What is it with teams from Leeds overstretching themselves in pursuit of glory? First there was Leeds United, the club that was one of the biggest teams in England in the 70s and Champions League semi-finalists as recently as 2001. Their fall was as swift as it was painful and the team narrowly avoided going completely out of business before getting stuck in League One. Now Farsley Celtic seem destined to mimic their larger neighbours and possibly go one step further with their very future hanging in the balance.
In Celtic’s case, there may not be goldfish in the boardroom or ill-advised wages and transfer fees for the likes of Seth Johnson, but there’s still a sizeable debt to pay off. Farsley, you see, have been slightly naughty when it comes to paying the taxman and owe Her Majesty’s Customs Revenue around £200,000.
But if the Villagers thought they’d survived a winding up order by going into administration then the Conference had other ideas. Non League’s top flight governing body has taken an increasingly dim view of clubs who overspend and have expelled Farsley from the Conference North. There’s just one problem – with the fixture lists already decided, there’s no space for the team further down the footballing pyramid.
Farsley Celtic… who are they?
Farsley Celtic probably isn’t an immediately recognisable name in the world of football. It’s not necessarily an immediately recognisable name closer to home and last year the club announced they were looking to change their name to either FC Leeds, Leeds Celtic or Farsley Celtic Leeds to boost their profile – the team currently reside six miles from Elland Road and four from Bradford’s Valley Parade.
Nonetheless, even if the village of Farsley (now swallowed up into Leeds) isn’t on too many footballing hotspot maps the club has a long and distinguished history, and Celtic recently celebrated their 101st birthday. For most of that centenary, Farsley played in the Yorkshire League and the North East Counties League until non-league went through one of its periodical reorganisations and the club found themselves in the Northern League first division in 1987.
What happened next is a classic case of a small team overreaching itself too soon. The team were stalwarts of their division until their promotion to the Unibond Premier in 2004. Two years later they were in the Conference North and the season after that the Villagers found themselves in the Conference after beating Hinkley in the playoff finals.
For a small team with a small budget, compared to many of their rivals, Celtic made a decent fist of their only season in non-league’s top flight, battling against relegation to the bitter end, but it wasn’t to be and they were relegated after one season. And that’s when matters started to unravel.
The Villagers get isolated
Like any ambitious team, Farsley had gambled and spent heavily for a team of their size as they looked to compete at the top of the non-league pyramid. And, as is often the case with smaller teams who have a meteoric rise upwards, at some point the payments or, in Farsley’s case, non-payments catch up with reality.
As Celtic struggled to readjust to the Conference North, finishing 19th last season, the club’s debts started to pile up, specifically the £200,000 owed to the taxman. This isn’t a sum that would have been accrued in one season and suggests Farsley gambled their success on the field would bring them enough cash to pay off HMRC. It didn’t, and the taxman applied for a winding up order.
At the last minute, another creditor, the brewer Coors, put in for the club to go into administration and it appeared that Farsley has been saved for the time being. That was until the Conference dropped their bombshell that Celtic were to be kicked out of the Conference North.
Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. The Conference has decided to enforce one part of their rulebook that says they won’t allow insolvent clubs to compete in the league, although this contradicts another part of the rulebook that says any insolvency in the close season means the club starts on a ten-point penalty.
Perennial crisis club Northwich Victoria fell foul of this a few weeks ago when they collapsed into administration. The Conference announced their intention to demote the club from the Conference North but the Vics appealed and the FA overruled the Conference, meaning Northwich now start the season on minus ten.
Farsley had every reason to expect they would get the same treatment following Northwich’s case but the Conference kept to their hard line and ruled the Farsley would be booted out of the Blue Square North, so the ruling was somewhat of a shock.
Anybody want a Farsley?
What makes this even more complicated is the state of the leagues and the fixture list. Had Celtic gone into administration at the same time as Northwich, and been thrown out of the Conference North, they would have found a home. However, now the respective league AGMs have passed and the fixture lists have been released, Farsley don’t have a league to go into.
Common sense would say drop Celtic a division to the Unibond Premier, which is a club light after Newcastle Blue Star folded a few weeks ago, even if it would mean the fixtures would need to be hurriedly rewritten. But the rules say any club demoted to due insolvency has to drop two divisions, in this case into the Northern League First Division, which is already full and can’t accept the Villagers at this stage.
The ruling also hurts other Conference North clubs, especially Harrogate Town who play Farsley on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – that’s two big gates gone, which will cause a squeeze for the club.
What we have, then, is somewhat of an impasse and a club in limbo. Celtic are likely to appeal to the FA, arguing that Northwich has set a precedent and they should start the season on minus ten. The Conference are sticking to their guns but if Farsley’s appeal fails then the club will have nowhere to play and the ruling is likely to drive them out of business. While the rules have to be followed, destroying a club seems counter productive to this.
At least Farsley’s fans haven’t been quiet during this crisis. The club launched a ‘101: Still Going Strong’ appeal to raise much needed cash for the club and within 48 hours £2,500 has been raised. The club had hoped to raise £3,000 over the course of a few weeks, and it’s actions like this that remind you that, at the bottom of this, there’s a group of fans who want to keep their club alive. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of how the club reached the precipice it’s still rather heart-warming.
Another fine mess
The worrying thing is Farsley’s current problems may not be a one-off in football. Another Conference club, rumoured to be Salisbury, are close to administration and, following the letter of the law, should be moved to the already full Southern League if this happens, while Northwich, Stafford and Hyde (all Conference North teams) are still struggling. Just keeping your head above water could be enough to do well in this league.
And then there’s Southampton. There’s still no guarantee the Saints will be able to start the season, which would mean football would have it’s highest profile collapse close to the start of the new season, leaving League One with 23 teams.
The states of these three teams are all different – as are they ways they’ve got themselves into their respective pickles. In Farsley’s case, leaving their tax bill unpaid is just about one of the most basic errors you can commit in football – and one that many clubs still commit. It’s difficult to find too much sympathy with a club who put that bill to one side chasing short-term success.
But at the same time, forcing Farsley to the brink when there’s other solutions out there doesn’t help either. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if the club join Northwich in starting the season on minus ten after some last minute wrangling, but it’s going to be a nervous few weeks for Farsley fans. Maybe Leeds United supporters may fancy throwing a tenner – or a goldfish – in the collection pot in solidarity.