The light at the end of the tunnel is not always the express train travelling in the other direction

So the match of the decade (see my last piece) has been postponed.  Instead I wonder if we might debate something that was raised on the site this week….   What will happen to the clubs that die as a result of financial mismanagement?

It is a topic that should be close to our hearts because 100 years ago almost to the day, our club was declared to be bust, and supporters were told that either new funds had to be raised or else the administrators would be called in pronto.

This was nothing new, because 100 years ago football clubs were going bust quite often.  But Woolwich Arsenal was a first division club, and never since the league was formed in 1888 had a top league club gone kaputt.

The response in 1910 was for the directors of the club to announce the formation of a fund-raising committee, and they organsied whip rounds, some whist drives and some film shows.

The process failed to raise enough money, and so Henry Norris moved in and set about buying the club.  But it is interesting to note that when Norris approached the Fund Raising Committee they refused to hand over their money, because they were worried he would move the club to Fulham, which he also owned.

So financial problems are nothing new, and you won’t be surprised to hear me say that if you want to read the whole story of Arsenal’s collapse and rebirth, it is all in Making the Arsenal.

But we should also note that of the 40 clubs that made up the Football League in 1909/10, 38 are still with us as league clubs 100 years later.  My point therefore is that clubs can fall on hard times – but they have a tendency to bounce back.  And that’s what I want to look at here with a few examples.

Huddersfield Town. I’m starting here because they are in the news as I write.  The situation at Huddersfield was that through a bit of twisting and turning that I have never quite understood the ownership of the Galpharm Stadium had been removed from the club to the ex-chairman, Ken Davy. This was potentially disastrous, but through a load of local lobbying, and a major piece in the Guardian, Davy has just returned the ground to the ownership of the club.

The point here is that this is the sort of thing that goes on – things that are not clear to most of us.  Things involving buying bits, selling bits, holding onto bits…   And it tends to get worse when one man holds total power.

Woolwich Arsenal was like not quite like this. But when the financial records were opened up in 1910, it became clear that work done on the ground by Archie Leitch had never been paid for.   Making the Arsenal seeks to explain why, and the reason does not make very good reading – at least for those of high moral views.  So lets move on to…

AFC Wimbledon

Born after the old Wimbledon failed to get permission to develop its ground or find a new ground in its London Borough, and was moved to Milton Keynes, AFC Wimbledon is now in the Conference, one step away from the League.

Which is exactly where they were when I first became aware of them.  They won the Amateur Cup in 1963 – which shows how fast their rise to the top was.

My view is that Wimbledon had to move (because of the Taylor Report) but couldn’t because the local council didn’t want to help them, and so eventually headed north.  But the rise and rise of AFC Wimbledon to the Conference shows that disaster does not mean the end.  In a couple of years AFC Wimbledon could be playing…

MK Dons. MK Dons are widely hated, I know, but I quite admire them.  Although Norris didn’t move Woolwich Arsenal so far in 1913 in terms of miles, the psychological distance between Plumstead and Highbury was as great as between Plough Lane and Stadium MK.    Given the transport situation in 1913 very few people from the old club would have travelled to Highbury to watch a game.

What MK Dons have done is created a new club, with a great stadium, and a decent support.  If we don’t like what they did, then I think we should also condemn the origins of our club and having studied the history of that move and all that led up to it from 1910 onwards, I am certainly not willing to condemn Woolwich Arsenal, The Arsenal (as we became) or Henry Norris.

Newport County have a different story to tell.    In 1980 they reached the quarter finals of the Cup Winners Cup, but by February 1989 they had gone bust and were thrown out of the Conference, into which they had been relegated.  A new club was formed and they entered the Hellenic League, four leagues below the Football League.

Then the Welsh League announced that as a Welsh club they had to play in the Welsh League, not the English pyramid, and Newport had to go to the High Court to get this ruling overturned.  They won, but while fighting the case were forced to play matches over the border in England for four years.

As I write this in 2010 they are currently so far ahead of the rest in Conference South that promotion seems almost certain.  If it happens they will play next season in the Conference – one step below the Football League.  Yet they not only went bust and had to slip down the pyramid, they also had to fight the Welsh FA to recover their position.

Accrington Stanley were founders of the Football League in 1888, but on 2 March 1962 they ceased playing because of their debts.  They moved into the Lancashire Combination but part way through the season four years later the club went into liquidation and ceased to exist.

But in 1970 a new club was formed in the town, bearing the name of the original club, and they have climbed up through the pyramid to gain a place back in the Football League, although once again their finances seem poor.  But they are back, and hanging on.

