NEWCASTLE Football has thrown West Wallsend a lifeline as they fight for survival in the Northern NSW Football First Division without coach Greg Smith.
The Bluebells, formed in 1891, have only 26 registered players for three grades just three weeks out from kick-off in the second-tier league and are without a first-grade coach after Smith officially called it quits on Tuesday night.
Smith’s decision came after only one regular top-grade player returned from last year’s squad, who finished fourth in their first season after being demoted from the state league.
The club, which has battled to attract volunteers and sponsors in recent years, met with NNSWF officials this week and has until the close of business on Tuesday to have 40 registered players and present a 2013 financial report and 2014 budget.
While Bluebells secretary Evan Gardiner and NNSWF have not given up on keeping West Wallsend in First Division, Newcastle Football has offered the club a spot in Zone Football League Three, which is effectively the sixth tier of football in the region.
League Three and League Two have only two grades, giving the third-oldest club in northern NSW a chance to remain on the field.
Newcastle Football CEO and competitions administrator Russell Henry made the offer yesterday, saying the addition of the Bluebells would return League Three, which had a recent withdrawal, to a nine-team competition.
‘‘Although it would mean we would have to do a redraw after doing a redraw, I would be more than happy to do it and fit them into that group and make sure they survive,’’ Henry said.
‘‘It would mean we would have a bye, but that’s not an issue if we save West Wallsend and keep them in football.
‘‘This way they could work their way back through the ranks, because once you lose all remnants of your club, it’s hard to pull it all together again.’’
NNSWF operations manager Alan Nisbet will discuss West Wallsend’s situation with First Division club representatives at a meeting on Wednesday night but said a bye was likely if the Bluebells withdrew.
‘‘It would be very difficult to bring in another club because that club would have to come up from interdistrict, which means they would have to adjust their competitions,’’ Nisbet said. ‘‘But we are working with them to try and help them and we certainly don’t want to lose them.
‘‘In speaking to Evan, they don’t want to give up hope yet.
‘‘It’s not a long timeline, but they don’t want to throw in the towel yet.’’
Gardiner said no players had indicated they were leaving after Smith’s announcement on Tuesday. The Herald’s report yesterday on the club’s plight had created interest.
‘‘The boys have since given me phone numbers for people to chase and there are two ex-players we’ve spoken to,’’ Gardiner said.
‘‘It’s sparked up some interest. We’ve just got to turn that into players on the park.’’
Gardiner confirmed the Bluebells had gauged interest in a merger from nearby clubs, including Wallsend, Warners Bay and Beresfield, last week but it was not a short-term solution.
West Wallsend were scheduled to play Edgeworth in the State Cup knockout on Sunday but have forfeited.