Previously best known for providing comedian Eric Bartholomew's stage name, the seaside resort could soon have a Football League team. Geoff Walters reports
Until 1995 my experience of watching Morecambe had been restricted to the Northern Premier League. Memories are of high-scoring games in dilapidated grounds featuring players who would have looked more at home on Blackpool beach, and the peculiar habit Morecambe had of scoring every time I decided to move to another position in the ground.
Those experiences seem light years away from the current status of the club. This season, the Shrimps’ eighth in the Conference, has seen the club negotiate the transition from semi-professional to professional status. This move has been a trend among clubs throughout the Conference, as seven out of the eight challengers for a play-off place in the top five maintain full-time squads. This not only signifies the on-field strength of clubs but also that commercial success can be achieved even on the smaller stage, somewhat paradoxical to the situation that Peter Kenyon envisaged when he stated that this country could only support 40 professional football clubs.
Since entry into the Conference, the club has slowly prepared itself for League football. The ground has been developed and investment in a youth academy has paid dividends. First-team players have come through the system and last year the club sold John Hardiker, a product of the youth team, to Stockport for £150,000. The board are realistic about the finances and have not spent ridiculous amounts of money that could potentially put the club at risk. Instead, the focus has been on long-term development, emphasised by the nine-year managerial reign of Jim Harvey.
While these advances suggest Morecambe are now a League club in all but name, one aspect does not mirror the Third Division and that is our home support. Our average attendance since we were promoted to the Conference in 1995 is around 1,300. Our previous seven seasons in the Northern Premier League yielded an average of around 450. Attendances have increased three-fold, which is a reflection of the growing stature of the club in the local area. However, they are still considerably lower than other promotion rivals in the Conference and teams in the Third Division.
In one sense it is hard to understand why because the catchment area is relatively large – Morecambe and neighbouring Lancaster collectively have a population of around 100,000, though Lancaster City, one level below us in the Unibond, only average crowds of around 350. The potential support is there – when Ipswich town visited two years ago we had 5,000 home fans, while 2,000 made the 500-mile round trip to Portman Road this season and 3,000 turned up for the earlier FA Cup clash with Conference rivals Chester.
The fans that do turn up regularly are fantastic (voted “most friendly” in the Conference), but the challenge is to entice those who come for the big games to attend more regularly – maybe promotion to the Football League would achieve this. Future Saturdays spent watching Morecambe play Carlisle in front of 3,000 may not sound an enticing prospect, but, believe me, it beats making a 150-mile round trip to watch a league defeat at Winsford United.
From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month