Leeds United will be more familiar to most of us.  They arose out of the shambles of Leeds City (with which Herbert Chapman was associated).   They had many ups and downs, but by the early part of this century the club was hopelessly in debt, under the leadership of Peter Ridsdale, now of Cardiff.

Leeds collapse occurred for one reason only.  They had borrowed money on the basis that they would be in the Champions League each year, but when that didn’t happen they were unable to pay their debts.  So they sold players to cover the losses, and the decline set in, which led them to the 3rd division of which they are now top.

Southampton existed year after year after years as a middle of the road 1st division club but in 2005 they were relegated from the EPL after changing manager and changing manager and changing manager again, seemingly just for the hell of it.  Harry Redknapp actually took the club down.

This period was followed by endless changes of chairman, rumours of a takeover by one of Microsoft’s men, and in 2009 eventually the club went into administration, starting this season in the third division with minus 10 points.

The decline was the same old story – they had banked on having success, had a wage bill based on success, and when it all went wrong, they fell and fell and fell again.   But they have not vanished, and it could be argued they are now fighting back.

So my point is that disaster and collapse is not the end for all time.  Yes some teams do slip away but administration and collapse does not always mean the end.

Of course if Manchester IOU, Liverpool, KGB Fulham or Manchester Arab were to collapse the debts would be so big, they might slip more than the two leagues that Leeds went down.   But they would probably, like Leeds, still manage to bring in a big crowd, if they could hold on to the ground.   I suspect Manchester U against Torquay United in the 4th division in front of 50,000 people would be quite an ordeal for Torquay, and many teams like them.

So, what happens when teams run into real trouble?  As often as not they come back.   It might take a number of years as in Accrington Stanley’s case, and as with them it might actually be a different club, but it happens.

What protects clubs against going bust is a resistance against over-extension.  As long as clubs are not utterly dependent on success at the current level, they can probably accommodate any downturn.

But we can say for sure that Manchester U and Liverpool are dependent on success, and any slip from that will make their situation very difficult given that they have so little in reserve to play with.

Arsenal are said to need average crowds of 50,000 and an appearance in the Group stages of the Champs League once every four years, to be ok.  In fact they are doing far better than that.  So there is quite a buffer, and for that we should all be very happy.

You can follow the story of football 100 years ago on

Read what Arsenal Independent Supporters Assn said about “Making the Arsenal”

(c) Tony Attwood 2010.  At least it is warmer in my house than it would have been at the Ems watching Notlob.

12 Replies to “The light at the end of the tunnel is not always the express train travelling in the other direction”

  1. Intresting article Tony. May I ask who the hell MK Dons are and why they are hated ? Never heard of them in fact.

    Must say that I had enjoyed myself all day long with the prospect of looking at the table today and see us in 2nd place….

  2. @ Walter: The MK Dons were created when the owners of the then Wimbledon F.C. failed to get permission to build a new stadium in London, and so announced plans to relocate the club to Milton Keynes. The local fans were furious at the decision, and did all they could to keep their club in London, but they failed.

    The fans then created a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which has now made its way to the Conference National League from whence it shall be pushing hard for promotion to Football League Two.

    The MK Dons are hated by the fans of the old Wimbledon F.C. because they felt the owners sold the soul of their club by moving it so far away. However, as Tony pointed out, they have built a great new stadium which is currently being considered as one of the potential host stadia for England’s World Cup bid.

  3. Thanks The Law for the information. This is a rather strange story in fact. Well to me that is.
    When in my country clubs go bust they stay in their ground but restart mostly with another name. Oh and you are not alone in this. In Belgium one team in our PL has stopped a few days ago. And in the division unther our PL their are a few other clubs that possibly could go bust in the next weeks…

  4. Hello Tony,
    I’m a gooner on the other side of the Atlantic. Is there any possible way to buy your book, “Making the Arsenal” here in the U.S? I tried buying it before but was unable due to UK delivery being the option to deliver your book. Much thanks,

    P.S: I enjoy your site more than any out there covering Arsenal. Always get a laugh with your funny insightful writing!

  5. Tony, on off days like today, this kind of historical articles that offer your readers background on a subject that exists at the back of every supporter’s mind is very important. I have read news articles about these clubs mentioned here, but had no background information. So, thanks for enlightening us on this subject.

  6. Just taking the MK Dons thing on a bit further. Supporters Direct, who support the ownership of clubs by fans run an endless campaign against MK Dons and are currently campaigning to have Stadium MK removed from the list of World Cup venues if England wins the bid.

