Bath City article in 11Freunde

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Bath City article in 11Freunde

Post by Marc Monitor on Wed Oct 28, 2015 12:17 am

Some of you may remember that Phil Menne wrote an article in German football magazine 11Freunde in the summer. A very nice man has translated it for me.

An English sixth-division club in crisis, a world-famous film director and one big idea. Bath could be the start of a revolution in English football.

THE RIGHT THING

If this conference room in the Bath Hilton were a film set, with its psychedelic patterned carpet, what kind of scene would be played out here? Would we witness a decisive moment, as events come to a dramatic conclusion and the little people join forces to stick it to The Man? In fact, that would be a scene typical of a film by Ken Loach.

Indeed, it is Loach who is currently giving instructions for the evening’s events. Tables are being placed on the podium and chairs are being pushed around. Pictures have been taken down and replaced by a large Bath City flag hanging on the wall. But the softly-spoken Loach, who will soon turn 80, is not directing on a film set, or telling a camera crew what to do. No film stars are expected to make an appearance and Loach himself is not a director who has been weighed down with awards. Yet he made “Looking for Eric”, one of the best football films of all time - and discovered Eric Cantona’s acting talents as well.

Right now, Loach is primarily a fan of the English sixth-division football club Bath City. And his ambition as a fan is to buy the club - but not on his own. Loach is the most prominent representative of the “Big Bath City Bid”, and tonight is all about that bid. Those involved want to raise nearly one million pounds from as many people as possible and use that cash to buy a 75% majority share of the club. This would enable them to change the structure of the club to a democratic set-up where every member has a vote.

While the feedback from the speakers is making Loach rather uncomfortable, tourists stroll through the crowded town centre outside. They are fascinated by the Roman baths and the famous sandstone Gregorian architecture. Bath is a beautiful city, deservedly listed as a cultural heritage site, but the football club is dying a slow death. City has always been a true non-league club, existing outside the four professional divisions and without a glorious history to look back on. But in common with many clubs in England, today’s modest existence does not seem to have much of a future to look forward to.

Just a few hundred spectators venture down to the stadium, which actually should be a tourist attraction in its own right. Anyone who fails to appreciate the charms of Twerton Park must have a heart of stone. The ground has been put together piecemeal over eight decades and harks back the time before the rise of interchangeable, all-seater arenas. The main stand contains sky-blue seats from Maine Road, the demolished former home of Manchester City. The dark blue seats opposite were originally used at Filbert Street, where Leicester City used to play. They were then bought by Chesterfield, before making the move to Bath for the princely sum of one pound per seat. Time has stood still elsewhere in the ground too. The dressing rooms could pass for the set of a football film from the Fifties and the VIP areas radiate the shabby charm of the 70s and 80s.

As magical as the cobbled-together surroundings may be, Twerton Park is part of the overall problem. Paul Williams manages the stadium from a dusty office underneath the main stand. Typically, the owner of a club is the bad guy in any story about a fans’ takeover bid, but Williams has as much in common with an Abramovich figure as the National League South does with the Champions League. Nine years ago, the former accountant paid about 65,000 pounds for nine percent of the club, and received a whole load of extra work in return. The pensioner is here five days a week in the summer and six days a week during the football season. The other owners are also local businessmen who would not be unhappy if the fans’ bid succeeds with their fundraising initiative.

“That would at least show, that there is interest in keeping the club alive”, said a tired-looking Williams. He’s been keeping the club going for a long time and the figures just don’t add up. The top earners in the first team pick up nearly €2,000 a month, and most players are on €600-800. These are not enormous amounts, and no wages are paid during the close season. But running costs for the stadium are high and the club makes a loss of about €150,000 every year. The total debt has now reached one million Euros. The problem is not acute as the value of the land on which Twerton Park stands is worth a lot more than that. But of course if the club sells the stadium, it’s all over - there is simply nowhere to build a new ground in this prosperous city.

“There are too many professional and semi-professional football clubs in England”, says Williams. There is something to what he says: 54 million inhabitants need to support over 100 clubs, whereas Germany has just 70 clubs fitting that description, and 80 million inhabitants. Little wonder that bankruptcies have become the norm in English football. In the lower professional leagues, and the grey area between professional and amateur football, over 100 clubs have gone to the wall in the last 30 years - and some of them more than once.

Most of the smaller clubs were better off before. Bath City’s crowds at the end of the 80s regularly reached the 2-3,000 mark. Local companies got involved and everything just seemed to work. If you walk through the city today, there is virtually no sign of the existence of a local football club with a great stadium. No posters advertise upcoming matches, and the staff in the sports shops can barely conceal their amusement when asked if stock Bath City merchandise, pointing to the racks of Premier League shirts. Arsenal, Manchester United or Chelsea kits are all readily available.

In the meantime, Ken Loach has finished his preparations for the evening’s event. His hands are tucked into the pockets of his baggy jacket and he seems content - the stage is set, the information brochures have been laid out, and everything is ready. Loach has lived in Bath since 1974, and has had a season ticket since then too. The overburdened Williams is not the reason for the club’s woes, Loach is sure of that. The villain of the piece is the Premier League and the driving force behind it. “That’s capitalism, isn’t it?”, sniggers the left-wing veteran, as if he were surprised at the efficacy of simple Marxist analysis. “The irony of capitalism is just this: Competition kills competition, because it leads to a monopoly”. The is true within the Premier League, where four or five clubs monopolise the top of the table. And it is true for the league as a whole, which draws the whole country into its orbit. “It squeezes the life out of the smaller clubs because the media presence of the Premier League is so powerful that local kids don’t wear a Bath City shirt: they get one from Arsenal or Manchester United.”

