Every club has a story, here's Leamington FC's.
Although football seems to lunge from crisis to meltdown to crisis again on a six month cycle it’s held up pretty well. Debt rises, profit rises, ticket prices follow them and in general there’s nothing fans can do; however, in the wake of AFC Wimbledon’s recent successes more teams are being founded by supporters trusts, which tend to guarantee financial stability. These teams remain stable by following the simple formula of only spending the money they receive through the gate and not having to rely on bank loans or rich benefactors to allow them to compete.
Obviously it’s not as simple as it seems - before a profit is guaranteed a decent crowd has to start attending games and most weeks every Southern League Premier attendee combined would be outnumbered by the average home crowd at a League 2 match. Financial strength isn’t the only benefit for a club run by its fans it also breeds a true sense of community, everyone from the groundsman to the bartender is as much a part of the ‘team’ as the players, and this inclusivity is infectious, but is this method sustainable once a team has found its level and interest wanes?
In 1983 AP Leamington won the Southern League, five years later they ceased to exist. Despite topping the league the team was denied promotion to the Conference, the Windmill Ground deemed unfit and the spot given to Kidderminster Harriers who pushed on to the Football League. The following season the team narrowly avoided relegation coming in sixteenth and in 1984/85 the team won two matches, racking up eleven points, conceding one hundred and twelve goals and lost the backing of Automotive Products. Dropping into the Southern League Midland Division served only to prolong the inevitable, where the team known then simply as Leamington FC won an aggregate of eighty eight points… over three years, before folding at the conclusion of the 1987/88 season. Had this happened in 2011 a phoenix club would have been founded immediately, as has been the case with Rushden and Diamonds and Kings Lynn, but football fans in Leamington Spa had to wait twelve years before the town regained its football team.
Brakes fans faced one main problem in reviving their team, they didn’t have anywhere to play. The Windmill Ground (named after the Windmill public house it lay behind) was sold off to housing developers and so the town was without a football team for the first time since the Second World War. After years in the wilderness a plot of land was found 2.5 miles from the former home ground; it was cold, exposed and next to a chicken farm but it was theirs.
On 19th August 2000 Leamington FC beat Enville Athletic 3-1 at the New Windmill Ground (named in honour of the old ground and Chesterton windmill which overlooks the site) in the Midland Football Combination Division 2. Under the guidance of Jason Cadden and with the goals of Josh Blake the Brakes never looked back, winning the league with 88 points and a goal difference of +65 guaranteeing promotion to the Midland Football Combination Division 1. Silverware was an added bonus for the fans who had worked so hard just to see the gold shirts of their team back in action and with an average league attendance of 552 it was a total club effort. At the lower levels of British football success truly makes or breaks a team. Sustained crowds and sensible spending will thrust a team skyward through the leagues whereas dwindling support and reckless spending to cover those losses almost inevitably results in careering downwards as Leamington did in the late 80s.
The 2001/02 season brought more success as the team was promoted after finishing second to local rivals Rugby FC, scoring 107 goals with attendances averaging a healthy 484 for the season. The 2002/03, 03/04 and 04/05 seasons were spent in the Midland Combination Premier, finishing third, second and first respectively, scoring 293 goals across the three seasons with around 400 people attending home games. The 2005/06 season really put the team back on the map when they earned their highest profile match in their current incarnation, an FA cup first round proper trip to Colchester. National media became interested in the club, attendances leapt and a local brewery even brewed a celebratory beer nattily named Brakes’ Fluid. Of course they were slaughtered 9-1 but it was a proof that all the hard work of the fans, manager and players was truly for something, Cureton, Iwelumo and Halford were relative giants compared to the Brakes’ motley crew.
They finished the season in 5th place in the Midland Football Alliance and the team built on this success being crowned champions in 06/07 reaching yet another rung on the footballing ladder, this time the Southern Football League Division One Central. This was their home for two seasons, finishing second in 2007/08 and winning the league in 08/09, giving them promotion to the level from which they fell so rapidly in the 1980s. With Jason Cadden still in charge and Josh Blake now a club legend on his way to making 400 appearances the re-born Leamington FC had achieved five promotions in ten seasons which is no mean feat for a small town in Warwickshire with only a modest pedigree and a ground next to a chicken farm.
Success doesn’t equate to happiness. Attendances at the New Windmill Ground are comfortably in the top five in the Southern League Premier on average but they aren’t growing; in fact from 09/10 to 10/11 there was a drop from 636 to 525. This can be attributed to the removal of Cadden from his managerial duties midway through his first season in the SLP with a minority of fans feeling that the club was perhaps becoming too big and the community feeling dissipating. Cadden’s departure corresponded directly with the elected board’s aims, they felt that to succeed at Southern League Premier level they needed a manager who first of all conceded less goals and secondly knew the division and had enough contacts to make the necessary acquisitions.
