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February 2001

“Recent announcements as to the financial position at Edgar Street have once again starkly demonstrated the problems involved in running a Club at the lower end of the professional game in this country.

“Fans bemoaned the sale of Chris Lane to Southport, and I would not mind betting there was more than one saying: “There you are, told you so!” when “Laner” scored in each of his three opening games for his new side. The fact is, though, “needs must”. The Board have publicly stated the financial position is, again, “critical”, and therefore, as with all businesses in such positions, you have to either increase your income, or realise some of your assets. Given that recent gates have been around a thousand below break-even, there was not much chance of increasing the Club’s income. The only other option was to sell a player – you don’t need to have a first class degree from the London School of Economics to realise that there was simply no choice.

“Looking at the squad, if United had to sell a player, it might as well have been a right back. In Matt Clarke and Ian Rodgerson, United have options in this area, and, as good a player as “Laner” was, at least there is experienced and ready-made cover. I am sure most United fans will wish Chris Lane well – he was popular on the terraces, was a decent player… from a purely selfish point of view, he was a good and willing interviewee… and, most importantly of all, he could take penalties better than most! Also, he didn’t ask to leave, and would have departed the Club on the best of terms. Doubtless, there will be the mindless few who will boo him the next time he turns out at Edgar Street for Southport, but to do so would be narrow-minded in the extreme. Mind you, I have always thought the collective IQ of those responsible for the booing of former United players on their return would be about half the number on the shirt being worn by their target – and that is a generous estimate. But then, they have seen and heard others do it on the telly…..

“United will always be a selling Club – there is no getting away from that fact. Come to think of it, for most of the twenty-nine years I have been a regular attender, it was ever thus. Such are the current problems at Edgar Street, that it will probably be that way for a long time to come.

“As for the low gates, this is clearly extremely worrying. After all, at the time of writing, United are fourth in the league, and are still in the FA Trophy. Putting both competitions together, this represents the best season in the Conference to date. The main problem the Club has is Yeovil-shaped. While there is still only the one promotion place, and Colin Addison’s side appears to be running away with it, the stay-away fans clearly believe there is nothing left to play for this season, and so there is no point in turning up.

“Football has, perhaps, been a bit slow to realise that the market place for disposable income is far more competitive than it once was. True, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there are many more leisure options in and around Conference league clubs now than there were, say, fifteen years ago. Then, it was either Edgar Street with the lads… or maybe, the cinema if you were trying to impress a prospective girlfriend. Now, there is a wide range of organisations all chasing the same tenner in your pocket – ten pin bowling; multi-screen cinemas well within striking distance of Conference league clubs; a new theatre just across the road from the ground; there are regular bands or badminton at the Leisure Centre; the City has more nightclubs than it did in the mid-eighties… and, of course, satellite television now brings top class football into your living room. All of these are in the entertainment business, and, as such, are direct competitors to grass roots clubs such as Conference league clubs.

“Football at a lower level has been slow to react to the changes. This is not a criticism levelled at United in particular, but, rather, the game in general. For too long there was the notion that, as the national sport, football would always be well supported. After much sitting on laurels, only recently have clubs started to wake up to the harsh realitites of life. Also, where is the lead from the FA in this? I seem to remember there was a television advertising campaign back in the eighties, extolling the virtues of watching live football from the terraces, rather than setting the video for Match of the Day, while downing seven pints in the Red Lion. So, isn’t it about time the game’s governing body again tried to sell the grass roots game to a wider audience? Surely Saatchi and Saatchi could come up with a little gem along the lines of:: “Why pay forty quid to watch Premiership football, when you can get all the same excitement, heartbreak, frustration and elation for around a tenner at your local Conference Club?” Easy to see why I am not in Marketing, but you get the general idea.

“Yes, we need a money man to come into the Club – Graham Turner has regularly gone on the record as saying he would only be too happy to stand aside if the right person came forward – the kind of person who had the interests of the Club at heart. Let’s hope someone, somewhere is prepared to put their head above the parapet. In the meantime, though, everyone with United at heart will have to keep working to raise the cash needed to keep the Club afloat.

“Still, fourth place in the league… and still in the Trophy – it could be worse (and has been in many seasons in the recent past). Maybe when we all bump into some lapsed United fans at the ten pin bowling alley… or the cinema…. or the Leisure Centre, we should all make a concerted effort to remind them of this fact – it is no exaggeration to say the very future of the Club could depend on it.”

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