Of all the things football clubs should be spending money on, lawyers would have to be near the bottom of anyone’s list. The case of Newcastle United, however, in which they are being sued by their own fans, may prove to have lasting significance. As has been widely publicised, the club sold bonds for £500 which appeared to guarantee fans the right to a seat for ten years (“your name will be fixed permanently to your seat” promised Kevin Keegan ). With the expansion of the ground, however, the club are now proposing to move 4,000 season ticket holders in the Milburn and Leazes stands, including some bond holders, to less attractive positions, so that their current seats can be used for corporate hospitality.
The case is due to come to court in mid-February and has become a symbol of the general unhappiness among Newcastle fans with their treatment by the club. While the affected bond holders are not exactly your archetypal Newcastle fans, the club may find it has made a mistake by picking on a group with the resources and contacts (not to mention the backing of the majority of United fans) to mount a highly effective campaign and legal challenge.
Nor will the board be chuffed to find their old friends at the News Of The World putting up £10,000 to cover the bond holders’ legal insurance. Of course they may simply have the fans’ interests at heart, but the Murdoch-owned paper will scarcely be sorry to rock the boat at a club partially owned by a rival media company, NTL.
While the Newcastle case at least directly concerns the fans, there is no such consolation at Scunthorpe United, where a boardroom battle is threatening to get out of hand. In September, board member and fashion shop owner Des Comerford was asked to resign by his fellow directors after he was fined £1,000 for entering the referee’s room at half-time during United’s match against Bristol Rovers.
Having failed to resolve the matter amicably, both sides have brought in their lawyers. The details of the legal argument are tedious in the extreme (even the judge described part of it as “very technical”), but the bad news for United fans is that High Court proceedings in London in January resulted in “a draw” according to the board.
Although Comerford, whose £1 million bid for the club has been rejected, claims he is prepared to talk, another court hearing has been set for May and is forecast to last eight more costly days. United chairman Keith Wagstaff has warned the whole affair may end up costing as much as £300,000. Even bumper sales of the recent Comerford-backed calypso-style single I-I-I Iron are not likely to replace that amount in a hurry.
Strange goings-on at board level have had an even worse effect on Bury, whose finances have been plunged into confusion by the mysterious case of their major shareholder, Hugh Eaves. Eaves, a City financier, was described as living a “Walter Mitty-style double life” after his part in a stock market scandal was revealed in May 1999. Eaves contrived to lose £15 million on the derivatives market, money entrusted to him by former colleagues at stockbrokers Phillips and Drew. At the end of January he surprisingly turned up in Hong Kong (surprisingly, since he had surrendered his passport) claiming he was about to return to the UK to “co-operate” with lawyers for his erstwhile friends, who have issued a writ against him.
The club, which has had to apply to the local council for financial assistance, has been jointly managed by Andy Preece and Steve Redmond since the departure of Neil Warnock to Sheffield United and is unable to make any permanent appointment, or any other major financial decision, until the mess left by Eaves has been sorted out. Since he owned 90 per cent of the club, that will inevitably mean its sale.
The “wig-wearing local hero” (Guardian) apparently lived quietly in West Hampstead with his disabled wife, when he wasn’t indulging in a “lavish lifestyle” in the north west. Eaves has also been accused of making interest-free loans to the Ffestiniog steam railway, of which he was treasurer, when his investments were already running into trouble. Flagrant indulgence in railway enthusiasm and a passion for Second Division football clubs – Walter Mitty-style double lives just aren’t what they used to be.
From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month