THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

There seems little sign of any good news for the clubs struggling financially, writes Tom Davies

When Bristol Rovers announced ambitious plans to redevelop the Memorial Ground in conjunction with a student flat development, it was hailed in many quarters as a model for similar sized clubs, but the £35 million project has hit the skids after the property company due to fund most of it pulled out.

The developer, Opal, planned to build flats on land around the ground, which would have been completely rebuilt as part of the development. Rovers intended to play at Cheltenham while work too place in an arrangement initially scheduled to start in the second half of last season. Despite the anxieties raised by that delay, the club continued to insist all was proceeding well and telling fans at the April AGM that work would start by the coming season. Then, at the end of May, a day after exhorting supporters to attend an open day at Cheltenham, Rovers publicly admitted the collapse of the arrangement with Opal, the announcement itself made only following earlier internet leaks. Cheltenham are also somewhat peeved at the sudden disappearance of anticipated rental revenue.

The club attribute Opal’s withdrawal to the economic downturn, but fans complain about wider failures of communication and planning by Rovers. It all leaves them back at square one, forced to retender for the flat development, and the scheme delayed for 12 months at least. It bodes ill for a club that have relied more than most in recent times on income from cup runs and player sales. Without those, and deprived of the extra income generated by a modernised stadium, the future looks uncertain.

Among Rovers’ Cup victims last season were Southampton, who are facing cuts galore following three years of managerial and administrative upheaval and overspending on players. Saints are expected to announce pre-tax losses of £5m for the last year, while talk of a takeover led by well connected local property lawyer Jonathan Fulthorpe continues to circulate but nothing definite has materialised. In the meantime the club, now run once again by the controversial Rupert Lowe, have embarked on some fairly swingeing cuts, offloading players, making non-playing staff redundant, closing three corners of St Mary’s to save on stewarding costs and scrapping supporters’ subsidised bus travel to the ground. Lowe is now stressing youth and prudence, looking to offload high earners and hoping that the new approach epitomised by the appointment of Dutch manager Jan Poortvliet will turn things round.

More misery at Boston United, who enter the new season three divisions lower than they were 15 months ago after again suffering another demotion for off-field dysfunction. At its root, aside from the well documented misdeeds of the club’s previous management, is the increasing irreconcilability of the FA’s and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ positions on clubs in administration, and the saga is seasoned by a sprinkling of jobsworthery from the non-League authorities. The Lincolnshire club were relegated from the League while in administration in 2007 and swiftly demoted a further division when their CVA did not satisfy rules on football creditors being paid in full. History repeated itself at the end of their subsequent Blue Square South season when the Conference authorities demoted them for not agreeing a new CVA by May 20.

HMRC had persistently, as with other clubs, declared its opposition to CVAs under which football creditors were paid in full (under FA rule) while others, including itself, were not. But as the club – under new and more widely trusted ownership since 2007-08 – sought to resolve its problems with the FA, it fell foul of the tax authorities. The FA retained the club’s parachute payments in order to settle the football debts but HMRC said it would wind up the club even if a third party, the FA, was the one paying off football creditors preferentially. Hope grew when chairman David Newton announced that a new CVA deal had been struck with HMRC, even though the football creditors were still to be paid in full. But the paperwork could not be processed until May 20, beyond the FA’s deadline for agreeing a CVA. Letters of laws were not so much stuck to as repeatedly nailed to the wall, and Boston were down to the Unibond North.

Another club paying for the sins of previous owners, Rotherham, have been forced out of town and will be playing home games at Sheffield’s Don Valley athletics stadium this season. The League Two side – penniless, still awaiting approval for their latest CVA and staring at a possible points deduction – can no longer afford the prohibitive rent demanded by the family of former chairman Ken Booth, who own Millmoor, and have decamped out of town. The Football League are demanding a £750,000 bond to guarantee a return to Rotherham within four years, probably to a new stadium shared with the town’s rugby club. Cash and political will are urgently needed. What happens to the rusting shell that is Millmoor now is anyone’s guess.

From WSC 259 September 2008

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