Grounds for optimism ... or the end of an era?

FORMER England international striker Les Ferdinand, who started in non-league football, once described Wisbech Town Football Club s Fenland Park as the most intimidating venue he had ever played at. But now the club, formed in 1920, is looking to secure i

FORMER England international striker Les Ferdinand, who started in non-league football, once described Wisbech Town Football Club's Fenland Park as the most intimidating venue he had ever played at.

But now the club, formed in 1920, is looking to secure its future by having its Lerowe Road stadium bulldozed - a stadium which attracted a record crowd of 8,044 in 1957 for a match with Peterborough.

To clear debts of about £300,000, the Wisbech board has agreed to sell the land to Purple Properties Ltd, which plans to build 83 houses on the stadium site.

Fenland District Council has approved the homes, but one main condition is the club's re-location - and that decision rests with neighbouring West Norfolk Borough Council.

The club is seeking to build a £1.2million stadium at a site off Lynn Road, on the Norfolk side of the Cambridgeshire/Norfolk border, but faces stiff opposition from nearby residents and planning officers.

A decision on the proposed stadium is expected next month, a decision delayed to enable officers and club officials to overcome a myriad of objections.

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The Wisbech Standard reported in August last year that records for the last financial year showed the club to be £293,142 in the red, with a loss of £81,929 during that financial year. A major contributing factor was a 200 per cent rise in players' wages.

Club historian Gordon Smith said: "A lot of people are very worried about the club's future and there is a real belief that the club may go into administration."

If this were to happen, an administrator would be brought into to assess the club's financial position.

There may then be a search for an investor or investors willing to take on the club's debts. If none could be found, the administrator would declare the club bankrupt and it would cease to exist.

The club's assets would be sold so attempts could be made to pay off the creditors.

Mr Smith said: "There is talk that the club may try to rent their ground out to other clubs if it fails to get planning permission for the move, but the debts are so high.

"They could end up playing in a park. If that happened they would certainly not be allowed to play in the Ridgeons League.

"It's a dreadful situation for a club with Wisbech's history to be in."

Wisbech manager Roy McManus, 56, who became involved with the club when he was a 10-year-old ballboy, said: "The financial situation is very bad and we need to move grounds as soon as possible to secure a stable future.

"I can't say that the club may fold if planning permission is turned down, but we will be in a very bad situation that desperately needs to be sorted out as soon as possible.

"There have been some wonderful times at Fenland Park, but the club has seen a steady decline over the last 15 to 20 years.

"It's been a simple case that, because of poor budgeting and various other reasons, more money has gone out than has come in. But there have been some good times along the way.

"We are just very lucky that the people on the board are so passionate about the club. If it hadn't been for the famous Fenmen fighting spirit displayed by them, then the club may have folded before now.

"It will be a very sad day to see the bulldozers start knocking down the stadium, but it seems that is what is needed to secure the club's future."

Wisbech Town supporter and programme and website editor Spencer Larham said: "Nobody wants to leave Fenland Park but the club needs to move to survive.

"I don't think that the crisis is as immediate that it will fold if this move doesn't go ahead. The club is moving in the right direction in terms that the money forked out on players has been cut dramatically."

Ten years ago, Wisbech enjoyed a lucrative FA Cup run, which saw them reach the competition's second round proper in which they were beaten 2-0 at home by Bristol Rovers.

Mr Larham said: "The wage bill was very high back then. The board was very ambitious and spent a lot of money.

"It appears that they budgeted for the following season with the expectation of having a similar Cup run but the FA changed the format and Wisbech were knocked out by Bedford in the first qualifying round. That set them well back at the time."

Wisbech appointed former Grimsby player Gary Childs as full-time manager in 1998.

Childs was paid a full-time wage and given a company car, but was sacked within a year because the club could no longer afford to pay him.

Mr Larham said: "It was quite bizarre at the time for a non-league club playing at that level to spend all of that money on a manager.

"That's just one example of how the club has tried to run before it could walk and now we're at the bottom end of the Ridgeons Premier Division and struggling to survive.

"I look at how well Histon are doing now. They are playing in the Blue Square Premier League with the likes of Cambridge United. Ten years ago, we were thrashing them.

"Histon is the perfect example of how a club should progress. They have a very good chairman with a background in business, who now works part-time so he can give a lot of time to the club.

"He has ensured that Histon have progressed effectively in a gradual way.

"People who oppose the new ground say the club is its own worst enemy and the problems are all because of its own making.

"But the fact is that nobody who is currently involved in running Wisbech Town Football Club has any responsibility for the financial situation it is now in. It is all because of mistakes in the past.

"I don't have any real problems with the people who ran things back then - they were just doing what they thought was best."

Wisbech Town chairman Barry Carter is confident that issues with West Norfok Council will be resolved and that plans for the new ground will be approved.