Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Team Bath FC - An Education

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As the stirrings of a new academic year continue to evolve, the time is surely right to look back at a university challenge of a different nature- balancing the twin demands of studies towards degrees and lower-tier professional football! Such was the task facing Team Bath, affiliated to the city's university since its formation in 1999 and enjoying a relatively quick rise up the pyramid before disbanding in 2009.



The brainchild of the university's sports department, the club first arrived in the Western League in time to start the 2000-01 season in the ninth tier. Paul Tisdale was appointed manager at the start of a career which would eventually take him up to the Football League itself and enjoying quite some initial success in leading his charges from the First to the Premier Division of the league by the end of their first campaign. An in tandem core of students augmented with semi- professional team-mates.


Having made it up they then finished a creditable fourth in their second season- but it’s their third which would capture the public imagination thanks to a bit of a run in their maiden involvement with the FA Cup. Becoming the first university side since Oxford in 1880 to make the first round of the competition having beaten Barnstaple Town, Backwell United, Bemerton Heath Harlequins, Newport County and Horsham en route to a home tie against Mansfield Town.


They played on their own turf in spite of an offer from the Stags to reverse the fixture and play it at Field Mill, seeking and eventually obtaining permission from both the city council and local police for the addition of temporary seating to accommodate what would go down as Team Bath's record crowd of 5.469. Those present saw them lose 4-2, with Carl Heiniger and Caleb Kamara-Taylor being the scorers for the students to put a bit of gloss on the result after the visitors had gone in at half- time four goals to the good...


But where most neutrals were probably hoping for a little of the magic of the Cup to rub off on them, at league level they attracted derision. Consider this from the pages of January 2009's issue of When Saturday Comes-


“So how, exactly, do Team Bath fund their full-time squad of 25 players, team of professional coaches and world-class facilities, including eight senior pitches, five junior pitches, two fully floodlit astro pitches, two swimming pools, a state-of-the-art fitness suite, a sports-injury clinic, a hydrotherapy pool and an ice bath?


Well, no one seems to know. A Freedom of Information request reveals Team Bath’s accounts are all muddled up with the University of Bath’s other football activities.


It is therefore difficult to pinpoint exactly where the money comes from, other than to say Team Bath players last year received sports scholarship payments amounting to £80,978, leading rivals’ fans to dub them “Team Tax”.


Ged Roddy, Team Bath’s director of sports development and recreation, declined to speak to WSC, but a source at the university said the programme was “launched” to give former professional footballers the chance to learn new skills while still playing at a decent level.


“This is an admirable aim,” agrees Bath City fan Chris Stone, “but they are a full-time professional outfit who pay their players, several of whom aren’t on a course anyway. They recently signed on loan a goalkeeper from Reading the day before an FA Cup tie, despite having three other keepers.


They have the Chancellor of the Exchequer as commercial manager, so they are able to thrive on gates of not much more than 100.


All this while the press continues to romantically call them ‘Young students fighting against all the odds’.”


A second stab at the FA Vase wouldn't bring much cheer, the Scholars beaten by Lymington & New Milton in the second round after Arlesey Town had done for them in the third round at their first attempt. In matters of the league though, their star found itself in the ascendancy once more as they won promotion to the Western Division of the Southern League after 27 wins from 34 games in time for 2003-04.


Curiously, despite their relative success they struggled to get people through the gate! An average home attendance of just 103, easily the lowest in the league, saw them play out a season in which they finished sixth, with just 55 hardy souls recorded as having seen a 2-1 win over Bedworth United and a defeat by the same scoreline to Gresley Rovers. And not even Tisdale's departure to Exeter City could derail them following a league restructure which saw Team Bath effectively promoted again into the Southern League's Premier Division.


They would make it to the third round of the FA Trophy, bowing out after a narrow 2-1 defeat to Histon, and finish fourteenth in the league prior to the gaffer hotfooting it to St James' Park. Reward perhaps for his integral contribution to what had in effect rapidly escalated from a campus kickabout!


Tisdale was replaced by Andy Tillson, whose first season in charge ended in relative success with a second placed finish behind local rivals Bath City before a play-off loss to Maidenhead United. A second attempt ended in success following another runner-up spot behind Kings Lynn, in large part propelled by Sean Canham, who finished as the league's top scorer and capped things off by scoring the winner against Halesowen Town in the play-off final (having bagged a hat- trick against Bashley in the semis). He now plays semi-professionally in Australia for Gwelup Croatia, after four seasons with Team Bath ended with 72 goals from 120 games and a league shot with a move to Charlton.


That first season after his departure for the Valley, 2008-9, found Team Bath a potential two promotions away from the Football League, in the Conference South. Following an eleventh place finish in their maiden campaign at so lofty a level , they were notified by the league itself that as they were not a limited company they could no longer enter the FA Cup and would also be ineligible for promotion. Talk of a merger with Bath City proved to be just that, and a refusal to restructure financially saw ten years of staggering upward momentum grind to a halt with the end of this curious tale.

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