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Fried Fish

Imagine the scene if you will. After many seasons of financial mismanagement, with crowds slumping to almost unimaginable depths, Stoke City apply to the High Court to be wound up. Instead of getting the rubber stamp of approval, they are instead given until the last day of the season to raise enough money to survive.

It doesn’t matter if they do or not, as they’re down already. Their financial position is so grave that they’re likely to freefall down to League Two in as few seasons as possible. However, the Premiership is on a knifedge, and previous results have meant that if Stoke don’t survive, it will put Everton out of a European place and give Wigan an unexpected excursion on the continent.

The top teams are fine, but even so the whole episode is a farce and makes the Premiership look shoddy and amateurish. This is further compounded by Stoke trying to get their last game of the season change so they can avoid the ultimate punishment. How could Stoke be allowed to compete like that?

Far fetched, right? So why has this exact situation been allowed to occur with Fisher in the BSS?

As it stands, Fisher have just avoided a winding up order that would have meant all their results scrubbed for this season. It wouldn’t have affected us, bar the loss of a single, solitary strike in our goal difference. But for a club like Hayes and Yeading, or indeed any club immediately above/below them, it could mean the difference between a shot at playoff glory and another season planning trips to Dorchester.

Anyway, they’ve now been given until the 22nd April to find the money to pay their debts off or that’s it. And I mean, that’s it. The rumour mill suggests that the club will be painfully deleted from existance anyway, and will reform in a division far lower, maybe even down to Kent League level.

The longer the situation drags on, the bigger the farce becomes.

Frankly, I’m not that bothered about what happens to Fisher. Since they uprooted from the Surrey Docks stadium, with their crowds being akin to a CCL level side, they’ve basically lived on borrowed time. Furthermore, they seemed happy to splash the cash in the Ryman. Those who went to that playoff semi will be having a wry smile right now. Funny how they could bring in players on loan from much higher up for that particular game, while we had to struggle on with a weakened side…

The couple of years that we spent in the Ryman because of these type of clubs ultimately did us good. They forced us to grow up as a club, realise that it won’t always go our own way, and for that alone I won’t start playing the victim card over it. For AFCW personally, it’s worked out pretty well for us. But the fact it’s been allowed to continue like this just makes a continued mockery of football at this level.

A couple of years ago, whenever a club got in trouble, people were sympathetic. We of all people should know what it’s like to be shafted. But it’s now seemingly a club in crisis every week. This season, we’ve played Weston Super Mare and Dorchester, two sides who will admit their luck in still remaining in the CS. And it’s getting harder and harder to maintain any sort of sympathy for anyone who gets in trouble.

The brutal truth is, Fisher should have had the plug pulled before the 22nd April. Forget the sanctity of the league, the results etc. They’re fucked. If this was any other business, they would have gone to the wall a long time ago. If it was an animal, a vet would have stuck the hand of doom inside it.

It’s gone beyond sympathy and into contempt. Or, dare I say it, boredom? Be honest, when you hear another story of a club in trouble, do you find it hard to stifle a yawn? Or say to yourself, they brought it on themselves? You can imagine that Fisher fans will now be organising whiprounds. I’m minded to keep my hand in my pocket – we produced a programme for them on Boxing Day, to help them out of a hole and we get rewarded with their turnstile operator/manager reportedly wearing a Franchise scarf as thanks. So, why should we help them?

But if it’s not Fisher it’s Weymouth. Or Lewes. Or Cambridge City, who last season finished 14th and still got relegated. Or whoever. It’s now become a joke, and not a very funny one at that. It seems that these days, you don’t get relegated from this division unless you’re seriously, seriously crap. But even if you are, don’t worry because some new club will come along who cannot afford to keep going and drop out.

The results of this situation are twofold. Firstly, we get the outright farce of not knowing whether the points we earn during the season will actually count. This season, it’s extremely unlikely it will. But imagine if we found our points tally or goal difference slashed because a team went bust. Imagine if we were to find ourselves off the top because of it? And imagine if it happened on the last day of the season….

