Max taught us painful les­son

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY -

WE ALL dream of a su­gar daddy, a sheikh or a sul­tan who will de­scend upon our club like the golden lot­tery fin­ger.

But, as the bull­doz­ers trun­dled into Nene Park this week, we are re­minded that even the deep­est pock­ets can­not turn lead into gold.

In the words of Juras­sic Park’s Dr Mal­colm, we spend so much time won­der­ing whether we could, we never stop to think whether we should.

It is 25 years since Max Griggs, the founder of Dr Martens, merged Irth­ling­bor­ough Di­a­monds and Rush­den Town to form Rush­den & Di­a­monds.

Based on a river bend in the sleepy Northamp­ton­shire coun­try­side, Di­a­monds were a tiny club from two tiny vil­lages, but Griggs had big plans.

Money was pumped in, play­ers ac­crued. By 1996, Nene Park was a gleam­ing, 6,000-seat ed­i­fice com­plete with health club, con­fer­ence fa­cil­i­ties and a sou­venir out­let wit­tily ti­tled the Doc Shop.

Even by to­day’s stan­dards, the sta­dium was lu­di­crously large for a Non-League side, let alone one whose av­er­age gate in 1992 was 250.

“Peo­ple came here and said, ‘Where’s the town?’” Griggs ex­plained in 2001. “I told them if we didn’t build it we would never know if peo­ple would come.

“So, we built a new 1,000-seat stand in time for a pre- sea­son friendly against Northampton and, sure enough, a thou­sand peo­ple came and sat in it.

“From then on, we were con­vinced the po­ten­tial was there to of­fer some­thing nice to the com­mu­nity. It wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily about the team, it was about the fa­cil­i­ties you of­fered as well.”

For a while, Griggs’ Field of Dreams hy­poth­e­sis held wa­ter.

As Di­a­monds climbed, so did their fan­base. By Christ­mas 2003, his club were 14th in League One and cheered on by 4,000-plus fans.

Yet Rush­den & Di­a­monds was al­ways an il­lu­sion, a minis­cule shadow pup­pet blown to false pro­por­tions by the spot­light of Griggs’ for­tune. Even the club it­self was a con­fec­tion.

And, when that light snapped off, the trick was ex­posed.

By the late 90s, Dr Martens had fallen out of fash­ion. The com­pany lost £100m in three years and a foot­ball club be­came an un­af­ford­able ex­trav­a­gance. In 2004, the For Sale signs went up at Nene Park.

Yet po­ten­tial buy­ers knew what Griggs had ac­knowl­edged all along. With such a small catch­ment, run­ning a prof­itable club at Nene Park was not vi­able. Only con­tin­u­ous fi­nan­cial sup­port could keep Rush­den & Di­a­monds afloat.

Stag­gered

In the end, un­will­ing to sell to de­vel­op­ers, Griggs handed the club and its fa­cil­i­ties to the Sup­port­ers Trust, com­plete with a one-off dowry of £750,000. Gen­er­ous? No doubt, but lit­tle more than Poly­filla at a club los­ing £2m a year.

Di­a­monds stag­gered on for six more years, haem­or­rhag­ing money, slith­er­ing back to NonLeague, the closed main stand a sad re­minder of glo­ries past. It fi­nally folded in 2011.

For a while, ri­vals Ket­ter­ing Town in­her­ited Nene Park. It crip­pled them, too. Now, 25 years af­ter its con­struc­tion, this ac­cursed folly is be­ing de­mol­ished for hous­ing. The last wisps of Griggs’ grand il­lu­sion will dis­ap­pear for­ever.

Did Griggs mean well? No doubt. Did he cre­ate some won­der­ful mem­o­ries? Ab­so­lutely. But, in­ad­ver­tently, he also in­flicted pain and hard­ship. On those who lost their jobs. At its peak in 2004, the club em­ployed 295 staff. By the end, that num­ber was in dou­ble fig­ures.

On the trust, who pumped money into a club that, in hind­sight, was doomed from the out­set. On the youth teams dis­banded. On Justin Ed­in­burgh, the man­ager as the club dis­in­te­grated. Was it re­ally worth all of that? Now, there is noth­ing left. The ruins of Rush­den stand as tes­ta­ment to the per­ils of su­gar daddy own­er­ship. Busi­ness is capri­cious, and a prince can swiftly be­come a pau­per. A well-sup­ported club from a town or city will al­ways find some­one to pick up the pieces. An ar­ti­fi­cially in­flated min­now will not. As Fleet­wood Town – whose rapid rise from NonLeague has been built on the back of more than £10m worth of in­vest­ment from owner Andy Pil­ley – gear up for a tilt at the Cham­pi­onship, it is an is­sue that’s as rel­e­vant as ever. Yes, the club have great cor­po­rate fa­cil­i­ties and of­fices on site. They are striv­ing for sus­tain­abil­ity. But Fleet­wood re­main on a knife edge. If Pil­ley could no longer plug gaps, would the club find an­other bene­fac­tor? It seems churl­ish to call Pil­ley ir­re­spon­si­ble, to ap­ply Dr Mal­colm’s words to his achieve­ments in Fylde. But it seemed like that when Rush­den were fly­ing. I sin­cerely hope Fleet­wood will be alive and thriv­ing in a decade, a sus­tain­able suc­cess story in the style of Wim­ble­don or Bur­ton. I hope Pil­ley has an exit plan. But, as Nene Park crum­bles, the spec­tre of Rush­den still looms large – not just for them but for ev­ery club liv­ing a glo­ri­ous il­lu­sion.

Chris Dunlavy

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