Max taught us painful lesson
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.
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.