Club Mergers: The Future or Football Blasphemy?

The historic city of Manchester, England lays claim to being much more than just the home of Onside View. Today, it is in some ways the epicentre of world football — the home of the world’s most popular club, Manchester United, the world’s richest, Manchester City. It also helps that in Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, Manchester’s pair of Premier League organisations employ what are arguably the world’s most coveted — and perhaps even most capable — coaches.

Manchester North End?

However, in much the same way as cities like Madrid and Glasgow, Manchester’s footballing landscape is dominated by, but not limited to, its pair of global giants. To the north of the city lies three far lesser-known League clubs in Oldham, Bury, and Rochdale which all currently play in League One* — the third tier of English football. The three clubs are located within ten miles of one another, and each has an extensive history of financial hardship and paltry attendances. Whether or not it’s got anything to do with the presence of United and City, all three clubs have struggled to prosper in the crowded Manchester market (let’s not forget, it wasn’t a million years ago that neighbouring Bolton and Wigan were both also in the Premier League).

Back in 1999, Oldham Athletic took the now-astonishing step of entering into discussions with Bury about a merger between the two clubs. Ian Stott, Oldham’s then-Chairman, planned to eventually bring Rochdale in on the act, making it a three-way merger whereby the new club — to be called Manchester North End — would be housed in a new 16,000 seat stadium near Boundary Park. According to Stott and others who supported the plan, an act of consolidation between the trifecta was the only way to secure the future of the three clubs domiciled in Greater Manchester’s poorest boroughs.

Opposition from fans — as well as the Football League’s rule that consolidated clubs must take the league position of its lowest predecessor (in this case Rochdale) — eventually derailed Stott’s masterplan. Despite noting that consolidation might be “the future of football”, Bury’s Chairman, Terry Robinson, was not prepared to sacrifice Division One football, even if it meant long-term financial security. The relative glamour of second tier competition trumped the promise of a strength-in-numbers approach.

Ironically, however, of the three clubs, lowly Rochdale is the only one that hasn’t faced the prospect of liquidation since Stott’s plan was first mooted in the late 90s. And, at the time of writing, all three clubs currently sit in, or close-to, League One’s relegation zone. Perhaps, just maybe, the stars are aligning once again for Manchester North End.

Negative vs. Positive Consolidation

As our friends at Game of the People recently noted, “consolidation” has long been a dirty word in English football, despite being responsible for the formation of the likes of FC Twente, Paris Saint Germain, and Roma. At this point, the last remaining inter-city, or regional, rivalries are simply too bitter to foster any sort of consolidation — regardless of the financial incentives. It isn’t a stretch to assume that a sizeable number of fans would rather see their club go bust than see it be saved through an act marriage. Such a dichotomy, it should be said, is in fact far from academic. No fewer than 60 English clubs have entered into administration since 1984, and 11% of English clubs are currently facing “severe financial pressure”.

The derision, however, with which the Manchester North End model was met is perhaps also a product of the way the plan was framed. From the outset, Stott’s proposal was couched in negativity; it was about financial consolidation; about securing the very survival of professional football in Manchester’s northern boroughs.

This stands in stark contrast to the Celta de Vigo approach — a “positive” model of consolidation born from regional pride, and centred solely on achieving enhanced national competitiveness. The motive behind the formation of the La Liga mainstays was to produce a club for the region of Galicia capable of making an impression nationally. In other words, it was about reversing Vigo’s footballing invisibility.

The rationale that led to the formation of Celta de Vigo really has no place in the contemporary landscape of English football. Whether it’s London, Manchester, Liverpool, the Midlands, or the North East, every major English region and conurbation has achieved some level of footballing notoriety and success. “Big clubs” are already scattered throughout the country, meaning that it’s difficult to identify potential candidates for “positive” acts of consolidation in the vein of Celta de Vigo. What, simply, would be the point? Sure, Blackburn and Burnley could merge; Fulham and QPR could merge (a second attempt); Notts County and Forest could merge — but in each case the drawbacks would outweigh any advantages.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that consolidation carries with it such negative connotations in English football culture. It is mooted only in relation to financial survival, and never in relation to building something new, something positive.

