FA Cup preliminary round: Ossett United aiming high after summer merger

Luke Swinden and Marty Oldroyd have been football rivals for years.

While one is a lifelong Ossett Albion supporter, the other has passionately followed neighbours Ossett Town home and away.

On Saturday, the pair will stand side by side cheering on the same team.

After 74 years of rivalry, Albion and Town joined forces this summer to become Ossett United in a merger aimed at providing the small West Yorkshire market town with a club capable of challenging for a Football League place in the next few years.

This weekend they face Mossley in the FA Cup preliminary round – one of 160 ties being played between Friday and Monday.

“Normally when you walk through Ossett, you see people wearing Manchester United shirts,” Swinden, chairman of Ossett United Supporters’ Club, told BBC Sport.

“Now there’s a sea of Ossett United sky blue shirts.”

So what happens when two long-standing rivals suddenly become one? How does a football merger come about, and who are the winners and losers?

‘Clubs at this level clinging to life’

Situated about four miles from Wakefield and eight miles from Leeds United’s Elland Road, Ossett has local attractions in the form of top-flight rugby league and Championship football.

Last season, Albion and Town struggled to attract fans to games as they finished 15th and 16th respectively in the Northern Premier League Division One North – at English football’s eighth tier.

Town, formed in 1936, did host a 1,000-plus crowd by reaching the FA Cup fourth qualifying round, but attendances above 200 were rare.

Albion, located about half a mile away and eight years younger than their neighbours, fared no better.

“Ossett is not a big town,” said United chief executive Phil Smith. “We realised both teams were restricting one another from progressing. There are lots of clubs at this level clinging to life.”

Talk of a merger had previously surfaced, but on 4 January 2018 everything changed after a chance meeting between Albion chairman John Chidlaw and Town vice-chairman Lee Broadbent.

“John’s son was playing in an under-13 match and Lee was refereeing the game,” added Smith.

“Afterwards they talked about football in Ossett. Within days, officials from both clubs were sitting around a table discussing the pros and cons of a merger.

“A plan was drawn up, the Football Association backed it and our own league said they felt it should have happened five years previously.”

Anger on Facebook and pool-table fears

While bringing Ossett’s two main teams together makes financial sense, the merger has its critics.

“There’s one guy who refuses to come to games now,” added Smith. “His dad was part of Albion’s committee. He says it’s atrocious what we have done.

“Each time we put out a post on Facebook, he clicks the angry face.”

With Ossett Town a membership club, a vote was put to fans. Had 11 of 43 members voted against, the merger would not have gone ahead.

“The first four ballot papers drawn were against it,” added Smith. “But in the end there were only six out of 43 who opposed it.

“I asked one guy why he voted against and he said: ‘I play pool here every Wednesday night and if this place gets any busier I’ll lose time on the pool table.'”

Oldroyd has followed Town home and away for the past five seasons after becoming disillusioned with the cost of travelling the country watching Leeds United.

“Those against the merger were worried about the history of the two clubs being left behind,” he said.

Swinden, an Albion fan, added: “In bringing the two clubs together, there has been a conscious effort not to forget where we have come from.”

James Rogers, Town’s former chairman and now a United director, understands the opposition but is convinced the merger ensures Ossett have a team capable of climbing the football pyramid.

“We’ve probably got 90% of the fanbase from both clubs behind what we are trying to do,” he said.

“I know the challenges of running a non-league club, particularly one in a town as small as Ossett.

“Town’s turnover last year was in the region of £200,000. Maybe half of that came through the bar – the other half from contributions, sponsorship, gate receipts and advertising just to compete and stay safe.

“If you want to push for promotion and do much more then you are looking at investment over and above what we were able to do last year.”

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