Geographies of Football: Will Cornwall ever host a Football League Club?
Kicking off a short series of posts which consider the geographies of football in England, we take a look at the football scene in Cornwall, tussling in particular with the question as to whether a Football League team will ever pop up in this corner of the country.
Over the years, a select number of Cornish footballers have overcome the inconvenience of their faraway place of birth to go on to play in England’s top-flight. Most recently, Nigel Martyn – a son of St Austell originally spotted by the Bristol Rovers’ tea lady while holidaying in Cornwall – and Matthew Etherington – born in Truro and bred in Falmouth – have figured in Tier One for Crystal Palace, Leeds and Everton and Tottenham, West Ham and Stoke respectively. Before them came Ray Bowden, a Looe man who turned out for Arsenal and Newcastle in the 1930s, and Gunnislake’s Mike Trebilcock, whose name is still bandied about fondly at Goodison Park following a remarkable brace for Everton in their 1966 FA Cup Final against Sheffield Wednesday.
There are others whose stories deserve a mention, not least Gerry Gazzard’s and that of the widow-peaked Mike Tiddy. Even so, this bunch would nevertheless be described as a modest group. Still, it outshines the heights to which the clubs of England’s westernmost county have managed to reach. To date only Truro City – currently of the Conference South following a significant injection of cash over the past few years – have made it beyond the now Bristol-dominated Western League, with the Cornish having to make do with either televised coverage, a trip to Plymouth or, god forbid, the rugby in order to get their professional sport fix.
Yet to criticise Cornwall’s clubs does them a disservice for the extenuating circumstance are legion. Although around 530,000 people live in the county – which should, on the face of it, be enough to support a single professional club – the population is spread fairly uniformly across the six districts of Caradon, Carrick, Kerrier, North Cornwall, Penwith and Restormel and no one town or city is significantly bigger than any another. Indeed, at something like 144 people per square kilometre, Cornwall has one of the lowest population densities in England.
This creates a number of issues in regards to establishing a professional football club. With no single urban hub to flock to for jobs, services and entertainment, the county’s economy continues to rely on agriculture and tourism. As a consequence, low wages – and in turn tax receipts – are the norm (Cornwall is currently the only UK region to qualify for grants from the EU under the European Social Fund’s Convergence Objective). In effect, that means there’s little public money to invest in the type of infrastructure required to support a professional sports team (think the Liberty Stadium in Swansea), and scant chance of there being enough Cornishmen and women with the type of cash in hand for season tickets, merchandising and the like which would be required to prop up a club. And that’s on the assumption that people would travel from across the county, which is England’s twelfth largest in terms of size, to a single, designated site.
But if a club, say Truro City, could somehow attract outside investment and get itself in a good position – in the process developing a Morecambe or a Macclesfield-sized following – there are further problems that would need to be hurdled still. Namely, the difficulty in attracting players from outside the county, which by train is comfortably further from London than Paris, to sign up as well as meeting the logistical costs of travelling to games far and wide. If Plymouth Argyle, who passed its 125 year anniversary in 2011, still struggles with these issues today (don’t mention homesick Scotsmen to an Argyle supporter) then how would an unestablished club based an hour or two further west possibly hope to fare?
Another, perhaps unique, issue lies in the fact that rugby union is the county’s number one sport. To be sure, the sport has long been associated with traditional notions of Cornishness and writer Alan Gibson, in his autobiography A Mingled Yarn, identified a direct relationship between Cornwall’s love of rugby and the ancient games of hurling and wrestling that existed for centuries in the region before rugby officially began:
“In Cornish hurling, the object was to take the ball in the hands and run with it, just as William Webb Ellis is so dubiously said to have done, and place it in the goal, which was probably the churchyard of the next parish. The foundation of the game was the scrimmage. Thus two essential elements of rugby were there, scrimmaging for the ball and running with it, long before rugby was formalised.”
Time has, of course, moved on and the Cornish undoubtedly love their Super Sundays as much as any other people, yet the comparative standings of the county’s top rugby clubs – the Cornish Pirates (England’s second tier), Launceston and Redruth (both third tier) – not to mention the amount of Cornishmen who have represented their country demonstrates the task that any football club would have to compete with rugby on the same shared, and relatively small, doorstep.
