Okay, so we’ve done politics, we’ve done religion and we’ve done sex – our landlady has tossed many a hot potato into the Raccoon Arms debating circle over the past few years and has left the locals to argue amongst themselves, her work done. But there’s one incendiary subject guaranteed to set passions aflame that has been largely avoided on these premises, football.
Tomorrow sees the Third Round of the FA Cup, the traditional David and Goliath event that brightens up the first weekend of January as lower-league ‘minnows’ ( BBC Sport) have a rare opportunity to take on the pampered Premier League ponces and hope for an upset that will provide them with an even rarer cash injection from the FA. And if there’s one nailed-on certainty of the forthcoming television coverage that is even more dependable than the use of that word ‘minnows’, it’s the annual outing for Ronnie Radford’s rocket as non-league Hereford United sent top-division Newcastle United packing in 1972, the one where the muddy quagmire posing as a pitch is invaded by a thousand schoolboys in pale green parkas. How many viewers who will be reliving this magical moment yet again are aware, however, that the club Ronnie Radford made history with 43 years ago ceased to exist less than a month ago?
In the very year they celebrated their 90th anniversary, Hereford United FC were wound-up in the High Court after already being suspended from the lowly Southern League Premier Division due to familiar financial woes. Situated on the border between England and Wales, Hereford were the last English club to win the Welsh Cup (in 1990); five years ago they were playing in the third tier of English football; now they are playing nowhere. It still seems incredible in an age where the national sport is awash with cash that a football club can disappear from the soccer map; and those for whom football holds no interest whatsoever are probably unaware just how profoundly devastating the loss of a town’s football club can have on the community that has supported it through thick and thin over decades. In many cases, the town’s football club – whether consistently successful or dismally underachieving – is sometimes the one remaining element that community can rally around and come together to invest a degree of local pride in, especially if the town is a former industrial powerhouse fallen on hard times; it can give that town a much-needed identity and for those of us who hear in the plebeian poetry of the football results on a Saturday tea-time the same mystical mantra of the locations on the shipping forecast, a town’s football club is often the sole reason we know that town exists.
Alas, the plight of Hereford United is not unprecedented in the age of the multi-millionaire footballer, an era that began with the formation of the Premier League in 1992. Aldershot FC and Maidstone United both ceased to exist just months before the Premier League kicked its first ball; Halifax Town folded in 2002, Scarborough in 2007, and Chester City in 2009. To the average football fan, they may have been little more than dimly recalled names on a pools coupon, but such clubs were integral to the backbone of the lower-leagues and formed the bedrock of the much-discussed ‘grass roots level’. The old notion of a football club being the defining brand of a town and being situated at the heart of the community still applies outside the Premier League.
There are no armchair followers of Torquay United or Crewe Alexandra; Carlisle United and Accrington Stanley don’t sell many shirts in Japan; kids in Dover or Durham don’t support Scunthorpe United or Bury. For the fan whose allegiances are to his hometown club, however lowly they languish, football has little to do with the Champions League or Sky Television; and each club that disappears from the league tables is a tragedy that should be inconceivable in an age when England can boast the most-watched and fervently followed league on the planet. The clubs that have vanished may have been the unluckiest losers at the football crap table, but many more illustrious names have come close to closure in recent years, such as Leicester City, Derby County, Ipswich Town, Southampton and Crystal Palace. And Portsmouth – winners of the FA Cup in 2008 – became the first Premier League club to go into administration in the 2009/’10 season, a mournful prelude to inevitable relegation.
In England, the dreaded drop from the Premier League became even more perilous with the collapse of the digital TV channel, ITV Digital. It had purchased the broadcasting rights to all Football League and League Cup fixtures in a deal worth £315 million in 2000, promising to pump fresh cash into the three leagues that had been starved of financial oxygen ever since the operation that separated them from the top division in 1992. However, just two years later, ITV Digital went bust, owing the Football League £180 million, an amount it had no way of paying. This catastrophe hit many clubs in the division immediately below the Premier League hard, clubs who had gambled on the prospective income from ITV Digital as a launching-pad to the Premier League, clubs who now found they were left high and dry.
In Scotland, the situation was even grimmer. The traditional dominance of Celtic and Rangers became more pronounced as the Sky money enabled the Glasgow goliaths to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, attracting top European talent at the expense of the smaller Scottish clubs struggling in their colossal shadow – although even the mighty Rangers went into administration in 2012; and if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It had already happened to poor little Gretna FC, who came within a whisker of winning the Scottish Cup in 2006, yet were dissolved at the end of their solitary season in the top flight of Scottish football just two years later. But, whilst wild over-ambition and a willingness to pawn a football club’s family silver may have placed a number of clubs on the precipice of extinction, one of the key components in the debt cycle of 21st Century soccer is the wages of players and the crippling effect they can have on a team that has just lost its seat at the table of the elite. In the era of the maximum wage, however, the bond between fans and players was strong in a way that seems unimaginable today.
The maximum wage meant that the average footballer could never stray too far from his roots, with many playing for just the one club for the entirety of their careers, travelling to the ground on the bus and often running a small business, such as a newsagent’s shop or a pub, that would provide them with a steady income once they hung-up their boots. They were genuine members of the community, and the grounds they played at weren’t named after corporate sponsors with no connection to the locality or situated in out-of-town industrial estates; they were smack bang in the middle of that community, surrounded by rows of houses, and as central to the town and its people as any grand municipal building or renowned industry. The directors and chairmen of clubs were, in the main, self-made men for whom this was their hometown team; the notion of fans supporting clubs from towns other than the one they were born in was anathema. If you were from Liverpool, you supported Everton or Liverpool; if you were from Manchester, you supported City or United; if you were from North London, you supported Arsenal or Spurs; if you were from the North-East, you supported Newcastle or Sunderland; if you were from Glasgow, you supported Celtic or Rangers; if you were from Edinburgh, you supported Hibs or Hearts. There was no debate, no argument; one’s allegiance was handed down from father to son like a working-class form of hereditary peerage.
But those days are long gone where the elite are concerned – unless they experience relegation, of course, and the fair-weather fans who like to follow a trendy team leave to find another one. The week that Hereford United folded, I switched on BBC1’s ‘Football Focus’ to see what the pundits would have to say about the sad saga. And they said bugger all, despite the fact that they resurrect Ronnie Radford every January. Such are the priorities of the beautiful game in 2015. It’s enough to make you as sick as a parrot.