The unassuming market town of Ossett, nestled between Wakefield and Dewsbury in Yorkshire’s West Riding, is not known for its football prowess or reputation. Located around eight miles from Premier League Leeds United’s Elland Road, and twelve from Huddersfield Town’s John Smith Stadium, its inhabitants have a decent choice of competitive league sides.
However, and rather bizarrely, for many years Ossett had an unusual component within its football context. Indeed, a dynamic that separated it from its sizeable cousins in the north and west: two local football clubs.
This town was big enough for the both of us
Ossett Albion hailed from the south side of the town, playing home matches at Queens Terrace (or Dimple Wells to those of a local persuasion) and generally plying their trade in the lower reaches of England’s footballing pyramid. Similarly, Ossett Town, whose Ingfield stadium flirted with the periphery of a bustling town centre, had operated at broadly the same level to their cross-town foes, becoming an equally recognisable presence in semi-professional circles. The anomaly of Ossett harnessing two clubs in such a modest-sized-area was further accentuated by their proximity to Leeds; perhaps the most famous ‘one-club city’ in the country.
Yet, this tiny outpost within West Yorkshire’s vibrant football network was poised to create a piece, albeit rather modest in achievement, of English football history. In 2018, it was resolved that Ossett Town and Ossett Albion were to merge into one, to an all-encompassing football club: Ossett United.
To some, this perhaps doesn’t feel overtly groundbreaking in nature. From a business perspective it seems an entirely logical step; marketing one football club to one town is significantly easier than driving commercial return and footfall for two separate entities, particularly within such a small surface area. It presents an opportunity to galvanise communities, develop a more cohesive football identity between residents, and offer a more attractive proposition to sponsors and investors. Moreover, it leverages the playing, coaching, and operational talent of two teams, and therefore exponentially increases the likelihood of success on the park and subsequent progression up the league system. Indeed, some were already rubbing their hands together at the future prospect of upwards mobility.
A rivalry stoked by proximity
But there was one small obstacle to navigate: this is football, and local rivals don’t tend to like each other very much. One may scoff in condescension; surely this sort of tribal tension only occurs in ‘league’ football!? Well, no, not at all. Anyone who has visited a crunch local derby in a division below the Conference North can attest to that. Whether its sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth tier (or dare I say it even beyond), hostilities between nearby clubs are as common as a half-time Bovril—and no less tasty.
This theory is further illustrated by a conspicuous lack of mergers in the contemporary game. I mentioned creating history earlier; this was by no means an exaggeration. Only three clubs this century have combined forces in the English game, at any level of its pyramid. Hayes & Yeading (formed Hayes & Yeading United—I know, not the most innovative of names) and Solihull Borough and Moor Green (evolving into Solihull Moors) both underwent mergers in 2007. Ossett United are the third, and only, of their decade.
Those empowered to facilitate such integrations know that addressing contentions between fans serve as a central issue; in Ossett’s case, this challenge seemed further consolidated by the proximity of both grounds. Whilst there is no discernible algorithm that suggests closeness is directly proportional to rival intensity (one may point to the almost farcical context in Dundee, where only a narrow strip of land separates United from F.C.; although fixtures are hotly contested, their rivalry is ultimately pretty tame compared to the cauldron of hatred that encircles Glasgow & Edinburgh on derby day), there was no doubting that this neighbourly dynamic would impact upon Ossett’s safe egress to becoming a unified force. Queens Terrace and Inglefield are a mere 0.4 miles apart, whilst Hayes and Yeading (4 miles), and Solihull Borough and Moor Green (6 miles) faced significant supporter teething issues despite slightly further separation distances.
Furthermore, a long history of relatively even performances led to both sides appearing frequently in the same division, creating a drumbeat of fixture regularity that further fanned the flames of rivalry. The prospective board would have their work cut-out.
