The last post sounds for Drill Field

Bulldozers ready to move in as financial problems force sale of one of world's oldest grounds
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The Independent Football

The Drill Field, Northwich Victoria's home since 1875 - once accepted by the Football Association as the world's oldest football ground - has called an end to its lifelong fight for survival. Only seven years after a frantic supporters' appeal saved the ground from developers, the club are in financial trouble again. In June, John Stitch, Vics' major benefactor, died. At the end of this season the Drill Field, which he helped to save and rebuild, will become a Wain Homes housing estate.

The Drill Field, Northwich Victoria's home since 1875 - once accepted by the Football Association as the world's oldest football ground - has called an end to its lifelong fight for survival. Only seven years after a frantic supporters' appeal saved the ground from developers, the club are in financial trouble again. In June, John Stitch, Vics' major benefactor, died. At the end of this season the Drill Field, which he helped to save and rebuild, will become a Wain Homes housing estate.

This is a sorry moment for Northwich who, after finding in 1894 they could not sustain full-time professional football after two years in the Football League Second Division, have since been one of English football's great non-league clubs. Conference founder members in 1979 and ever present since, they are currently bottom with nine points and recently sacked their manager Mark Gardiner. They are now seeking a replacement capable of saving them from the drop to the UniBond League.

"It is a catastrophic situation," says the general manager, Dave Thomas. He puts Northwich's debts at around £400,000, run up on developing the impressive Dane Bank Stand, general administration costs and - that intractable challenge for the game - players' wages.

Northwich's plight highlights the huge financial gap between the Conference and the Football League. The Conference has no television deal; Nationwide's £300,000 sponsorship produces only £10,000 to each of the 22 clubs. By contrast, Third Division clubs in the Football League receive £120,000 from TV and sponsorship, and have this season secured a further £100,000 each from an internet deal with ntl. In September, every club received a £307,000 advance on the forthcoming £315m TV deal announced last summer. The Conference champions do get promoted to the Third Division, of course. Kidderminster, who stepped up last season, are said by one Football League insider to have been "pinching themselves" at the League meeting which rolled out the figures.

Ambition for such prizes has produced businessmen willing to bankroll clubs; Rushden & Diamonds' Dr Martens magnate, Max Griggs, being the most wealthy and prominent. Six more Conference clubs are now full-time professional outfits: Yeovil, Telford and the former League clubs Doncaster, Chester, Hereford and Scarborough. Reports are rife of clubs paying wages of up to £1,000 per week, which traditional semi-pro stalwarts like Northwich cannot match. Thomas says Northwich's top players are on a maximum £350 per week, itself double that of only five years ago.

The Bosman ruling has had an impact, too. Several of Northwich's best players have left - Paul Tait to Crewe, Val Owen to Hednesford - on out-of-contract free transfers. A sell-on clause for Lee Steele produced nothing, because he went to Brighton from Shrewsbury on a free transfer.

The club's negotiating abilities have weakened; they allowed Mark Birch to go to Carlisle for only £10,000 and, worst of all, long-serving captain Steve Walters, a former England youth international colleague of Andy Cole's, was sold to Morecambe in the close season for a mere £25,000.

"The game's financial structure is not sustainable," says Thomas. "The gap between the leagues is too great - never mind the silly money in the Premier League - and the distribution is far too unequal. Most clubs are relying on benefactors. When our benefactor sadly died in the summer we were left with no option but to sell the ground." In 1993, supporters raised £167,000 to pay off developers Morbaine, who were planning a supermarket on the Drill Field. Stitch, a Northwich-based insurance loss adjuster, then stepped in, part-funding the Dane Bank Stand and helping the club financially. It is now chaired by his son, Rod. A small army of committed helpers has always worked unpaid, keeping the club, ground and its alluring snackbars warm and well-stocked.

People fall in love with the Drill Field. In 1989, the club president Ken Edwards traced Vics' and the Drill Field's origins back to 1875, to a 0-1 defeat to a team from Manchester. The FA initially acknowledged this as the world's oldest surviving ground, but this claim has recently been eclipsed by four, perhaps five others. Nevertheless, 125 years of continuous senior football will end next summer beneath the Wain Homes bulldozers.

The club's plight in the nouveau riche Conference echoes their drop from the Football League over a century ago. Back then, the move to professionalism had so outraged some of Northwich's early gentlemen amateur players that they left to form another club, Witton Albion. The intense rivalry between these clubs is one of football's curiosities, a small town conflict of Lilliputian proportions. In the mid-90s Witton sold their own ground for £1m to Sainsburys, who built a new stadium for them at Wincham Park. Local lore has it that some Northwich fans refuse, even now, to shop at Sainsburys.

Northwich themselves have reluctantly accepted a £2.4m offer from Wain for the Drill Field and now the obvious solution is for the two clubs to share Witton's ground. At last summer's AGM, the directors proposed this, without optimism, as one of three options. Only one person voted for it. The majority opted to share Wincham Park for a single season, and for Vics to build their own ground. They are currently looking for a site.

John Moules, the Conference chief executive, describes the end of the Drill Field as a tragedy, and says he is working "hand in glove" with the FA to solve the wage inflation and inequality which amounts to economic self-destruction. An FA spokesman said that a newly-formed Financial Advisory Unit is surveying all Conference clubs' finances, and looking to encourage stability and wage restraint. With some guidelines in place as to how clubs will manage their money, the FA will look to distribute "a substantial share" of the FA's own forthcoming £400m TV deal more equally throughout the game, via its recently-constituted National Game Board.

There is no hint of a contribution from either Premier or Football Leagues, despite the wealth generated by combined TV deals of £2bn (assuming the Premier League patches up its own deal following yesterday's withdrawal by ntl from the pay-per-view element). It disfigures the game that one of its great, historic homes should be lost in these golden times, for the sake of £400,000. Football lovers, not only Northwich fans, have to hope the Drill Field's demolition will sound a wake-up call for more equality to the game's money men.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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