Yeovil At The Junction: The Hard Way To The Big Time In English Soccer

How does a small-time team from a small town make it onto the doorstep of the Premier League? By thinking big, for starters.
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On May 19, 2012, Yeovil Town played Brentford at Wembley Stadium in the League One playoff final. The winner of this one-game playoff would secure the final promotion to the Sky Bet Championship, England’s second highest professional football league. There they would compete to secure promotion to the Barclays Premier League.

Before the game, the Brentford stands remained quiet as supporters trickled in, despite the fact that this game, only seven miles from Brentford’s stadium, was practically a home game for their side. Across the pitch, Yeovil fans arrived in mass via a caravan of buses from their home town, about 150 miles to the southwest. Song sheets were distributed to the Yeovil supporters and as the players warmed up, Yeovil songs rained down on the players. Brentford’s ostensible home field advantage had been turned upside down.

The pre-game singing would continue into the match, and then raise a decibel or two more when Paddy Madden put Yeovil ahead with a goal in the sixth minute. A few minutes prior to half, a Dan Burns’ header off of a corner kick staked Yeovil to a 2-0 halftime lead.

Brentford countered after the break, drawing it to 2-1 after only five minutes. Yeovil held on for the remainder of the game, though, and when the final whistle blew, they had scaled unprecedented heights. Only ten years after entering the very bottom of League football, Yeovil was now one step removed from the Premier League.

There always comes a moment after an achievement has been reached. After the cheers and tears; after the celebratory toasts and hugs, we stop looking back on what has been done and, some part of the mind not content to sip champagne and watch confetti dance in the sky, once again look forward.

This is what I imagine, here. After the parade was complete and the confetti had been cleared from the streets of Yeovil, I envision the club principles gathering in a small meeting room. They look at each other and say, not unhappily, “okay, now what?”

***

For a club that was founded in 1895, the story of the Yeovil Town Football Club (nickname: The Glovers) doesn’t really begin until after the dawn of this millennium. After 108 years of existence, the club first qualified for League football in 2003.

League football comprises the four highest levels of English football; League Two (equivalent in ways to Single-A baseball), League One (Double-A), The Championship (Triple-A) and the Premier League (the big leagues). The biggest difference between the American baseball system and English soccer is the ability to be promoted and relegated based on performance. In a similar system, the Durham Bulls would today be celebrating a Triple-A Division championship and prepping for a season in the National League, where they would be supplanting the now-Triple-A Houston Astros.

Yeovil’s rise through league football has been quick and unexpected. After only two years, the Glovers won League Two and were promoted to League One. In 2007, Yeovil made the playoffs at Wembley but lost to Blackpool, which denied them promotion to the Championship.

In 2012, they returned to Wembley for their second chance to clinch promotion. As Club Secretary Jean Cotton says now, “The first year we went in the playoffs, it was more like a day out. We didn’t expect to be there. Everybody enjoyed the day, and we weren’t that disappointed we lost. This time was all business.”

That business trip was a success, but rather than earning the club a holiday, it doubled the challenge they face on a weekly basis.

***

Yeovil sits two hours by train to the southwest of London. After passing through London’s endless suburbs, the train rolls through expansive green fields, bordered by rolling hills browned by cold winter air.  The hills continue as the train pulls into the Yeovil Junction train station. A short cab ride to the city center is along small two (or one) lane roads, and passes deep valleys and a grand estate that appears fit to host a spinoff of Downton Abbey. The tiny Yeovil city center consists of winding streets filled with cafes and shops, and is presided over by a 14th century cathedral. It is just what the mind sees when reading an Agatha Christie novel.

My friend John was working in London at the time of last spring’s playoffs and decided to attend the game. The day before the game, the two of us researched which side he should cheer for. In my cursory research, I learned Yeovil had a song written about them in 2004 that cracked the UK top 40 charts. I found the list of pubs that the club advised fans to visit prior to the game, after consulting the local Wembley police. They seemed to be Hickory High on the football pitch.  John ended up sitting on the Yeovil supporters’ side of the stadium; the singing and joy of the small team that was never supposed to get this far easily swayed him as well. He brought me home stories of the proud fans and a scarf commemorating the day.

That day still holds such sway over the club that six months later, Cotton, a small woman who looks more like a librarian than one of the key leaders of a football club, seems misty-eyed even discussing it. Cotton has worked for the club for 22 years. Prior to that, she initially moved to Yeovil when her husband joined the team as a player. She has spent her entire time in town in some way associated with the club, so this isn’t just a job for her; it ‘s her family. Visiting the trophy won that day, the expression on her face mirrors that of a grandmother watching over a newborn grandchild lying in a crib.

