They were hailed as the small-town innocents romantically facing down the big guns when in January 1999 Rushden & Diamonds, then a Conference club, drew 0-0 in the FA Cup Third round with Leeds, then a Premiership club about to live the dream. In truth, Rushden & Diamonds were always a strange being, created with bags of money out of the original merger of two minor non-league clubs, and funded for a gallop into the Football League by Max Griggs, the owner of the Dr Martens shoe empire which had a huge presence in that area of Northamptonshire.
Griggs' company spent millions building R & D a brand new ground at Nene Park, Irthlingborough, right next to the huge Dr Martens shoe factory, and providing the manager, Brian Talbot, with the money for players to take Rushden into the Second Division in 2003, just 11 years after the merged club had played its first game against Bilston Town in the Southern League Midland Division in front of 315 spectators.
Now, however, the factory has closed, the club has been relegated, Talbot has gone, Dr Martens have been haemorrhaging money, Griggs has resigned, wants out, and the club is about to be sold to an uncertain future. With Darlington tottering on the brink of folding, in administration and millions in debt to their owner and former chairman George Reynolds, and the nation's top clubs prostrating themselves to ever more far-fetched investors, Rushden & Diamonds has mutated from the model club to a monument to the dangers of relying on sugar daddies, men formerly known as benefactors, funding clubs way beyond their true status.
Griggs, the multi-millionaire backer who was previously on the board at Northampton Town, created Rushden & Diamonds by merging Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds, using Rushden's more senior status in the football pyramid, and Diamonds' better-appointed ground at Nene Park. There are still diehard fans of those clubs who resent what was done, but they were drowned out by the sheer industrial scale with which a brand new, attractive ground was constructed and the new entity financially hurtled into the Southern League Premier Division in 1994, the Conference in 1996, then, after more of a footballing struggle than was envisaged, promotion to the Football League five seasons later.
However, Rushden's air-cushioned stomp on the football pyramid skidded to a halt last October when Griggs stepped down as the chairman and said he wanted to pull out and pass the club on. The club's own accounts, which were due at the end of March, have not even been filed, which is an embarrassment, but in fact, Griggs set a deadline of the end of the season to withdraw his funding. With the club struggling to find other investment, they considered going into administration, but instead cut costs by off-loading players.
On transfer deadline day, 25 March, Rushden were in mid-table with just eight games to play, but they released four of their most highly-rated players to reduce the wage bill: winger Paul Hall went to Tranmere on a free transfer; top-scoring striker Onandi Lowe to Coventry City for free; defender and captain Paul Underwood, to LutonTown; and Marcus Bignot, to Queen's Park Rangers. Rushden fell apart, took only one point from those final games and on the final day lost 2-0 at home to Port Vale to be relegated, while Chesterfield hopped improbably above them and escaped the drop.
The withdrawal of Griggs' financial backing and the sale of the club follow a rough period even for a company as laced into the nation's fashion and subcultures as Dr Martens. The most recent accounts of the R Griggs Group, which owns the shoemaking businesses worldwide, show that for the year to 31 March 2003, the company made a loss of £60m, which included the considerable cost of wholesale restructuring, and turnover fell by £54m. That followed a £32m loss they made the previous year, as Doc Martens struggled to translate their formidable street cred into a commercially profitable global brand.
In October 2002, R Griggs announced that they were closing their shoe and bootmaking factories here and shifting production to China, where workers come cheaper. That led to the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, described at the time as "devastating news" by the footwear workers' union, KFAT.
The Irthlingborough factory, whose workers used to swell the Diamonds' crowd figures, has been closed down and the company's registered office moved from Nene Park to Wollaston. The club recently said it was close to being sold to three as yet unnamed people, described as "private individuals and businessmen who have made their careers in commercial and property development". David Suddens, the chief executive of the R Griggs Group and, temporarily, of the club, too, said this deal would give the club its best chance for the future, stressing: "Nene Park will not be ploughed up by ruthless property developers."
The club and the supporters it gathered in the days of plenty await the new investors and their plans. Despite building gates up to around 4,500, Rushden & Diamonds have been heavily reliant financially on Griggs and his company. The accounts they did deliver, the previous year, for 2002, showed that the R Griggs Group had loaned the club £611,000, that Griggs himself had made an interest-free loan of £500,000, and in 2002-03 the R Griggs Group provided £2.25m in sponsorship. The new investors, whoever they are, will not find sponsorship available to anything like that bonanza for their recently relegated Third Division side.
Griggs, given his company's huge problems, could not continue to divert money into a football venture which was a strangely old-fashioned kind of benefaction, although the club's former chief executive Mark Darnell told me a couple of years ago that the club hoped one day to make money for Mr Griggs and increase "brand awareness" for his airwear shoes.
That particular plan has been booted out. Rushden & Diamonds, the synthetic football creation, once lauded superficially as a model new club, now stands as a cautionary tale about financial backers, even while our top clubs are flogged to Russian oligarchs and billionaire Far Eastern prime ministers. Whatever the source, some time, some day, the money has a habit of running out.Reuse content