Last week in Scotland Gretna’s short and ultimately sorry place in the Scottish league’s history finally came to an end when they were replaced by Annan Athletic. But south of the border, there were shades of the ill-fated demise of Gretna when Conference North side Burscough announced immediate financial restructuring in light of a serious illness to their chairman, Chris Lloyd.
The Linnets may not be as reliant on Lloyd’s cash as Gretna were on Brooks Mileson’s money, but nonetheless the news of Lloyd’s illness has sent large ripples of unease throughout the small area of Lancashire.
Burscough may not be an overly large club, even by non-league standards, but over recent years they’ve been a team on the up as they’ve slowly but surely made their way up to the Conference North, where they finished 8th last year, their highest ever placing in the pyramid, after winning the Unibond Premier title the year before.
This success came five years after winning the FA Trophy final in 2003, in an amazing run that saw them beat eventual Conference winners Yeovil Town 2-0 en route to Villa Park, where they beat another Conference side, Tamworth, 2-1 to claim the silverware. Had you placed money on the Linnets at the start of that tournament you’d have got odds of 400-1.
It was a welcome return to winning ways for the Lancastrians, who’d been no stranger to success down the years in their non-league history. One season after the modern-day club was founded in 1946 they won a trophy treble, taking the Lancashire Junior Cup, George Mahon Cup, and Liverpool Challenge Cup. In the next ten years, Burscough won the Lancashire Combination Second and First Division Championships. Throughout the years there were plenty of local cups to go into the trophy cabinet as well.
But it’s this decade that’s seen Burscough emerge as a real force in northern non-league football, and their progress has been slow and steady rather than a sudden boom due to big spending. Even so, the club came incredibly close to landing a financial windfall in 2006, when they took on Burton Albion for the right to play Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup. But it was the Brewers who won through, and Nigel Clough’s men are still benefitting from the cash today, as can be seen in their first appearance in the Conference play-off semis last season.
Nonetheless, Burscough were very much looking forward to the future as last season ended, having consolidated their position in the non-league second tier, and perhaps dreaming of making a push towards the Blue Square Premier. With a planned new stadium on the way, the Linnets had a reputation as one of the more stable and friendliest clubs in the league.
But two shocks were on the way. Firstly manager Liam Watson announced he was resigning to take over at neighbours Southport. If this was a bolt from the blue, the reason for Watson’s departure soon became clear with a statement on Burscough’s website just under ten days ago entitled ‘Board of Directors – Restructuring Statement’. Chairman Chris Lloyd, fans were told, was suffering from a brain tumour, which was serious enough to Burscough to hurry together a plan B for finances. What emerged from a subsequent meeting was just how much Burscough were dependent on Lloyd’s money, and how much control he had over almost all aspects of the club.
This arrangement worked well enough while the club was successful and stable, thanks to Lloyd’s cash, but with the chairman out of the picture urgent financial restructuring was called for, which included 11 first teamers leaving, many of them following Watson across to Southport, including Blue Square North top scorer Ciaran Kilheeney.
But here’s where any similarities with Gretna end. Burscough have acted quickly to put alternative plans in place to survive, even if that meant releasing several of their better players. The club have been open with fans and moved quickly to replace Watson with his assistant Joey Dunn. Rather than the collective gloom that envelopes clubs in crisis, the feeling from this small corner of Lancashire is a mixture of defiance and belief that the club will survive.
While everyone at the club and in the wider footballing community wishes Chris Lloyd a speedy recovery, The Linnets are now looking towards preserving their Blue Square North status this coming season as opposed to building on the success of previous years. Whether the town, with a population of just under 9,000, can sustain the club at its present level remains to be seen but unlike many other crisis clubs at non-league level, Burscough haven’t yet overreached themselves and the realism of the current board of directors may yet see them survive in the second tier.
Meanwhile, everyone connected to the club will be looking forward to their first pre-season friendly on July 12th, where Burscough finally get the chance to play Manchester United, albeit a mixture of reserve and youth players It may not be quite as much of a financial boost as the FA Cup tie two and a half years ago would have been, but in the current climate it’s welcome cash and a welcome distraction from events off the pitch.