I was not there for that moment of creation, though. So, over the months since, I had a different thought in mind. Namely, what comes next? And how could Yeovil, a team that as recently as the night of Y2K was playing non-league football, compete in The Championship?

***

The Championship represents an entirely different game than the one Yeovil has played over the last decade, both on the pitch and in the board room.

On the pitch, as Yeovil Manager Gary Johnson describes the play’ “The Championship is about power, pace and penetration… that’s the big difference between the two leagues. Everything is a lot quicker and more powerful and cleverer. “

Success against a Championship squad requires Championship level players, which requires Championship level money. But that is only half the challenge. Being one step removed from the Premier League, teams can see the hazy outline of the Promised Land in the distance. To reach that house on the hill, it isn’t Championship level players that most teams seek; they want Premiership caliber players good enough to drive their own promotion.

That promotion has typically been sought by Championship clubs using one proven method: take on debt, buy good players and gamble that those players will fuel a rise to the Premiership, where the massive payday can then in turn be used to pay off that debt. With the value of promotion recently estimated at 90 million pounds by the accounting firm Deloitte, it can be a gamble well worth taking.

Financials in the world of English football can be murky, as nearly all teams are privately owned and so have little incentive to crack the books for the world to see. But the glimpses seen over time paint a picture of the oceans of money that separate the have from the have-nots.

In the 2009-2010 season, the Daily Mail reported that the average salary in the Premier League was over 22,000 pounds per week. At The Championship level, that average salary drops to 4,000 pounds per week. League One salaries average 1,400 pounds per week, roughly six percent of the average Premier League salary.

It is these astronomical salaries that lead Championship level teams to take on debt in pursuit of promotion to the Premiership. A study of the 2010-2011 Championship season calculated four separate teams with wages for team and staff higher than their annual revenue, digging a hole of debt to be paid in the future. For one of those teams (Queens Park Rangers) the gamble paid off when they won the league and qualified for the Premiership. Two others (Bristol City and Sheffield United) did not gain promotion and have since been relegated back to League One.  Bristol City publicly acknowledged their failed gamble in November 2011 when they announced a loss of 11.45 million pounds for the year.

Yeovil comes to The Championship with the smallest budget in the league. Yeovil’s annual team and staff budget sits around 4 million pounds per year, with half that earmarked for players. The general belief within the club is that their closest rivals from a budgetary standpoint are more in the 9-10 million pound range for players. The Glovers’ budget is constrained by both a core principle of not taking on debt and the smallest revenue base in the league. Yeovil’s home, Huish Park, can fit just 9,600 fans. The next smallest park in The Championship seats 12,000, and every other park has a capacity of more than 15,000.

“We’ve had 3 teams play against us where one player was on more money than the whole of our squad and staff put together, per-week,” Yeovil Manager Gary Johnson says, succinctly summarizing the challenges the team faces.

To further divide the league, the three teams relegated from the Premier League last year (Queens Park Rangers being one), receive payments to help offset lost television revenue. In the shadow of a lucrative television deal for the Premier League, that payment totals 59 million pounds over four years, the first year being 23 million. All the other Championship clubs receive 2 million pounds per year from the Premier League TV deal and another 2 million from The Championship’s own TV contract.

So. The smallest revenue base. Competitors receiving large television balloon payments. A core club value centered around not taking on debt. Yeovil could be described as David taking on Goliath, but this is not quite right. It is much more difficult to use a slingshot with one arm tied behind your back.

***

Huish Park sits outside of the Yeovil city center, a ten minute drive past a shopping complex and a string of car dealerships. It is in the suburbs, or what passes for the suburbs of a 40,000 person town in Somerset, England.

Optimism among English football fans seems to be as common as a bright winter sun -- that is, it’s more often than not hidden by hulking clouds of doubt and skepticism -- so, it was appropriate that the sun shone bright on a Friday afternoon in early December when I arrived at Huish Park. Coming off two straight victories, confidence is growing among the Yeovil staff that the team is starting to find its way.

Pulling into the drive at Huish Park, you are greeted by a long white and green building with a fence topped by razor wire at each end. Strung along the side of the building are more large photos taken last May at Wembley. The actual pitch and stands are completely obscured from view; overall, the impression is of visiting a slightly dated office building rather than the home of a football team.

