Sports

When Two Remain Two: A Potted History of Failed Soccer Club Mergers

Plans to merge two football clubs are rarely popular and tend to founder, often in the face of overwhelming fan opposition. Here, we revisit some of the grand alliances that never came to pass.

by Jim Weeks
Apr 6 2017, 2:00pm

PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Merging football clubs is rarely a popular idea. That is certainly the case in the modern era, with strong local ties meaning that uniting two teams into one would almost certainly render them considerably less than the sum of their parts. It was often unpopular in football's early years, too, leading local communities to band together to ensure that their club wasn't absorbed by another, often larger, rival.

Not all mergers come off, of course. When money is the motivation, it often becomes clear that the plan will not, in fact, pay dividends. There are practical issues, particularly when attempting to merge teams that play in different divisions. And sometimes the power of two groups of supporters can be enough to prevent an unpopular merger from taking place.

Indeed, over the past century there have been dozens of proposed mergers that failed for these and other reasons. Some were mere boardroom chatter that found its way into the public domain, while others were awaiting Football League approval when they were scuppered. An example that falls squarely into the former category came in 1964, when it was suggested that a pair of local rivals join forces to become a single club. They were the brothers Manchester, United and City.

Today the idea seems inconceivable, the kind of thing that could end in an actual bloodbath, or at the very least some seriously unsavoury conversations on talkSPORT. But football in the years that followed World War II was not quite as tribal as it is in 2017, which was perhaps a result of Britain having experienced two global conflicts but not yet a single Thatcher government. Naturally, there is a fair amount of selective memory when it comes to this period, but it is a fact that young fans in Manchester would often attend City games one week and United the next, a practice now achievable only for the children of oligarchs.

The rivalry between the two Manchester sides is especially fierce these days, particularly since City's Abu Dhabi windfall allowed them to compete on the same footing as United. In the modern day, the idea that they might merge runs counter to pretty much everything we know about the pair.

But in his book Manchester – The City Years, football historian Gary James suggested that a plan was once floated to do exactly that. James spoke with Eric Alexander, whose father Albert was on the City board during the sixties. He explained that City chairman Frank Johnson brought up the idea of merging the two sides at a particularly low ebb for his team. "In terms of league position, it wasn't as bad as 1998/99 [when City played in the third tier]," said James, "but in terms of general morale, atmosphere and support it was by far the lowest point in the club's history.

"In 1964/65 [City] were in the second division, support had dropped to a low of less than 15,000, and general interest in the club had also dropped."

It sounds like a case of 'if you can't beat them, join them' from Johnson, given that United went on to win the title that season while City were 11th in Division 2. Unsurprisingly, it was not to be. "The idea was killed by both clubs before it ever became public," James explained.

George Best playing for United against City in 1967 // PA Images

Combining United and City would have created a sporting goliath, but not all mergers involve such big hitters. In January 1999 it was reported that Bury and Oldham Athletic were in discussions about a formal alliance; what's more, they were preparing to speak with Rochdale about making it a threesome.

There was method to this madness. All three sides play within 10 miles of each other in the Greater Manchester area. Given the presence of two super-clubs just up the road, the smaller teams compete for a relatively small slice of the pie. The Oldham chairman Ian Stott, who hatched the plan, saw a merger as the only way for all three to survive; reports at the time suggested that the newly formed club would be called Manchester North End.

"Obviously there would be some horrendous problems to overcome if the merger goes ahead," Stott told the press. "There will be hardcore fans from all three clubs who would be violently opposed to the idea."

Despite openly acknowledging the possibility of insurrection, Stott pressed ahead with his proposal. The plan was not helped by a Football League rule stating that the new club formed from the merger would have to take its place in the division of the lowest-placed constituent. At the time Bury played in the second tier, Oldham in the third and Rochdale in the fourth. There was thus very little incentive for the Shakers to hook up with their local rivals, as it would mean an immediate two-tier drop.

Ultimately, this complex plan did not come to fruition. In a sense Stott was proven wrong, as we are now almost two decades down the road and all three clubs remain in business. None have thrived, however, with all playing in the third tier at time of publication. Could Manchester North End have gone on to greater things, perhaps meeting Manchester Unity in the Premier League? Alas, we will never know. An interesting side note is that, in 2013, Stott joined the board of directors at Rochdale, six months after departing Oldham; not so much a threesome as a bit of partner swapping.

Remaining in the north of England but travelling back almost a century, we find Leeds United and Huddersfield Town stood on the brink of merger.

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In November 1919 it was revealed that Huddersfield were experiencing financial difficulties, with a local newspaper declaring: "The Huddersfield Town Association Football Club, so far as this town is concerned, is to all intents and purposes extinct."

The main problem was at the turnstiles. When football resumed after the war Huddersfield struggled to attract fans, while the local rugby club was drawing good crowds and making a profit. Town's benefactor and chairman, J. Hilton Crowther, believed that the football side should emulate the rugby outfit and become self-sufficient. That did not seem likely in Huddersfield, however.

