Thursday 14 May ~
This season has ended with Darlington and Stockport both in administration and facing the prospect of not being able to start 2009-10 as Football League clubs. Darlington fans are already considering the creation of an AFC Darlington which would begin, it is hoped, a couple of levels below the Conference. Meanwhile their cavernous stadium, the root of the club's financial woes, will lie vacant. Several clubs that have recently played League fixtures at what is currently called the Balfour Webnet Arena might soon encounter the re-formed Darlington in regional football.
But while Boston, Halifax and Scarborough are regrouping as semi-professional sides, the non-League game in general is in crisis, with clubs around the country facing winding-up orders. One of the recently disappeared spent seven seasons in the Football League including two at the top level – in the 1890s. Darwen FC, founded in 1875, have gone under due to debts owed to a company who provided equipment for maintaining their ground. But while it sad to see a club disappear for the sake of a few thousand pounds, money that a Premier League player could earn in one day, the fact is that any business that reneges on a commitment to a supplier is going to be trouble. Darwen are by no means the worst offenders, but too often football clubs appear to think that the normal rules of business don't apply to them. Elsewhere the past week has provided two much more startling examples of hubris.
Fisher Athletic of the Blue Square South have folded over an unpaid tax bill of around £250,000. For a while Fisher were one of the most prominent non-League clubs in Greater London, spending four seasons in the Conference from 1987 onwards. After a decade in the doldrums they reached the Blue Square South in 2005 and were in the play-offs to win promotion to the Conference only two seasons ago. Their strong playing squad wasn't funded by income from a large home support, however – even in their heyday Fisher got small crowds and for the last few years they have been groundsharing at Dulwich Hamlet, several miles from their original base in Rotherhithe. Instead Fisher's owners took a gamble that short-term spending would fund a return to the Conference, without giving enough thought to the consequences of failing to reach their target. There's nothing admirable about their ambition in this respect – a club that could have trundled along at a lower level has instead been brought to ruin.
Meanwhile, a club just promoted to the Northern Premier League is also on the brink of extinction after the chairman withdrew his financial support. Not many people outside the north-east will be aware that Newcastle Blue Star nurtured plans to be "a second League club in the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne”. It could be that this aim wasn't widely known even within the city given that their average gate last season was 161. Like Fisher, Blue Star were groundsharing, in their case with Newcastle's Premiership rugby union team. Also like Fisher, they could have continued with an untroubled existence further down the non-League pyramid – they were members of the Northern League for 22 years until moving up in 2007 – but decided instead to assemble a large squad with experience of playing at a higher level. In very quick time, this has proved to be unsustainable and now they want to be bailed out by a new benefactor.
Former League sides restarting lower down might reasonably expect to rise quickly through the divisions given the financial advantage they gain from large crowds. But the fanbase has to be in place before any club can contemplate pushing on. Whether this lesson will ever sink in remains to be seen. Rob Weston