Deep in the bowels of English football, York City are preparing to become the unfortunate answer to a pub quiz question: can you name one of the two men’s football clubs to finish top of their league but miss out on a league title because of the coronavirus pandemic?
York’s potential fate is the punchline to two decades of decline which has taken the club from beating Manchester City at home in the league, to a position where they’re about to miss out on on the National League North championship on a points-per-game basis to Kings Lynn Town. Lower divisions were annulled altogether, with the seasons deemed to have never existed in a rewriting of history that suggests Stalin could have had an alternate life as administrator of the Northern Premier League. But pending a decision on applying the points-per-game rule, which is being discussed on Thursday, York will join Crewe Alexandra as a club denied a league title because of the coronavirus coefficient.
Which, on the face of it, does not matter a bit to anyone other than the few thousand fans of a struggling former Football League club. There is still a good chance of the club being promoted. But as Sky, the government, and the Premier League proudly boast that football is back, back, back – and lower-league clubs dependent on income from unsocially distanced crowds whisper ‘no it’s not’ – what is the the post-pandemic future for clubs like York City?
This is a club that finished last season in 139th place in the football pyramid yet still maintains a full-time squad – giving York a good claim to be one of the lowest-ranked professional football teams in the world. Will this be sustainable in the future? And it poses deeper questions about the purpose of a club at this level – is it to produce a competitive team on the pitch, or to act as some sort of cultural civic glue for the local population?
This was supposed to be the club’s final season at Bootham Crescent, probably the only football ground in the country to have both been briefly named after a chocolate wafer and to have its executive boxes face over the car park rather the pitch. The ground is in such a state of neglect that it was recently decked in swastika drapes and used by Bollywood film makers as an authentic stand-in for a 1930s Nazi sports stadium – complete with soldiers in swastika armbands goose-stepping around the main stand with polystyrene cups of tea.
Now, with the fascists gone – and a functionally bland new out-of-town stadium almost complete – coronavirus may have stolen the chance for York’s fans to say goodbye to its city centre home of 88 years. Instead supporters have turned to retelling anecdotes from the past. There was the club’s ‘building for the future wall’ – buy a brick in the memory of your deceased relative – which began to collapse, with bricks left smashed on the ground. Or when manager Jackie McNamara sacked himself, only to be immediately appointed as caretaker boss while helping with the search for his successor. Sales of books commemorating the ground have boomed.
The football’s club’s decline has come as York has transformed itself from a mid-sized northern industrial city making Chocolate Oranges and railway carriages to a financially-booming educational and tourist centre stuffed with knock-off Harry Potter shops.
What is the role of a lower-league club in a city where increasing affluence – and a potential role as home of the House of Lords – comes with all the accompanying inequalities and housing shortages? Is it realistic for clubs at this levels to have budgets in the millions of pounds with only a few thousand people turning up to watch and no TV deal? And is it worth paying to maintain a youth set-up that produced Premier League players including Ben Godfrey, when dozens of clubs are going to be offloading talent on the cheap?
York’s staff and players have been furloughed, the whole business effectively put into cold storage. Many of the football contracts run out at the end of June and recruitment plans have gone out of the window. There’s no clear route back to matches this year. Even when football restarts – title or no title – it’s possible that it will be in a new stadium, with new players, and physically distanced fans.
Which leaves us with the supporters. One of the seats at Bootham Crescent was regularly taken up by John Sentamu, the recently departed Archbishop of York, who could be seen brandishing his spectacles at the referee, blessing the pitch, and mixing his administration of the Church of England with enthusiastic tweets on tactics.
“They know how to disappoint sometimes,” said the departing archbishop, describing his relationship with the football club in his final interview with the Yorkshire Post. He then confirmed his intention to renew his season ticket when the opportunity arises.