"As for Maidenhead, the conga (which was amusing) aside, quite a strange bunch really – some the oddest chants I've ever heard at a football match" ~ localboy86, Amber Planet forum, 26th April 2015

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Keeping up with the Abramoviches ~ RIP Windsor & Eton FC

This time last week our local rivals Windsor & Eton FC (or Loser & Beaten, as we liked to call them) were wound up in the High Court, after 118 years, with reputed debts running into six-figures. A couple of days previously, Chelsea FC had announced a pre-tax loss of £70.9M ... before spending £76.5M in just one day, on two players, as the January transfer window drew to a close.

On the very same day that W&EFC was being read it's last rites Martin Samuel wrote an article in the Mail, entitled 'Fair Play to Roman Abramovich, his £75M reaches the needy', that criticised Michel Platini's Financial Fair Play initiative (which, I agree, is a barely disguised ruse to woo Eastern European votes, as the Frenchman aims to cement his position as UEFA's head honcho) and claimed that the 'trickle-down' effect of a Russian oligarch spending his money on footballers, rather than on yachts or artwork, would "increase competition ... improve standards ... promote interest".

Now, Samuel is an excellent football writer - one of the best in the business for my money - but this piece was not one of his finest, IMO. It was too top-level-centric and didn't take into account the negative effect Abramovich's spending (of course, he can afford such extravagances) has on others, lower down the football food chain. Whilst most of the online reader comments that followed the article were in support of Samuel's arguments, there were a few that seemed to concur with my general viewpoints:

Martin, I think a valid point is missed here -- the working class fan and how they are being ousted from the game. Financial controls, living within your means could actually mean we see lower transfer fees, lower ticket prices, lower wages and more fans who can afford to see a live game. This won't change the twice yearly merry go round but it will all be done at lower price levels, which in this current economic climate MIGHT just endear football a little bit more to the working man... The sugar daddy's inflate the market, there are some great advantages, but there is also very much a downside, something you have spectacularly failed to see. YING and YANG.
- Joyce, Salford

The point the article fails to make is how this apparent trickle-down effect to smaller clubs is in any way beneficial to the game. Does the money invested from outside sources make football a more exciting sport? Does it improve stadia for fans and academy facilities for players? Does it make the sport cheaper to watch? No, it makes a small number of already obscenely wealthy footballers and agents even richer. In 2008/09, the first season the UK was in recession, Premier League wages grew 11%. A small increase in revenue from taxes is no substitute for a much-needed cut in ticket prices and television subscriptions for the now unemployed City-supporting ex-Manchester Council worker who cannot afford to watch his team play in a stadium constructed using public money.
- Edin, Manchester

What a shocking piece of special pleading, once again, by Martin Samuel. The age-old "trickle down" defence of gross abuses of wealth and privilege. Abramovich acts like a Monopoly player who has access to an additional, massive stash of Monopoly money under the table. He dips into it to buy up Park Lane and Mayfair and put his hotels on them. And of course, it puts extra money onto the board that will trickle to other players, as they get beaten and beaten at the game they think they're playing. Wenger has it right, and so does Platini. It's financial doping, it's unsustainable, it's a cheat, and it stinks out the game of football to high heaven.
- Dezza, Liverpool

Sorry Martin, but you're wrong. The tiny benefit to clubs in England - bear in mind that most of Abramovich's money has been spent abroad - is dwarfed by the inflation on player salaries and supporter expectations. The norm is presently £200,000 a week. What next? £250,000? Half a million? £1m a minute doesn't make them better players. It seems many correspondents supporting your view with their green arrows are from far flung corners of the world. Many UK based fans will disagree with you when their tickets rise again, and again. All this does is raise the bar and many clubs can't reach it. Good, decent, solid clubs like Everton for example, who can't keep up because they lack a billionaire. Great support, massive history, wonderful youth team? Who cares! You need a billionaire!! And if you don't then you fall behind, or go bust trying to keep up, like Leeds & Portsmouth. But who cares about Portsmouth? Maybe all the firms who lost money when the club went bust? Ask them.
- Steve Norman, Bexleyheath

Edin from Manchester - in particular - has it right, methinks, when he/she asks ...