    At the last AGM of AISA a motion was put up condemning MK Dons – although this of course has nothing to do with Arsenal. It was defeated, but certainly had some support. I think there was some recognition how odd it would look if Arsenal, the only other club to move a significant distance from its roots, condemned MK Dons.

    There is nothing in the FA rules about stadia locations. When Chelsea opened up very close to Fulham in 1905 Fulham (under Norris) protested strongly. When Arsenal proposed to move to Highbury, there were major protests from many clubs, not least from Tottenham and Leyton Orient.

    But the FA clearly ruled that there was nothing in their rules to allow them to interfere in relation to where a club is based. I believe that is still the case, and as such Arsenal could have moved to Wembley or to the site on the M25 they were looking at.

  7. Tony,

    What has always fascinated me about English football is the close proximity of each of the clubs mentioned throughout the article and some not mentioned. Finances aside and the good news that historically even Arsenal Woolwich bounced back I think that this is quite extraordinary. England is quite compact geographically how excellent. IT must make spectating and playing and the whole experience out of this world. I can only imagine it. Sad and ironic, there are more clubs in trouble financially in the UK than there are professional teams in America. Like I said on previous comments most of my spectating experience came from the NY Cosmos (150 Mile round trip). I did get to see all the big name players of the Cosmos. And , once my grandfather pointed out to me a 21 year old sensation….I remember vividly him say (Thick Hungarian accent) “Look and watch this player he is going to be the best in the world.” Fast Fwd 4 years later I watched that same player win the world cup by “the Hand of God.” Nonetheless, what an experience. So continue to be vigilante Arsenal footballers about your team and your leagues. It is a thing of beauty from my perspective…and if I were from England from a pure Footballing point of view I would be oh so happy. Until then I am quite satisfied watching and reading about Arsenal and football through the Internet.

  8. “The MK Dons were created when the owners of the then Wimbledon F.C. failed to get permission to build a new stadium in London”

    Wimbledon FC never put in a single planning application for a stadium anywhere in London.

    That’s an incontravertible fact.

    The owners of the club were never interested in staying in Wimbledon

  9. “My point therefore is that clubs can fall on hard times – but they have a tendency to bounce back.”

    What did MK Dons bounce back from? To do so would suggest they were around before, which of course they weren’t.

  10. What MK Dons have done is created a new club, with a great stadium, and a decent support.

    Milton Keynes ALREADY had a club, Milton Keynes City if i recall, a great stadium (don’t make me laugh) it is uncompleted (i believe money issues) NOT OWNED BY THE CLUB and in the arse end of nowhere and is part of an ASDA!!! FFS

    Decent support, most of their so called fans are Chelsea, United, Tottenham, West Ham (they’ve even got paying guests from Luton, Watford, Northampton and rushden and Diamonds) fans and even wear Premiership shirts to home games and of those fans last years attendance was somewhere near 10,000 in a 25,000 seater stadium. So under half capacity on average. They took a massive 300 or so to Millwall a journey of 50 or so miles. Great away following.


    Oh and they are reportedly losing money every season. The sooner they fall out of the football league the better.

  11. At least my comment about Milton Keynes Dons being hated is not being challenged by anyone, and I am certainly aware that I am in a minority in being happy with the situation.

    To clarify two points that I was trying to make. First it was AFC Wimbledon that bounced back from having the club moved out of the region. They were left with nothing, and have built a new club which has had considerable success. Leaving aside the Dons that point I think is right.

    Second, my understanding of what happened to Wimbledon at the end of the Plough Lane era was that they repeatedly asked the Borough of Merton for help in finding a new ground, and Merton made it clear that they could not and would not help. Now on that point I am less secure – I am speaking from memory, as one who lived in London at the time. But I was not trying to suggest that Wimbledon put in any planning applications – I believe they simply couldn’t find a ground in the Borough where they existed.

    As an extra point I would suspect that the way people feel about MK Dons today is the way most football supporters felt about Woolwich Arsenal when they moved to Highbury. Although the club immediately changed its name to The Arsenal, it was common practice for supporters in the rest of the country to continue to call them Woolwich Arsenal – just to make the point.

  12. Tony – I think you could also add Newcastle FC to this piece as an example. Newcastle probably would have been completely screwed had they spent another season in the top flight. They were massively in debt, had wages far too high, and were living well beyond their means. Instead they got relegated, which at the time was seen as a disastrous event by most geordies and the entire media. Those with any brains realised at the time it was probably the best thing that could ever have happened to Newcastle since it finally forced the geordie masses and everyone else associated with the club to start reigning in costs and get things back under control.

    I predict that if Newcastle come back up next season they will do so in far, far, far better financial health than when they went down.

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