When a football club runs into irreversible financial trouble and cannot find the salvation of a last minute buyer, they have no choice but to dissolve. In other words, go bust. Normally when we think of something dissolving, it disappears completely, never to return. This is not entirely true when it comes to many football teams. This is because many re-emerge in the form of a phoenix club. In this article, we will discuss what exactly constitutes a phoenix club and we’ll look at some of the best examples from across English football.
What Is a Phoenix Team?
For those who are unaware, a phoenix is a mythological bird that has the power to regenerate, effectively being born again. It obtains its new life from the ashes of its predecessor so the name ‘phoenix club’ is a fitting term for a club that emerges from the remains of a dissolved team. In most instances, a phoenix club will inherent the traditions, logo, kit colours as well as adopting a very similar name. It is possible, however, for the new team to retain the same name, Maidstone United being one example.
The phoenix club attempts to fill the void left behind by the club that went bust, often attracting most of the old fan base in the process. But they cannot simply reclaim the vacant spot in the league. Just because the original club was in League One at the time of their liquidation does not mean the new club can swoop in and enjoy such lofty status. Instead, the new club, will need to start in the lower rungs of the footballing ladders and aim to work their way back up. They do occasionally receive special permission to join a few levels higher up than a completely new team mind you.
While creating a new club to replace the old one seems like a daunting task, you have to bear in mind that the phoenix clubs often have a good amount of support and, subsequently, revenue. This allows them to secure successive promotions more easily than your typical lower-league team. As we will see from some of the examples, with good backing, some phoenix sides have been able to reach – or even surpass – the heights of the team they replaced.
Phoenix Success Stories
We have given what many would be to consider a typical explanation of what a phoenix club is but bear in mind there is no strict, universally accepted definition. Particularly across nations and different governing bodies and/or legal systems, there is a little flexibility in relation to the term, although not an enormous amount.
Regardless of where you are though, you should not use the term when talking about a team that has simply relocated and/or changed its name. MK Dons, for example, are not the phoenix club of Wimbledon FC (something we will discuss in more detail later on).
Here are some of the best known examples of phoenix clubs in relation to English football.
Accrington Stanley, as we know them today, formed in 1968. But the team they replaced (who went by the same name) had existed by 54 years prior. Nevertheless, Stanley are still one of the oldest phoenix clubs that exists in the UK. By the time the original club dissolved they were languishing in the Lancashire Combination league but they had spent decades in the Third Division (north) prior to that. In fact, they were an ever-present figure in the notoriously difficult-to-escape league. Their final taste of league action came in 1965-66 season with the phoenix club playing their first competitive match five seasons later.
It took Accy some time, but in 2003 they enjoyed promotion to the Football Conference, or rather, the National League. This was already a huge achievement but Stanley were not done there. Having achieved another promotion at the second time of asking, they then spent a long stint in League Two where they lost two play-off semi-finals. No play-offs were needed in 2017-18 though as John Coleman’s men stormed the league, topping the table by five points.
In 1992, Aldershot Town became the first Football League club since the aforementioned Accrington Stanley who failed to complete a season due to bankruptcy. They had survived until March, with around six weeks of the season to go but they were not competitive, having gone on a 16-match winless run. Ironically, their last game they ever won came against Maidstone on 28th December 1991, a team who also had to leave the Football League just months later due to financial problems.
The phoenix club, named Aldershot Town FC rather than the original Aldershot FC, had an application accepted to join the Isthmian League Third Division. Here they secured first spot easily, losing just two games in the process, backed by a strong fan base. On the opening home game of the campaign, there were more fans in attendance than on Aldershot FC’s final home game. An additional four promotions followed in the following 15 seasons, binging them back into the Football League (League Two). Although they faced relegation in 2013, and almost again in 2019 (saved by Gateshead being penalised for financial irregularities), Aldershot should still be considered a success story.
The late 1980s were a miserable time for any avid Newport County supporter. After suffering relegation from Division 3 in 1987, a successive drop followed as the Exiles won just six games out of 46 in Division 4. This abysmal season ended a gigantic 60-year stay in the Football League. Facing the unchartered waters of the Conference, they again failed to stop their rapid decline. Twenty-nine games into the season, a third consecutive relegation seemed inevitable, as County had amassed just 19 points. They were spared this shame however by their equally woeful off the pitch performance. The club officially went bust on 27th February 1989 due to debts that had risen to £330,000.
It was not long at all before Newport returned though, the phoenix club forming in June 1989. Around 400 supporters were involved in the reformation and they managed to persuade former County boss John Relish to become their first ever coach. They joined the Hellenic League, then four divisions below the Football League, for the 1989-90 season. As Newport Council considered the new team to be a continuation of the old club, they held them responsible for unpaid rent on the Somerton Park. This is where the nickname ‘The Exiles’ comes from as, rather than paying the bill, they played their home games 80 miles away in Gloucestershire.
