There are smaller counties which support league football – so what has gone wrong in Worcestershire? Frank Heaven explains.
It is a dubious honour.
After Kidderminster Harriers narrowly missed out on the Conference play-offs this season, Worcestershire remains the largest county in England without a Football League club.
Shropshire and Cumbria both have smaller populations, but they are obviously doing something right that Worcestershire is not.
Harriers did enjoy a brief spell in the then Third Division from 2000 to 2005, and look the likeliest team in the county to win promotion to the league in the near future.
But can they stay there? A big question mark hangs over the town’s ability to sustain a league club in the long-term, given its population and location. Their relegation seven years ago was followed by a financial firestorm which almost sent the club out of business.
Meanwhile, catastrophic mismanagement has undermined the chances of a league challenge from Worcestershire’s other traditional football powers – Worcester City, Bromsgrove Rovers, and Redditch United.
But more of them later – let’s look at Harriers first.
The carpet town club was formed in 1886 out of a local athletics club – hence the name – but it wasn’t till nearly a century later that they began making waves in non-league football, after promotion to the new Alliance Premier League (the Conference forerunner) in 1983.
Under new manager Graham Allner, Harriers landed the FA Trophy in 1987, reached the FA Cup last 16 in 1994, and won the Conference title the same year. They were denied promotion on a ground technicality by the Football League, but finally went up under Danish player-manager Jan Molby in 2000.
Their progress on the pitch during this period was mirrored by smart developments off it, with two new stands and two covered terraces replacing Aggborough’s old cycle track.
But while Kiddy were a model non-league club during the final years of the 20th century – their story during the 21st century provides a good argument for bringing back the Football League’s old election and re-election system.
After relegation in 2005, financial problems mounted, with debts spiralling to £250,000, according to new chairman David Reynolds, who took over in 2010. Fans raised £150,000 to keep the club afloat, but the problem Harriers faced was a familiar one: it had been living behind its means.
And the trouble is, Harriers’ means don’t amount to much.
Kidderminster is one of the smallest towns ever to support a league team with just 55,000 inhabitants – and is only the third largest population centre in Worcestershire.
More problematic, is its proximity to four major clubs to the north-east – Aston Villa, Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion, and Wolverhampton Wanderers – the nearest of which is just 18 miles away.
Is it any coincidence that Harriers’ successful late 1980s and 1990s ran parallel with a period of ignominy for three of the four – Albion, Wolves, and Birmingham? Or that during the last decade, when those three clubs returned to English football’s top flight, Kiddy’s financial woes began to mount?
However, the drift of football fans from Kidderminster to the West Midlands big four is not just down to proximity, it also about identity; Kidderminster is essentially a satellite of Birmingham.
This is less of an issue for the county’s largest population centre, 15 miles to the south.
The cathedral city of Worcester and the county’s main seat of government has an altogether different atmosphere. For a start, it’s population is much larger at 94,000. It is far enough from Birmingham to have many key pillars of civic identity – an arts scene, major retailers, a university.
It even has an accent – an admittedly rough cocktail of Welsh, West Country, and Brummie – but nonetheless a distinctive accent, unlike Kidderminster’s Black Country lite.
In short, Worcester has everything going for it that Kidderminster does not, except, that is – a football club.
At which point, we must turn the clock back to just before Graham Allner’s arrival at Aggborough, when Worcester City FC was – in non-league terms – a big name.
Famed for their 1959 FA Cup win over Liverpool before 15,000 at St George’s Lane, City had won the Southern League in 1979, and became founder members of the Alliance Premier the following year, finishing third.
At this point, Kidderminster Harriers were not even considered to be City’s main rivals; that honour belonged to Hereford United, recently elected to the Football League, and at the time, the only league representative of the short-lived county of Hereford & Worcester (created in 1974 against the wishes of everyone who lived there and abolished in 1998).
So much for the City
But things changed in the mid-80s, during a period of dreadful mismanagement at the Lane. In the 1984-85 season, City, having been fourth in mid-November, had a disastrous run of form and were relegated.
Around the same time, a £500,000 black hole was discovered in the club’s accounts. To add insult to injury, the directors forgot to enter the FA Cup one year.
Worcester City would never recover from this period. The debt has been carried like a ball and chain, snowballing to an estimated £1.6m, and hampering the club’s ability to compete financially, despite crowds remaining healthy.