Yet, according to the Cornish FA, football is the number one sport in the area, with nearly 400 affiliated clubs and a further 550 teams playing youth football and small sided games. Not that such a statistic has ever really affected the sport’s popularity in the United States, for example, but this is certainly a healthy base from which a representative county club might potentially grow. Moreover, after years of procrastination the South Western (in effect, Cornish) League and the Devon County League finally saw sense in 2007 and combined forces to create the South West Peninsula League, in the process establishing a tiered, more fiercely competitive, league system which offers its top two Premier Division sides the opportunity to apply for promotion to the Western League.
No clubs have been willing to accept this to date due to the extra travel involved (although Falmouth Town and Devon side Buckland Athletic are in the running this term) but jotting through Cornwall’s main population centres – Camborne/Redruth, St Austell, Truro, Falmouth, Newquay, Penzance, Saltash and Bodmin – one-by-one, what would the prospects be of a local team rising the pyramid and staying there, were the stars to align in terms of investment, momentum and luck?
Sorting the Wheat
However, with respect, this list can in all probability be scythed down to just two. Starting the chop with Camborne/Redruth, the most populous conurbation in the county, there is practically no chance of a professional football team, or anything near that, developing from this base. Formerly one of the richest tin mining areas in the world, Camborne/Redruth is now as depressed as any former industrial town. Indeed, I remember vividly a local news report from my youth in which a reporter visited a sink estate on the edge of town where she was told of children who hadn’t seen the sea – around 5 miles away – in all their lives. Moreover, although this corridor of Cornwall has recently enjoyed a £150 million period of redevelopment, which hopes to reverse a long course of social and economic decline, Camborne/Redruth is a rugby stronghold and the only possibility of a successful football club growing from here would involve a franchised FC Cornwall, or something similar, which exploits the equidistant location between Penzance, Falmouth and Truro.
That’s all well and good but – at an hour and a half’s drive from Bude and an hour’s journey from Liskeard – would Camborne/Redruth really be such a great location for such an entity? Perhaps not.
What, then, of the chances of the next biggest town in Cornwall, St Austell, fielding a professional team? Again, slim to none. ‘Biggest’ betrays that this unremarkable town (one of the earliest references to St Austell is in John Leland’s Itinerary, where he writes “At S. Austelles is nothing notable but the paroch chirch”; little has changed in the meantime) is in fact just c.22,000 strong – although that adimittedly doesn’t take into account nearby St Blazey and Par – and its relative closeness to Plymouth, 40 miles east, means that any Colne Dynamoes-style rise through the leagues is likely to be followed by an equally swift fall. The infrastructure isn’t in place here.
Positioned awkwardly on coasts of Cornwall, both Newquay and Penzance are equally unlikely locations for a professional club. The former, as close to Hell on Earth as you’ll get in the heat of summertime, goes into hibernation over the winter and would struggle even to support a Western Premier side season-in-season-out. Penzance, England’s most westerly large town and a whopping 300 miles away from London, would appear to be similarly unsuitable. Although it currently hosts the Cornish Pirates, the county’s premier rugby club, Penzance’s deepest darkest location surely rules it out as a potential footballing hot bed. Having failed to raise a team for a match at Dartmouth recently, it’s unlikely that Penzance AFC will be troubling Manish and Steve any time soon.
Of the discarded, that leaves just Saltash and Bodmin. Nestled on the western bank of River Tamar, the former is in all but name a spillover from Plymouth these days. While its football club, Saltash United, was historically very successful during a 20 year stay in the Western League between 1976-95, there just isn’t scope in this part of the region for a second professional side. Down the A38, Bodmin Town has had by far the best Cornish side at this level in recent years, winning the Peninsula League’s Premier Division in three of the last 5 seasons. But, at risk of playing the same vinyl, there’s no real base for a professional team here (for anyone who’s ever alighted at Bodmin Parkway train station this is unlikely to come as a surprise) and club officials have frequently overlooked the opportunity to step up to a higher level.
Having chucked water so relentlessly over each of these towns’ prospects of hosting a professional football team, a more positive turn is well overdue. While money is tight all over the county and research analysts evaluating the various ongoing development projects no doubt have to approach their executive summaries creatively, parts of Cornwall would appear to be thriving. St Ives, Padstow and the Lizard are just a few of the county’s booming locations and, although the establishment of a professional football team in any one of these spots is about as likely as Sam Allardyce entering the West Ham Hall of Fame, the wonderful town of Falmouth might be said to possess the scope.
