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How to Kill a Football Club

By Pete Usher

Old Etonians versus Blackburn Rovers. The game's not what it used to be.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In previous articles, I’ve spoken about relocations and mergers, which suggested the different places existing sports teams could have ended up. But in those scenarios, the team still exists (or at least a team still exists). It is much harder to kill a whole team, especially in the professional leagues.


Or is it?

But killing a football club is much harder.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A cursory glance at the early years of any professional sport or start-up league will find a number of clubs that no longer exist. Wanderers, the winners of the first FA Cup final, dissolved by 1887. Clydesdale were runners up in the first Scottish Cup final, and had folded within 5 years. Does anyone really remember the Louisville Greys, Duluth Kelleys, Cleveland Barons, or Miami Fusion (National League baseball, NFL, NHL, and MLS respectively). So, given that, if we take the example of English football, how many teams can we kill, or at least make much less successful than they are?


Basically, can we kill or cripple the entire current top flight of English football?


1 – Arsenal.

Were nearly wound up in 1910, before being invested in by Henry Norris and William Hall, who were behind the move from the Manor Ground to Highbury, which made a significant difference to the club’s income. They also nearly merged with Fulham, or moved to Craven Cottage. Even if the winding up is avoided, it is possibly that Arsenal remains in Plumstead, a much smaller club.


1a – Arsenal’s departure to North London led to Charlton Athletic turning professional. Arsenal staying put as a struggling team might prevent that happening quite so soon, if at all.


2 – Aston Villa.

Aston Villa were certainly in financial trouble in 1968 before Doug Ellis became chairman, and again in the late 2010s. Would a club of this size be able to go under in the more modern age? Certainly, financial issues haven’t brought down a big English club IOTL, but in an alternate world?


3 – Bournemouth.

Not elected into the league until 1923, and only a top flight team from 2015, the Cherries went into administration in 2008, and nearly went out of business. It isn’t hard to tilt the balance of the scales and have the then League One club go under.

4 – Brentford.

Could potentially have folded before World War 1, due to the travel costs in the Southern League Second Division being high due to many clubs being in the Midlands and Wales. In 1967, there was an agreement that Queen’s Park Rangers would move into Griffin Park and Brentford would cease to exist. A similar plan that involved Brentford moving to Hillingdon was also mooted in 1968.


5 – Brighton & Hove Albion.

Nearly relegated out of the Football League in 1997, requiring a second half equaliser against Hereford United to finish ahead of them on goals scored, not goal difference (which would have sent Brighton down). Hereford United has since been liquidated, a fate Brighton narrowly avoided that same year.


6 – Burnley.

In 1987, Burnley had to beat Leyton Orient on the final day of the season to avoid being relegated into non-league football. A draw would not have been enough to keep them up, and in the end Lincoln City went down.


Later, in 2002, the collapse of ITV Digital made Burnley one of a number of clubs which flirted with administration.


7 – Chelsea.

The easiest way to prevent the formation of Chelsea is to have Fulham move into Stamford Bridge, as was suggested when Gus Mears acquired the land in the first place.


Alternatively, in 1982 Ken Bates bought the struggling club for £1, and had to wait 10 years to regain the stadium freehold, which happened after a deal with the developers who owned it due to a market crash.


8 – Crystal Palace.

Went into administration in 1999, with debts of £9 million. Although the club recovered under the ownership of Simon Jordan, it is another potential one to fold.


9 – Everton.

It is fair to say that the current financial status of Everton is well known, with large financial losses leading to points deductions in the 2023-24 season, and speculation that regulation would doom the club. Everton only avoided the drop by 2 points last season, so what would relegation have done for them?


10 – Fulham.

In 1910, Henry Norris tried to merge Fulham with Arsenal, but was blocked by the Football League. Other than that,


Decades later, the club declined in the early 1980s, following on from the departure of players such as Bobby Moore and George Best – stars who came to Fulham in the twilight of their career. Fulham nearly went bust in 1987, after a proposed merger with Queens Park Rangers fell through.


11 – Liverpool.

If the dispute between John Houlding and John Orrell is resolved or avoided, then Everton don’t leave Anfield, and Houlding would not form Liverpool FC (or Everton Athletic as he originally proposed).


12 – Luton Town.

Early membership of the Football League in 1897 nearly crippled the club due to travel costs as the league was mostly based in the North and Midlands.


It went into administration in 2004, and again in 2008. They were docked 30 points in 2009, and ended up relegated to the Conference National, the highest level of non-league football. Their recovery to be a top flight side is nothing short of miraculous.


13 – Manchester City.

Were struggling financially in 1998, and were relegated to the third tier.


In 2008, Thaksin Shinawatra had control of the club, but his assets were frozen while he was on trial for corruption. The club was then sold to Abu Dhabi United Group, and the rest is history.


14 – Manchester United.

Newton Heath (as they were known) were subject to a winding up order over the sum of £242 17s 10d in January 1902, and legend has it that an escaped dog led to John Henry Davis becoming aware of the plight of the club, arranging the funds, and renaming the side.


Also, in 1934, Manchester United had to win their final game of the season to avoid relegation to the regionalised Division 3, which offered just a single promotion place.


15 – Newcastle United.

In 1991, Newcastle were struggling in Division 2, and were millions of pounds in debt. It took the financial intervention of John Hall, and the managerial prowess of Kevin Keegan to turn them around.


16 – Nottingham Forest.

Perhaps the easiest way to make Forest less successful is to have them not appoint Brian Clough in 1975.


17 – Sheffield United.

If the Wednesday Football Club don’t move out of Bramall Lane in 1887 over a rent dispute, Sheffield United would not exist.


18 – Tottenham Hotspur.

If Ernie Payne doesn’t have his kit stolen, Spurs would not have had to loan him 10 shillings to buy new boots, not be accused of professionalism by Fulham, and not have turned professional in 1893, but could have continued as one of London’s top amateur sides.

19 – West Ham United.

In 2006, West Ham were bought by two Icelandic businessmen, Eggert Magnússon and Björgólfur Guðmundsson. In 2009, the Icelandic banking crisis led to the holding company, Hansa Holdings, going bankrupt and being bailed out by a bank that had itself been bailed out by the Icelandic government. West Ham could have gone into administration, with a significant points deduction.


Alternatively, West Ham could have been deducted points for the Tevez and Masccherano affair.


20 – Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In the early and mid-1980s, Wolves were in financial trouble. They were almost liquidated in 1982, with debts of £2.5 million, and then slid down the leagues to Division 4. In 1986, receivers were called in, and only intervention from Wolverhampton Council and Asda kept the club afloat.


The opportunities to build an alternate Premier League are endless.


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