Gary Johnson is a short, thick man with the stern face of someone much less accommodating than he truly is. The team’s manager, he is the only one with the club that brings previous experience at The Championship level. He is in his second stint managing in Yeovil, having led the team’s initial meteoric rise through the leagues from 2001-05. In between now and then he also managed Bristol City into The Championship and then nearly to the Premier League, losing a playoff to Hull City in 2008. He left Bristol in 2010 before the financial problems and returned to Yeovil in 2012. He better than anyone understands the challenges facing the team after its historic win at Wembley.

Johnson has already become a legend around Huish Park (“He is our Sir Alex Ferguson” is said about him by a fellow staffer, referring to the legendary Manchester United Manager) but he knows he can’t do it alone. “They can’t keep relying on little old me.” He says. “You can’t keep pulling rabbits out of hats.”

With success on the pitch outpacing financial success off of it, it would be easy to expect some level of animosity between the football side and business sides of the house, but that isn’t the case at Yeovil. After CEO Martyn Starnes resigned over the summer to take the same role at Plymouth Argyle, Chairman John Fry took back the title he held previously and created a de facto management committee with Johnson and Cotton rather than bringing in a new CEO. All have been with the club for years, so a level of trust has been built up. “We always said it might change because it is a good family club. I don’t think we’ve changed,” says Cotton, “I suppose where we are lucky is the Chairman hasn’t changed. He has always been there. So, maybe that has helped as well. Keep the family sort of idea.”

The temptation for a manager to spend beyond a team’s means has sunk other Championship squads, but the long-standing relationships and mutual trust precludes that here. As Cotton says of Johnson, “He knows what the budget is. He knows what is expected and we trust him to do that… They aren’t going to ruin the club by over-spending. It can spiral out of control very easy.”

Neither can the team wholly rely on the players that secured promotion unexpectedly last season. As if to underscore the difference between League One and The Championship, the top scorer in all of League One last year and scorer of the opening goal at Wembley last May, Paddy Madden, had been placed on a transfer list in late November and is no longer even on the bench for the Glovers.

With budgetary constraints, the team needs to be built through a mix of growth from current players and players brought in on loan. “[The young players] need to progress to help us progress because we aren’t going out to buy a Wayne Rooney to help us. We got to create our own Wayne Rooney if we can.”

“We’ve got to rely on the loan system,” continues Johnson, “because that is the only way of putting a team together that we can afford at this level.”

In Cotton’s overflowing office, there hangs a whiteboard detailing all the players that have come and gone through loans already in a season less than five months old. At least fifteen sets of initials dot the list along with a complicated code detailing where they came from, when and whether they still remain.

Loaning players is common throughout English football with wealthy teams loaning players -- especially young players -- to get experience and playing time, when they may be trapped behind more experienced or better players with their home clubs. A Premier League team may prize the potential of a youngster, but with no place to put them on the active roster, a loan to a fellow Premier League or Championship level squad can gain him valuable experience while allowing the home squad to maintain ownership of his rights. For a team like Yeovil, this is their only hope of maintaining competitiveness without blowing their budget. The club loaning the player is often as eager as Yeovil to get the player on the pitch, so a more reasonable salary can often be negotiated.

Whereas big clubs can afford to loan players out and hope they improve enough to return to the squad and contribute, clubs like Yeovil have the unenviable task of both teaching players for the benefit of another club and winning games. “The big clubs aren’t teaching anymore,” Johnson says. “They got players that know the game; they understand it, whereas we have to still teach.”

But a sparkling pedigree doesn’t guarantee a young player will fit in Yeovil. When a player has been anointed at a young age by one of the biggest clubs in the world, they may not see the value of working hard for a small team in southwestern England. As Johnson says, “Some players like being footballers more than playing football… You can’t come here and graze.”

“It’s a personality you have to find out. Sometimes you can’t know about the loan’s personality until they are in. Some are conducive to what you are trying to do and some aren’t… You know straight away the ones that aren’t going to handle the pressure they’re going to be under from us to perform and show that desire; commitment for the club. ”

“People don’t expect us to be in this division,” Johnson says. “They don’t expect us to win football matches at this level… The word we describe ourselves as is ‘relentless.’” He slides a photo across the table. In it, a small kitten gazes into a mirror. Looking back out of the mirror is a lion.

“Everybody says ‘little old Yeovil,’ adds Cotton, “I don’t think we’re little. Personally, I think we are a big club in a small town.”