Pragmatism and Realism in Scotland     

But while the concept of consolidation might be deemed entirely repugnant in England, we can find an ounce more pragmatism on the subject in Scotland — and there’s good reason why.

A little-know, and perhaps surprising statistic, is that Scotland’s top-flight is the best supported league in Europe per head of population. Although we might sometimes tune-in to the SPFL and see half empty — or worse, half completed — terraces, there is an enormous, and statistically unusual, appetite for the beautiful game in Europe’s most beautiful country.

Scotland’s attendance figures are, it’s true, somewhat skewed by the existence of Rangers and Celtic, who each attract NFL-level home crowds and Premier League-level away followings. That said, the figures are also skewed the other way by the existence of a league structure that is far too large for a country of Scotland’s size. The SPFL is comprised of 42 league clubs that service a population just shy of 5.4 million — that’s around 130,000 people for every team. By contrast, England has one league club for every 600,000 residents.

Importantly, interest in Scottish football is not limited to the Premiership. Perhaps even more strikingly, the Scottish Championship enjoys an average attendance of 4,500 — higher than each of the Ukrainian, Romanian, and Greek top divisions. The problem, however, in Scotland is that support is highly diluted. For instance, the city of Dundee, with a metro population of less than 250,000, is home to two clubs, of which both have average attendances of less than 10,000.

Intriguingly, it was also in 1999 — around the time of the aborted attempt to create Manchester North End — that discussions of a merger of the two clubs were being floated in Dundee. The rationale behind this plan, which was less than 48 hours away from realisation, was both positive and negative. Financial security was one motivation, but it was also about creating a footballing force in Scotland’s fourth largest city. While the plan eventually came to nothing, the idea of consolidating the two clubs has continued to roll on, serving as a subject of heated debate and something of yardstick capable of gauging one’s view of the state of Scottish football.

If the deal hadn’t unravelled, who knows whether, 19 years on, Dundee United City F.C. (the proposed name) would an Aberdeen-level force in the SPFL — something the Scottish game could do with. Even if not, the now-theoretical club would almost certainly be in better financial shape than either of its two would-be predecessors.

Candidates North of the Border?

When discussions of consolidation arise in Scotland — and they frequently do — there are a number of candidates that invariably crop-up. The trifecta of Dunfermline, Cowdenbeath, and Raith Rovers is one such oft-discussed merger proposal, as is that of the four Angus clubs of Forfar, Brechin, Arbroath, and Montrose. More intriguing still is the pipedream consolidation of the “Glasgow periphery” in Partick Thistle, Queens Park, Clyde, and Albion Rovers, with the new entity likely playing in Hampden. Importantly, each of the three proposals is of the positive variety. Where 11% of English clubs are in severe financial distress, the same can be said of only one out of Scotland’s 42 League clubs. Such mergers wouldn’t be born out of positions of negativity, but would instead be centred on achieving enhanced national relevance or greater league competitiveness — in order words, the Celta de Vigo model.  

If professional football in Scotland was limited to just ten, or even twenty, clubs, the Scottish Premiership could become one of the best-supported leagues in Europe — and a decidedly more competitive one, at that. At present, there is simply an unsustainable number of clubs in Scotland, and the gap between the smaller clubs and the likes of Aberdeen, Hearts, and Hibs is cartoonish — and the gap between the small clubs and the Old Firm astronomical. Thus, while consolidation would make financial sense in only a handful of English cases, there is a very strong case for widespread consolidation in Scotland. If nothing else, it would be a positive act — just ask to good people of Galicia.

Image credit.

*Since the time of writing, Bury and Oldham have been relegated to League Two.

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