Turn it on again

A MONTH after it happened, I still can’t decide whether Leigh RMI’s decision to rename themselves Leigh Genesis is a stroke of genius or . . . not.

I know what the default opinion is when a football club changes its name: To decry it as an affront to tradition, a sign that those who run clubs don’t give two hoots about the supporters. In most cases, that’s a fair argument.

But while it’s easy to get hot under the collar about Wimbledon moving 80 miles and morphing into MK Dons, the situation isn’t quite so clear cut in Leigh, for three reasons:

1) The tradition card isn’t all that strong. The club were only known as Leigh RMI for 13 years, having changed their name from Horwich RMI in the wake of their seven-mile move to Hilton Park.

2) Leigh weren’t going anywhere fast as RMI. With home crowds averaging 250, the club have dropped from the Conference National to the UniBond Premier in three years.

3) The fans actually seem to be quite supportive of the idea. With a new owner backing them, Genesis are attracting good-quality signings and will be the only full-time club in the UniBond Premier next season.

That owner is Dominic Speakman, a Leigh-born entrepreneur who has started cropping up in newspaper business supplements as a rising star.

Speakman, who is still only 32, has made his fortune as boss of the Bolton-based online company Destinology, which specialises in long-haul luxury holidays. His company turned over £20million last year, and that is expected to be well up in 2008.

Speakman wanted to rename the club in preparation for their move to the 12,000-capacity stadium at the new Leigh Sports Village in September, which they will share with rugby league side Leigh Centurions. (The two clubs are currently sharing Hilton Park, which holds around 10,000. Part of the reason for the new stadium’s large capacity was that it formed a cornerstone of Centurions’ ultimately unsuccessful bid for a Super League franchise.)

‘New ground, new start, new name’ seems to have been the philosophy. New colours, too: RMI’s red and white have been ditched (too many nearby teams in red – both in football and rugby league – was Speakman’s logic) and Genesis will play in white and black this coming season. They’ve got themselves a kit deal with Nike, which gives them something in common with Brazil (and Rochdale).

Speakman isn’t daft: he knew he would get some stick over the name change. In a recent interview which has been posted on YouTube, he spoke about “banter” from fans of rival clubs. The support from Leigh’s own fans, though, appears genuine, not a PR campaign.

And I can understand why some kind of change needed to be made. I’ve written for two local papers which follow Leigh, and the club have barely had two farthings to rub together over the last few years. When relegation from the Conference National came in 2005, it was almost a relief.

Former chairman Bill Taylor worked wonders to keep the club going through some very difficult financial times in the middle of the decade, but that could not go on forever.

While the move to the new stadium was in place before Speakman’s arrival, the new chairman has put the money in to help manager Steve Bleasdale sign players such as Chris Holland, who once played for Kevin Keegan at Newcastle.

Ah yes, Steve Bleasdale: not the type of man to go along with publicity stunts for the sake of it. Bleasdale was the man who quit as Peterborough manager an hour before a league game against Macclesfield two years ago in protest at “outside interference” in team issues. That interference was put down to the arrival of Ron Atkinson and a camera crew for a Sky One documentary series.

The manager is no ‘yes’ man, but is onme of the most highly-qualified coaches in non-league football, as he holds the UEFA Pro licence.

With Bleasdale’s experience and Speakman’s support, then, there seems plenty of reason for Leigh to be optimistic. They are, after all, the bookmakers’ favourites to win the UniBond Premier this season. And yet, and yet. . .

It’s probably best not to get too excited. There have been many tales of ambitious owners trying to take non-league clubs to the heights, only to fly too close to the sun.

Any non-league fan with a long memory will tell you about Colne Dynamoes, who rocketed up the divisions with chairman-manager Graham White’s financial backing, only to fold when the cash ran out. More recently, Hornchurch found huge player salaries too much to sustain when their backer pulled out. They folded and started again lower down the non-league pyramid.

There are more examples, should you care to find them. These stories seldom end well.

Of the non-league clubs to change their identity in search of success, only Rushden and Diamonds and (more recently) Dagenham and Redbridge have really made a success of it. And Rushden – who made it all the way to what is now League One – slid back out of the Football League pretty quickly once Dr Martens tycoon Max Griggs stopped bankrolling them. Short-term success is one thing; sustaining it quite another.

When he took over at Leigh in January, Speakman outlined the attraction of the club to him.

“I didn’t see the attraction of going to a bigger side,” he said. “I would rather start at a little team and work hard to turn them into a good outfit.”

It will take more than a name change and a bit of money to turn Leigh into a successful football club again, especially on the kind of crowds they have been getting.

But if all Leigh’s fans have to worry about over the next few years is a few weak puns about Phil Collins (such as the title of this blog entry), then Speakman will have done his job.

Leigh Genesis official website

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