In our long and unfruitful struggle for success down the years, we’ve had to contend with many woes – poor facilities, threats of bankruptcy, lack of fans etc etc. If you look around us though, you’ll see these problems all condense into one single thing – competition.
Football clubs in the immediate vicinity are Manchester United, Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers, Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Oldham Athletic, Stockport County, Bury, and Accrington Stanley. If you go slightly further afield you can add Liverpool, Wigan Athletic, Macclesfield Town and Chester City to our neighbours. Out of all these teams, six play in the top-flight, six play in the bottom league and only three play in the leagues in between. All this points to an alarming gap in terms of quality between the North West’s many teams. Unfortunately we seem to find ourselves the bottom of this pile, only Macclesfield and Chester matching us in terms of reputation. So what causes this gap? And how the hell do we close it?
The Premier League, and all it’s heathen entertainments seems to be the cause once again. Often the gap between leagues in discussed, but too often the gap between teams in a certain region is over-looked. How are supposed to compete in the most cramped footballing region in the world, when our annual turnover would struggle to match a single week’s wages for the Rio Ferdinands and Fernando Torreses of this world? How do we entice ambitious young players when they can enjoy the five-star luxuries just down the road? Most importantly, how do we get your average floating fan to stop watching Jeff Stelling on a Saturday and start cheering on their local team?
There seems to be no answer. With the Premier Leagues OTT wages and TV money, we find North West teams split into two categories: the haves and the have-nots. We find capitalism in motion, the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Community spirit seems to be dead in the football world, as shown by the paltry efforts made by big local clubs to encourage local clubs such as ours – only Man City seem to have taken an initiative with friendlies and loan-signings. Where is the help from teams like Blackburn, Man Utd and Bolton? Have we taken a single good young player from United, ever? I think we deserve it, the amount of fans they’ve robbed from our small town!
With the lack of funding, teams such as Rochdale and Bury have had to raise ticket prices, further alienating fans and adding to the stay-at-home-and-watch-Sky generation. A recent survey showed that the average football fan’s age was 42. That’s right, 42. Young people can simply not afford to go to matches without their parents. It’s a disturbing issue – when the current die-hards die out, who will replace them? This goes for all the leagues, not just ours, but surely it will affect us more with the majority of income coming through match receipts alone?
I do not want to be all doom-and-gloom, but inevitably,we will find ourselves poorer than ever in the future, unless something is either done by the FA or by the big clubs themselves, or by a local millionaire with an undying love for the club. We just haven’t got the money, and because we haven’t got the money we haven’t got the players, and because we haven’t got the players we haven’t got the success, and because we haven’t got the success we haven’t got the money. It’s the vicious circle of modern-day football’s weaker teams. We have seen with Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert that as soon as a player is wanted by a bigger club we can do nothing but sell, most of the funds raised go to pay off debts rather than to purchase more players too.
In times gone by, a way out of this circle might have been via home-grown players, building a useful team out of enthusiastic youths. But, with the exhaustive scouting and youth programmes of the big clubs, this is no longer an option. Kids as young as six or seven are often scouted and the larger teams have a monopoly over them. Even if there are a few nuggets amongst the dross in our YTS system, these players will eventually be sold anyway, to balance the books (as seen most notably with Bury, and also with Steven Bywater).
Some may say that there are weak teams like us all over, but I would point out that there’s not many teams like us in such a cramped area in terms of football. Teams like Carlisle, Scunthorpe, Shrewsbury, Hereford, Peterborough are all the best teams in their respective counties – all similar size clubs to ourselves but with much more scope for fans and youth players. Accrington, Bury, us, Stockport, even Oldham these days are all being drained of life by the massive clubs.
You may argue that this state of affairs is prevalent in every business market, in every country. But is football really a market? Does community, charity and a sense of fair play mean nothing to the FA these days? By the looks of things, the answer is no.