|The Victoria Stadium was |
perceived to be the answer
to Northwich Victoria's
problems – now it has
become a problem with
no ready answer.
Photograph: Clint Hughes/
After selling the Drill Field, their much-loved home for 127 years, it has been downhill all the way for the now almost destitute Vics
From mid-Cheshire, home to historic football clubs and chemical-industry giants, comes a tale of heartbreak and wandering, with just a glimmer of far-off redemption. For 127 years the evocatively named Northwich Victoria owned, played at and were justly famous for one of the world's oldest football grounds, the fabled Drill Field, yet now Vics, of all clubs, find themselves homeless.
The club have been evicted by a neighbouring chemical company, Thor, bringing a cruel full-stop to a decade of calamity. In 2002, previous Vics directors sold their greatest, defining asset, the Drill Field, for housing, and for ambition to build a new stadium on an industrial estate. Had the world been different the Drill Field would have been protected, for Northwich and future football generations, but the Conference, itself pumped up with professional ambitions, was insisting all its member clubs have 6,000 ground capacities, able to be enlarged to 10,000.
Near-tragically, as it turned out, the Conference reduced that rule to a more reasonable 4,000-capacity requirement just after Vics made their decision, so it could have been saved, but the directors decided to plough on anyway.
Formed in 1874, founder members of the Football League Second Division in 1892 when Billy Meredith, later of Manchester City and United, turned out for them, senior non-league competitors throughout the 20th century, Northwich Victoria sold the Drill Field to Bryant Homes, which dug it up and demolished it for 102 new houses.
The old board began to build the Victoria Stadium on the Wincham business park at the edge of town, with the hope that the bar and restaurant which they planned would make them money to climb the football ladder. Northwich, the town, club and fans, always seemed a non-league stalwart, not an out-of-town bar-and-restaurant sort of place, and the move was blighted from the start.
In early 2004 the money from selling the Drill Field proved not to be enough to complete the new stadium, and the club collapsed into administration. A Manchester nightclub owner, Mike Connett, bought the Vics and the new ground from the administrator, and oversaw its completion, with the bar and restaurant.
For a time it seemed as if Northwich's directors' vision of a better future could be realised at Victoria Stadium; in their first season, 2006-07, the team won promotion to the Conference Premier and reached an FA Cup third-round tie at Sunderland's Stadium of Light. But the financial hangover hit the following October and with the club at risk of falling into administration again, Connett kept the ground, and sold the club to a Manchester go-cart-track owner and property investor, Jim Rushe.
Rushe, still Vics' owner now, sank £325,000 in to pay wages and running costs, as did his then partner, Nick Bone, but it was insufficient to bail out the club and by May 2009 Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs had issued a winding-up petition for £433,902 unpaid taxes. Rushe took the club into administration again, and bought it back himself. "It was my dream to own a football club with a workable model," Rushe explains. "I knew what I was doing, and I still believe it is workable."
Connett, too, was having difficulties. In October 2008 Deloitte was appointed as receiver of the stadium by Clydesdale Bank, which had lent money to Connett, and the bank repossessed Vics' new ground. January 2009 was one of the grimmest periods in Northwich Victoria's long history, as they were forced to wander for the first time since they arrived at the Drill Field in 1875. Ultimately they returned to play their games at Victoria Stadium, but only on a short-term licence from the receiver, which was looking to sell it.
Rushe formed a new company and tried to borrow the money to buy the ground but due to the credit crunch, he says, no bank would lend to a venture whose anchor tenant was a non-league football club. The Conference insists that clubs emerging from administration pay all their debts and in 2010, despite another storming FA Cup run, in which Vics beat Charlton Athletic live on ITV in the first round, the club were expelled and relegated to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League.
Rushe says he had paid a deposit in another serious effort to buy the ground, but could not secure the funding again. Finally Thor Specialities which, the company's managing director David Hewitt says, makes preservatives for a range of water-based products including flame retardants and hairspray, bought the ground for £598,000.
"We are a sustainable manufacturing company employing 85 people, and we bought the site to build a distribution centre and develop our own expanding business, which will create further jobs," Hewitt explains. "We have not forced the club to move; we bought the site with vacant possession."
When the receiver served the club with the eviction notice in January, Daniel Butters of Deloitte said it was repossessing the ground with "some regret". Owners of a special, atmospheric football home from 1875 until only 10 years ago, Vics are now doing the football club equivalent of sleeping on neighbours' floors. Mostly they have played their matches at Nantwich, but also at Macclesfield and Kidsgrove. Rushe has just announced a ground-sharing agreement for next season with Stafford Rangers, 40 miles away, which is filling no fans' hearts with glee.
Andrew Simpson, sports editor of the Northwich Guardian, which has chronicled all of this, roots the difficulties back to the sale of the Drill Field: "The club and the town lost one of its prime assets, somewhere everybody seemed to know, which put the town on the map."
On the field in the Northern Premier, the Vics have been doing remarkably well, under the management of the former Port Vale and Oxford United striker Martin Foyle and Aston Villa full-back Alan Wright, comfortably in the play-off places behind the leader, the supporter-owned and revived Chester FC.
Off it, groundless, Rushe says he will not be able to fund the club with their current wage bill next season, although he insists the club will stay in business. "With no stadium and no income streams, it is very hard to sustain," Rushe says. "I'm trying very hard, on a week-to-week basis."
In all this wreckage, there are chinks of cheer. Hewitt, of Thor, says he will donate the Dane Bank stand, floodlights and other movables to the club if they, and a new site, can be proven sustainable. The supporters trust, working with Supporters Direct, is actively seeking a "community-owned" future for the club. Sport England has a statutory right to object in any planning application if a sports site is disappearing with no new one to replace it, so a solution may need to be found before Thor can develop.
It is, then, possible to foresee a decent future for a venerable old club, somewhere over a mountain of toil. Yet it makes you want to bang your head against the locked gates of Victoria Stadium, and the house fronts on the old, great, gone Drill Field, at the needlessness of it all.
Community shares option
Northwich Victoria Supporters Trust are exploring a possible community share issue as a means of raising money to buy a stake in their stricken club. At an open meeting last week, the trust referred to similar offers, in which money has been invested by supporters and the wider community, at supporter-owned clubs FC United of Manchester and Wrexham.
The community share offer, developed by Supporters Direct, invites investment from supporters on a mutual and long-term basis primarily to help a club become sustainable. Investors agree not to seek withdrawal of their money before a specified number of years, and postpone interest until the club makes a profit and the directors decide it is prudent. FC United of Manchester, the club formed in 2005 by Manchester United fans opposed to the takeover by the Glazer family, recently raised £1.6m via community shares, towards the planned building of a new stadium in Moston, north Manchester.