The Vauxhall bridge

Non-league clubs are being taken over by new, rich chairmen. Simon Bell looks at their attempt to buy success

One of the most irritating things about the Vauxhall Conference is the way it wants to be – really wants to be – the Football League. It’s a bit embarrassing. The Football League bars a club from entering because its facilities aren’t up-to-scratch (Kidderminster); bless my soul if the Conference doesn’t follow suit abjectly (St Albans and their now infamous trees). The Football League applies a raft of strict financial criteria for would-be entrants, ignoring the fact that most of its members are perennially skint. As does the Conference, consigning Enfield and Boston Utd to the never-never for a few more years.

The result is a league in limbo, a small pool containing a few potentially league-sized fish and a rather larger shoal of tiddlers living beyond their means in the fond belief that they will one day grow legs and scramble out of the swamp – and to hell with the cost. So it is with the money men, by and large.

The League has Jack Hayward, self-styled Golden Tit and increasingly grumpy employer of Mark McGhee. The Conference has Max Griggs, proprietor of the Doc Martens empire and owner of Rushden and Diamonds. Not short of a few bob, Max has built Nene Park, Diamonds’ home, from scratch, made sure that most of its 10,000 capacity is seated, and incorporated a venue for such extra-curricular activities as snooker, and, er, more snooker. There’s even a doorman to show you into the bar, fer Chrissakes.

Max is not alone. Step forward Victor Green, chairman of Stevenage Borough, described in the Guardian as “a feisty little rich guy”. Thanks to him, there’s little chance of Stevenage being once again refused admission to the League were they to win the Conference. League standard ground, computerised turnstiles, Football in the Community scheme, you name it. Unfortunately, the team doesn’t look so hot this time out. Stevenage have a £25,000 suspended fine hanging over their heads as a result of conduct unbecoming an aspiring League club: they approached Torquay United for money to ‘ensure’ that they didn’t sell leading scorer Barry Hayles. Torquay would have been relegated if Stevenage had finished behind a club with a League standard ground in 1996.

This is a measure of the desperation some Conference chairmen feel for the Holy Grail of League football, a desperation which can sometimes seem to overstep the bounds of reason. Macclesfield, who at the time of writing are second in the Third Division, were bankrolled for their last few years in non-League football by Arthur Wood, a local businessman. For whatever reasons (and they are undoubtedly complex) Mr Wood shot himself in the summer of 1996. His company, Crosland Metals, is now in liquidation, and the receiver has been on the phone to Macclesfield Town FC regarding the whereabouts of some of Crosland’s assets. Everyone in non-League football knows what happened to Maidstone, and what nearly happened to Barnet. The dream, of course, is to ‘do a Wimbledon’, but one wonders what Conference chairmen see to attract them in the current superstar lifestyles of more recent recruits such as Scarborough, especially since the ladder to the serious money has been very firmly pulled up.

There’s a good case for arguing that Wimbledon were the last side able to make the full trip. This sort of ambition sends freak shockwaves through football at all levels where players are paid. Non-League football is littered with examples of clubs who had a few good years on someone or other’s money, only to plummet from view when forced once again to rely on their usually tiny hardcore of fans for material support. Colne Dynamos were bankrolled from the North West Counties League to the Conference before their backer pulled the plug, and they folded.

Likewise, Sittingbourne’s future seemed so secure when they made a killing on the sale of their ground, but they hit hard times when the money evaporated within a couple of years. And there’ll be more. The trouble is usually the same: a cash injection from the local rich geezer can buy you a defence and a couple of new bits of terracing, but it won’t sustain you forever, and even mega-bucks from a ground sale can’t guarantee the success that will keep punters coming through the turnstiles. Eventually, a club’s aspirations will overcome its ability to organize itself competently, either on the field or off, and then the slide may not be long away. Hayes, currently living high on the hog on the 10% sell-on clause from Les Ferdinand’s move to Newcastle, may soon find this out. £250k from the sale of Jason Roberts to Wolves will help, but sooner or later they have to address the issue of sub-1,000 gates if they are not to stagnate like most of the rest of the Conference.

It’s a problem several of the middling Conference clubs face: just about too good to go down, but never quite well enough set up or supported to make the leap upwards. ‘Division Five’,wherein 22 thrusting and ambitious clubs would joust for the right to play Hartlepool, has never quite become a reality. Macclesfield may make it. Although what ‘it’ might be is a bit doubtful. Realistically, Division Two is probably the upper limit. And I wonder if Plymouth on a wet Tuesday will seem quite as enticing as it did when they were a Conference club?

Whatever, it won’t stop the latest crop of lottery winners, scrap metal merchants and second-hand car dealers from acting out their fantasies of tea and Jaffa cakes in the boardroom at Chester by offering twenty grand a year to some knuckle-dragger who’s just got the push from Shrewsbury reserves. And frankly, if they’re that bloody sad, aren’t you glad they’re spending it on something relatively harmless?

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month