End of the road

Dave Jennings reflects on the demise of Newcastle Blue Star

Winning a promotion play-off final is surely one of the best feelings in football. It’s arguably better than winning a championship or a cup final because it’s transformative; not only has your team triumphed under enormous pressure, but it has turned itself into something higher and better than it was at the start of the day. After all the tension and euphoric release of the big day, you can enjoy the close season while relishing the prospect of the new grounds you’ll visit as your club enjoys its new, improved status.

At least, that’s generally the way of things. However, it hasn’t worked out quite like that for Newcastle Blue Star. On May 2, 2009 they thrashed Curzon Ashton 4-1 in the Unibond League First Division North play-off final, thus winning a place in the Unibond Premier League and moving to within three promotions of the Football League. But the final has turned out to be Blue Star’s final game of all.

Seven days after the match, club secretary Jim Anderson placed a desperate appeal for financial backing on the club’s website, bluntly stating: “Newcastle Blue Star are on the verge of going out of existence.” Even at this stage, Anderson emphasised Blue Star’s hopes for the future: “Many current and former Newcastle United fans support the club and we are keen on promoting the club as an alternative to NUFC… we seek to be a second league club in the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.” But the ambition lasted for only a few more weeks, before Blue Star formally announced their withdrawal from all competitions on June 23. The timing of the announcement earned them a parting rebuke from the Unibond League management, who were unhappy that Blue Star folded too late for another club to take their place in the Unibond Premier. The division has thus been reduced to 21 teams for 2009-10.

With hindsight, Blue Star’s fatal mistake was probably accepting the invitation to become founder members of the Unibond First Division North in 2007. The club had been in existence since 1930 and had enjoyed a few moments of glory, winning the FA Vase in 1978 and the Northern League in 2006. In recent years they had been steadily improving their Wheatsheaf Sports Ground with the help of grants from the Football Foundation charity’s Football Stadia Improvement Fund (FSIF), but in 2007 the ground still didn’t meet Unibond League standards. A new stadium was required to accommodate the club’s new status, so Blue Star arranged to share Newcastle Falcons rugby union club’s Kingston Park ground. A strengthened squad comfortably coped with the higher standard of football in the Unibond First Division North, making headlines in April 2008 by scoring two goals in the first 47 seconds of a match against Bamber Bridge.

However, the move to Kingston Park put Blue Star in breach of their contract with the FSIF, who demanded full repayment of the grants that had been spent on their previous home. The amount of the grants is disputed –£65,000 or less according to Blue Star, almost £150,000 according to the Unibond League – but what is clear is that club chairman Dave Thompson declined to repay the money and withdrew his financial support, leaving the club in an untenable position.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Blue Star that last season, when they most needed support, two other north-eastern non-League teams were doing well: Gateshead won promotion to the Blue Square Premier, while Blyth Spartans reached the third round of the FA Cup. Given Newcastle United’s recent difficulties Blue Star might have hoped that Toon Army deserters would turn to them just as some disgruntled Manchester United fans had gone to FC United, but more attractive options were available locally for stray Magpies seeking to sample the homely pleasures of non-League football. In Blue Star’s final season, an average of 161 spectators turned out at the 10,200-capacity rugby stadium for home games, and the play-off final attracted only 307 fans to Kingston Park.

Even accepting the highest estimates of debt, the amount of money involved wouldn’t have equalled a year’s wages for an average player in the Championship that Newcastle United have just joined. But Blue Star’s problems mirrored those of bigger clubs – they found out too late that while an ambitious club can quickly assemble a new playing squad, it may be much harder to build the fanbase necessary to sustain success.

From WSC 271 September 2009