  • Does the money invested from outside sources make football a more exciting sport?
  • Does it improve stadia for fans and academy facilities for players?
  • Does it make the sport cheaper to watch?

The point about Sugar Daddies inflating the market is also valid, as is the the one about the bar being raised to levels that other clubs cannot reach. Some try ... and that, it seems to me, is when the problems start.

More analysis (or waffle) later. First, some memories. One of the things that has always bugged me somewhat as a Maidenhead United fan is that, whilst we were slumming it in the lower reaches of the Isthmian League throughout much of the 90s, other local sides like W@nky Wanderers and Slough Town were battling it out in the Conference; Marlow were playing at Tottenham in the FA Cup; Windsor & Eton, Aylesbury United, Chesham United and Wokingham Town were all playing in higher divisions (or it certainly seemed that way, anyhow). When we were paired with any of these sides in the County Cup, we would as likely be swatted aside as put up much of a fight. Then, as we began our rise under Alan Devonshire in the late 90s, they all started to fall apart and nose-dive down the divisions (aside from W@nky, who had long since been promoted to the Football League).

As such, aside from the odd memorable encounter (an Obinna Ulasi goal giving us a Christmas time 1-0 win over Slough Town at York Road; a Richard Barnard error gifting them a revenge win by the same score at Wexham Park; Chuk Agudosi getting booked after jumping into the Bell End to celebrate putting us two-up against M@rlow, only for them to stage a comeback win ... with Brian Connor flicking v-signs to the crowd, at the end, before signing for us later the same week!) we very rarely seemed to play each other in meaningful league fixtures. So, while the W@nky/Slough and Slough/Windsor rivalries appeared comparatively natural and relatively storied, our 'dislike' of them was born out of a sense that we'd been (perhaps understandably) ignored and excluded for so long; infused with a heavy dose of Schadenfreude, as we went from being also-rans - an afterthought - to the highest-placed senior football club in Berks & Bucks. And it transpired that it was rather lonely at the 'top'.

That's how it seemed to me, anyway. Kind of like the Ashes of late; thrashing the Aussies recently after years of being on the receiving end of such beatings was great, of course, but was almost too easy and didn't seem right, somehow. I wasn't old enough, I suppose, to be one of the 20 or so who took half-days off work, ahead of a midweek Cup tie at M@rlow, and hung Murdo's MUFC Union Flag from the roof of the Donkey public house! Perhaps that was our Edgbaston 2005? (although I'm not sure MUFC won that particular game, it obviously meant something to our fans).

Anyway, it is perhaps a measure of this rather half-arsed and often mismatched rivalry - and also the contempt in which the Berks & Bucks Cup is held (how many other county competitions give everyone a bye in the first round?!) - that our two final competitive meetings with W&EFC were dour, nondescript occasions. To the best of my knowledge, our last competitive meeting came on 10th March 2009, when they beat us 1-0 in the B&B at York Road. It was a dreadful game, especially from a MUFC point of view, with Bobby Behzadi missing a penalty with 15 or so minutes left when the game was goal-less, before Wallace won it for Windsor late on. The crowd was a pathetic 175 and the atmosphere only enlivened by sporadic chanting from a reasonably decent (but nothing to write home about) away following.

Our last competitive game at Slag Meadow, meanwhile, was a 2-1 Berks & Bucks Cup win for us in January 2007. I spent all but the last few minutes of the match in the pub over road from their ground, watching Arsenal run out 6-3 winners at Anfield in the Carling Cup with a hat-trick from Julio Baptista (who might actually have scored four goals, that night, on further reflection).

I wouldn't want to give the impression that there were no memorable games with 'them' (Loser & Beaten). One of the first times I remember ever speaking to Macleod (M), for example, was during a midweek (league?) fixture at Slag Meadow when he came over to defend a teenage Willie and I whilst we were getting stick from some locals for offering encouragement to Magpies full-back Tyrone Houston.

Then there was the time that Windsor (specifically Dennis Greene?) gave it the big un in the press prior to a B&B Quarter-Final in April 2003, only for Dev's team to hammer them at Slag Meadow with Lawrence Yaku grabbing a hat-trick. Former Magpies youngster Rob Saunders was on the bench for the home side that night and we only gave it one, quick, subdued burst of "You're sub, in a sh!tty team" before aborting and singing "Nil-5, in your Cup Final" instead.

