Bottoming out – Northwich

For Mike Whalley, Northwich avoidinng relegation would be one of the most remarkable escapes of all time

The result attracted little attention as the final scores came through on Saturday, February 19. Yet Northwich Victoria’s 2-0 win over Farnborough was a significant moment in one of the most remarkable relegation escape attempts in living memory.

Victory took Northwich out of the Conference’s bottom three, a feat that had seemed impossible when they had ten points deducted for going into administration in September. That penalty had left the winless Vics with a points tally of minus five. The only team to have played in the Conference every season since its inception in 1979 seemed to be slipping away quietly. Then came the first of two turning points. On October 16, Northwich beat Burton Albion 4-0 to record their first league win – at the 14th attempt – and returned to zero. Manager Steve Burr became perhaps the first ever to celebrate the fact that his team had no points. The second turning point came just under a fortnight later, when Cheshire businessman Mike Connett, whose son Ben is Northwich’s goalkeeper, bought the club – along with their then-unfinished Victoria Park stadium – and took them out of administration in a £1 million rescue package.

Victoria Park – now just about ready – is the main reason the club almost went out of business after two decades of financial uncertainty.Vics were forced to sell their historic Drill Field home – once the oldest ground in continuous use for football in the world – for housing development in 2002, when the cost of maintaining it to Conference standard became too much. The £1.3m profit made on the sale was supposed to pay for the club’s new ground, on an industrial  park. Northwich moved in with Unibond League neighbours Witton Albion as building work began.

They were due to move into Victoria Park last August. But somewhere, the maths had gone wrong. Last summer, with work behind schedule, the money ran out. When building company Tarmac issued a winding-up order over an unpaid £17,000 bill, Northwich were forced into administration to stay alive. They were around £550,000 in debt and became victims of the new automatic points penalty.

Despite the subsequent rescue, Vics still need to be up and running quickly at Victoria Park. They have racked up average losses of £250,000 a season in their two-and-a-half years at Witton. After several delays, the big house-warming party is due to happen against Gravesend on Good Friday, March 25.

Connett senior’s intervention has coincided with a turnaround in fortunes on the pitch. Burr and his assistant David Moss – who once helped plot a remarkable relegation escape as number two to Brian Horton at Oxford – have got the team winning again after a dreadful 2003-04 campaign, which saw Vics go through three managers and finish bottom of the Conference. They only survived because two other clubs drop­- ped out of the league and the Unibond champions Hucknall weren’t promoted.

Burr arrived from Hucknall in the summer, but failed to win any of his first 13 league matches. The next 17 saw them pick up 30 points, which is top-three form. Not bad considering that Northwich are one of only seven part-time teams left in the Conference. Competing with big-budget clubs such as Carlisle and Accrington is tough for Burr, and the size of the crowds don’t help; only 628 saw the win over Farnborough.

But following that win, there is belief that Northwich can complete a remarkable escape, which would allow their new owner to go ahead with plans to take the club full-time. But in an unfortunate coincidence, the team Northwich beat – and overtook – to move out of the bottom three are now in a sticky financial plight of their own. With the Inland Revenue reportedly circling, Farnborough look to be heading into the sort of mess that almost took Vics under last summer.

Whatever the outcome of Northwich’s fight against relegation, their fans can breathe a sigh of relief that, for Vics at least, the worst is over.

From WSC 218 April 2005. What was happening this month