Monday, 26 July 2010

Ten years on....

Ten years on what? Surely you need to be on something to be a Hamlet fan!

Well Paul Griffin asked for contributions for the pre-season programmes, & who am I to turn down my moment for 'fifteen minutes of fame'? The bonus for you lot reading this is that although it may be a total load of twaddle, you won't need to swallow the Oxford Concise Dictionary to be able to work out what it's all about. That's the advantage of a Peckham comprehensive education, with only one English Language 'O' Level to my name; rather than the editor's somewhat more privileged elitist public schooldays down in distant Truro.

They say a week can be a long time in politics, well that is nothing compared to the fact that we are now entering our tenth year at our current level, since our last relegation,back in 2001. Hand on heart, is there anyone who believed we would be stuck in Division One for a whole decade? Certainly not me. Our first relegation was back in 1977 & we bounced straight back up as champions, with Alan Smith at the helm.
Down again in 1990, this time it took two campaigns to regain our spot in the top division . For those of us of a certain age, as it was quite a few years ago now, who can possibly forget that mad last game of the season at Hitchin Town, when John Egan scored in the third minute, to claim the last promotion place, on the back of a seven match winning run? Nowadays of course that would only have been enough to clinch us a spot in the play-offs. So when we succumbed once more in 2001, silly, superstitious me reckoned it would take us three years to regain our 'rightful' spot in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League. It's the year..two years..& then three years. How wrong I was!

As we all know it hasn't quite worked out like that, & although our bitter rivals Tooting & Mitcham United are a division above us, we can take a crumb of comfort from the fact that when they were relegated at the end of the 1988/89 season it them EIGHTEEN YEARS to earn back their Premier Division position-dropping down even further & having to enter the FA Vase, not being good enough for the Trophy!

All this ten years lark got me thinking. Have we stagnated? Are we a failure? Or should we proud of living within our means & accept we are at the right level for us? To consider this I thought it would be interesting to see where the Premier Division "class of 2000/01'" are now as we get ready to move onto the next decade of the 21st century...

Champions were Farnborough Town. Back then there was no Conference North & South, so the three feeder league champions went direct into the (only) national Conference division. They stayed there until 2005, when they dropped into the South Division. There they stayed for two seasons, & then folded, having totally overstretched themselves financially. They re-formed, technically as a new club, Farnborough FC, but to all intents & purposes, the same club. They started again as a 'new entity' two levels down the pyramid, in the Southern League Division One South & West, & last season won clinched the Southern League Premier Division championship, to get back into the Connie South, where the Town club disappeared from. All above board, but from where I'm sitting it stinks of 'boom & bust' football, where you can then go bust, & back to 'boom' without settling with your creditors. There are strong rumours of more financial problems down in that part of this space, as they say.

Tho other Hampshire sides back in our division a decade ago, who finished third & fourth, are both at a higher level now. One more so than the other. Aldershot Town, were always 'just passing through' non-league football, having started out in Isthmian Three back in 1992, & they won the Isthmian League in 2003, taking another five years to win promotion to the Football League. By contrast Basingstoke Town seem to have settled in the South Division of the Conference, which they have been members of since it was inaugriated in 2004/05. They just missed out on 'making the cut', but took advantage of Hendon being the only club to take the financially astute & brave decision of taking their spot in the new set up.

Hendon themselves have had a torrid time in the last decade. In 2006 they were saved the igmony of relegation by having a better points ratio than other demoted outfits in the pyramid, due to other clubs collapsing & merging. Worse was to come when they were forced out of their Claremont Road home in September 2008, & currently groundshare at the Vale Farm home of Wembley FC. Still one rung above us, their future must still be classed as uncertain.

Another of our old opponents Grays Athletic have 'reached for the sky', lifted the FA Trophy, & almost attained the giddy heights of the Football League, losing in the semi final of the play-offs to Halifax town, in 2006. From such heights, they haven't gone out of existence a la Farnborough, (& Halifax, now you mention it), but continue, having had the money men disappear, being bottom of the Blue Square National last season, then declining a spot in the South division. This was as a result of losing their ground, & after all the summer shenanagins will be desperately trying to stay afloat in the Ryman One north this season, at East Thurrock United.

Other clubs to have tasted top flight non-league football over the last ten years from our rivals back then are Gravesend & Northfleet, who changed their name to Ebbsfleet United, & gone through their bizarre internet fan ownership scheme, with the wheels slowly starting to fall off, having got relegated to Conference South last season. I wish them well, not for the way they conduct themselves with the ludicrous MyFootballClub scheme, & the prostitution of ther historical name, but simply because they have a wonderful old ground!