THE classic MUFC/W&EFC game for me, though, was an earlier, B&B Cup encounter. I'm not sure when exactly it took place but it must've been prior to the 1999/2000 season (as I can't find it detailed in the online archive of match reports, which goes back to that year). Playing them at that time was still rather novel, for me at least, and therefore rather exciting. Willie and I were in our teens, travelling to games on our own, and at that carefree stage that you don't appreciate - as much as you should - at the time (post-'being picked upon by opposing fans' but pre 'being picked upon by your own Directors').

Anyway, United came from behind (I think) to draw 2-2 at Slag Meadow in a fiery encounter with one of my favourite MUFC players, Steve Brown (pictured below), scoring an absolute scorcher from midfield. There was also a heated altercation between Chuk Agudosi and home keeper Kevin Mitchell(?) which sparked a mass brawl. I remember missing the replay through illness as United cakewalked into the next round courtesy of a Garry Attrell hat-trick.

Happy days! But probably more than enough nostalgia for one blog post!

^^^ Willie T (far left) and me, with ex-Magpies Steve 'Huggy' Brown (red shirt) and Adrian Allen (far right), at a charity game last year

Obviously it's sad when any football club gets wound up, even when it is one of your local rivals! In all seriousness, one could argue that something like this happening so close to home brings everything into sharper focus. Now, I don't profess to know too much detail about the precise problems that beset W&EFC, but I did read an article in a local rag recently in which Kevin Stott - seemingly the prospective Chairman of the Phoenix club - stated that he first became involved in the club back in 1990 (before leaving, only to return to try and save it in recent months) after a large debt had been built up. It would seem as if it the debt-problem had never really gone away (and reached increasingly critical levels after ground-share money from Slough Town and then Bedfont Green had dried up).

For those that don't know, W&EFC won the Zamaretto League Division One South & West league last season with 101 points. Highly-rated striker Michael Chennells (one of five contracted players currently in limbo after last week's High Court ruling) bagged an impressive 29 league goals, and notable appearance makers included Marcus Richardson, Matt Seedel, Bruce Wilson, Ryan Parsons and Andrew Fagan. Their average attendance? 175 (7th highest in the division). Not sustainable in itself. Someone must've been putting a load of money in ... or not, as it would transpire.

Rumours of unpaid wages had seemingly dogged their title run-in and manager Keith Scott plus members of his coaching staff left at the end of the season, with players such as Wilson and Fagan also subsequently departing. That said, it didn't seem as if the budget was slashed, and W&EFC were more than holding their own in the higher division when the death knell sounded last week. Chennells had bagged another 14 goals and the likes of Fiston Manuella (ex-Staines Town and Her Majesties, among others) and Delroy Preddie, Dwane Lee, Adam Bernard and Paul Robinson (all ex-Maidenhead United) had represented the Royalists during the current campaign.

Why, if money was becoming increasingly tight (as it presumably was), did the Board not cut back on the wages and, if need be, put out a team made up of supporters, with the tea lady in goal (she'd have been better than Preddie)? It could be argued that, if the debt was so big (as aforementioned, I have read that it was in excess of £100K), saving the wages of Manuella et al wouldn't have made much of a difference, long-term. Maybe. That said, it still seems strange to me that they didn't at least appear to make a concerted effort to save every penny that they could.

Things must've spiralled out of control. The bar had been raised. They had tried to reach it (an admirable show of ambition, some would say). And, ultimately, failed. Like they were always likely to, at some stage, on average gates of 175. Roman Abramovich's doing? Not directly. But the exorbitant pay-rises given to the likes of Fernando Torres do filter down the leagues. Is it Torres' fault that he gets paid so much? No, you're only worth what someone is prepared to pay you. And Abramovich can afford it. Windsor, on the other hand ...