But secondly, it just makes the league look tinpot. And here’s where my own annoyance comes from. What exactly are the Conference doing to stop teams constantly flopping? OK, they can do point deductions, but what’s the purpose? Or, to put it in pun form, what’s the point? Especially if the teams are down the bottom and are likely to get relegated anyway?

There is a pretty simple way around this, and it’s what they do in certain European countries, most notably Germany – a licence system. Basically, you have to prove you’re financially worthy to play in the division. If you can’t prove it, you don’t play. Simple. While a team going under does happen during the season, the burial is rather quick. Somebody like Fisher wouldn’t even be allowed into the Conference South in the first place, so you don’t get the situation of teams getting promoted only to find that, guess what, they’re not so ready after all.

You’ll probably be now thinking about how funny it would be to see certain teams and certain personalities being forced to justify their place in a higher division. Whenever you hear a little whisper that a certain club is offering cash-in-brown-envelopes as wages, and the thought of a league auditor forcing them to explain any shortfalls, you just want those rules to be in force.

And those thoughts are exactly why it’ll never be implemented.

Since 2002, there are two things we can safely decree about the non-league scene. Firstly, there’s a large part of it that is very friendly, very accomodating, less of a hassle to be in, and a world away from the rather harsh environs of league football. The side that can justify its “real football” tag.

The second one though is the more sinister side. Call it the “non league family”, call it a drinking club, call it a social club with a football team attached. You can even call it the freemasons. But whatever you term it, it’s a pretty closed shop, and we’re not in it. If just the very existance of a club like AFCW leads to some “purists” clutching their Thermos flask and train timetable in disgust, how are they going to react when a league starts asking them about their finances? You know the answer and so do I.

But then, you can all name a couple of “characters” since 2002 who we’ve come across, and how they would act when their little operations are scrutinised. It’ll never happen, because the people involved would never, ever agree to their cozy arrangements getting looked at.

I’m led to believe that one BSS club in particular hasn’t had its accounts evaluated for three years. Why not? And if that is the case, what’s going on elsewhere that we don’t know about? We all know how quick the authorities are to clamp down on any minor player registration issue, yet when it comes to the really important stuff like finance, it’s all rather quiet.

While writing this, I remind myself of a conversation with a non-league fan, who expressed surprise that AFCW was open with its accounts, turnover etc. It wasn’t him having a go at us (in fact, he quite likes what we do), but what we do just isn’t “done”. And this to me is the biggest reason why non-league football is in a mess.

Nobody wants to take any responsibility for the absolute financial crap the non-league scene is finding itself in, or at least seems to be. Nobody is challenging a Fisher, or a Weymouth, to prove their substainability. Nobody does it to us either, although we answer that non-expressed question every year at an AGM.

I should point out that I’m not accusing every other club of being less than straight about their accounts. I expect a few examples of a club that does have its head screwed on. That’s fine, they’ll be successful for the long term. But you know as well as I do that in the next five years, there’ll be as many clubs in shit as there are ones that are run with some degree of sanity.

If non-league football wants to present itself as “real football”, a more down-to-earth alternative to the professional leagues, it needs to stop making itself a laughing stock. Nobody outside this particular circle is impressed by sides going under virtually every season. In fact they find it yet another reason just to buy Sky and watch games on that instead. When Weymouth lost 9-0 to Rushden, after putting out a load of youth teamers, what did Sky Sports do? They took the piss. Lack of respect? Or, just as likely, lack of self-respect?

We’re lucky at AFCW, we seem relatively immune from the crap that is hitting so many fans across the lower reaches. Fisher may be going, Weymouth might be going, Lewes are near as gone. Give it about twelve months and the names may change but the situations won’t. Our genuine size of support will get us through, like Man United or Liverpool, it would be very difficult for us to fail.

Somehow though, it seems wrong that we’re in a minority….