As non-league clubs go, Leigh Railwaymen’s Mechanics Institute were never among the most glamourous of teams. The club were relegated from the Conference National after five years in 2005 with a record low of 18 points and were notorious for their low attendances during that period, and were recently relegated to the Unibond Premier after another disappointing campaign.
But the Railwaymen have clearly had enough of battling relegation and have decided a change is in order. Or rather not so much a change as a completely futuristic revamp, which includes a chance of strip from red to white and black, an X-box style logo, a new name, a new stadium and a full-time status. Ladies and gentlemen, Leigh RMI are dead. I give you – no sniggering please – Leigh Genesis.
Chairman Dominic Speakman has been all over every piece of media that will have him in the last week explaining his decision to rename the club after either, depending on your point of view, the first book of the bible or a much-derided British soft-rock band.
“With the imminent move to the new stadium, it was a really great opportunity to relaunch the club as a new brand for the people of Leigh.
“I was keen to find a name for the club that was modern, short and also unique. It was important to come up with a word that could become synonymous with the club and town, very much as ‘Rangers’ and ‘Celtic’ have for Glasgow. To do this we needed a name that wasn’t currently in use by any other club.”
Quite whether the town of Leigh will become as famous as either of the Old Firm is debatable, but it’s doubtful they’ll be challenging any of their more illustrious neighbours in the future and therein lies part of the problem for Leigh. Geographically, they’re in Great Manchester and, as such, are close to Manchesters United and City, Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn, as well as Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport, and Preston.
This is before we include rugby league – a big draw in the region as the significantly higher crowds for groundsharers Leigh Centurions testifies. Attendances for the Railwaymen have averaged 202 this season and have rarely topped 250. It’s unlikely the crowd will have difficulty finding a seat in the cub’s new 12,000 seater stadium, although the teams needed to find a new home.
In fairness to Speakman, when he talks elsewhere of the RMI having little relevance to Leigh he is, in a sense, correct. The club was originally known as Horwich RMI, formed around the locomotive-building works before, in a move that pre-empted the decamping of Wimbeldon to Milton Keynes, they decided what was needed was to move to a bigger ground to realise their ambitions, hence the move to Leigh and subsequent renaming in 1995. For the record, Leigh doesn’t have a railway station.
Still, the club’s ambitions did take them up to the Conference in 2000, where Leigh very much peaked and struggled to compete against wealthier, better supported teams. The Railymen won a reprieve from relegation in 2004 when Margate were demoted due to ground problems and none of the northern teams eligible for promotion had stadiums up to a sufficient standard. After relegation the year after, the club won another relegation reprieve from the Conference North to due Canvey Island’s resignation from the league above. This season, the inevitable finally caught up with Leigh with relegation to the Unibond Premier.
The low attendances and on-pitch struggles haven’t stopped the club still doing their best to keep up ambitions somewhat out of touch with their status. The directors offered to merge with FC United of Manchester soon after the team were formed. It was rejected by FCUM on the basis that a team formed in protest at the takeover of their club shouldn’t come into existence by taking over another club. Last year they were rumoured to be one of the teams MyFootballClub.co.uk were seriously considering before the website plumped for another team with excessive ambitions in Ebbsfleet United.
But for all the PR spiel, the lofty pronouncements and the shiny new stadium, Leigh will still have to do the business on the pitch if they’re to increase crowds and be considered a success. They may even achieve this in the short-term, possibly attracting a slightly higher crowd out of curiosity. But Leigh is not even a Milton Keynes and there’s nothing to suggest that locals who hitherto have shown naff all interest in the team at its peak will be overly tempted to abandon rugby league or more successful nearby teams just because they’ve had a futuristic rebrand and named themselves after the band that spawned Phil Collins.
Then there’s the full-time status, which will cause problems later, if not sooner. Clubs with bigger ambitions and much bigger crowds at this level have overstretched themselves chasing the dream of non-league football. You only have to read former Weymouth chairman Ian Ridley’s account of running a non-team team, Floodlit Dreams, to realise the amount of cash Speakman is throwing at Leigh compared with sponsorship levels (and Genesis aren’t even carrying a shirt sponsor in their first season) and small crowd level is simply unsustainable.
Genesis may have attracted a lot of publicity with their new beginning, but Speakman, the other directors and Leigh’s hardcore fans would do well to remember that in the Bible Genesis is followed by Exodus, which is likely to happen when the money runs out. That will swiftly progress to the last book: Revelation that going full-time on crowds of less than 250 in a large stadium just won’t work.