FORGET Fulham. The ultimate relegation escape story is at Altrincham. For the third successive season, Alty have managed to finished in the Conference drop zone – without being relegated. Even more weirdly, they seem to be quite upset about surviving.
The first escape, which came two years ago, remains the most spectacular, if only for the fact that it had more twists than the first Mission: Impossible film (the one where all the main characters keep peeling off masks to prove they are actually each other).
Alty actually survived in 2006, but then had 18 points deducted by the Conference when it was discovered that they had inadvertently fielded an ineligible player. However, six weeks later – in early June – Alty were reprieved when the Conference relegated Scarborough instead for breaching the league’s rules. (Amid all of this confusion, I think Tom Cruise may have peeled off a mask to reveal he was actually Jon Voight.)
Alty’s 2007 reprieve was equally convoluted. Needing to beat Aldershot on the final day to stay up, they only managed a 0-0 draw. Once again, they were saved in early June, this time by Boston United, relegated from League Two to the Conference North after going into administration.
How many relegation reprieves can a team get? The answer now, we discover, is three. This time, Alty looked as if they would stay up until a late charge to safety by Cheshire neighbours Northwich. Even so, they would have survived with a final-day win at Weymouth. They drew 2-2, and finished in the relegation zone. Enter Halifax, a club now on the brink of liquidation.
The Shaymen have been on a downward slide for the last six years. Having spent big when the Football League signed that infamous contract with ITV Digital, Halifax suffered relegation to the Conference in 2002, when the fallout from the collapse of that TV deal was at its worst.
Within weeks, Halifax went into administration, sacking all players and management staff. Several chairman tried – and failed – to get the club off its knees. Last Friday, the administrators failed to agree a rescue package with their creditors. Liquidation awaits.
As a result, Altrincham have been given yet another relegation reprieve. And yet they are not happy about it. As one of the few part-time clubs left in the Blue Square Premier, Alty are finding it increasingly difficult to compete.
“I’m not being negative, but a lot of people don’t realise just how immense the pressures are on a part-time club such as ourselves trying to stay afloat in the financially-demanding Blue Square Premier,” Altrincham chairman Geoff Goodwin told the Manchester Evening News.
“I won’t try to pretend I’m happy that we’re still in it, because I’m not, but I’m twice as unhappy for Halifax fans.
“It makes me feel sick that they’ve gone out of business.”
What’s most unsettling about all of this – and the reason that Altrincham keep on getting relegation reprieves – is that there now seems to be at least one Conference club staggering towards financial ruin every season. Telford, Scarborough and Boston have all trodden this path over the last three years.
While Telford paid the price for overspending in their bid to reach the Football League, Scarborough hit financial trouble after dropping out of it.
In those circumstances, it’s easy to understand why Altrincham might be a bit peeved at staying up. Goodwin knows just how difficult it is for a non-league club to sustain themselves above their natural level.
The irony is that Alty continue to be asked to do that because others cannot.