As the Premier League was kicking and screaming its way into the world in 1992 amidst talk of a revolution in the way football was played and watched, there was a less seismic but equally historic development unfolding much further down the pyramid. As the First Division clubs packed up their things and left to take up lucrative new contracts in the revamped top flight, Aldershot of the Fourth Division became only the second club in League history, and the last to date, to crash out of business without fulfilling its obligations for the season, crippling debts sending the club to the wall with two months of fixtures outstanding.
The doomed Shots could have been remembered as the first casualty of a new footballing conflict – the mega-rich of the new digitized elite versus the old order of locally focused clubs reliant on loyal community support. That history tells it differently is a testament to the bloody minded stubbornness of fan movements that have shown they are capable of resisting the extra pressure placed on their clubs by a bloated aristocracy. Aldershot were re-born under the tutelage of a small band of supporters and within 16 years had battled their way back to the Football League. This proud young legacy however looks to be coming all too prematurely to an end.
The second coming of Aldershot will be wound up this week unless a deal can be struck with the club’s creditors over outstanding debts. The receivers are making pessimistic noises. With three of the club’s former directors reluctant to come to terms on a reduced payment plan, a happy ending looks unlikely, and the £600,000 raised by a consortium led by chairman Shahid Azeem to buy the club looks increasingly to have been in vain. At last count, the group is still some £50,000 short of the figure necessary for a CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement) to take effect, leaving the club facing a future that may not extend beyond the weekend. With the Conference Premier announcing a new set of fixtures this week the affair has become, amongst other things, a question of timing.
The question mark over the club’s future has been hanging since long before the end of last season, and whilst the Shots only became the responsibility of the Conference authorities upon their relegation in May, in sanctioning their entry to the league the board have failed in their duty to their other members. The non-League’s top flight comprises 21 clubs who have been able to offer guarantees of solvency to begin the season, and one who may not be around come kick-off in August. A deadline or two before the fixture list was drawn up and published could have offered a more stable set of prospects for all concerned.
Because there’s an unfriendly truth about Aldershot’s fall, that applies to almost any club that fails to get things right when balancing the books. The journey that took the club from their lowest point back into the League may be dripping in romance and resolve but it’s also the story of a business that operated beyond its means to pull in rewards that should have been out of its reach. It’s the story of a club that failed to appraise their changing circumstances as they pushed through the divisions and have ultimately paid the price for not making the necessary sacrifices to a playing budget that has proved unsustainable.
Critics are always ready to apply the idea of living beyond one’s means to the big hitters that make avaricious gambles that backfire but the same sentiments resonate lower down the pyramid. In Aldershot, the world of professional football has a community capable of supporting a club to a competitive standard at a definite level but for a second time in twenty years the people pulling the purse strings have aimed high and missed. Football League wages demand Football League gate receipts, merchandise sales and sponsorship contracts and deficit spending can only support an outfit for so long. Aldershot’s number, it seems, is up.
The situation comes with an added kick if we consider the knock-on effect on the clubs in the local vicinity. In allowing the Aldershot fiasco to rumble on until the schedule for the new season is drawn up and released, the Conference have backed themselves into a corner, risking a league table that threatens to be a weekly reminder of the loose financial regulations applied to its members. There may yet be a handful of ambitious outfits a division down gazing up at the hole left by Aldershot and wondering why admission to the league was granted to a club barely a month away from liquidation. With a space laying vacant until August, the feeling is likely to be that the position could have been taken by a well-run side from a step down who have planned, budgeted and grown in a way that the Shots have so spectacularly failed to.
And so we tick closer to D-day for a club that was given a second chance to blossom and now stands on the edge of blowing it. For those who stand to lose out the most, it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic. The community that will lose its flag-bearer for a second time will suffer, though not as much as the families whose income will be hammered by the inevitable redundancies. If the Aldershot demise teaches us anything, it’s that it’s important not to blur the lines between big-time Charlies who fall victim to their own greed and smaller outfits who stretch limited resources just too far. All the warning signs were there for the Shots that flying too close to the sun, however dimly it burns, promises a bumpy landing. Ambition and resources alike, it seems, are relative.