Stuck in shadow of Man Utd and Man City
1 June ~ The north-east corner of Greater Manchester, with its cluster of former mill towns, has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. Predictions suggest it will be one of the last parts of the region to show any recovery. It's also an area that is home to three Football League teams: Oldham Athletic, Rochdale and Bury. The idea of a merger to form a new "super club" is getting another airing on local fan sites. Thankfully, the "Manchester North End" concept is being treated as a joke. None of the clubs has commented, and it is doubtful that they will.
And yet, daft and unwelcome as the idea is, it has cropped up before and serves well to highlight the challenge faced by the trio.
The last time the idea was mooted, in 1999, it was more serious and a move that revealed the ill-judged ruminations of the Oldham chairman at the time, Ian Stott. With ambitions to take a more prominent role in the FA, Stott had a clear plan in mind that included an £11 million, 16,000-seat stadium. Although conceding that the plan might face fan opposition, he naively argued that the combined support of the three clubs would provide a very strong base for the new club. Stott was forced to resign following the hostile response from fans.
His conclusions may have been wrong but it is hard to argue with his analysis, which in so many ways holds good today. The clubs are less than ten miles apart and their attendances will not sustain them in the long run. Rochdale's average gate of 3,460 in the promotion season 2009-10 fell back to 2,439 last year on their return to League Two. Bury, relegated at the end of last season, had League One average gates of 2,749 while my team, Oldham, did a little better at 4,128 as they narrowly avoided relegation. Bury's financial plight was well illustrated when the club announced towards the end of the season that they needed £1m immediately to keep afloat.
The predicament of the three clubs was not helped by Manchester City's relocation to the City of Manchester Stadium in 2003, providing an attractive and easily accessible option for the floating casual supporter. And this is the point where the economic background compounds the issue. In an area of low incomes, fortunes on the pitch would have to change dramatically for any substantial, sustained increase in matchday attendances. People locally have better things to do with their money at the moment.
Not a perfect illustration, but average attendances at Oldham's five matches after their FA Cup run were only 300 fans greater than the comparable figure before it – an increase largely accounted for by their highest league attendance of the season for the visit of Sheffield United. Commercial and sponsorship gains are unlikely to be substantial in an area where businesses are themselves struggling to survive. Any radical change can come only on the back of capital investment.
The difficulties faced by lower-league clubs are replicated around the country but arguably the combination of geography, economic circumstances and the presence of two dominant Premier League clubs makes the plight of these three particularly serious. Other clubs in the broader region such as Bolton and Wigan benefit from financial backers. A more direct comparison is Stockport County, who have just dropped into the Conference North.
The merger will not happen for many reasons. Not least is the requirement of the Football League for the new club to take its place in the lowest league occupied by one of the merged clubs. Oldham hope that the commercial possibilities of a new stand, with conference facilities, will provide additional income. Recently Bury have announced new ownership that will clear existing debts and enable a transfer embargo to be lifted. Fans hope investment will follow. By comparison, Manchester's two Premier League clubs picked up £118m in TV money and had combined average league attendances of 122,503 in the season just finished. Brian Simpson