A quick Google search on W&EFC's demise brings up a thread from a Wealdstone FC forum that tells of how the Stones had lost midfielder Ryan Spencer to W&EFC in 2005 after he was apparently offered three times what he was then earning. At that stage Windsor obviously thought they, too, could afford it. Not on average gates of 175 (and without access to most of Russia's oil and gas reserves) they couldn't. If the Spencer story is accurate - and typical of lavish W&EFC spending - then it is little surprise to me that they were, eventually, to pay the ultimate price.

Now, I'm not a Maidenhead United fan crowing here. Our gates aren't significantly bigger and we too have been more than generous (read frivolous) re wages in recent years. Heck, our reputed debts were well in excess of £200k when the members club bit the dust in 2005. The difference between us, then, and W&EFC last week? Peter Griffin and Pharmalink were willing and able to save us in our hour or need and so we got an indefinite stay of execution. As such, we can continue to overspend (in relation to our income) and will presumably do so until Pharmalink can't or won't fund us any longer (Pharmalink will have already spent a sizeable six-figure sum in order to keep the club 'debt-free')

Going back to questions posed earlier by Edin (Manchester), though, has the Pharmalink money made the football at York Road more exciting? Has it significantly improved the facilities for supporters and players? Has it made the football cheaper to watch? No is the answer, IMO. The likes of Cliff Akurang, Will Hendry and Ashley Nicholls might currently be 'gracing' the York Road turf, but the difference in the standards between the Conference South and the Southern Premier is minimal, IMO, while our terraces are still crumbling, the toilets on the railway side of the ground still don't have any running water and teams several leagues below us have bigger and better clubhouses (Cinderford Town, Herne Bay and North Leigh are three that I have visited this season that are superior to Stripes).

Legacy, what legacy?

We still exist, and for that we should be (and are, I think) thankful, especially bearing in mind events in the High Court last week, but we are completely reliant on a wealthy benefactor paying - and continuing to pay - the bills. Just like Chelsea are with Abramovich, Man City are with Sheik Mansour, Newbury Town were with the bloke who owned coffee plantations in Rwanda (things were going swimmingly for him until the genocidal uprising of 1994) and Windsor were with whomever it was that, eventually, let them down (for one reason or another).

Hopefully Windsor's sad demise will be a wake-up call to those at Maidenhead United ... and at other clubs above and below us in the pyramid. Self sufficiency (or, at least, concerted attempts to make yourself less reliant on handouts from wealthy benefactors which may, of course, one day run dry) should be an aim of each and every football club. The alternative - spending money that you have today, but might not have tomorrow, on 'intangibles' such as players and management rather than facilities and infrastructure, in an almost crazed quest for short-term, instant (on field) success - is jeopardising the very existence of clubs that have been part of our communities, in some cases, for over a hundred years.

Forgive me if I don't hold my breath.

Welsh wizards Goldie Lookin Chain wrote a song sometime in early 2009 called 'Who's Next' which, rather morbidly and in rather bad taste, ran through the runners and riders re the next celebrity death. 'Who will be next to be pushing up daisies/I put my cash on Patrick Swayze' went a line from the chorus and they were either spot on, or Keith Floyd pipped Swayze to the post and ruined an ultimately 'close but no cigar' prediction (both Swayze and Floyd passed away on Monday 14th November 2009 and I have been unable to establish who died first). As it is, I reckon the Chain could re-write the song about football clubs. 'Who will be next to be pushing up daisies' ... there must be countless contenders (no thanks to Roman and his kind or, more specifically, those trying to emulate them).

Martin Samuel finished his aforementioned article as follows:

"All that has happened in this transfer window is that some very rich men have pledged to keep us entertained for another year or more. Make the most of it, for when Platini and his legions of dullards get their way you will be expected to find amusement in a spread sheet, as the accountants take over the asylum"

Accountants taking over the asylum? If only they would. Then, at least, MUFC Ltd would be saved from feeling compelled to pay five-figure sums to get their accounts signed off!

Further Reading:

Murdo went to Portsmouth vs Leeds United last month (when Callum, Steve H and I were at the Herne Bay vs Whitley Bay game). He subsequently emailed me this scanned copy of an article from the programme, written by a PFC fan who also follows Bognor Regis Town. The Rocks seem to be prospering - both on and off the pitch - lower down the non-league pyramid. Good luck to 'em.

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