By Alex Narey, editor
The plight of Shaw Lane, withdrawing their first team from the Northern Premier League last week, was one of those timely reminders of how vulnerable football clubs are at this level of the game.
Getting a club off the ground and running is one thing, but initial investment then needs to snowball and at a club like Shaw Lane, if you are not getting the relevant bang for your buck then the waters become increasingly muddier, and quickly…
Club owner Craig Wood pumped plenty of his own cash into the club’s coffers, reportedly losing around £1 million. But even his desire and the vast sums of money that came with it wasn’t enough to keep the dream alive.
Club officials met in May when Wood revealed he couldn’t offer any more investment. The race was then on to find new investors but it was ultimately a race the club were never destined to win.
While Shaw Lane remains the big story, it is the sub plots they leave bubbling behind that continue to stir the emotions. The knock-on effect the club’s resignation has had on the rest of the Non-League pyramid has been close to catastrophic, and for those clubs that have been affected with the resulting reshuffle, the Ducks’ demise will have serious implications on their own objectives.
Take Fleet Town; the Calthorpe Park club played their football in Southern League East before moving to the newly-formed Isthmian South Central division at the end of the season – a switch that was in line with the FA’s remit for creating more local derbies and less travel. Everyone seemed happy.
But following last Friday’s bombshell in Barnsley, they have now been pushed into the Southern League’s West division where away fixtures will take them as far as Bristol (Mangotsfield and Bristol Manor Farm, both 200-mile-round trips) as well as a monster slog to Bideford, a mere 175 miles and that’s just one-way.
Last season, their local derby was against Hartley Wintney, only 2.5 miles up the road, this season a trip 35 miles down the M3 to Winchester is the best they can look forward to.
I have been to Fleet on a number of occasions over the last 15 years and believe me, the place still looks the same. Saying this with great respect, it is a proud football club with a rich Non-League history but one that bats well within its means. They are not looking to deliver bold statements and they spend what money they have wisely.
The club is also still coming to terms with the death of their long-term chairman, Steve Cantle, who passed away in December 2016. Steve is a shining example of how one man can hold a club together but since his sudden death 18 months ago Fleet appear to be living somewhat hand to mouth, month by month.
I believe forcing them to play their football in a league where they have no business playing football will simply exhaust them and their resources and before you know it, there could well be a domino effect as the folding of one club brings closer the folding of another.
The last time Fleet were based in Southern West, they were forced to disband their reserve team just to survive and play competitive football, effectively cutting off the blood supply for player growth at senior level.
There was compensation then and if their appeal against the move this time round is unsuccessful, there will be compensation again. But compensation alone is never enough. It doesn’t heal the wound and only stops the bleeding for a short time.
While I have sympathy for the clubs here, I also feel the pain of the FA because, being privy to how they have worked tirelessly to make the restructure work as best they can for all clubs, they cannot please everyone. I know pushing clubs into the far corners is not something they enjoy doing. Here’s hoping a solution is found.
Back at Shaw Lane, it is also a little under two years since the tragic loss of defender Dan Wilkinson, who died following a heart attack while playing for the club in a local cup tie. He was 26.
The loss of a football club and the havoc and emotional turmoil it creates pales into insignificance when you think about the loss of someone who was on the field doing only what he loved. Rest assured, Shaw Lane’s legacy will continue to live strong with the memory of Dan Wilkinson.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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