Football’s Fawlty Towers and the fight to save ‘small’ clubs

On a recent trip to the West Country, Charlton Supporters Trust Board member Paul Breen went on an informal visit to Torquay United. There, he met some of their Trust members and reflected on the state of English football - thinking of the bigger picture and the inequities that could get worse before they get better.

Once upon a time teams such as Torquay, Halifax, Aldershot and Southend were a staple of the old Fourth Division. Others such as Notts County, Scunthorpe and Chesterfield had their flirtations too with what were once re-elections rather than relegations. Then the likes of Barnet, the old Maidstone and Dagenham & Redbridge all starred briefly on the bigger stage before falling away again. Some though have risen out of obscurity to the same heights as Charlton. But alongside Wycombe and Cheltenham there is also the sorry story of Macclesfield, Scarborough and Rushden & Diamonds.

Today, many former league clubs or shadows of their former selves are fighting to survive in what was once known as the non-league. Torquay United are amongst them, switching between the grandeur of 'seaside derbies' against Southend United and the forthcoming delights of those such as Dorking Wanderers and Wealdstone.

On Bank Holiday Monday, when on a trip to the West Country, I skipped the option of afternoon bingo and ballroom dancing in Babbacombe. Instead I put myself and my missus through the alternative torture of head-tennis between Torquay and Woking.  To get a sense of it, think of the worst game you've ever seen at The Valley. Then imagine what it'd have been like if the staff of Fawlty Towers had been officiating at a game of make-this-so-bad everybody rushes to spend money at the bar before half time.

Woking won 3-1 in the end in a match that was like men against boys. Though Torquay were a penalty miss away from promotion back to the league in 2021, they're facing the prospect of obscurity for some time to come. Having missed the boat in the play-offs after blowing a league lead of Newcastle 1996 proportions, the Gulls are now firmly harboured in the mid to lower half of the National League table.

But what's this got to do with Charlton and those not in such a position? Though we came close in last season's FA Cup, we haven't played them in a competitive fixture since 1934, the season before we signed the only captain of a south-east London club to lift said Cup.

Yet in Torquay's battles we see a mirror of what we all are and what we might be.  Like many small clubs they are a victim of English football now being run in a Fawlty Towers, fire-fighting fashion.

Once upon a time not so long ago, before living on a prayer in later years, Torquay were contenders for promotions to higher divisions. Justin Fashanu, Adebayo Akinfenwa, Lee Sharpe,  recently deceased Irish international Alan McLoughlin and ex-West Ham manager John Bond have all worn their distinctive yellow jerseys, alongside a brief goalkeeping appearance by Neville Southall at the end of his career.

Through the decades they've had such famous moments as a league cup victory over Tottenham at an ironic point when Spurs legend Cyril Knowles was in charge of the Gulls. Then there was the famous story of how a police dog saved them from relegation!

The point is that this is a small club with a big history, just like all of those who have been mentioned. That's not to say those lower down the reaches do not have such illustrious histories. Dulwich Hamlet, in their own way for example, are more in touch with their roots and their history than the present day Manchester United might be. The worth of a club to their supporters or their community is not valued by wealth or trophies. If that was all mattered, we'd have a league of 20 teams and to hell with the rest.

Here too in England fans would be like those where I come from originally in Ireland, almost unanimously supporting one of the 'big' trophy-winning teams (with the exception of a solitary Irish Palace fan that I happen to know but wouldn't allow my sister or any other relative to marry).

The likes of Torquay are struggling to survive in this climate of winner-takes-all and if as feared the incoming Prime Minister is hostile to fan governance, things are only going to get worse. The bigger clubs will get bigger and some of that will feed down to those around them who get lucky and just happen to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is that most owners want to be that person in the right place at the right time and not worry about the bigger picture or the long-term. As such, football clubs are increasingly being run as a gamble rather than as a sustainable venture.

Torquay missed the boat a couple of seasons ago and for a club that's always had a history of peaks and troughs, that might have been surmountable once upon a time after a few seasons in the shade. But now it just takes a single trough to send clubs out of existence. Look at Scunthorpe - eleven years ago this summer, on my wedding day actually, they drew 2-2 at The Valley. Scroll down the table and look where they are now - on the edge of crashing into anonymity.

And yet those potentially seeking their place higher up the league pyramid do have to earn it through performances on the pitch. It just feels wrong when entire regions could end up without a football club in the league system. Very soon everything could go the same way as the two Irish Leagues where it's largely all about greater Belfast and greater Dublin, with a few other smaller cities thrown into the mix as well.

Maybe there's just so much money in the game that we need a fifth division that we can sex up and name as Fifth Avenue or something. Right now that seems to be corporate football's answer to everything - make things more marketable, less regulated. But actually what's needed to make sure the next generation still gets to see the likes of Torquay and Southend fighting out 'seaside derbies' is for the model to become far more sustainable. Trickle down economics don't work in any walk of life.

The one positive from visiting Torquay though was how slick the match day experience was in terms of catering. There were a few excellent bars in the actual ground with a good choice of drinks including a specially brewed ale, sold only at the club, created in honour of that Alsatian dog who saved them from relegation in the 1980s.

Maybe that's where the market is going in some ways at some clubs, a fun experience on match days where the football doesn't matter. But again that's not sustainable and it's the lack of sustainability which is the worrying trend.

Torquay probably aren't in any immediate danger and nor are we at Charlton, compared to the recent fights that clubs such as Rochdale and Birmingham have had, but these days everyone outside the Premier League is looking out on an uncertain horizon. The new Prime Minister, whatever else she stands for, needs to act in the interests of football fans but that is unlikely to happen. Therefore fans themselves also need to mobilise more to fight for their own interests and the best interests of the clubs they support by joining their local Supporters' Trust.

In Torquay's case the Trust had to fight for the survival of the club against a Council and an owner willing to sell their stadium on the vague promise of a new one being built. They won that fight but another slide down the leagues into the Conference South would probably mean there'd be few future chances to ever repeat that Tottenham cup game again or see the likes of Lee Sharpe fly down the wing in a Gulls' shirt in the future. And much like the loss of bees in nature's ecosystem, the absence of opportunities will give less chance to young British and Irish players in the future. These small clubs need to survive and thrive so that the game itself can survive and thrive into the future.

There's enough space for everyone in English football with its proud tradition of historic clubs scattered out across all regions of the country. Preserving that would be a far more patriotic act than putting more money and power in the hands of profiteers and piranhas. It'd be a great pity if the next decade brings sunset on clubs such as this one that I visited on the English Riviera. It's not all about the Premier League and profit.

Are you listening, Prime Minister ?