Enter Leeds United, who had come into being following Leeds City's dissolution for financial irregularities during the war years. Football had proved immensely popular in the area and little time was wasted in finding a new team. Crowther had kept a watching brief of developments and was suitably impressed, to the extent that he unilaterally suggested that his club should amalgamate with the new Leeds side.

At a meeting in Leeds during December 1919, Crowther's plan was supported by United committee member Mark Barker, and the principle resolution to merge the two sides carried unanimously. The team would play at Elland Road, with Huddersfield's players transferred across. All that was left was to receive approval from the Football League, which was considered to be a formality.

But the people of Huddersfield, suddenly threatened with losing a team they hadn't really been watching, objected. Around 3,000 supporters attended the ground for a public meeting to protest the merger, which was 500 more than had attended when their team dispatched Fulham 3-0 in a Division 2 match the previous month.

Ultimately, Huddersfield were given one month to raise a large sum of money owed to Crowther. If they could do so, he would leave the club; if they did not, Huddersfield Town would move to Elland Road and become part of a new Leeds United.

The supporters embarked on a fundraising driving, during which attendances soared at their stadium – the appropriately named Leeds Road. They were eventually able to complete the agreement to keep their club independent, and Leeds United forged ahead alone.

Huddersfield's change in fortunes thereafter was dramatic: after appointing former Leeds City boss Herbert Chapman in 1921, they went on to win the top flight three times on the bounce between 1924 and 1926, proving that the town did want a football team – they just needed some encouragement.

Having remained separate from Leeds, Huddersfield became the greatest force in English football // PA Images

While they have become a Premier League mainstay in recent years, Stoke City spent the nineties and much of the early 2000s toiling in relative obscurity. Nevertheless, they retained the distinction of being the biggest side in Stoke-on-Trent, with local rivals Port Vale struggling to remain afloat. In 2003, this could have led to the pair joining forces.

With Vale in dire financial straits, the then-owners of Stoke bid for the embattled club, with Stoke chairman Gunnar Gislason suggesting that a future merger made "financial sense".

Vale fans feared that merger really meant acquisition. It was believed that Stoke would sell off Vale Park and use the money to aid the Potters' cause, while also ensuring a monopoly in the area. At the time, Stoke-on-Trent was the smallest town in England with two Football League clubs. A Port Vale Supporters' Trust representative called it "a calculated plan to create one club in the city and put Port Vale out of business."

Ultimately the plan did not come to fruition – and it was not the first time. In 1926, Vale's directors had agreed in principle to merge with Stoke as a remedy for their financial woes. The fans protested and even threatened to set up a phoenix club, only for Stoke to pull out of the plan after being relegated from Division 2. At this rate of frequency, the next proposed merger of Stoke City and Port Vale should occur during the 2080/81 season.

Now to matters of a murkier nature. The late Robert Maxwell is often styled as a "press baron" or "media mogul", though the employees whose pension funds he plundered to shore up his companies would probably choose other, shorter words for their former boss.

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As well as being a "rotund idiot" (The Guardian), Maxwell was also a man with a keen interest in merging football clubs. He became the owner and chairman of Oxford United in 1982, and soon after acquired a 19 per cent share in local rivals Reading. Maxwell was looking to build a new stadium for Oxford, though finding a suitable location proved difficult.

Then, in April 1983, with both sides playing in the third division, Maxwell announced that he was close to acquiring a controlling interest in Reading and intended to merge the Royals with Oxford.

"If we in Thames Valley are to retain a league club we've got to unite Reading and Oxford," Maxwell boomed. "Everything in the world that cannot pay its way must go the way of merger to combine into stronger units." This did not extend to the managers, however, as Maxwell planned to retain Oxford's Jim Smith as boss, rather than forcibly merging him into a stronger unit with Reading's Maurice Evans.

If Maxwell had his way, the two clubs would conclude the 1982/83 campaign as separate entities but begin the following season as Thames Valley Royals. A new stadium would be built between the two towns, with Oxford's Manor Ground and Reading's Elm Park used alternately in the interim.

Followers of both clubs were outraged. Oxford fans thought it "crazy and unworkable," while the chairman of the Reading Supporters Club said: "Our fans can't stand Oxford fans and I can't see them travelling to Oxford to watch the new team". The local press in both towns also campaigned against the merger.

Nevertheless, Oxford's board unanimously supported Maxwell's proposal, while the Football League called the plan "bold and imaginative".

Oxford and Reading supporters embarked on a series of demonstrations against Maxwell's proposed merger. At Oxford's next home match he was booed and even spat at, though this did nothing to put him off.

Maxwell (r) and Reading chairman Frank Waller toast their doomed merger // PA Images

But, with the merger on the verge of completion, a High Court injunction temporarily blocked the sale of crucial Reading stock that Maxwell required. On 2 May the teams played each other at Manor Road, a game that witnessed considerable protest. A further High Court injunction followed and Maxwell's cohorts at Reading subsequently resigned from the club. In a vote to decide between Maxwell's takeover bid and a rival offer that would keep the club independent, the latter triumphed – though only just.