The backroom bit
The two boards from each respective club set about making unification a reality in early 2018—and duly delivered with rapid efficiency. Representatives from each side made initial formal contact in January, and six short months later Town and Albion were no more, with the F.A ratifying a merger for Ossett United’s existence on June 1, 2018. A usually protracted two-year process was condensed into half a season’s work; surely a positive omen for future club growth.
In impressively collaborative fashion, each former party would possess an equal stake in the club, shares were evenly split, and three board members from each side were nominated onto a central leadership team. The newly formed team would play at Ingfield, with Ladies and Academy outfits taking residence in Dimple Well. Colours, crest, and branding were agreed and subsequently marketed out. The sky blue of United replaced the red of Town and the amber of Albion; even the stadium seats were ripped out and re-installed with the appropriate colour (at significant cost, one may add, these new seats were shipped directly from Japan). A re-application to the Northern Premier league, who had incidentally re-configured its geographical boundaries from North/South to East/West, was successfully passed. The new team were to play at the same grade as the former clubs that constructed their fledgling identity. Ossett United were ready for take-off.
I’m sure you’re now either desperate to skip ahead in an attempt to locate the origins of such an intriguing sub-headline, or maybe you’ve reached for the red cross as you lose faith in this article’s sincerity. But there are more pressing matters to address.
Although the board may have substantiated a framework for existence, as many an ‘elite’ club has recently learned through failed attempts to form a breakaway Super League, the beating heart of a football club is not determined at boardroom level; it’s provided by those on the terraces. For Project Ossett to work, two fan bases would have to make gargantuan compromises.
Albion followers would no longer visit Queens Terrace every fortnight, a ritual ensconced for many in the Dimple Well area of the town. Decisions would need to be made on playing staff; no semi-professional payroll would be able to accommodate a playing pool consisting of two former squads. Fan favourites were likely to disappear and ‘new’ players would have to be dually ingratiated. Colours that had been adorned for a combined 160 years of playing history would be scrapped. And, perhaps most cuttingly for both sets of supporters, a friction that only football can provide would be lost—in a sense they would be in bed with the enemy.
Unsurprisingly therefore, there was notable resistance. Given Ossett Town’s status as a membership-based enterprise, a committee would need to validate any activity that would have a significant impact on club direction or finance. Any more than eleven ‘against’ votes generated (in a group of forty-three participants) would scupper plans. It took five rounds of voting before a suitable majority was eventually acquired; however, six remained averse to an alliance. If you apply that percentage and expand out accordingly, one could assume that, within Town circles at least, 14% of fans were against the concept of a united club. Although a workable number for those behind the merger, it nevertheless illustrated that a considerable minority were unhappy. This sentiment replicated itself at Albion. Social media posts advertising the new Ossett United ‘movement’ were permeated with negative comments and diatribes. Their ground would be lost. This was not going to be a simple process.
Moreover, both sets of fans would need to tolerate everything that comes with a recently formulated business in the modern era. Uncomfortable ‘ice-breaker’ moments, somewhat cheesy slogans (United adopted ‘Stronger Together’—again no prizes for originality there), and a slight, almost intangible undertone of Americanisation. The most obvious manifestation of the latter came through the amalgamation of club crests, leading to the spawning of a new, mythological creature: the Sheepicorn (hence United’s nickname). That one may have been particularly hard to swallow; try producing a mascot’s uniform for that shape of beast. The glossy new marketing, the re-modelling of catering facilities, and the smell of new paint tends to remind you of American corporatism, as opposed to the rugged, non-league charm associated with a Saturday afternoon’s football in Ossett.
Perhaps those are the words of a sentimental writer reluctant to ‘get with the times,’ but surely those entrusted with Ossett United’s onwards success would need to navigate the risk of losing that nostalgic quality that slaps you in the face on entering a lower-league ground: the whiff of pies, the wily, weathered faces of the hardcore followers, and the humorous self-condescension from the stands. Would this be preserved?
And, critically, would all of this activity shift Ossett’s footballing blueprint from Northern Premier League Division One obscurity to the cusp of professional league football?
A difficult reality
Fast-forward three years and you have both answers.
