Best boot forward

The supporter-led takeover was a start for Rushden & Diamonds, but for Graham Dunbar there's still a long way to go yet

For a brief few days at the end of last season, Rushden was near the centre of our sporting universe. Homegrown local players showing off their abundant natural talent in a theatre of dreams, watched by a live television audience numbered in millions. Of course, they were doing it in waistcoats while brandishing a stick of wood at the Crucible.

None the less, it was a handy distraction on Saturday, April 30 for Rushden & Diamonds fans to watch Shaun Murphy and Peter Ebdon – who both honed their green-baize game at the Rushden Snooker Centre – play out their slightly tetchy rivalry in a world championship semi-final rather than sit through their side’s ignominious 1-0 home defeat against Cambridge United, a likeable but, at that point, utterly shambolic club already relegated. Put  it down to luck that Diamonds went into freefall in a season when League Two had the dubious distinction of hosting Cambridge and Kidderminster Harriers in its ranks to despatch to the Conference.

Luck is a commodity that the supporters’ trust members now owning and running the club will need. A measure of Rushden’s futility – in a season when the club was up for sale the entire time without attracting a bid, sacked a manager, and lost a first-choice goalkeeper to a failed drugs test – is that they lost home and away to Cambridge and endured two goalless draws with Kidderminster.

All of this was gleefully lapped up by fans in the rest of the division and, frankly, much of the non-League pyramid, who learned to look on jealously and grudgingly as owner Max Griggs’ millions lubricated Rushden’s rise from a merger of Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds in 1992 to take their place in the third flight for 2003-04. That was when Griggs, the man behind Dr Martens boots, declared time on his £20 million total investment and Diamonds finally took a backward step, which almost became a full-blown flop last season.

If WSC correspondents are to be trusted, Rushden’s return to non-League duty has only been delayed. In the pre-season guide in WSC 223, Rushden got 18 out of a possible of 24 votes to occupy one of the two relegation spots. They had a point. Rushden won’t be making a cash signing any time soon, former captain Stuart Gray left in mildly acrimonious circumstances while late-season talisman Billy Sharp, a teenager whose nine goals included crucial late strikes in wins over Northampton and Yeovil, went back to Sheffield United before Scunthorpe spent £100,000 on him.

But let’s assume there was still a bitter tang to those 18 votes, given that the Griggs family has gifted the trust some rare advantages. As well as a debt-free handover, completed in June, the supporter-directors inherited the very well appointed Nene Park stadium, conference centre, training pitch, car parks, restaurant, bar and £500,000 towards the costs this season. Oh, and a further £250,000 for next year.

And yet, in a football world stalked by Abramovich, Glazer and Shepherd, who could begrudge a set of genuine fans a decent shot at running their own club? Albeit one on target to make an operating loss of more than £1m a year. Responsibility for the health and well-being of Rushden & Diamonds this season seems to weigh more heavily on the dugout than the boardroom and, after stints as caretaker in each of the past two seasons, Barry Hunter was finally given a full contract.

A rugged defender and – like his uncle Allan in the 1970s – a Northern Ireland international, his robust playing style belies a shrewd mind, as shown by getting Sharp in January and appearing on The Weakest Link.

Hunter’s signing on a year-long loan of Jamie Young, England’s goalkeeper in the summer Toulon tournament, from his old club Reading bodes very well, as does an unbeaten pre-season and first four games of the campaign. As the Trust takes its baby steps in charge, any teething troubles have come from the commercial department, where the season started with no photocall to show off the new all-red kit and the new shirt sponsor, Moto, the motorway services people, getting less than the full bang for their buck.

Still, the shoes are still dead cheap in the club shop.

From WSC 224 October 2005. What was happening this month