Maxwell dropped his proposal, but retained his 19% stake in Reading. Though they loathed his planned merger, Oxford fans enjoyed halcyon days under Maxwell, including promotion to the top tier for the 1985/86 campaign and a League Cup win in 1986. He bought Derby County in 1987, stepping down as Oxford chairman and moving his son into the role. He retained ownership of the club until 1991 when he was found drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, presumed to have fallen from his yacht.

Divided though this country is, we can surely agree that little good comes from property developers acquiring football clubs. Their interests – clearing the ground for building and then maximising profit – are rather at odds with those of the club, who generally wish to remain in situ. This certainly proved to be the case in the mid eighties when two West London sides were acquired by a developer, who then attempted to force a merger. The clubs in question were Fulham and Queens Park Rangers; the developers were Marler Estates, headed by their chairman David Bulstrode.

By 1987 Marler controlled both clubs, but they were particularly interested in Craven Cottage. The Archibald Leitch-designed ground is one of the oldest and most attractive in London, with its red brick facade and a spot on the banks of the Thames. But its location is a double-edged sword. Many developers see the Cottage as a prime site for luxury housing, needlessly wasted on a football ground. Bulstrode was among them.

Having added QPR to their portfolio via Jim Gregory – a "pugnacious, semi-literate, self-made wheelerdealer" (The Evening Standard) – Bulstrode hatched a plan. Fulham would be removed from the stadium they had occupied since 1896 and merged with local rivals QPR. The new team would, rather unimaginatively, be named Fulham Park Rangers. Loftus Road would be their home ground and the Cottage could be turned into housing.

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Of course, the plans went down badly with both sets of fans. Among them was Jimmy Hill, then a significant football media figure and also a veteran of almost 300 games for the Cottagers. Hill was able to raise enough backing to buy back the club from Marler, but not the ground.

At a subsequent meeting of the Football League management committee, it was decided that the merger should be opposed. In March 1987, Bulstrode scrapped his plans. He remained committed to re-developing the ground, but died from a heart attack 18 months later ("in the arms of his blonde mistress", according red-top reports). He is remembered more fondly by QPR fans than Fulham supporters, though it is fair to assume that neither side would have forgiven him had the merger plans come to fruition.

This was not QPR's first flirtation with a merger, however. 20 years earlier, in 1967, there had been a proposed union with Brentford, while in 2001 it was suggested that they could link up with Wimbledon.

What eventually came to pass for the Dons was, of course, an even worse fate: relocation to Milton Keynes in 2003. This move has its roots way back in 1979, when Wimbledon's then-owner Ron Noades purchased Milton Keynes City FC for £1 and installed a group of Dons directors to similar roles at the smaller club. Noades later recalled that he had entered talks with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation about merging the two outfits. The plan was to move the Dons to Buckinghamshire, adopt the Milton Keynes name, and retain Wimbledon's place in the Football League. It did not come to fruition at the time and Noades sold Milton Keynes City just a year later. He left Wimbledon soon after, selling his stake to Sam Hammam in 1981 and buying Crystal Palace.

His dreams of a merger were not over, however. In 1987, it emerged that Noades and his old business partner Hammam were discussing merging Palace with Wimbledon. "In fact, Wimbledon, Palace and Charlton talked about merging," Noades later recalled, "but nothing came of it."

Ron Noades, who set Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes in motion with an attempted merger in 1979 // PA Images

Ultimately, it is difficult to see how any of these mergers would have been successful. Fans of the clubs involved seldom want to see them come to fruition. This is entirely understandable: they often have a life-long association with their team and do not want to see its identity watered down, or cast aside altogether. What's more, the proposed mergers are necessarily local affairs – Town with Rovers, City with United – but the rivalries that exist between neighbouring teams are often the fiercest in football. In some cases, a team finds its truest identity in local derbies; to lose these and play as one team would rob fans of perhaps their biggest game of the year.

It is also clear that, in many cases, the people trying to merge clubs have not made their decisions based on football matters. Turfing Fulham out of Craven Cottage and merging them with QPR was not meant to improve either side's fortunes on the pitch, it was intended to clear a valuable plot of land on the banks of the Thames where considerable profit could be made on luxury housing. What happened to Fulham Park Rangers would have been incidental to the money made by the developers.

And yet there are cases where mergers would not be wholly foolish. Combining three sides to form Manchester North End would undoubtedly have come with many problems, but might they eventually have become a greater force? Perhaps, though ultimately it would have cost many fans the club they loved. Arguably, this is not a price worth paying.

A strange post-script to this story is that the wealthy businessmen who proposed the "Fulham Park Rangers" and "Thames Valley Royals" clubs both died in somewhat murky circumstances within a few years of their failed plans. You can explain this as one of two things: a grim coincidence, or a warning from the football gods not to meddle in the composition of clubs. We'll leave you to decide which of those sounds more plausible.

@Jim_Weeks