The Chief Executive of Wrexham Football Club sparked a thought in my head after criticising one of his players, Danny Wright,
for leaving the Racecourse Ground and signing for fellow Blue Square Premier side Forest Green Rovers.
He referred to the club from Nailsworth as a “village team run by a lad with a few bob” and lacking the history, pedigree and in his opinion potential of his own club. The “lad with a few bob” is green energy entrepreneur Dale Vince, who has invested significantly since he bought a controlling interest in Rovers in the autumn of 2009.
The truth is though, that without people like Vince, how does sport in Gloucestershire make ends meet ?
Certainly Forest Green is the most extreme local example of a club transformed into something from nothing. Rovers joined the Southern League after their FA Vase win at Wembley in 1982 but were treading water and going nowhere until chairman Trevor Horsley brought in Frank Gregan as manager. Gregan guided them to the Southern Division title in the Southern League, yet even on the day they were crowned champions, the crowd was barely 300. Together Horsley and Gregan guided Rovers to a second promotion two years later, to a level the club has remained at ever since.
They have been at what is known as “step 5” in the football pyramid longer than anybody else, and Horsley’s drive – and backing for the club – generated a new ground which would enable them to take their place in the Football League. It’s a mantle Vince has taken on as Rovers try to convert themselves from survivors to promotion material. Their catchment area, however, lacks any great density of population, and so crowds just shy of 1,200 cannot sustain a team by themselves. For Vince, the transition is an expensive business.
In terms of sustainability, out in front, jumping the last hurdle with a big lead is Cheltenham Racecourse. Run by the Jockey Club Racecourses, they have over 400,000 punters coming through the gates of Prestbury Park every season, and that’s just for the racing. All the profits are ploughed back into the course, and the venue holds a multitude of other events to keep the tills ringing. Often first with ideas, JCR recently launched a retail savings bond to help raise some of the £45 million pounds which will be invested in a new grandstand to further enhance the track’s reputation.
Virtually everywhere else you look, to a greater or lesser extent, there is also a financial prop. Gloucestershire County Cricket Club lean heavily on the central pot of money which is split between the counties by the England and Wales Cricket Board : even Gloucester Rugby, with average crowds approaching 13,000 and a salary cap to adhere to, have been supported by the Walkinshaw family since the late Tom bought the club in 1997.
The real stories of survival husbandry, however, are further down the scale. 1997 was also the year that Paul Baker became chairman at Cheltenham Town. While the Robins have had occasional windfalls from various sources – FA Cup runs, play off finals, TV rights fees and sales of players, Baker – and a handful of others – have put their own money into the club. Last season, the average crowd was 3252. There were 14 teams better supported in League 2, but only four higher than Cheltenham in the table.
It’s a similar tale of beating the budget across the board, because – Forest Green apart – no other Gloucestershire team attracts more than 400 people to watch them at home games, and the reasons they stay afloat a diverse mix. Certainly there is no windfall factor here, and families are heavily involved. In Cinderford, Keith and Peter Bell support both the rugby club and the football club, and the Webb’s – Mark, Peter and Richard – are known for their backing of Shortwood United.
The “lucky” ones, if they can be called that, are Hartpury – who have the infrastructure of the college to support their national league rugby team – and Cirencester Town, who have their own indoor dome at the Corinium Stadium. Credit to the committee when they sold their Chesterton Lane ground for installing a facility that would generate long term income. The one Gloucestershire team to suffer relegation, Lydney, don’t have such luxuries, and don’t pay their players.
I’ve not mentioned Gloucester City. Their story, particularly given the warnings this week about Worcester City’s position, is the most remarkable. In 1997, they were 45 minutes from winning promotion to what is now the Blue Square Premier instead of Cheltenham. Those 45 minutes took what seemed a lifetime to recover from. A relegation and – because of league restructuring – two promotions finally, in 2009, got them back to where they were. However, since 2007 City had been nomads without a ground. The club has had to find the money to pay rent, and the fans have not had a home to call their own. True, there have been several appeals to save the club from going under, but each time it has survived, in no small measure thanks to waste and landfill businessman Eamonn McGurk.
Talk now of a new ground somewhere other than on the old Meadow Park site has to make sense. The club has to be realistic in terms of its aims, but with some goodwill from the football authorities because of City’s suffering from the floods, perhaps they can build somewhere in Gloucester to call their own. Doing that would be the prime example of making ends meet.
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