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Sport and Alternate History. Part 5: Teams that Never Were - Mergers.

By Pete Usher

Roda JC vs Feyenoord; Jan 1975. Roda won 1-0.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The previous article in this series can be found Here


The identity and history of a team is of vital importance to fans, as are local rivalries. This means that proposed changes to established teams are usually loudly resisted, withm previously dormant voices coming out against the proposal.

However, in the formative years of many sports, mergers were more common. Newcastle United were formed in 1892 as a merger between two clubs, Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End. There were many other examples across the world, including mergers of mergers. For example, Roda JC in the Netherlands was formed in 1962 as a result of the merger of Roda Sport and Rapid JC; Roda Sport had been formed in 1954 from the merger of SV Kerkrade and SV Bleijerheide, the same year Rapid JC was formed from the amalgamation of Rapid ’54 and Juliana.

It’s not just soccer that has a history of team mergers. In the Canadian Football League, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are the result of the 1950 amalgamation of the Hamilton Tigers and Hamilton Wildcats. In the National Football League, the Second World War led to two temporary mergers, the 1943 Pittsburgh/Philadelphia team and the 1944 Pittsburgh/Chicago Cardinals team. And in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), the St George Illawarra Dragons were formed in 1999 from the St George Dragons and the Illawarra Steelers, and the Wests Tigers by Balmain Tigers and Western Suburbs Magpies, both in the aftermath of the ‘Super League War’ in Australia.

Despite all this, the usual reaction to mergers has been one of fan resistance and protests. And there have been plans that could have significantly changed the sporting landscape.

We’ve already touched on the Super League War, the competition between the Australian Rugby League and the Rupert Murdoch-backed Super League. In Australia, this shook up the landscape of clubs and the end result, the National Rugby League, looks different to the preceding competitions. However, the changes are comparatively small compared to what could have happened in Europe.

It was Rupert Murdoch in the Australian League with the courtroom lawyers.

The man behind the Australian Super League. Rugby, not cricket.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rugby League in the UK has traditionally been confined to northern England, and by the mid-90s the professional game was struggling, with only Wigan able to run as a full-time professional club. With the Super League War raging, and Sky’s acquisition of top-flight English football rights proving a success, the Rugby Football League (the governing body in the UK) were approached with an offer of £77 million to create a 14-team Super League and switch to summer play. All the teams would be professional and full time.

The catch – a number of the traditional clubs would be merged. Castleford, Wakefield Trinity, and Featherstone Rovers would become Calder. Sheffield Eagles and Doncaster would be South Yorkshire. Hull and Hull Kingston Rovers would become Humberside. Salford and Oldham would be Manchester. Warrington and Widnes would merge as Cheshire. And no fewer than four teams (Whitehaven, Workington Town, Barrow, and Carlisle) would become Cumbria. Wigan, St Helens, Bradford, and Leeds would remain as single town clubs, with the addition of two French teams in Toulouse and Paris St Germain.

Unsurprisingly, the plans were immediately unpopular with fans of clubs with decades of history and strong rivalries. On Good Friday 1995, it was announced that Toulouse had pulled out, and Widnes and Warrington were to be separate teams. Coupled with anti-merger campaigns and debates in Parliament, the merged structure quickly unravelled, and a new proposal based on league positions in the final winter season was put in place. Even that was not without controversy – the Second Division winners Keighley were excluded for London Broncos, who had finished fourth, in order to expand the national reach of the league.

Of the teams that would have been merged, only Featherstone, Doncaster, Whitehaven, Carlisle, and Barrow have not played in the Super League since it was established, although only four sides have won the trophy. Interestingly, they are the single town clubs from the original proposal. Perhaps a successful implementation would result in a very different looking list of title winners.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of proposed mergers in football which have not come to pass. One which could have had a significant impact on the game’s history nearly occurred at the birth of one of England’s famous clubs.

In October 1919, Leeds City were expelled from the Football League for financial irregularities, mostly around playing guest players during the First World War, and the club was wound up and replaced in the League by Port Vale. A number of officials associated with the club were banned from football for life, including the manager Herbert Chapman, who had gone to manage a munitions factory in 1916. Interest in football was still strong, so a new club, Leeds United, were formed and would enter the League the following year.

Meanwhile, another West Riding club, Huddersfield Town, were also suffering from financial woes. At the end of October, Huddersfield sold Jack Cock, a crowd favourite, to Chelsea, and early in November headlines appeared discussing the club’s precarious state. Crowds were averaging less than 4500. Only £200 had been raised from season ticket sales, and weekly expenses were close to £400. Gate receipts were poor compared to the local Rugby League side – on November 1st 1919, Town took £90 on the gate for a game against Fulham, while the rugby club took £1600 for a match against Hull.

