Supporting a team in the English lower leagues has its very own unique set or challenges, personal recollections and at times, a certain acceptance of melancholy. Roger Fitton, the D3D4 correspondent for Morecambe FC, gives us a unique insight into life as a Shrimp supporter…
Here are a few brief thoughts about Morecambe Football Club for the uninitiated. Since the relegation of Dagenham & Redbridge and the improvement in fortunes of Accrington Stanley – the club managed by Morecambe’s all-time leading scorer John Coleman – the Shrimps have the unwelcome distinction of being the most poorly supported club in the entire EFL. I was born in Morecambe but went to school in nearby Lancaster. There, only my classmates who lived in or came from the seaside resort supported the local team: the county town’s natives not only resolutely stuck to their own club in the shape of the “Dolly-Blues” – Lancaster City – but had a virtually tribal antipathy towards the team from barely three miles away. This ethnic divide along footballing lines still exists and in my opinion underscores the sad fact that try as they might, whoever is in charge of Morecambe Football Club has an insurmountable problem trying to make it a team truly representative of a larger catchment area.
But enough local navel gazing: when Morecambe beat Exeter City in the Conference Play-Off final at Wembley in 2006 to enter the hallowed ground of the English Football League for the first time, the Shrimps were able to attract crowds of about 3,500 to watch them at original home Christie Park.
The stark fact is that now, the average gate at the new stadium – the Globe Arena – is only 1,488. To put this in some sort of perspective, newly-promoted Lincoln City average 8,701 in League Two and even stricken Chesterfield – yesterday’s opponents – attracted 4489 supporters to watch a team currently bottom of the EFL and struggling. This is neither the time nor the place to speculate why so many stalwarts who turned-up regularly at Christie Park are no longer to be seen at the Globe Arena but the simple fact is that long-time Manager and former Club Captain Jim Bentley has worked miracles season after season simply keeping the Shrimps afloat whilst literally farcical changes in ownership, on-going wrangles about who actually has the rights to the new stadium and the ground it is built on have rumbled on in the background in recent times. On at least three occasions last season, neither the manager, players or staff were paid on time and had to take the begging bowl to the Professional Footballers’ Association to bail them out, at least until another instalment of the Soap Opera which has been going on in the Boardroom of the club had been resolved, however temporarily.
The Chairman of the club when the move away from Christie Park occurred (ex-owner of Umbro and then Bench sports and clothing brands) Peter McGuigan spelled-out a Brave New World for Morecambe Football Club when he led the move to the new stadium. This new world would include a hotel adjacent to and owned by the club to `generate new revenue streams’ as the jargon goes; shops; training facilities, free beer and sandwiches for all supporters (I made the last bit up but it might as well have been included) and a spanking new stadium with virtually the first thing you see as you approach the site from the adjacent main road being his own name prominently emblazoned on the main stand.
This has led to suggestions that the Eric Morecambe statue on the nearby promenade should be replaced by one of Chairman McGuigan in a perhaps classically Stalin-like pose – perhaps we could also change the name of the town to Peter’s Burgh (I believe there’s one also known as Petrograd to be found elsewhere in the world) at the same time… But only the name in big letters on the stand has actually materialised: the hotel and the shops have not only failed to appear but large swathes of the site surrounding the new stadium have been sold-off for building houses and a key plot sold to Brewers Marston to create a new pub to compete with the club’s own catering whilst parts of the ground itself (such as the Security block and scoreboard attached to it) are now unusable by the football club because of wrangling about who actually owns them.
Manager Bentley is on record as having said recently of his attempts to prepare his players for matches that is a genuine headache for him to even arrange training on a day-to-day basis particularly – believe it or not, when it rains. When you think of the sort of facilities, indoor pitches and the latest sporting and medical aids taken for granted at Premiership Clubs, this fact in itself alone underlines the vast gulf which exists between teams like Morecambe and those at the top of the footballing pyramid in this country. Other things which are taken for granted by most larger football clubs also serve to make the Manager’s – and players’ – lives more difficult at Morecambe. There are no private jets or helicopters to transport Jimbo and his charges to and from away matches, for instance. In the recent heavy defeat at Exeter in the League, the boss complained that the use of a temporary coach to transport them the several hundred miles to and from Devon contributed to his team’s poor showing on the pitch: the lack of legroom tightened hamstrings and exacerbated injuries already being carried by some of his players, he said afterwards. But I digress. To summarise, Morecambe is a small club in a small town which has been badly run off the field for several years and whose gate receipts go nowhere near to paying all the bills.
Yesterday, they set-off in what was at least a luxurious-looking coach to travel east across the Pennines and to deepest Derbyshire: this is it pictured outside the Globe Arena (note the words `Peter McGuigan Stand’ written beneath `Morecambe FC’) at ten to ten yesterday morning as the players made their way under their own steam from places such as Merseyside (the Manager himself lives on the Wirral) up to sixty or more miles away to meet-up with it – so for them, faced with a long drive home again once the coach would finally return to North Lancashire later in the evening, it’s a really long day…
But what do we know of yesterday’s opponents, Chesterfield?
The Spireites moved from long-term home Saltergate to the Proact Stadium during 2010; the same year that Morecambe moved home from late, lamented Christie Park to their new home at the Globe Arena. Chesterfield had played in various guises at Saltergate – probably most famous as the `Baseball Ground’ in the film “The Damned United” because of its 1970’s-style appearance and facilities –since 1884. For the Spireites, the move to the new ground was the springboard to further success and the team won the League Two title in April 2011.
Although they only managed to stay in League One for a single season, they also won what is now known as the EFL Trophy at Wembley in March 2012, a month before being relegated. But the team were not back in League Two for long and again returned to the higher division as Champions just three short years ago. At this point in their history, though, it seems that the sharp and sudden decline which they are still suffering from started to set-in.
After having guided them into League One and a finish in sixth position, Manager Paul Cook departed to Portsmouth to set in chain a succession of backward steps for the club on and off the field. On it, a succession of new coaches came and went and off it, the sale of £20 Raffle Tickets for a trip with the team to Hungary apparently resulted in a scandal during which, with only four tickets sold, the club announced that the prize had been won by someone in Surrey who was mysteriously too ill to make the journey: it turned out that this person was a figment of the club’s imagination. A
few months after this, Chairman and Majority Shareholder Dave Allen resigned, plunging the club into the same sort of crisis which Shrimps’ fans have been only too familiar with since Peter McGuigan tried to sell his interest in Morecambe Football Club.
Whereas the Shrimps stuck with their Manager on the field, who in turn rewarded them by keeping the club in the EFL, the chaos caused by Allen’s decision at Chesterfield plunged the club into a crisis which saw more Managers come and go and the Spireites slip to the bottom of League One, from which they were relegated last season as the worst-performing team. This crisis clearly continues and the Derbyshire club are facing the same stark reality endured by many other sides supposedly `too big to fail’ in recent times: Leyton Orient; Tranmere Rovers; Hartlepool United; Darlington and Stockport County among others, all of whom are now non-League teams and the latter of whom have dropped off the radar virtually altogether. So today’s encounter with Morecambe was critical for both teams and this is part of the report which I subsequently wrote about it: