Tom Davies reports on three of the Football League's troubled clubs
The fight to secure the future of Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground (reported in WSC 208) has acquired a new urgency over the summer. Elusive chairman Mark Guterman has left the club, leaving the abrasive Alex Hamilton in charge. Hamilton, now revealed as the real power behind Guterman from the start, wants to sell the ground (which could fetch up to £25 million) and move the club to an out-of-town site, claiming that the sale would be the only way to stave off the lingering threat of administration and clear debts of around £5m.
Supporters aren’t having any of it, though, and have little confidence in Hamilton’s promises of a new stadium, viewing the chairman as interested in little more than profiting from the sale of the Racecourse Ground. Two years earlier, Hamilton had been instrumental in scrapping the 125-year lease on the ground. A protest march was held in the town before the first game of the season (a game enlivened when Hamilton wandered on to the terraces at half-time to “discuss the issue with fans”, leading to predictable flaring of tempers). He’s also taken to publishing club documents such as players’ contracts on the official website as a way of “proving” the club’s poverty.
Luckily for the fans, the local council are just as opposed to Hamilton’s plans, while the supporters’ trust have drawn up alternative proposals to revamp the spacious Racecourse Ground site to incorporate other developments, which they estimate could generate up to £5m. Hamilton has yet to comment on the fans’ proposals but, given the level of opposition he faces, he may end up having to work out an exit strategy of his own. Supporters, meanwhile, just want rid of the chairman so work can be done on establishing a viable future at their existing stadium. Worryingly, considering his open lack of interest in Wrexham as a club, Hamilton passed the Football League’s new fit and proper person test.
Slow progress, of sorts, at Brighton, where the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has decided to reopen the public inquiry into the club’s proposed new 23,000-seat stadium at Falmer. The inquiry, expected to start by the end of the year, will now re-examine the case on the grounds that a new stadium is needed, with the issue in dispute simply whether Falmer is the best site for it. Seven sites within the Brighton and Hove area are under consideration, but the club argue that there is no feasible alternative to Falmer.
Local objectors argue that Falmer is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, but the supportive council agree with the club that there is no other suitable site in the area. A Brighton spokesman told WSC that the new terms of the inquiry would put the onus on the objectors to prove that there are other suitable sites available and that it was “put up or shut up” time. Meanwhile, the Seagulls – still paying the price of the misdeeds of Bill Archer and David Bellotti in the Nineties – struggle on in front of limited-capacity crowds at Withdean.
The moral of the Brighton story is not to let unscrupulous chairmen sell your ground before a replacement has been lined up. The same predicament was facing York City when its supporters’ trust took over the club last year, with the Minstermen facing eviction from Bootham Crescent in the summer of 2004 and the only possible replacement site the hopelessly inadequate Huntingdon Stadium on the edge of the city.
But the club’s immediate future at their old ground has now been secured after the trust secured a £2.1m deal to take a controlling interest in Bootham Crescent Holdings – the separate stadium company that was set up by former chairman Douglas Craig before he sold the club for £1 to John Batchelor, who promptly tore up the lease on the ground and replaced it with a one-year lease that left City facing eviction by June 2004. The club have also now persuaded property developer Persimmon Homes to cancel its plans to build housing on the site.
However, York now have to repay the £2m Football Stadia Improvement Fund loan they received for the BCH buyout (fans’ fundraising paid for the rest) and still plan to move from Bootham Crescent by 2014. The task now is to identify a site for a new 10,000-seat stadium in the city by 2007 and secure planning permission for it by 2009. Financial penalties will be imposed if these conditions aren’t met and it won’t necessarily be an easy task with City, newly relegated from the League and still adjusting to life in the Conference, looking for average gates of around 2,000 to keep the plans on track financially. But with the ownership of Bootham Crescent and the club now united again and controlled by the trust, things are certainly rosier – off the pitch at least – than they were a year ago.
From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month