Mare of a season: Weston need miracle to avoid first-ever relegation

Mare of a season: Weston need miracle to avoid first-ever relegation
They were formed in 1887 but Weston-super-Mare FC’s proud record of never being demoted looks certain to end
Weston-super-Mare is best known as a seaside resort but this season its football team, never previously relegated, is oceans away from survival. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Right, pub-quiz trivia time. Which English football club of long (100-years-plus) standing has never been relegated? I’ll give you a few moments. Obviously it is not Manchester United: they were famously relegated as recently as 1974, while in the 1920s and 1930s, the club was known for yo-yo’ing between the top two divisions. Liverpool were relegated in 1954 and spent five years in the wilderness until Bill Shankly turned their fortunes around. Arsenal are close but a dismal campaign in 1912-13 saw the London team – then known as Woolwich Arsenal – go down.

No, the club I am thinking of shares a legend with Celtic, Internazionale, Ajax and Barcelona. In fact, their achievement technically outshines those footballing behemoths: Celtic, the oldest club never to have been relegated, date back to 1890. This club was founded in 1887.

Step forward Weston-super-Mare AFC, currently kicking about in the National League South, the sixth tier of English football. “Never been relegated,” confirms Oli Bliss, the 37-year-old managing director of the club and regular at Woodspring Stadium since he was five. “We were refounded in 1948 and we definitely know we’ve never been relegated since 1948. And we’ve got no record of us being relegated before then. So yeah, I think we’re pretty unique” – in England, at least.

But now one of the proudest records in – let’s go there – all of sport is in dire jeopardy. Weston-super-Mare, aka the Seagulls, have been nailed to the bottom of the National League South for months. There was a small blip of excitement with a cup “run” – ended with a 2-0 defeat by Wrexham in the FA Cup first round proper – but a slump became a crisis and in March they parted ways with their manager, Marc McGregor.

With four games to play – and despite Saturday’s 3-1 win against Dartford – there is an ocean of clear water between the Seagulls and survival. They might not be arithmetically relegated but mentally they must be coming to terms with the fact that their 131-year run is reaching an unceremonious end. Put simply, this season Weston have been far from super, and they are having a mare.

The players come together before the FA Cup first round tie against Wrexham in November. Photograph: Will T Photography

You might expect there to be tears on the terraces. This is the point where a photographer finds a child who has never known life outside the National League South and captures them sobbing into their replica shirt. Or perhaps anger. When Hamburg were relegated from the Bundesliga last May, irate fans sent fireworks and flares raining down. Their final match of the season ended with the goalmouth on fire and police officers swarming the pitch. And Hamburg had been in Germany’s top division for only a mere 55 years (admittedly a national record).

Bliss, though, does not imagine there will be similar scenes at Weston-super-Mare AFC. For one thing the average home attendance at Woodspring Stadium is usually around 600 and there is not much of a police presence. For another, the vultures have been circling the Seagulls for a while now. Since enjoying their best spell around 2003-04, the club have found themselves habitually at the wrong end of the table.

This season will not even be the first that Weston have finished in the drop zone. That also happened in 2007, 2008 and 2010, only for the club to be reprieved by the football gods – or, for atheists, financial irregularities. In 2007 they were spared by Farnborough Town going into liquidation and two clubs, Hayes and Yeading, merging. In 2008 salvation came when Cambridge United failed a ground inspection. In 2010 Salisbury were demoted two leagues when they were unable to pay back a creditor and the Seagulls were absolved again.

Might there be another impossible stay of execution this time? “Hmm, I don’t think so,” sighs Bliss. “We’ve not heard of any issues in our league – and normally by this stage of the season you’d hear a rumour about a team. So we are not very positive on that side.”

It is tempting to feel sympathy for Weston-super-Mare. At the start of the season relegation is the great fear for any club and its fans. When we hit 40 points – or whatever the figure is – the relief is always palpable. We are, it seems, hard-wired for survival.

But why is relegation so terrible? When I ask Bliss to sum up the problems that the Seagulls have had this season, a part of him almost sounds relieved at what is happening. Weston-super-Mare is “a small community club”, he notes, one that is dwarfed in their league by Torquay United and Dulwich Hamlet, both of which often have attendances of more than 3,000.

They are also a proper semi-professional club: one where the players train on only Tuesday and Thursday nights, and go off to jobs as PE teachers and car salesmen. And they have the idiosyncrasies of the lower leagues, such as the groundskeeper who, despite the club’s nickname, obsessively dislikes seagulls (in my head it is Bill Murray and the gophers in Caddyshack) and plays booming music over the PA to keep them off the pitch. “It’s a club that really has been playing above where it should be,” accepts Bliss.

Bliss’s sanguinity could be a lesson to anyone whose beloved team is faced with the drop. In fact, he is positively optimistic for Weston’s future. On Monday the club are set to announce a new manager: despite their league position, they had a number of very strong applicants, apparently. The club are financially stable, have a vibrant academy system and maybe next season can look forward to a derby against Taunton Town in the Evo-Stik League South.

More than anything the club might start winning matches again. When you first hear about Weston‑super-Mare, it is bizarre and brilliant that they have never been relegated. But what is perhaps even more remarkable is that, even though they have avoided demotion, they are still playing in the only sixth tier of English football. I ask Bliss how he would describe watching the club for 30-odd years: “We’re quite a, what would you call it? Boring,” he says, laughing. “We’re not up and down, we maintain where we are.”

“It is better to be a tiger for one day,” the ancient Tibetan maxim, co-opted by Madonna, goes, “than a sheep for a thousand years.” An astonishing record is going but Weston-super-Mare AFC are looking to the future, not the past.

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