Despite the extra travelling, Newport won the division with their reward being a spot in the Southern League Midlands Division. Here they stayed for five years before achieving promotion to the Southern League Premier Division. In 2004, they were placed in the Conference South when the league system underwent restructuring. After enjoying promotion in 2010 and again in 2013, the Welsh outfit finally fulfilled their goal of returning to the football league.
You might think Maidstone United is a slightly unusual addition to our list. There is a good chance you have never even heard of them or seen their amber and black kit. They are worthy of their spot though because they have fought back from so far down the footballing ladder following their resignation from the Fourth Division in 1992. Unlike Aldershot, for instance, who were accepted in a division five lower than the Football League when reforming, Maidstone United began much lower. Named the same as the dissolved club, the new Maidstone United played in the Kent County League Division 4 during their inaugural season. It was a league so low that it no longer even exists.
Since conquering Kent, Maidstone then secured promotion from the Isthmian League (South) and the Premier Division before getting themselves into the National League in 2016, one tier away from the Football League. This was their 10th promotion in 22 years (there was also one relegation) which is a tremendous record for any football team.
The Wimbledon Fallout
Wimbledon were officially founded in 1889, then known as Wimbledon Old Centrals. They spent most of their history in obscurity but by the late 1970s their promotion to the Football League had started to build public awareness. Skip to a few years later and Wimbledon were impossible to ignore having secured three promotions in the space of four years. Two years later, in 1988, they stunned Liverpool in the final at Wembley to lift the FA Cup, still one of the most iconic matches of the entire competition. At this point, the sky seemed to be the limit for the Crazy Gang but things were to turn incredibly sour a little over a decade later.
Citing financial concerns, chairman, Charles Koppel, announced plans to relocate Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes which was 60 miles away. Naturally, this was a hugely controversial move but one that ultimately received official approval from the FA Commission in May 2002. A year later, the club entered administration but eventually sorted their finances out and were renamed Milton Keynes Dons.
As you can see, Wimbledon FC never truly died; it merely received a new identity and home. That does not stop AFC Wimbledon from being a phoenix club however. Back when relocation discussions were taking place, there were many fans outraged with the proposal to move miles north. They felt going so far away meant the club could not represent Wimbledon nor their traditions. It is for this reason that AFC Wimbledon formed in 2002, entering the Combined Counties League Premier Division the same year. Such was the support for the club that even a pre-season friendly against Sutton United attracted a crowd of 4,657.
Despite winning their last 11 games during their first season, the Wombles narrowly missed out on going up but two successive promotions followed. Continued strong league performances saw Wimbledon move up the league ladder in 2008, 2009 and again in 2011. By this point, they had regained Football League status and sat just a division behind bitter rivals MK Dons. Promotion in the 2015-16 season put them both in the same league and weeks into the 2016-17 campaign, Wimbledon overtook MK Dons in the footballing ladder for the first ever time.
An Italian Side Note
With no disrespect intended, examples from English football show us that clubs that go out of business (and are later reformed) are not massive clubs. Most did not hold football league status at the time of collapsing and many of the re-formed sides still don’t either. This is why Italian football provides us with some rather unique examples. This century we have seen household names like Napoli, Fiorentina and Parma go bust only to be brought back to life.
We must, however, point out that these examples from the Mediterranean are not strictly speaking phoenix clubs. Although the original clubs went bankrupt and were expelled from Serie A, the ‘new’ clubs are seen as the same, rather than separate, entities. This continuation means the clubs we see today still officially have all the honours accumulated before their collapse. Nevertheless, they still remain as thrilling examples of how clubs can come back so quickly from finance despair. Here is a brief overview of their respective recoveries below.
Film producer, Aurelio De Laurentiis, single-handedly revived the club after it declared bankruptcy. Demoted one division as punishment, the Partenopei broke the Serie C attendance record by having 51,000 show up for one game. Successive promotions in the 2005-06 season and 2006-07 season got Napoli back in Serie A, where they have remained since.
Despite selling Rui Costa for €40m, Fiorentina faced bankruptcy at the end of the 2001-02 season and were demoted to the fourth tier of Italian football. They managed a double promotion straight after, as not only did they win the league but Serie B was expanded to 24 teams.
Fiorentina, successfully argued their case to take one of the ‘free’ slots so up they went. The Viola stayed here for just a season after winning their Serie B promotion play-off match with Perugia. They have not looked back since, having now fully cemented their top-flight status.
It has been a bumpy ride for Parma in the 21st century. After being declared insolvent in 2004, they spent three years in special administration. Although Tommaso Ghirardi purchased the club in an action, financial problems return the following decade. By the point unpaid wages totalled €63m, the club had to declare bankruptcy.
Shortly after a replacement club emerged, S.S.D. Parma Calcio 1913, who were able to secure a place in Serie D. Despite a three-league demotion, defender Alessandro Lucarelli stuck around, playing a major part in three consecutive promotions.