It was more than two decades ago that I saw York City play out a 2-2 draw with Stockport in what would now be League One. So going back to Bootham Crescent earlier this season was a mixture of nostalgia and shock at seeing the same fixture in National League North.
On the face of it, not much had changed. York had adopted a new logo – lions flanking Bootham Bar were out, the lions of the city’s crest were in – but beyond that there was little more than a lick of paint to suggest the old ground had been upgraded. The little hut where you handed over your quid to transfer to the Pop Stand seats, the grumpy old men of the Shippo end, the open away terrace and the inevitable rain showers … all present and correct. The toilets were as basic as ever, too.
Even the crowds were comparable. In 1995, this fixture came shortly after York had humbled Manchester United in the League Cup; this season, the Minstermen would face FC United of Manchester instead. But there were still close to 4,000 paying customers for a clash of two fallen Football League teams now battling to climb out of English football’s sixth tier. It was enough to generate an atmosphere, and to test the segregation immediately outside the away end as few visitors took the opportunity to salvage some pride with a taunt or two directed at the departing York fans.
As for the football, that too wasn’t enormously difficult. True, there wasn’t a player of the calibre of Paul Barnes or Jon McCarthy on display, but the game produced a fine long-range goal from York’s Amari Morgan-Smith and plenty of decent action at both ends.
The difference, in the end, comes down to loss of status. County, where memories of league victories over Manchester City and finishes in the top half of the Championship are still fresh, admit to a measure of embarrassment at how far and fast their club has fallen. There are signs of greater stability off the field, but on the pitch the Hatters are finding this a tough league to get out of.
Pete Towey, of the County Supporters Co-op, admitted to a mixture of shame and embarrassment among fans who now find their team in the sixth tier after the ‘wonderful years’ at the turn of the century. He blames naivety when the supporters trust took over the club for pushing the team into receivership, from which it hasn’t really recovered.
“Receivership proved to be a disaster,” he recalled. “The receivers sold the best players, sacked [manager] Jim Gannon and we’ve been in the crap ever since. People have come in with lots of promises and never delivered while the club built up huge debts. Now we seem to be stabilizing a bit. The debt is going down, last year we even made a profit. It’s a very small one, but it’s like turning an oil tanker around.”
Gannon is back at the helm, and there’s still optimism despite the team battling through its fifth season at this level. “Our hardcore fans haven’t lost their enthusiasm, they’re still there,” Towey added. “Gannon’s teams always tended to get better as the season went on, so by Christmas hopefully we’ll be in a position to push for promotion.”
York fans, meanwhile, are angry. Suspicious of the club chairman, sceptical about a long-awaited new stadium and frustrated by a lack of transparency, they are left pondering how a team that went close to promotion to League One can find itself, three seasons later, at the lowest point in its modern history.
Simon Pattinson and Alan Brown, the voices behind the Shooting Towards the Shippo podcast, were inspired to take to the airwaves due to the lack of communication between club and fans. “Nobody has been asking the difficult questions,” Pattinson said after the Stockport game. “Not the press, not the supporters trust. I think that’s maybe why we’ve had a bit of attention for our podcast.”
But while the club’s off-field issues are a concern, Brown takes the view that the real problem remains with what’s happening to the team. “This may be contrary to popular belief, but it’s pretty much the football decisions that have got us here. It’s like any business, if you hire rubbish employees and don’t sort it out, you get on a downward spiral. For the last two years, our recruitment has been woefully sub-standard. The problem from the boardroom is those bad footballing decisions. Three years ago we had a 23-game unbeaten run; since then it’s gone to the opposite extreme.”
Both fans are convinced that the club deserves better. “It might sound arrogant, but there’s no way we should be as far down as this. Not with this fan-base, with the set-up we have here,” Pattinson added. For Brown, the bugbear is defeats against one-time minnows who are now league rivals. “It feels like a new low every couple of months,” he said. “Last season we got hammered 6-1 at Guiseley and I think that was my worst night in football. But overall, I’m not hating [non-league football] as much as I thought.”
Sep. 9, 2017
Bootham Crescent, York, England
National League North
York City 2 (Heslop, Morgan-Smith) Stockport County 0
At the time of writing, York are sixth in National League North following the departure of Gary Mills and the arrival of new boss Martin Gray from Darlington. That would secure a playoff place but there’s an 18-point gap to top-of-the-table Salford, who look nailed on for automatic promotion. Stockport are 11th, but just three points behind City.