Another side who grabbed out for the 'holy grail' of the Conference, and overstretched once they got there, are Canvey Island, who spent two years up there, before the moneybelts were tightened, & they asked for voluntary demotion to Ryman One North, where they have since re-organised themselves, & are back in the Premier. At the weekend they successfully staged a pre-season prestige match with the Dutch champions F.C. Twente!

The last side to move up to the top on the semi-pro pyramid were St. Albans City. A lone miserable season travelling the length & breadth of the land in 2006/07, before returning back to the South division, where they seem to have settled. It is the Conference South where I, personally, believe we could & should be able to survive & flourish in at our 'natural' level, if we were a club run to our full potential. Other sides who we broke bread with a decade ago who are comfortably settled in that manufactured second rung are Hampton & Richmond Borough; Purfleet (who successfully 'rebranded' themselves as Thurrock FC in 2003); & Maidenhead United.

Sutton United have also been up there with them, but were relegated back to the Isthmian in 2008. Last season they finished runners-up, but lost in the play-offs, & are the bookies favourites for the title this term.

Some of our other old opposition are now ensconced in the Zamaretto League, or the Southern League in 'old money' due to the geographical reorganisations. Two former 'traditional' Isthmian clubs now plying their trade on the 'dark side' are Chesham United & Hitchin Town. Which is a great shame from a fans' point of view, & both were regular opponents & good friends of our Supporters' Team!

Heybridge Swifts remained in the Premier Division, until relegation to Ryman One North in 2009. Three years prior to that they finished runners-up to champions Braintree Town, only to lose in the play-offs to another side who lived way beyond their means in the cloud cuckoo land of 'boom & bust' football, that were our tenants Fisher Athletic.

Some sides I've not mentioned yet have had huge contrasting fortunes. Croydon being one. Plummeting ever since their former supremo Ken Jarvie stood down, having improperly part-funded the club with money diverted from the nearby golf driving range, which he ran for the local council. 'Dirveting money' seems to be a recurring theme with clubs named Croydon! The original ones, The Trams, were relegated the following year, and continued on a downward spiral. They currently reside in the Combined Counties League, having also had a few years in the Kent League, before switching across.

The fate of Enfield has been the most dramatic, without a doubt. From being the strongest non-league club in the country in the eighties the last couple of decades have seen them lose their traditional Southbury Road home; the main bulk of supporters' breakaway to form their own club, Enfield Town FC, & the remainder of the club continue to struggle along, homeless, at a number of grounds, before collapsing in 2007, re-forming as Enfield(1983) FC. Currently languishing in the Essex Senior League, most football fans see the Town side as the genuine heirs to the ghosts from Southbury Road.

The other two relegated clubs a decade ago who went down with us were Carshalton Athletic & Slough Town. The Robins were Division One South champions in 2003, & went on to Conference South, when it was formed, but were relegated after only two seasons, & have been in the Isthmian Premier since. Wheras the Rebels have been another club to lose their ground, currently sharing at Beaconsfield SYCOB. They were forced out of their Wexham Park home, which is stilly lying unused & derelict, in 2003. To their credit they have a loyal support base, & are still strongly lobbying their local council to return to their home town. Slough regained their Premier status in 2004, only to let it slip again in 2007 They were then switched over to the Southern League, where they now compete in the newly name Division One Central division.

The remaining clubs have moved neither up nor down, some flirting with promotion via play-off heartbreak. Others saved the ignomy of relegation by reprieves. Hendon we have already mentioned. The other 'stagnant' teams being Billericay Town & Harrow Borough.

So there you have it. And the purpose of this article? I'm not entirely sure. A trip down memory lane, recalling old friends, as well as foes, perhaps? But maybe an opportunity to pause for thought, & realise that although things could be better, they could also be a lot worse. We may be entering our tenth season outside the Premier, things could be a lot worse. We have never plummeted down into the feeder leagues, gone bankrupt, or lost our ground, even if we have come close on some of them perhaps, depending on which rumours you've listened to over the years.
Perhaps this coming season will be the turning point. The Club has shown faith in us, the fans, by reducing admission prices. If we return that by getting behind the team in full voice, & all try to bring along another punter or two through the turnstiles for a few games...who knows? Maybe, just maybe, we could be back in the Premier Division this time next year!

(Article by Mishi D. Morath)