Loach has not abandoned his dreams of a better world, even for football. “Once you have understood the system, it’s not about frustration but about ploughing your own furrow”, he says, before declaring that “the revolution starts here”. A little laugh at once dispels any mental images of Loach leading the revolutionary masses to overthrow the system, proudly brandishing the club’s black-and-white banner.

For Germans to fully understand this fans’ movement, it is necessary to see the differences between a club in England and one in Germany. The German FA demands that every club has its own youth football section, but Bath City does not have one. An associated charitable trust that supports kids’ football - Bath City Youth - and their players wear Bath City kit. There is also an academy based at Bath Spa University, where the club’s only full-time employee works. Bath City simply does not make financial sense - and turning this situation around is the main driver behind the bid.

Tim Mourant and his friends are enthusiastic about the bid. “We are the young fans”, he grins, as these thirtysomethings aren’t really young any more. Ken Loach dubbed this group “the choir” as they start up songs and chants on the covered terrace opposite the main stand. During the week, they meet in a pub near the ground to play Subbuteo.

The Premier League is the villain for them too: “It has turned into a monster”, says Mourant. But this monster doesn’t impress them much - they easily knock back questions about why the follow a club from the sixth division by trotting out some tales of amusing trips to Wealdstone and Chelmsford. “It’s not just about the football for us.” They enjoy their journeys around the small towns of England, and spending time with opposing fans.

But that is not to say that the fans of Bath City don’t yearn for success. Last season, they were a spot-kick away from a trip to Wembley, losing out on penalties in the semi-final of the FA Trophy. And having started this season with seven wins on the bounce, they are dreaming of promotion to the Conference National. Nonetheless, the biggest dream right now is to be become a member of their own club.

Even someone like Phil Weaver can’t do that at the moment. The 67-year-old former music teacher still scales the floodlight pylons at Twerton Park if a bulb needs replacing. A huge bunch of keys hangs from his belt, signifying his role as an unofficial caretaker at the ground. “There are still some people who volunteer to help out and receive no pay,” he says - for example, the stewards or the team behind the matchday programme. But maybe there would be many more helpers, if only the club could change too.

Weaver is also attending the evening’s event at the Hilton hotel. There are about a hundred people present: local politicians, businessmen, social activists and the fans from the popular side. All that’s missing is young people, once again. The entrance of a ten-year-old boy, accompanying his father, is almost a cue for celebration. Just that afternoon, Loach had said that “people are missing out on so much: identifying with your local team and players from your town is a much more personal experience than just buying a shirt with Messi on the back.”

On the stage, he now declares that Bath City is part of a movement. The number of clubs in England that belong to the fans, or to their members, is growing. The best-known new clubs, such as FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon, or the Portsmouth that is reinventing itself after insolvency, prove that there is another way. Bath City really would write a new chapter in the history of football clubs, as the move would not be born of desperation at a hostile takeover, uprooting of the club to a new town, or bankruptcy.

One member of the committee planning the fans’ takeover was a commercial manager at Hull City until he quit that post last year, angered by the attempts of the club’s owner to change the name to Hull City Tigers. “The Premier League doesn’t have anything to do with football any more,” grumbles Nick Thompson. The other panel members on stage, including a well-known TV pundit and a journalist, nod in agreement.

Comments from members of the public are not slow in coming, and these make it clear just what the bid means to people. For all concerned, it would mean no less than just doing the right thing. Twerton Park needs to be become a lively place to go, for all members of the club. The stadium could also become the focal point for social projects, including the residents of the surrounding areas. The club would also concentrate more on youth football, as well as the women’s team and the disabled players’ team. And the first team would benefit from playing in front of bigger crowds - which would in turn help to stoke civic pride in Bath, something that has largely been the province of the city’s rugby team.

Everyone in the room is dreaming those dreams that they have always had but it is abundantly clear that their utopian vision is pretty much normality for German football fans - they want nothing more than their own football club, a Fußballverein.

Two weeks later, the deadline for the bid has passed and they are €650,000 short of the target. So the deadline is extended to the end of the season… this revolution will need a bit more time yet.
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Marc Monitor

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Re: Bath City article in 11Freunde

Post by Steve Whites Missus on Wed Oct 28, 2015 6:45 am

Excellent article.

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Re: Bath City article in 11Freunde

Post by OliverH on Wed Oct 28, 2015 9:08 am

Thanks for posting!

RE: "The deadline is extended to the end of the season" - the magazine went to press just as our questionnaire went out. Philip, the fan who sorted this out, advised us that we might get some German readers investing in the club once the article went out, if the bid was extended or reopened. So we told the editor that it was extended to the end of the season, just in case.

Also apologies to the Foundation, who are of course our charitable trust (not Bath City Youth).
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Re: Bath City article in 11Freunde

Post by stillmanjunior on Wed Oct 28, 2015 10:56 am

Other than a couple of factual errors (crowd of 2-3,000 in the late 80s?! You could almost take off a 0) and slightly harsh labelling of Paul as a pensioner (he still seems perfectly able to bounce up and down the main stand steps handing over a teamsheet), that's a decent article.
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Re: Bath City article in 11Freunde

Post by Marc Monitor on Wed Oct 28, 2015 11:44 am

Apparently, Phil didn't write it either, he has been honest enough to point out.
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