The Huddersfield chairman, J Hilton Crowther, saw an opportunity and, acting alone, proposed a merger between Huddersfield Town and the new Leeds United. Effectively, Huddersfield would move lock, stock and barrel to Leeds, where there was far more obvious interest in football. The plan looked sound, and all that remained was for the football authorities to authorise it. Then the news leaked.

The local objection was immediate and vociferous, with demonstrations, cinema adverts, financial pledges, and the engagement of local dignitaries, the other directors and even the players making a huge impact. An alternative proposal was put to the League, whereby Crowther would effectively be bought out, and Town would remain in Huddersfield. The League agreed to give Town an initial month’s grace to raise the funds to buy Crowther out, otherwise the proposed move would go ahead.

In reality, the saga dragged on for just over nine months before before everything was settled, and Huddersfield Town were safe. What happened next was hugely significant. In December 1920, Herbert Chapman was laid off from the coke works he was now working at, and was approached by Huddersfield manager Ambrose Langley, who had played with Chapman’s brother. Huddersfield supported an appeal against Chapman’s ban, arguing that he had been working in the munitions factory at the time of the financial irregularities, and therefore could not be held responsible. The ban was overturned, and Chapman was appointed assistant manager in February 1921, and then promoted to secretary-manager a month later. What followed was remarkable.

Herbert Chapman. The best football manager England never had?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Chapman built a new playing system, making sure that the reserve and third team played in the same style as the first team, with a strong defence and a focus on fast, counter-attacking play. In the 1921-22 season, Huddersfield won the FA Cup, their first trophy. Then in 1923-24, they won the league title. In 1924-25, they defended that title, being the first team to win the title without ever conceding more than two goals in a game. Chapman then moved to Arsenal, but the team he built at Huddersfield then won the League again in 1925-26, thus becoming the first side to win the title three years in a row.

Chapman then repeated his success at Arsenal, winning the FA Cup in 1929-30, before league titles in 1930-31 and 1932-33. He died in January 1934, but the Arsenal he built went on to become the second side to win three titles in a row, a further FA Cup and yet another title, a remarkable legacy.

So, what if Huddersfield Town effectively become the new Leeds United? Firstly, there is a new club required for the Football League – Cardiff City lost out to Leeds United in 1920, so maybe them. More interestingly, without Langley asking Chapman to come to Huddersfield, does Herbert return to football? If so, with who, and can the success he had at both Huddersfield and Arsenal be replicated elsewhere? Without Chapman, are Arsenal just another run of the mill London club, rather than the multiple trophy-winning side we know. After all, they had never won a trophy until Chapman took charge.

Other mergers have been proposed, with some being more advanced than others. The reasons are many and varied. Some proposals seem to be driven by the ego of the owner involved, such as Robert Maxwell’s 1983 proposed merger of Reading and Oxford United as Thames Valley Royals; or the 1990 attempt by Wallace Mercer (or ‘Wallet Merger’ as he became known) to merge Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian as Edinburgh United, with the ultimate aim of challenging the Old Firm at the pinnacle of Scottish Football.

Some seek to create a larger entity from smaller components, such as the 1999 proposal to merge Bury, Oldham Athletic, and Rochdale as ‘Manchester North End’, potentially providing a counterweight to the city centre giants of United and City. At the time Bury and Oldham were mid-table in the third tier (what was then the Second Division, and is now League One!) and Rochdale were in the middle of the division below. Nowadays, Bury have gone bust and been reborn five divisions below the league, and both Rochdale and Oldham find themselves in the National League, one step below the Football League.

And finally, in 2009, a merger happened for perhaps a week. In 2008, Fortuna Sittard were struggling, and in danger of having their professional license revoked. The solution that was arrived at was a merger with Roda JC (the club mentioned at the start of the article) under the name Sporting Limberg. The merger was announced on 2nd April 2009, with government subsidies of €6.5 million over 4 years as part of the plan. Protests by fans of both clubs, as well as from other Limburg clubs (VVV-Venlo and MVV Masstricht), coupled with the rejection of the plan by the Provincial government due to one of the conditions not being met, led to the merger being cancelled a week after.

Entirely different sporting landscapes can be constructed around clubs merging or not merging, with new rivalries, champions and legacies all in scope. There are other ways that this can change, but those are topics for future articles.

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