Remarkably, during this 27-years-and-counting exile from non-league’s top table, Worcester City have never been promoted or relegated; the club switched into Conference North during the non-league reorganisation in 2004, and after another (geographic) switch, finished third bottom of Conference South in 2010, but were never relegated due to financial trouble elsewhere.
However, the off-field ills have finally caught up with the club. Next season will be the last at St George’s Lane – its city centre location, corner floodlights, and pitched roof main stand characteristic of a fast-fading and much lamented style of football ground.
It has been bought by a developer, which will at least clear the debt, and Worcester City will follow the flock to an out-of-town stadium near the motorway. When that will be built and to what standard is a topic of some conjecture; with nowhere to play in 2013/14 at the time of writing, many fans fear for the future.
At the penultimate home game of last season – the best in years, with no-nonsense manager Carl Heeley steering the team to an unlikely seventh in Conference North – directors distributed leaflets setting out the club’s stark financial problems, and asking the uncomfortable question: does Worcester actually want a football club?
The answer may not be as simple as supporters would like to think.
Grim up north
But if the boardroom problems of Worcester City seem chaotic, they are nothing on what has happened in the north-east of the county.
Bromsgrove Rovers were a comparable force to Kidderminster for much of their history, and finished second in the Conference as recently as 1993. Drawing on a modest population of 39,000, Rovers’ golden 1990s era always looked a flash in the pan, but should have at least laid the foundations for a solid future.
However, fortunes took a turn for the worse following relegation from the Conference in 1998.
Under a succession of unpopular owners, debts climbed past the half-a-million mark, and at one point, a scarcely believable plan materialised involving merging the club with local rivals Redditch United.
Fortunately, the local authority owned the club’s Victoria Ground, and when supporters lost patience with the club’s owner, and set up a ‘phoenix club’, Bromsgrove Sporting, the council decided not to renew the Rovers lease, awarding tenancy of the ground to the new not-for-profit club in 2010.
Rovers, without anywhere to play, were expelled from the Southern League, and went into administration.
Sporting are now trying to rebuild football in Bromsgrove from the Midlands Combination League, but the Rovers name – and 125 years of history – have gone.
Down the A448, Redditch United are a little further up the pyramid, in the Southern League Premier Division.
Like its local rivals, the club has not escaped off-the-field turmoil. It was nearly liquidated in the 1980s, and was served with a winding-up order as recently as 2010, after several years of financial struggle. It was during this period that the merger with Bromsgrove was proposed.
With a population of 79,000 – the county’s second largest town – Redditch does not punch its weight in non-league terms; its best finish was bottom in the inaugural Alliance Premier in 1979, and it has spent most of its recent history in Conference North or South and the Southern League.
It also suffers from its close proximity to the West Midlands conurbation, with Birmingham City shirts dominating.
Being a new town, Redditch has even less local identity than its neighbours, though that shouldn’t exclude it from league ambitions, as Stevenage and Crawley have demonstrated.
At the moment though, United’s ambitions are limited to survival.
The numbers add up, but…
Worcestershire’s population is 557,000. Which should be enough to support at least one Football League club – only clearly it isn’t.
The immediate prospects for Worcester City FC – which based on catchment area has the most potential of any club in the county – do not look bright due to its imminent homelessness, and continuing financial uncertainty.
There is also growing competition on the sporting landscape from Worcester Warriors RFC, bankrolled by boiler magnate Cecil Duckworth, whose five figure crowds reflect not just the team’s success, but also the county’s sizeable aspirational middle class.
Even if City’s new ground materialises, local football fans may decide that, if seeing a match means driving any sort of distance, they may as well head up to The Hawthorns or Villa Park.
The chances of Redditch United and the relaunched Bromsgrove Sporting reaching the league are even slimmer – which bring us back to Harriers.
A non-league force they will probably always be, but beyond that level, its doubtful the club has the resources required to stay competitive. If anything, this is likely to be felt more acutely in future; the big four of West Midlands football are hungry for fans and sponsors, and are pushing their tentacles far down the M5 – West Brom recently set up an academy in Worcester.
Harriers can take heart from small town clubs elsewhere in the country, like Crewe and Hartlepool, who have proved its possible to survive – and even thrive – despite having giants on the doorstep.
But perhaps the best hope for football in Worcestershire is that a Cecil Duckworth takes a liking to the game.