With only one promotion left until the Football League beckons, St Albans City now have the money on board for required ground improvements. Steve Menary reports
To most non-League clubs, a marketing officer is an unaffordable luxury. John Gibson tends to agree. When Verry, a £100 million turnover construction firm owned by Gibson, opened a new office in St Albans four years ago, he decided that instead of hiring a marketing man he would buy the local team. “Their manager played for a pub team I ran. He said, ‘The club’s in real trouble, can you help?’ ” says Gibson. “I was going to get a marketing manager but decided to spend the £50,000 to £60,000 a year that would cost on a club.”
Founded in 1908 from the ashes of the city’s original club, St Albans City have won plenty of silverware without ever nearing the Football League. Gibson’s company shelled out £100,000 for the club and another £45,000 to settle an old Inland Revenue bill. St Albans’ mayor has since been recruited as club chairman and Gibson invested, by his reckoning, more than £200,000 over four years to bring the club to within one promotion of the League.
Last season, the Saints thrashed Weymouth 4‑0 early on, but with three games left lost 3-2 in the return in Dorset in front of more than 5,000 fans and were pipped to the Conference South title by four points. The Saints had to beat Histon in the play-off final at Stevenage for the right to play Weymouth again in the Conference.
Those fixtures will be interesting for Ian Ridley, the chief football writer at the Mail on Sunday. In 2003, Ridley took control of his native Weymouth, but quit 16 months later after the club was bought by hotel owner Martyn Harrison. A St Albans resident, Ridley has since joined the Saints board.
Weymouth and St Albans have something else in common in that they both want a new ground, in the latter’s case as a replacement for Clarence Park, which hosted its first match in 1894.
The 5,200 capacity stadium was best known for the oak tree within its grounds that would have prevented the Saints from gaining entry into the Football League regardless of results. The tree was felled in August 1998 but Clarence Park, though fit for the Conference, still doesn’t meet League standards, so Gibson wants to build a new 7,500-seat ground.
The £3m cost will be met partly by his firm’s role in John Prescott’s “design for manufacture” competition that aims to build a house for just £60,000. Verry had formed a partnership with German flat-pack housing firm WeberHaus to build houses in Riga. As Latvia’s planning system struggled to integrate with the European Union’s regulations, the plan ground to a halt so the two firms, together with another builder, Saxon Homes, entered the government’s competition. They are now committed to building homes in Aylesbury and Hastings, with Clarence Park next in line for development if planning permission is granted.
In the meantime, Gibson hopes derbies with Oxford and Stevenage will drag average gates up to around 1,500, though matches with Luton and Watford are still some way off.
From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month