For those who keep one eye on the goings on in Non -League football, you may have seen the well documented financial problems of both Kettering Town and Darlington this season. 'The Quakers' have just been placed into administration for the third time in nine years whilst Kettering are unlikely to finish the season unless a buyer can be found and a full takeover completed. In the past couple of weeks, Ebbsfleet United announced they need to find £50,000 by the end of the season to be able to continue whilst current Blue Square Bet Premier leaders Wrexham are still not financially secure despite a supporters trust takeover at the start of this season.
These issues are nothing new to the football conference though, only last season Rushden and Diamonds were liquidated after struggling to complete their fixtures. The Diamonds who were formed after a merger of two local clubs in 1992 were playing League One football as recently as 2004 but once Max Griggs (owner of Dr Martens shoes) lost his interest in the big project he had begun and sold the club for a £1 in 2005, the Northamptonshire side soon found themselves back in the non-league's top division. By the end of the 2008/2009 season, attendances had dropped to less than 50% of what they had been in the football league days. Despite these low crowds, the team managed to reach the play-off semi-finals but defeat over two legs against Oxford United ensured they would stay in the conference. The following season saw influential players such as Lee Tomlin and Jamie Stuart depart the club and the decline of the club off the field was quick, a new chairman - Gary Calder - replaced the outgoing Keith Cousins before quitting himself just three months later, the club was placed under a transfer embargo and players threated to strike over unpaid wages. In June, the club was expelled from the football conference before being placed in administration in July.
The Diamonds fate follows similar situations at Chester City and Halifax Town, both clubs having been liquidated in the past 10 years. But the two new examples in this new season must leave the conference board wondering how they can guarantee a competition that is played on a level playing field. Darlington are currently playing in 25,000 all seater-stadium that is rarely even 10% full whilst Kettering now play at the former home of Rushden. Both clubs have suffered an exodus of players as they cannot afford to pay their wages. Kettering have had to turn to the clubs youth team players to ensure they could put out a team and were often left with only 2 available substitutes. For a recent away game, players had to car share as the club could not afford to hire a coach. Darlington told players not to bother coming in for training last Friday as many of them couldn't afford the petrol costs due to not being paid, first team manager Craig Liddle is acting all but on his own, trying to run both the first team and youth team.
The likeliness of one or both of these clubs being removed from the league before the end of the season is very high. And it cannot be long before other clubs face a similar situation. Newport County today announced they were transfer listing players to cut costs whilst Hayes and Yeading United continue to attract an average crowd of around 300 for their home fixtures - surely not a figure for which a club can survive at conference level? Or perhaps the visit of Luton and their large fan base ensure such clubs survive.
The total flipside to all of this is represented by Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town. Crawley managed by the much maligned Steve Evans won the BSP title last season after spending a large amount of money on transfer fees - a rumoured £200,000+ on York's Richard Brodie as well as signing experience pros Pablo Mills, Sergio Torres and Michel Kuipers from teams in higher divisions. To be fair to Evans (which is very hard to do believe me!) his managerial skills brought all these big name players together and Crawley only lost three times all season on their way to 105 points. This season, the moneybags of the conference are Fleetwood Town who coincidently signed Brodie on a season long loan from Crawley for a £65,000 loan fee as well as a number of highly rated players from other conference clubs such as Andy Mangan, Paul Edwards and Danny Rose.
Whether Kettering or Darlington last the second half of this season remains to be seen but for the conference to potentially lose at least one club for three seasons in a row due to financial issues is frankly shocking especially when you take into account the vast amount of money in the game at the Premier League level. Something needs to be done in the English game to close up the gap. Around one quarter of Wayne Rooney's WEEKLY wage would provide Ebbsfleet with the money they need to raise. But it's a whole different ball game.