day before an FA Cup tie, despite having three other keepers. They have the Chancellor of the Exchequer as commercial manager, so they are able to thrive on gates of not much more than 100. All this while the press continues to romantically call them ‘Young students fighting against all the odds’.”
With the London Olympics on the horizon, few people object to investment in elite sport, but many question whether the description is fitting when many of the footballers are in their late thirties with long League careers behind them. These sports people, elite or otherwise, are widely despised in non-League football – opposition clubs in lower leagues were glad to see the back of them – now even more so as a recession is coming and their income seems likely to be unaffected.
“It’s grossly unfair because it’s not a level playing field,” says Gloucester City fan Nigel Price. “While fans at clubs like ours run round organising raffles, skittles nights and curry evenings, Team Tax don’t even have a fans’ forum. They’re parasites. They have no fans, so when you play them at home, they add nothing to your gate. They contribute nothing to football at this level, except for uniting fans in disgust and contempt.”
Team Bath are nothing if not ambitious. Secure in the knowledge their funding is safe – despite the recession – they will always be able to table tempting offers to failed pros due to an apparently bottomless playing budget. So whether or not they make it all the way to the League depends only on the ability of their players. That’s a luxury afforded to no other club in the country.
From WSC 263 January 2009