There’s little doubt that the characteristic features of a non-league matchday greet spectators arriving into Ingfield. Perhaps a little too much, the author states with a large helping of contradiction.
After a spritely start which saw the consolidated outfit finish 5th in the NPL Division One East (subsequently losing in a play-off semi-final to local rivals Pontefract Collieries), United’s fortunes rather started to resemble those that accompanied their two founding clubs.
In their last full campaigns as individual competitors, Albion and Town finished 15th and 16th respectively (rather romantically separated by just a single goal for and goal against—both sides had an even points tally). Ossett United were sat 18th when their second, COVID-infiltrated season was declared null and void in March 2020. In the following season, United propped up the Division One West table in last position, although this was once again curtailed due to the harrowing impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet, there is some reason for hope. In the annual re-shuffle of the Northern Premier League’s participants via geographically formatted leagues, Ossett, located in the middle of the country, often find themselves floating between defined boundaries. This season sees United come full circle; they move from the western section back to the east, and are therefore back amongst a set of teams they competed against in their inaugural season. True, the Sheepicorns look set to replicate the heady heights they delivered first time round. After 15 fixtures, Ossett find themselves comfortably sat in 7th place, level points with 5th, and with a more than reasonable hope of securing yet another play-off berth.
In the stands, previous allegiances are set aside in a convivial atmosphere of united support and encouragement; although some have still never returned. Former manager Andy Welsh, the ex-Albion boss championed ahead of Town gaffer Lee Ashforth to take the reins back in 2018, once suggested the Ossett United project had 90% backing of the combined sets of supporters; this still feels an accurate portrayal of the numbers.
On balance, for many, it’s been the right thing to do.
However, board directors, club officials and fans alike will be underwhelmed at United’s on-field performance. For such a sacrifice, one could be forgiven for expecting a better net result for a project that has secreted substantial blood, sweat and tears. Fans can be a fickle bunch; a more impressive record of league finishes (and dare I say it a promotion or two) would have done much to neutralize any residual dissenting voices.
Yet, there is no doubt the playing product has improved for both sides. Merging playing staff as well as club finances has undoubtedly served to optimize the quality of football.
Welsh unsurprisingly selected a squad largely dominated by his previous troops; but it was understandable as to why. Albion had found themselves seventeen points behind Town halfway through the 17-18 campaign; as evidenced, by the season’s conclusion, they had managed to leapfrog the Ingfield outfit. Furthermore, Welsh’s side boasted a number of riches: Adam Priestley, the Gibraltarian international who had turned out against the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Robert Lewandowski, and Alex McQuade, who registered a League One appearance with Shrewsbury, and was on the books at Bolton until the age of 21. In more recent times, exciting Pakistani prospect Tabish Hussain has joined the playing ranks; the midfielder already has two international caps under his belt.
A future blueprint?
So, was merging Ossett’s footballing duo worth it? And will other clubs in similar circumstances follow suit? Three years is a long time in football, and there’s no doubt critics would note the limited progress of the club’s overall trajectory. However, for a fledgling side who have lofty future ambitions, this is perhaps only the start of a journey, and one can cite the preservation of club and league status as some barometer of success, particularly amidst a global pandemic that has ripped through the game’s financial assets, whatever the level of football.
The results of Ossett United’s merger don’t exactly compel others to leap onto a unification bandwagon, nor do they wholly detract potential stakeholders from taking such controversial steps. But it does demonstrate that it can be done, and, most likely, will be done again in the not-too-distant future. In a hundred-year period of English football between 1921 and present day, a total of eight mergers have been implemented across the domestic pyramid system; seven of those have occurred in the last thirty years. There may well not be an overwhelming appetite, but more and more clubs could well seek out the tangible advantages of combining forces, particularly in a lower-league context. Although their respective fans may have a thing or two to say in the process…
So, time will tell whether the sleepy town of Ossett has a team worth getting excited about. For the moment, the Sheepicorn faithful are content. Well, kind of.