Cadden’s attacking 3-5-2 formation was ditched by new boss Paul Holleran in favour of a narrow 4-3-1-2, great for containing the opposition but not much to behold - hence the drop of a hundred on the average attendance. Holleran’s advantage was that he knew the league and was able to bring in players from further afield, with especially good contacts in the Birmingham area, however; fans who had once been at the heart of the club felt themselves being sidelined as the club gained promotion after promotion.
The new players weren’t local lads playing for their hometown team like those that had brought so much success previously, they were from the Birmingham area and had league experience, these players were total unknowns compared to the ones previously at the club who more often than not had been seen as visitors to the NWG before turning out in the black and gold. Some fans moved on to watching local team Southam United before following former player and assistant manager Morton Titterton to Stratford Town after he was appointed manager; Cadden swiftly followed as his assistant and the current Stratford Town squad is littered with players from Leamington’s past.
Most Leamington fans have other allegiances in the higher leagues of the football pyramid, so when push comes to shove the greater accessibility of the higher leagues takes precedence especially when a big team comes to the Ricoh or Villa Park and Leamington can easily become forgotten. It’s not difficult to be a fan of a Football League team without going to matches but for teams like Leamington FC who rely on matchdays to make most of their money, attendance is paramount. The paradox is that the more successful you become at the lower levels, the more chance you have of disenfranchising the fans that, in Leamington’s case literally, created the club. There used to be highlights of every match played at the New Windmill Ground available on the club website, this however ended after the cameraman decided they didn’t want to dedicate so much time to something they didn’t feel part of any more, no one replaced him. It’s sad to see fans who have worked so hard for the club slowly drift away and it begs the question as to how far up the football pyramid a team can rise before it plateaus.
Last season Leamington came 5th and made the playoffs, losing in the semi-finals to eventual promotion team Salisbury. This was a good progression on their 10th place finish in the 09/10 season when Holleran replaced Cadden. The team is among the favourites for promotion with former favourite and ex-Coventry player Ben Mackey rejoining the club to lead the attack after dabbling in the Conference North. If the team doesn’t gain promotion this season or in the near future then it really is hit or miss whether the club sustains itself at the current level or drops down the ladder.
Without a rise in attendances it doesn’t seem logical for the club to be able to succeed to any greater extent and without greater success it doesn’t seem logical for the team to be capable of attracting greater attendances. Most teams in the Southern League Premier seem to be in a state of flux, progressing up through the leagues (through community spirit like Leamington or backed by businesses in the case of Brackley), falling down after financial crisis (Weymouth) or simply punching above their weight. The SLP unlike the Conference system it feeds into does not have enough prestige to generate crowds itself and it’s just too far removed from the football league for the press to care at all; teams must either have a large, easily accessible fanbase or be looking to improve rapidly. Currently Leamington have been growing at a reasonable rate but if this stagnates or the football becomes dull the crowds won’t stick with the team and if that happens the only way is down.
The Southern League Premier really is a great league, it sneaks onto the vidiprinter on Soccer Saturday yet gets little national coverage, I’ve seen former international players captain teams in FA cup preliminaries and youngsters such as Alex Rodman, now at Aldershot, and Tom James, who’s just signed for Watford, progress to the Football League. The football isn’t of the greatest standard but the occasional flashes of brilliance are there and the drama’s just the same as the Premier League, the shame is that teams don’t tend to stick around. A common criticism of the Football League is that it’s obsessed with money but non-league football has to be obsessed with money. There are no guarantees at this level, if the weather’s bad (as it was over Christmas 2009) it can mean an entire month without a game and that means an entire month without any income. Four weeks of semi-professional footballers wages stack up when there’s nothing to offset them and casualties litter the lower leagues.
Leamington experienced their own minor crisis towards the end of last season. Thieves broke into the New Windmill Ground’s clubhouse last February stealing four televisions, a projector and alcohol, before returning a week later to vandalise the same place, with unfortunate irony on the eve of the EON National Energy Fit Club Makeover Awards being hosted at the club. The damage amounted to £3000 with another £3000 worth of property being stolen and for a club built and still sustained by volunteers it’s disheartening to say the least. Fans cleaned and repaired the clubhouse and even patrolled the perimeter of the ground for the week following so as to deter the thieves from returning. The club launched an appeal to raise money to secure the ground against further criminality with the aim being to raise £7500 and it is testament to the fans of all lower league teams that they are only a thousand pounds of reaching this goal, at this level it is truly the fans that make the football club.
There seems to be something of a renaissance in non-league football with the rise of blogging awareness and information on the lower leagues is more abundant than ever before. The more people there are conscious of non-league football the better chance it has of improving and hopefully this greater interest and the attendances that come with it are sustainable. I for one will be supporting my local team this coming non-league day 03/09/11.
Follow Callum on Twitter @thelacedboot.