It has been almost two decades since the Football League last watched one of its members die. The ruinous dreams and debts of football's age of excess might have claimed Plymouth or Portsmouth, Liverpool or Leeds. For all those who have stood on the brink, though, only one has fallen. It is some 19 years since Aldershot died. Tonight, reborn, they host Manchester United.
"I was one of two people in the High Court that day," says Terry Owens of the moment, on 25 March 1992, that he watched a judge's winding-up order sentence the club he had supported since the age of 10 to extinction.
It had been coming: 18 months earlier, Aldershot had been declared insolvent, buckling under debts of £495,000, an unimaginable sum in football's pre-Premier League dark ages.
"We had played our final League game, at Cardiff, five days before," says Owens, a local businessman who had run the Save Our Shots campaign in an attempt to keep Aldershot alive. He had skydived for the club, run a marathon for the club. He had paid heating bills and salaries for the club. All to no avail.
"I have still got the original winding-up order," he says. "Players had not been paid for months. Everyone was working voluntarily. We knew it was the end, but I still shed a tear."
That was where it ended, and where it began. "I had already applied to form a new club," says the 64-year-old Owens. "We had to get the application in before the High Court had made its decision. I wrote to three leagues – the Conference, the Isthmian and the Beazer Homes – asking for a place, without a stadium, without any players.
"We had a public meeting after the court hearing to ask what we should do. Applying for a place before the club was officially wound up meant I could tell the 700 people there that we had a club to support."
If Owens's speed off the mark eased the pain of death, it ensured a chaotic rebirth. "It was a shell of a club," says Graham Brookland, then chairman of the supporters' club and now employed by the new Aldershot as Director of Communications. "We had to drive down and buy some of the memorabilia back from an auction in Southampton. We were about to start in the Isthmian League Division Three, five levels below the League, and we had nothing. Everything had been removed. We had one player, and that was the groundsman's son."
More soon followed, lured by the idea of playing at the Recreation Ground. "I'd been at Wycombe in the Conference," says Mark Butler, the man who scored the phoenix club's first-ever goal, against Clapton, and still its record goalscorer. "But it was the perfect opportunity to play for my local team, even if it meant dropping down a few levels. A lot of us in that original team dropped down to play for them."
Tony Calver, a playmaker recruited from Farnborough, agrees: "It was the biggest club in non-League by some way. We had 3,500 or 4,000 fans at every home game. For non-League players, local players, you have to be really strong to deal with that pressure. There were a few who fell by the wayside because they couldn't cope with it."
Calver, like Butler, could, and thus was launched on the journey back to what is now called League Two. Both will be there tonight, as will Owens, the new side's founder, honoured with a lifetime seat in the directors' box. "Sometimes I have to slow the fans down," he says. "I understand their needs and dreams. But I have to tell them to remember where we were."
He will not have to issue any such caveats tonight. For one night, Aldershot's dream is reality. Manchester United at home. Life after death is not so bad at all.Reuse content