Whitby Town are facing one of the most crucial times in their history, writes Gazette sports editor Duncan Atkins.
The club has suffered a series of financial blows this season:
* first hurdle exits from the money-spinning FA Trophy and FA Cup
* disappointing crowds at recent home games
* losing a Saturday fixture against the best-supported side in the league, FC United of Manchester.
Chairman Graham Manser has already warned that if gates don’t significantly pick up, the club will have to seriously consider whether to carry on at their current level, or drop back down into the Northern League for the first time since the late 90s.
For me, this is a retrograde step.
When you look around the Turnbull, you see a ground which has been developed for the purposes of competing at a level above the EvoStik League, not below.
They ploughed half a million pounds into their smart main stand – but filling it is proving a problem. While gates alone won’t make the club fabulously wealthy, this season’s events have done nothing to help.
Look at Blyth Spartans, currently trailing Whitby in the league table, although having played several games less due to their FA Cup run.
They have reached the third round proper of the competition and landed an attractive tie against former Premier League opposition, Birmingham City.
The prize money alone from this season’s heroics will keep Spartans financially secure for years to come, and that is not taking into account a similar run in 2009.
Also, the extra gate receipts and possibility of TV revenue would help to swell the coffers further.
In contrast, Whitby were eliminated at the first stage of the FA Cup qualifiers, being ditched for the second year running by Northern League opposition, this time by Shildon, a side who, with all due respect, the Blues should be beating.
Fans could have forgiven that slip-up if they’d had more of a run in the FA Trophy, but that too resulted in the earliest possible exit, with the Blues crashing out to Ramsbottom, a side they defeated comfortably in the league less than a fortnight previously.
This week’s news that the Blues are now losing the Saturday slot for their home game against FC United is another crushing blow in a season where every penny counts.
FC United bring hundreds of supporters to some of their away games but their involvement in the FA Trophy has led to the fixture being postponed four days to Wednesday January 14.
That will mean fewer fans making the journey over the Pennines, and fewer Whitby fans turning up if the weather is bitter.
The last thing the Blues will want now is a severe winter which leads to more postponements which we know from experience is financially damaging.
No-one wants to see the club in crisis, so this is the time for anyone with any empathy for their hometown team to show some solidarity and turn out in numbers to cheer them on.
While it may be tempting to advocate Whitby dropping to the Northern League, that would not guarantee a challenge for the title as players could leave. After all, there are clubs at that standard who have money to poach the better players.
A good run over Christmas and New Year will see Whitby close the gap between mid-table and the play-offs and hopefully kick-start their campaign and give them much-needed confidence and momentum going into 2015.
The way to help is to turn out in force for the home games, starting tomorrow against Stourbridge and then against Blyth a week on Sunday.
Once that gate exceeds 300, Ivor Homer of main sponsor the Hart Inn will provide £5 for every subsequent person through the gates.
So a gate of 500, which is certainly attainable if the weather is sunny and dry, would mean Mr Homer parting company with £1,000, which, as mentioned by the chairman on this week’s back page, is a hugely generous gesture.
Christmas holiday fixtures are usually among the better attended ones, with Whitby exiles back in town, hopefully looking for something to do after overdosing on sprouts and turkey.
A surge up the league may well lead to better gates from now until the end of the season but it is now up to the people of Whitby to decide what they want.
It would be a crying shame if Whitby were to throw away 15 years of EvoStik League level football because crowds are insufficient.
It is a decision no-one realistically wants to make, so let’s hope that come April, a positive outcome is found.