In its favour, it has a growing University; a busy maritime industry owing to the third-deepest harbour in the world; and, unlike some Cornish towns of a similar size, manages to attract a number of tourists every year. Indeed, the amount of visitors it receives may be set to jump further if controversial plans to dredge the harbour in order to allow bigger cruise liners are passed.
To boot, up until Truro’s recent ascent, Falmouth Town was historically the county’s most successful team. Western League members from 1974-1983 (along with Saltash and Liskeard Athletic who played at the same level between 1979-1995) and four times consecutive Premier Division champions between 1974-78, Town are also the only Cornish side to have qualified for the first round proper of the FA Cup, which they managed on three separate occasions in the 60s (the 1962 tie at Bickland Park against Oxford United set a record attendance of 8,000).
Yet since succumbing to the long journeys involved in a league which currently hosts teams as far afield as Merthyr – some 4 hours drive from Falmouth – Town have had to make do with the more humble surroundings of the South Western and Peninsula leagues. Even so, although the club has missed out on the two qualifying places for the Western League this term, it had apparently made an application to make the step up. A change, therefore, may well be around the corner down on the River Fal and a club that’s seen both Roy Carter and John Hodge pass through its ranks; Bruce Rioch turn up for training; and ex-pros Wayne Quinn, Jamie Mudge and Kevin Hill sign on in recent months may well set tongues wagging in the coming years.
In all likelihood, however, the Western Premier Division would be Falmouth’s glass ceiling. Accessible only via single lane roads – which are frequently congested – a trip down to Falmouth from practically anywhere east of Plymouth can seem almost interminably long and if one club were to emerge from Cornwall then it’s doubtful that it would be based here.
As the county capital, Cornwall’s only city and venue to the single club currently playing above South Western League level, Truro has to be the more likely contender, if not the only one.
While it lags behind Camborne/Redruth and St Austell in population terms, Truro’s neutral and central location nestled between the rugby-interested west and the more round ball-inclined east, besides its historical role as the region’s administrative, economic and leisure hub (Royal Cornwall Hospital, Cornwall Council, Truro and Penwith College and Hall for Cornwall are each based here) must make it the leading candidate to host a Football League club.
Anticipating this, local property developer / one-time Rich List dweller Kevin Heaney began investing in the city’s football club in the mid 2000s and Truro City – who’d never plied above the South Western League before his arrival – have since jumped five levels up to the Conference South, two tiers shy of League 2. Despite levelling out this year, finishing five points clear of relegation in 14th place, it’s been a fairytale climb on the face of things. Indeed, this Sabotage Times piece from September 2011 even went so far as to suggest that City’s recent achievements have outflanked AFC Wimbledon’s.
On the back of mass sugar daddyism, Monaco – population of c. 35,000 – collected numerous French titles and cups, and went close to winning the Champions League. A diddly further two promotions, then, should be a piece of cake for Truro so long as the money keeps pumping in and Heaney’s intentions remain noble?
Dig a little deeper, and it’s clear that those two assertions can be far from assured. HMRC presented winding-up petitions to the club due to unpaid taxes on 25 August 2011, 30 March and 30 April 2012, and Lee Hodges’ squad has gone unpaid for large periods. Foreshadowed by the liquidation in 2008 of Heaney’s Cornish Homes company – which owed money to 162 businesses and individuals when it folded – and the same man’s inglorious (and unauthorised) attempts to purchase Plymouth Argyle FC from administrators in 2011, it has to be said that City, under Heaney, might well have reached the end of the road.
With (relatively) significant funds required to keep City afloat at this level, how long will Heaney stick around for at Treyew Road? The materialization, or not, of the long-mooted Stadium for Cornwall is likely to hold the key.
While in 2005 the club announced plans to build a new 16,000-seater stadium and in 2006 a £7m football training complex at its present Treyew Road base, sights have since been switched to the wider out-of-town development proposed for Threemilestone, three miles west of Truro. This would comprise a stadium to host both the Cornish Pirates and Truro City, roughly the same size as the 15,000-seater Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli, besides numerous other hotel, leisure and residential facilities.
Although some 16,000 signatures have been collected in favour of the development, controversy surrounding the extent to which it is needed as well as the origins of its funding has plagued the project. Even after the three stakeholders were announced – the developers Inox Group and Exemplar Projects (Truro) Ltd, Truro and Penwith College and the Cornish Pirates Rugby Football Club Ltd – questions from local residents and councillors remain unanswered. However, just a few days ago planning was squeezed through for the residential aspect of the development, potentially paving the way for the new stadium.