***

Saturday afternoon, I return to Huish Park for the Glovers game against Charlton Athletic. Charlton sits one spot ahead of Yeovil in The Championship table, and more importantly one spot removed from the relegation zone. A win for Yeovil would flip those spots and bring Yeovil’s goal of another season in The Championship one step closer.

On a cool day, clusters of Yeovil supporters gather outside the main gates in their green and white scarves and jerseys, buying programs, entering the halftime lottery or shopping for merchandise in the tiny one-room club store.

Once inside, the Charlton supporters in their team reds are cordoned off into the open stands behind the northern goal. The only open terrace in The Championship, Charlton supporters will stand or lean on a wooden railing all game; there are no seats and no roof to protect them from weather. It is a throwback to a simpler, smaller game and Cotton says it has been a draw for away supporters to come and experience, helping increase average attendance for the Glovers from a little more than 4,000 last year to over 7,000 this season.

While visitors have helped increase the club revenues, it is in the open field that sits behind the Supporter’s Terrace where the real hope for long term increased revenue resides. The club has put forth a proposal to the city council to build out a large shopping complex with the goal of rent fees helping to supplement the team’s game day revenues. It is this plan that the club sees as their opportunity to gain equal financial footing with the teams they play. The city council has been slow unto lethargy in taking up and approving the proposal.

The city council is not the only issue. With the home team riding a two game win streak and facing an important game against an opponent they can leap in the table, the home side draws only 6,053 fans. Charlton has brought 836 from their home in southern London, filling only maybe half of the visitor’s terrace. In my informal poll of the local pubs the previous evening, only one person I met was planning to attend today’s game -- a scout for Derby County in town to watch Charlton.

But it’s different on the pitch, where the player strategy articulated by Gary Johnson is on full display. Included in Yeovil’s starting eleven are Adam Morgan, on loan from Liverpool, as well as Shane Duffy and John Lundstram, both from Everton, three youngsters gaining valuable playing time not available as their parent clubs aim to finish in the top four of the Premier League.

Ishmael Miller, on loan from Nottingham Forest, is in his third game with the team. Miller, whose big, strong physique reminds the one American in the building of Jozy Altidore, is the only member of the team with previous experience playing in The Championship.

Through the first half, neither team finds the net as clouds slowly darken the late afternoon. In the 37th minute, Charlton’s Cameron Stewart -- himself on loan from Hull City, and a former Glover, having spent part of the 2010 season in Yeovil on loan -- blasts a shot from outside the penalty box that curls past the outstretched keeper’s hand.

Seven minutes later, Charlton’s Johnnie Jackson heads another ball past the Yeovil keeper and Charlton takes a 2-0 lead into half.

The home crowd is quiet and frustrated at the start of the second half; a heavy, cold mist begins to fall. The Charlton fans on the open terrace may be enjoying a lead, but it’s easy to imagine how the last open terrace in the Championship might begin to lose some of its romance in this weather.

As the clock creeps past the 70th minute with no change in score, it seems that the Yeovil faithful are resigned to a squandered opportunity. However in the 72nd minute, a crossing pass deflects off Charlton defender Michael Morrison into the Charlton net for an own-goal. Less than two minutes later, Yeovil’s Joel Grant is taken down in the box, a penalty is awarded and Ishmael Miller calmly slots his penalty kick past the keeper, tying the game at two goals apiece with nearly twenty minutes left to play.

***

Four days before arriving in Yeovil, I attended the Arsenal/Hull City Premier League game. The Emirates is a gleaming 60,000 seat stadium in North London opened in 2006; it’s named after a Middle Eastern airline whose sponsorship is ubiquitous throughout major global football.

All around the stadium are mementos to Arsenal’s past. There are homages to some of the best players ever to wear the team’s uniform, legends such as Theirry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. There are also illustrated highlights of a club that has played at the highest level of English football continuously since 1919, the longest stretch in the country.

As the clock drew short in a comfortable 2-0 win, the home Gunners fans with one voice reminded the world who currently leads the Premier League standings.

“We. Are. Top of the League. We are top of the league” echoed through the cool London evening.

The following Saturday in Yeovil, late in the second half, after tying the game and seeing a Charlton player red carded and sent off, the Yeovil fans started their own chant set to the same rhythm defining their slightly more modest goals.

“We. Are. Staying Up. We are staying Up.” The gray mists cleared and an orange sunset peeked through the clouds to the west.

Top image via WikiMedia Commons/Scottypollard; other photos by David McIntire.


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