By George Simms
In just two months in charge of Durham City AFC, Zenith Sports and Event Management have managed to alienate most of the former committee members, and a lot of the fans, that have kept the club afloat. They have overseen the club’s lowest-ever attendance at a home game and started an array of Twitter scraps with fans and concerned local figures with their bullish media style.
In their 1st February statement, Zenith outlined a 13-point plan for the running of the club. Their tangible aims are a return to New Ferens Park, re-establishment of an academy and the establishment of a training ground. The rest are vague management-speak. “Improving all things on the park” and “Defending the club from attacks and misinformation” are two of my personal favourites.
Zenith’s online communications have a characteristic bravado and ambiguity that you’d expect if you fed every episode of ‘The Apprentice’ into a supercomputer and asked it to run a football club. There is a lot of talk of what could be done, and very little about how it will be.
The only obvious change that Zenith have made is the signing of new players. One, Nicholas Ballard, is a former Zenith intern and son of one of Tanner’s family friends. I have nothing against other signings Mounir Bouisri, Gisel Gil and Calvin Payne, but they’re players who’ve been with the club before. As one fan put it to me, they’re the reserve team from last year. This is a step sideways at best.
For all Tanner’s claims, the club are still in dire need of voluntary support after the departure of the entire former committee. He assured me that all vacant positions had been filled, before offering me the Media Manager role at the club after a five-minute conversation. He’s taken on the role himself after my polite refusal. I remain unconvinced that everything at the club is, as he’s mentioned multiple times, “in great shape”.
Within the 1st February statement, new Club Secretary Lawrence Appleby, who has worked with Bernard previously, said “People who ask questions and seek the facts are the people we want to talk to”. They believe that former committee members and fans are running a “smear campaign” against the club.
Put bluntly, they’re not. They just care about the club. That’s why they’re involved in the first place. That’s why they’ve given up their time and effort to keep it afloat. That’s why they’ve travelled half an hour outside Durham every other week to watch their team get battered. Those were the people that really cared about the club, and now, thanks to Zenith, they’re gone. They weren’t taking money out of the club — they were having to put their own, hard-earned cash in to keep it going.
Football in England’s tenth tier thrives off community spirit and social atmosphere. If, by some miracle, Zenith keep Durham afloat for a sustained period of time, they will likely have stripped out everything that makes the club what it is. It takes very little to keep a club running at this level, but there’s got to be a reason to do it. With upwardly mobile local clubs like Durham Corinthians actually playing in Durham, at New Ferens Park, fans have the option to take their support elsewhere. If just a few more choose to do that, then that really will be the end. At this point, you really couldn’t blame them.
Since he took over in 2013, Olivier Bernard’s time at Durham City has been defined by poor management and apathy. The appointment of Zenith to turn around the club’s fortunes is no different. It will be easy to point fingers at Zenith’s running of the club, but it shouldn’t be forgotten how and why they’re involved in the first place. Zenith hide behind the claim that Bernard did his due diligence, but this clearly could not be further from the truth.
Fans would surely prefer the club to start again and keep some semblance of its identity, or drift off with dignity, than lose its history and reputation trying to keep a name alive. Humiliation and misfortune have become part and parcel of being a Durham City AFC fan in the last decade. But at least it was their humiliation and misfortune. At least it was still the fans’ club. For all the Apprentice supercomputer bravado, Zenith SEM’s social media battles and failure to appreciate the task at hand look set to strip out the weakly beating heart just keeping Durham City AFC from death’s door: the fans.
Durham recently picked up their second point of the season against Easington Colliery. It was played in front of just 27 home and away fans in Willington. If your team picks up a point but no one is there to see it, does it really count?
Zenith are both not the global powerhouse that they claim to be, yet also too global for the Citizens, by virtue of being on the other side of the world.
Rumours of the Citizens’ demise may have been exaggerated, but there really doesn’t appear to be a way out this time.
Image: Ken Fitzpatrick via Flickr