What does this mean for Truro City? Unlisted as stakeholders in the project, it seems that their involvement would be based upon owner Heaney’s investment (the chances of there being no association between Heaney and at least one of the two developers are about as slim as England’s hopes in this summer’s Euros). Rather than potentially earning revenue from non-match day enterprises, the club is likely in effect to become a mere tenant in a stadium kitted out primarily for rugby union. In fact, many would wager that this potential rent explains why Heaney seems so intent on keeping hold of City.
As a club that currently exists on crowds averaging 538 people, way below 2011-12’s best-supported Conference South clubs in Woking (who averaged 1,833), Dartford (1,246) and Chelmsford (912), but whose progress probably rests upon becoming a full-time outfit, this threat to their sustainability should ring alarm bells. For these reasons, not to mention the ongoing uncertainty regarding their finances, it’s difficult to envisage Truro rising above the country’s uppermost regional division for the time being.
Back to Basics?
Focusing in on this article’s leading question it seems fairly clear that, if it’s possible at all, only one club could make its way into the Football League from this far corner. For this to happen either one or a combination of the following would be required:
- the arrival of a serious and cash-rich sugar daddy in the mould of Andy Pilley at Fleetwood (although I make no claims about the provenance of his fortune), or
- the establishment at one club of a sustainable business model which captures the spirit of the whole of the county’s football-supporting population to the point that an FC Cornwall is established.
But as hard as one tries, it’s difficult to see beyond the hurdles. Benevolent philanthropists are in short supply, possibly even more so in this part of the world, and although the development of a Stadium for Cornwall would help to create the sense of an FC Cornwall, would supporters be tempted in enough numbers, especially given the potential revenue-generating difficulties associated with renting match days in someone else’s (for that, read Cornish Pirates) stadium? Moreover, while the Pirates – who have called Truro, Redruth and Penzance home in recent years – may have pulled it off, would a franchise-style arrangement work in football? The trouble that Guernsey FC has had to endure in their first season of existence suggests that assuming the status of regional flagship bearers isn’t necessarily all that that straightforward.
Yet in researching and writing this article, I’ve wondered on more than a few occasions why exactly there’s such an obsession in the UK with competing at the uppermost level. Granted it’s the same obsession that originally motivated this piece of writing, but in refamiliarizing myself with the modest population of Cornwall as a whole, the way in which its people are scattered vastly towns and villages, and the sheer distance that lies between the region and the majority of people in this country, I’ve arrived at a point at which I’d question whether Cornwall really needs a Football League team.
That’s because, in all likelihood, it would involve getting in to bed with some shyster to finance the ‘project’. Moreover, rather than providing Cornish youngsters with a pathway towards professional football, it’d more likely result in a club parachuting in a revolving crew of journeymen, rejects and pre-retirees from just about anywhere except Cornwall itself, much – by and large – like the rest of the Football League. Even if a professional club in the county was so lucky as to somehow stumble across talent in its own backyard, the best youngsters would nearly always, particularly in a post-EPPP age, go elsewhere. As a case in point, see Trevor Francis, whose father wouldn’t have him go anywhere near Plymouth Argyle.
And what’s wrong with county-level or regional football? What, for instance, has been so much more special this year for Truro City about travelling to Basingstoke, Bromley and Boreham Wood above what would formerly have been trips to Falmouth, Bodmin and St Blazey? For, in all those hours lost to increasingly protracted commutes and in looking down the team sheet to see a steadily growing number of players imported from further and further away, when does the supporter of a side that’s ‘going for it’ acknowledge that’s something’s been lost in transit?
Although it seems an obvious point to make, in trying to develop a conclusion to this piece I can only advocate an approach which engenders wellbeing amongst local football-going communities, rather than promoting the idea that success should be measured purely by a club’s league status in any given year. This is a slippery, many-faceted concept which I hope to explore in further detail on these same pages, but in this context I’d argue that it’s about getting away from the notion that the pursuit of League football, or thereabouts, is worth mortgaging a club’s pride and history and / or damaging others’ through the development of a Cornish Pirates-style super club.
At present, no team in Cornwall is sufficiently prepared to go any further than Truro’s current position two tiers away from the Football League and without significant development and funding, this is set to remain the case. But if that means clubs such as Falmouth, Bodmin, Liskeard and Launceston, but to name a few, carry on acting as community representatives, giving people the opportunity to become involved in their local sides and the means by which to put one over on those from up the road, then long may it continue in that way.