Northwich Victoria fans could be forgiven for wondering if time’s stood still over the last 13 months in their corner of Cheshire. At that point, the club had hurriedly appointed their third manager of the season and were battling to stave off liquidation due to an unpaid tax bill.
Today, the Vics are searching for a third manager of the season and have rising debts of, reportedly, around half a million due to an unpaid tax bill. Any optimism over last season’s better-than-great escape has swiftly evaporated as Vics fans face that all-too familiar fight to keep their club in existence.
A permanent state of crisis
The past few seasons have seen Northwich lurch from crisis to crisis. This has seen multiple administrations, along with the Vics relinquishing their Conference status for a season in 2005, ending a sixteen year unbroken spell in the non-league’s top flight, dating back to the formation of the Alliance League back in 1979.
But the noughties have not been kind to the Cheshire club, and have seen various struggles both on and off the pitch. In 2004, they escaped relegation from the Conference after finishing last. The demise of Telford, the enforced demotion of Margate, and the inadequate state of Hucknall Town’s ground meant the Vics lived for another season at the top of the non-league pyramid.
The following season was, if anything, even more dramatic. Ongoing financial problems saw Northwich deducted 10 points for entering administration but, despite this, then manager Steve Burr lead the team to safety, finishing 19th, nine points off the bottom.
But this great escape counted for nothing as, due to ongoing financial and ownership problems, the Vics accepted voluntary relegation to the Conference North. The alternative was to be forced further down the pyramid, and the club decided this wasn’t a price worth paying.
In some respects, this demotion was the catalyst for a revival in Northwich. The club set up a money-spinning FA Cup third round tie against Sunderland and won the Conference North title at the first attempt, meaning their absence from the non-league top flight was a brief one.
But, this being Northwich, promotion didn’t provide a stepping stone to a new period of success. In fact, last season – and this one – are proving to be two of the most traumatic in the Vics history.
Just a little bit of history repeating
The Vics first season back in the Conference was a relatively uneventful one with Burr leading the side to a comfortable mid-table finish, but then things started to unravel quite spectacularly.
First Burr and chairman-owner Mike Connett had a very public falling out over the course of the season that saw Burr file an action for constructive dismissal before walking away from the club – when Connett finally let him.
The chairman refused to accept Burr’s resignation and a bizarre couple of weeks followed as the two parties engaged in a stand-off before Burr was eventually allowed to leave. Even that wasn’t the end of the mud-slinging as Burr then used a newspaper column to rage at Connett’s hands-on style, alleging the chairman had shouted at several players after a defeat, requested two players were sold and argued with Burr after he dropped Ben Connett, the chairman’s son.
Former Scarborough boss Neil Redfearn was appointed at the start of the season but left after just nine games that saw the Vics take just one point. His successor Paul Warhurst lasted just one week before quitting, complaining about a lack of financial support from the boardroom.
Connett then turned to veteran Tunisian striker Dino Maamria to rescue Northwich from an almost certain relegation, assuming the club survived the season. Their game against Exeter City on Saturday 13th October at the Victoria Stadium was billed as the Vics possible last game ever.
Connett, reluctant to continue to put cash into the ailing club, had announced his intention to sell-up. If a buyer wasn’t found by the start of the following week, the Vics would be wound up over a £350,000 tax bill from HM Revenue and Customs.
Amazingly, that weekend proved to be a turning point. Maamria’s side, still with just one point, held in-form Exeter to what must have been one of the dullest goalless draws ever to have been broadcast on Setanta. But the result was hugely important to Northwich as it gave the players a much needed confidence boost and the fans something to cheer about.
The next week came even better news. Local businessman Jim Rushe and his consortium announced their intention to buy the club and entered into negotiations with the taxman. At the eleventh hour, an administration deal was struck and Northwich lived the play another day.
And Vics fans were then rewarded with an even greater escape than 2004. After 19 games without a win, the intelligent Maamria led a spirited fightback that saw the club complete an astonishing sprint for survival, finishing the season with a little bit to spare. Yet again the Vics had pulled it off.
But the escape has proved, so far, to be another false dawn for the troubled Cheshire club. In September, without warning, Maamria was suspended and placed on gardening leave before eventually getting the sack a couple of weeks ago. While there’s no public mud-slinging, at least yet, Maamria has constantly expressed bewilderment as to why he was dismissed, while the club have steadfastly refused to comment, except to say the Tunisian’s sacking was “right for the club”.
Former Liverpool player, and Maamria’s number two, Mike Marsh had, until this weekend, been the man charged with steadying the ship and had expressed an interest in the job. But wth Rushe failing to give the caretaker boss any assurances, while at the same time apparently telling Marsh that he needed to release two players, the former Anfield player walked away from the job, leaving Northwich seeking their sixth boss in just two years.
With the club reportedly having debts of up to £500,000, this season is shaping up to be achingly familiar for Vics fans, with the now all-too-common question of if Northwich will survive the season being asked with increasing regularity.
The White Elephant
One of the chief causes of Northwich’s problems is the relatively new Victoria Stadium, the place the Vics have called home since 2005. The Victoria Stadium sits in a cold location some way out of the town centre. Although there are restaurants and other amenities nearby, its location is hardly enticing to a casual fan tempted to nip along and support their local team on a Saturday afternoon.
Northwich get that sense of de… – Docs & Spreadsheets
The stadium was meant to be part of the Vics revival when Connett brought the club in 2004. Indeed, the businessman helped finished off the ground, but was always open about his desire for the Victoria Stadium to become a pension fund for his family. When Rushe took control of the club, Connett retained ownership of the stadium.
And despite its uninviting location, the Victoria Stadium does have one major thing going for it – since the last of last season, Manchester United’s reserves have been playing their games by the salt mines of Cheshire. Some 3,000 more fans flocked to the Victoria for a reserve game between United and Liverpool than passed through the gates for the Vics defeat to Eastbourne Borough last Saturday.
Where the Vics go from here is a moot point. With the right manager the may yet beat the drop, and they currently sit above Lewes and Grays Athletic – two clubs with their own sets of problems – while only being three points from safety. Certainly their on-the-pitch position is far less precarious than it was last season.
But the ground, falling support, and financial position continues to be an issue. There is talk of Northwich reforming further down the pyramid – at Unibond level or lower – or moving again, away from their out-of-town ground to somewhere nearer the town centre or find some kind of groundshare with local rivals Witton Albion.
As with last year, all the fans can do is watch and wait and, if needs be, have the Supporters’ Trust step in to help any reformed club, as has happened with countless other non-league sides. Although, right now, finding a manager who can stick around for longer than a year without falling out with the board would be a start.