Sloping off

Yeovil, perhaps the most famous non-League side, are edging towards the Third Division. Adam Mornement weighs up the pros and cons of a possible promotion

On January 6, 1949 Yeovil Town beat Sunderland to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup. Subsequent generations of Glovers – handwear is still a thriving local industry – have been brought up to believe that achieving League status is Yeovil’s birth­right. But nearly 54 years on, the club’s destiny remains unfulfilled.

Yeovil regularly attract crowds that most Second Division sides would be proud of. And in 1990, well before it became fashionable, the Glovers re­loc­ated to a new out-of-town ground, Huish Park. But the club’s fame is largely a con­sequence of regular Cup runs – since their formation in 1895 Yeovil have beat­en a record 20 League sides – and the old sloping pitch, an almost unplayable six feet from side to side. Sustained success on the field has always pro­ved elusive.

At the time of writing Yeovil are top of the Conference, five points clear of Doncaster Rovers. “We’ve been in this position before,” says the chairman John Fry. “But I think that, at last, there’s a belief here.” The best recent opportunity came in the 2000-01 season. In January 2001 Yeovil were 13 points clear of second place with two games in hand, but went on to finish six points behind the champions, Rushden & Diamonds. The official explanation was another successful FA Cup run. Highlights included a 5-1 vic­tory over Colchester United, a televised victory over Blackpool, and a narrow de­feat by Bolton at the Reebok Stadium. But it led many fans to question whether Yeovil really had the ambition to make the jump.

In the current climate, a lack of am­bition does not seem to be altogether a bad policy. On a number of levels Yeovil Town are doing just fine. It’s fun being a big fish, lording it over the minnows. And why would any right-thinking club aspire to join the Football League, with players out of work and the administrators overworked?

“The way it’s going at present some Nationwide clubs won’t finish the season,” says Fry. “It’s not just ITV Digital, it’s way back into the system. Clubs are spending more than they earn. But we have huge pot­ential, and we’re not afraid of it.”

There is little doubt that League status would change Yeovil out of all recognition. As the only League club in Somerset, the club would have a potentially huge catchment area and the prospect of genuine loc­al rivalries to draw the crowds. Over the years Wey­mouth, Bath City, Taunton Town (annual rivals for the Somerset Cup) and to a lesser extent Forest Green have provided local-ish derbies. But Exeter City, Torquay, Bournemouth and Bristol Rovers would represent altogether more tantalising propositions.

But, all of a sudden, Yeovil would be at the back of the class, just one of the 92. For the first time in their his­tory they would be a potential Cup scalp. With the sloping pitch already a distant memory, the FA Cup giantkilling reputation has become a pivotal aspect of Yeovil’s self-image. Lose that and it could precipitate an identity crisis.

“League status would take away the traditional magic,” says Tony Williams, editor of the Non-League Club Directory and a former Yeovil director. “Look at Wycombe. Obviously it’s great to get to the FA Cup semi-final, and their ground is wonderful. But I won­der if the older supporters enjoy being pushed around by the police and getting turned away from the bar at opposition grounds? It’s just not the same any more.”

The sea change in mentality is a problem that affects all clubs that move up from the Conference. “There’s not much mutual support between lower League clubs,” says Williams. “Non-League clubs have to bal­ance the books without TV money. Football is the priority; staying afloat is an annual chal­lenge. But as soon as the balance between foot­ball and business is weighted to­wards business, the wrong people often gain power and the equilibrium is lost, along with the romance.”

On a practical level, there is a danger that League status might actually dam­age the club. The financial turmoil facing so many Football League clubs could have a very negative effect on the uninitiated.

“Traditionally, sides promoted from the Conference have far better habits than Third Division clubs,” says Dave Boyle, development officer of Supporters Direct. “But increasingly we are seeing League vices, like wage inflation and quick-fix management, polluting the Conference.” And it’s a situation that is only likely to get worse. This season, for the first time, two clubs will go up from the Conference. And doubling the chances of promotion doubles the incentive for chairmen to gamble. In the past two years Yeovil, like a number of other Conference clubs, have gone full-time. The lure of League football demands it. “We’ve got League expenditure here, with non-League rev­enue,” says Fry. What that means is that the consequences of failure within the next two seasons could be catas­trophic.

In recent years Yeovil have had their share of financial prob­lems. Twelve years ago, following the move to Huish Park, the club was a weekend away from calling in the receivers. And even at the end of last season there were rumours of meltdown, with debts of £400,000, and a new terrace and playing surface to pay for. If it hadn’t been for the assistance of the new owner John Goddard-Watts, a successful businessman who came late into football, the club might well have gone bank­rupt. Relying on sugar daddies for support is another League habit that has infiltrated the Conference. And we all know what happens when such backers start to lose interest.

Whenever Yeovil’s chips have been down, the FA Cup has come to the rescue. It hap­pened in 1992-93, when they drew Arsenal in the third round. Yeovil lost 3-1, but the game gen­erated more than £100,000. And it happened again in 2001 with the Bol­ton tie. But it’s a bal­ancing act they cannot afford to rely on for ever.

From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month