Everybody loves an underdog story, especially in the case of football. Non-league minnows are the best example of this, but not all are gaining their recognition and success fairly. Take the case of Eastleigh, who last weekend earned themselves a 1-1 draw and replay against debt-ridden Championship side Bolton. When you look behind the quagmire of a winter pitch, the dozens of volunteers and the record crowd of just over 5000, they are a club who are blessed with amenities way above their level. Their chairman Stewart Donald himself revealed that he had injected £3 million of his own money into the club at the start of this season, which is unbelievable for any other club at this level, bar maybe only Forest Green Rovers.
The point I am making is that these supposedly ‘small’ clubs at non-league are presenting themselves as honest, equal clubs to others in their divisions, when they fully well know they aren’t. They are creating a sloped playing field (just like the ill-famed pitches of other non-league clubs) in their favour by buying success, not necessarily earning it. Personally, I cannot admire the success of clubs like these, as eventually the supporters are being the ones let down, as they are told their club can shoot up the leagues, but realistically the crowds cannot compete with others in the league, and the club’s turnover is heavily reliant on the chairman’s money to keep in the black. This is how so many non-league clubs have fallen over time to rising debts, notably Rushden & Diamonds, Hereford United and Darlington F.C.
I believe that just like I mentioned in my owners blog, directors of non-league clubs are just as susceptible to the wild and unsustainable promises of rich businessmen as the league clubs, no matter their belief they are closer to their community. The facts show that they are risking the stability of their hometown club by making deals with these seemingly trustworthy individuals. The series of events leading to short-term success at these clubs seems to strangely coincide with those currently at Bournemouth, who are relying completely on their Russian billionaire owner Maxim Demin to keep them afloat. This is amid the £16 million worth of signings of a new strike partnership in just two days, which seems surely unmaintainable with their income, including an 11,071 attendance against West Ham. This was higher than only four of all 24 Championship team’s last home attendances, where players are being transferred for free transfers to the rare £9 million spent on Andre Gray by Burnley, for example, which Bournemouth bettered despite their lower gates. Even Eddie Howe, who has masterminded the club’s survival and rise, revealed that the spending was “not a comfortable feeling” for him.
Another issue I have is the favourable coverage these well-funded non-league clubs actually get, in a world where realistically small-time teams are very unlikely to get any exposure. Salford City showed this from their BBC Documentary and FA Cup game in last autumn last year, where their story was heralded as that of part-time unlikely heroics, when in reality they had former professional players and a much larger budget than any other competitors. Sadly journalists and broadcasters often overlook the backgrounds of these clubs and singularly focus on the rise of teams such as Eastleigh, Salford or Whitehawk, who I will focus on later. The serious question is should clubs who have significant financial advantages over others in their division really get any more privileges?
I cannot ever be envious of teams who have the fortune to be heavily invested in, mainly because these problems have occurred on a slightly smaller scale at my hometown club Lewes FC. During the noughties, they had been bankrolled to several consecutive promotions by wealthy local businessman Martin Elliott, including reaching the then-named Blue Square Premier in 2008, one step below the Football League. It was at this point that the board sacked (infamous) manager Steve King, mainly due to his lofty ambitions outweighing the finances. Once we were in this league, we found out the hard way that such a meteoric rise wasn’t sustainable, and this will be the unfortunate reality for teams that do risk it. Today Lewes are bottom of the Ryman Premier League, three divisions below League 2, but are safe in the sustainability of our over 1000 fan owners, with the 4th highest average home attendances despite our lowly position.
Meanwhile, Steve King is now at Whitehawk FC, enjoying the sort of finances he demanded to have at his disposal at Lewes years ago. He inherited a team which had already gone from Ryman League South to the Conference South in the two seasons from 2011-12, and went about assembling a squad with a budget that wouldn’t be out of place in League 2. This includes captain and former Crawley Town player Sergio Torres, ex-Stevenage left back Lee Hills and Arnaud Mendy, previously a Guinea-Bissau international while at Derby County. All this with the 3rd lowest average attendance in their league (338), lower than Lewes in the division below (408). How are they meant to survive sustainably? Chairman John Summers told newspapers he sold his Bentley and two boats to pay for the club’s ambitious goals, which proves they are not going to keep up their goals forever, and one day their motivation, barring on greed, will be their downfall. No need to have fast cars or yachts to be an owner of Lewes, though.
Last season in our league, there was a tight battle for the title between two completely contrasting Kent teams, Margate and Maidstone. Margate was a club with a budget largely inflated by their chairman, chasing promotion with an average attendance of around 500 to 600. Maidstone, on the other hand, were a self-made club, set up with a 3,000 capacity stadium, complete with 3G pitch and strong reserve and academy sides, producing talents such as Chris Smalling. They regularly pack out their ground with an average attendance this season of 2,222, double that of the following team in the attendance table. You notice the difference between sustainability and recklessness? Earning success and buying it?
I personally believe that in non-league football, if you have everything in place; community links, a constructive board, promising academies, facilities, loyal fans, competitive players and a respectable manager, you can’t go far wrong. A rich man cannot buy you all these, but he can certainly try. After all, what can go wrong? Just ask Lewes. Or Rushden & Diamonds. Or Hereford. Or Darlington. Luckily enough for some of these clubs, they’ve had a rebirth. Others may not be so lucky.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!