We’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the National League season and for the two sides relegated from the Football League last season – Leyton Orient and Hartlepool United – it has not been an easy ride. Both aspired to bounce back at the first opportunity but in what has been a very competitive National League this season they have both struggled on the field, with the north-east club’s problems going even deeper than that.
Orient were ‘our team’ to follow this season as they looked to put behind what was an awful season for them last time around, on and off the field. Financially they were saved by Dunkin Donuts CEO, and lifetime Leyton Orient fan, Nigel Travis with former Crewe Alexandra boss, Steve Davis, tasked with bringing back success on the pitch after a few very lean years at Brisbane Road. Davis did not get off to a good start and by the end of October, all early season optimism had disappeared as they languished in 19th spot, just four points above the relegation zone. Inevitably Davis paid the price and was sacked by mid-November ultimately replaced by former Northampton Town and Gillingham boss Justin Edinburgh. The former Tottenham Hotspur defender had success the last time he managed at this level when he took Newport County back into the Football League in 2013. Presumably it was that entry on his CV that convinced the Orient board he was their man, rather than the sackings from his last two managerial roles – the latest from Northampton at the end of August. This fact, and the one that sees the O’s just two places higher in 17th spot – still only five points above the drop zone, leaves some Orient fans wondering if he’s any better than Davis, with others already looking up grounds in the National League South.
Any hopes of promotion are long gone, with the London side 18 points off the play-offs, but without them, there is still an interesting battle going on at the top end of the table. Last time we checked in things were very tight with only six points between top and 11th and whilst the pack has thinned out a little over the last few months it is still very tight at the top. Macclesfield Town currently lead the way but only sit a point in front of second-placed Aldershot Town having suffered a dip in form in their last three games. They have drawn their last two home games against strugglers Solihull Moors and Torquay United – the former Football League club currently bottom, 11 points adrift of safety. Those two draws for Macc sandwiched a humiliating 6-0 defeat at fellow promotion hopefuls AFC Fylde.
Last season’s National League North champions, Fylde, took a little time to acclimatise to their new surroundings and were struggling near the bottom of the table earlier in the season but now lie just two points off the play-offs, defeat last Saturday at Woking ending a recent good run which had seen them win six and draw the other in their previous seven matches, having also found their scoring touch during that run, bagging 20 goals in those seven games.
Another team to hit form after a slow start is former League side Tranmere Rovers. The Merseyside club were last season’s play-off losers and seemed to be suffering something of a hangover, especially in front of goal, where their poor scoring form saw them languishing in 16th spot, but all that has changed recently. Micky Mellon’s side now find themselves back in the play-off spots, just five points behind Macclesfield, having lost just twice in their last 15 matches – a run that has also seen them return to scoring form with 27 goals coming in their last 10 games. Their latest match saw them draw with local rivals, Wrexham, in front of a crowd of over 8,000 at the Welsh club’s Racecourse Ground. Dean Keates’ Dragons have kept up their early season form and despite a disappointing draw at Gateshead on Tuesday night sit just three points behind Macclesfield as they look to end a 10-year exile from the Football League.
It may be looking bright for Wrexham, and the other former League clubs – Macclesfield, Aldershot, and Tranmere, but things are not so bright for the other most recent League side, Hartlepool United. On the field things are just as bad for them as it is for Leyton Orient; they sit one place, and one point, behind the London club and are most definitely embroiled in a relegation battle, rather than the promotion fight they expected, in this league. The on-field disappointments are the least of their worries though as financial worries off the field threaten the very existence of the club.
We highlighted in our preview piece on the National League at the start of the season that all was not well off the pitch at Victoria Park, with then chairman Gary Coxall admitting the club had come close to going to administration last season and expected some ‘bumps in the road’ this season. Well with Coxall long gone and the club in debt to the tune of around £1.8 million to the current owner, John Blackledge it is more of a giant sinkhole in the road rather than a bump. The club is reported to be losing around £130,000 a month and have bills of £200,000 for VAT and £50,000 to HMRC that are outstanding. The authorities are stricter when it comes to tax debt and football clubs these days, so this money needs to be found – and fast. Without it, there is a serious chance of the club not only going into administration but perhaps even being liquidated such is the desperate situation up there in the north east.
The local council leader, Christopher Akers-Belcher had approached local businessman and millionaire, Chris Musgrave, to see if he could help, but after a good look at the books, the Teesside entrepreneur walked away. He stated he wasn’t prepared to write blank cheques after he wasn’t able to see just how much debt the club was in, such is the state of their accounts. A Swedish consortium, one which includes the chairman of Swedish top-flight club Osterunds – Daniel Kindberg, has shown interest too but at the time of writing had put nothing concrete forward. The local paper, the Hartlepool Mail feels things are doomed; for them hope is evaporating fast with ‘no white knight waiting in the wings’ and believing ‘the team is sinking like a ship – a ship where someone forgot to pay the captain and the rudder has been sold for scrap’! As ever it is the long-suffering, loyal fans – as is nearly always the case in such circumstances – who have stepped up. There have been several fundraising drives; the Hartlepool United Supporters Trust has set up a fighting fund via Supporters Direct at https://www.buildawinningclub.org/invest/901, supporter Rachel Cartwright has set up a Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/savehartlepoolunitedfootballclub and there have been some good old fashioned bucket collections at various matches, the latest one hosted by Newport County before their F.A. Cup tie with Tottenham Hotspur last weekend.
With the online collections alone nearly totalling £100,000 there is hope for the ailing club, who thought Celtic were going to be their saviour on transfer deadline day. A move by the Scottish giants could possibly have helped pay these outstanding bills had their move for Motherwell goalkeeper Trevor Carson been accepted by the Lanarkshire club. Carson was sold by Hartlepool to the Scottish Premier League side in the close season and had Celtic been successful with their bid of £375,000 for the former Cheltenham Town and Bury stopper the 40% sell-on clause that was put into the summer deal could have been worth around £150,000 to the struggling club. As it is the club is left still appealing for investment as the days tick down. The situation is another sign of how Football League / former Football League clubs continue to try and compete beyond their means, it catches up with them eventually, just as it has now for Hartlepool. Like many before them they may have to accept their reduced circumstances for a lot longer – and possibly at a lower level – while they get themselves back on an even keel financially.
The situation Hartlepool find themselves in, along with fellow National League side Chester F.C. who find themselves in a financial hole and desperately needing £50,000 in the short term to avoid going out of business, really grates. The latest transfer window has just shut with a record £150 million spent on the last day out of a total of £430 million spent over the month, with the highest resulting in a payment of £75 million. To put that in perspective, the fee Liverpool paid Southampton for Virgil van Dijk, could’ve bailed out Hartlepool nearly 42 times over, with Chester’s sum a mere 0.00067 of that fee! There’s something wrong with our game when it’s awash with money at one end, yet at the other clubs who are the heart of a community are in danger of disappearing forever for the want of a sum a fraction of what Alexis Sanchez is reportedly now earning at Manchester United. There should be a way that more of these vast amounts of money we have in our game can filter down to the Football League and below so that the football pyramid that we have, that is the envy of many in the world, that made the English game the marketable asset it is, can be sustained. Sadly, I can’t see that happening anytime soon.