Since the emergence and success of AFC Wimbledon, a phoenix football club set up by fans of former Premier League team Wimbledon FC, there has been a surge of newly formed clubs in recent years. But what does this mean for non league football?
When a club goes into financial trouble or are declared defunct then the new parent company (phoenix club) are normally relocated into a division further down the English football pyramid. This poses real problems for the teams currently in the lower divisions as they simply can’t compete with these big teams dropping down the divisions.
Using AFC Wimbledon as a case study, the Dons have achieved 6 promotions in their fifteen year history, which averages out to around a promotion every 3 years. And they aren’t alone. Other clubs, such as Darlington, have achieved 3 promotions in 5 seasons.
The problem with this is that it seems very unfair on the teams who have been building their teams for years, only to be denied a promotion by a team who have entered the division with a big advantage in terms of resources available to them. Many of the lower divisions such as the Northern League Division One (step 5) operate in a one up, one down system – with the occasional second place promotion up for grabs.
This meant that when a team like Darlington, in 2012, were relegated to that division it restricted Spennymoor Town from a possible promotion. Darlington won 40 games out of a possible 46 that season, helped along by top goalscorer Amar Purewal, who was leading scorer for Durham City in the division above the previous season.
Admittedly, some teams opt to stay in the division at step 5 level if they don’t have the ground grading or the financial resources to play higher up. But in this case Spennymoor Town won the league the following season and took promotion to the NPL Division One.
My point is that big teams in the lower leagues have the advantage of club status and support from a large fan base. They have the finances to sign these quality players and the pulling power to persuade them to drop a few leagues. Attendance figures play a big part in the finances, for example Chester FC had an average attendance of around 2,500 for the three seasons they were promoted consecutively from the NPL Division One to the National League – this dwarfs many other clubs attendances and revenue.
I think on the other hand, it is important to explore the benefits of phoenix sides in the non league system. Abnormally large attendances can benefit other clubs’ matchday income when they host these big teams at home. It is like an FA Cup game against a Football League side, and brings in some much needed revenue for clubs who may struggle just to break even.
Another valid point would be that it raises the profile of non league football. These big teams will no doubt get a lot of media coverage and this can translate to higher attendances and a larger interest into what is happening in non league – which I am absolutely in favour of.
There are currently a few teams who are rising through the steps of non league, Hereford FC are the latest, after forming in 2015 they have won the league twice and are challenging for promotion to the National League South this year. The Bulls are a club who are a prime example of the points made in this article and are a club many will be watching in the seasons to come.
There is no solution to this problem as such, but in my opinion the blame lands with the FA. There should be an independent body overseeing National League sides’ finances to prevent clubs from having troubles and eventually reforming – or in Hereford’s case a stricter ‘fit and proper’ test for new owners of football clubs.
Just a note that this is not an article slating the phoenix clubs, it’s a discussion article in which I have delved into both sides of the story, from both the small club and reformed team’s perspective.
It’s a debatable subject and I appreciate reading your comments so please let me know your opinions in the comments below or tweet me with the links below.
Header image via Hereford FC.