Tom Davies looks at the fortunes of three clubs struggling with finances

Suddenly, football ownership is all about selling, with predatory would-be owners outnumbered by chairmen seemingly desperate to offload – and not being able to. Portsmouth and West Ham’s travails have had the highest recent profile, while at Newcastle Mike Ashley’s decision to withdraw the club from sale has rekindled some of the fan anger of earlier in the season, sparking long-awaited stirrings of organised supporter activity.

The Newcastle United Supporters Club, established only in August, has spent the past five months trying to co-ordinate fan activism beyond the high-profile and oft-caricatured mass protests that followed Kevin Keegan’s departure. NUSC is considering supporters’ trust status, while in the meantime trying at least to prise some kind of information from a club whose management has become secretive and distant. With no serious bidders having come forward for the club – save for the apparent Dubai interest that Ashley brushed aside – the Toon are stuck with an owner who, having got his fingers burnt in the banking crisis of the autumn, seems nowhere near as able or willing to invest in Newcastle as he once was, while the team slip towards the ­relegation morass.

“The long-term danger is that [Ashley] is just a really awful businessman whose personal fortune has sunk without trace,”   NUSC’s Michael Teasdale says. “Commun-ication at the club at all levels is the worst it has ever been.” As with other big clubs for whom there seems little fans can do beyond, in Teasdale’s words, “get rid of this bloke”, how NUSC develops is likely to depend on how this season pans out. So far it has organised two public meetings, met – and been unconvinced by – parties claiming to be interested in the club, and been involved in catering and merchandise boycotts that have admittedly petered out. A proper relationship with the club would be a start. “There’s always been a tendency here that every time something happens people protest but it then fades away,” Teasdale says. “We want to be looking at having a proper relationship with the club – once Ashley’s gone.”

A more familiar tale of a club newly relegated from the Premier League overreaching has been playing out at Watford, where boardroom convulsions led to the resignations of chairman Graham Simpson and then chief executive Mark Ashton last month. Hailed three years ago for the prudent way they achieved promotion under Aidy Boothroyd, Watford subsequently allowed their wage bill – on players and backroom staff – to mushroom. Even though the Hornets have been one of the more notable selling clubs of recent times (the sales of Ashley Young, Marlon King and Danny Shittu brought in more than £15m), a post-Premier League wage bill of £18m was clearly unsustainable.

Now the incoming Vicarage Road board face the challenge of reducing the wage bill from its current level of around £12m to £6m. The departures of Simpson and Ashton have left Watford with a board of only two, though interim chairman Andy Wilson (a board appointee in 2002 of Tory party deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft, who remains the club’s biggest shareholder) expects to announce a new five-strong board by the end of January. The return to some kind of board role of Elton John, who resigned as honorary life-president in November in protest at the way the club was run, has made some hopeful but there are plenty of pieces to be picked up. Relations with local media, notably the Watford Observer, have been extremely fractious of late, while those with fans could become strained as cost-cutting begins to bite and promised ground improvements have not materialised.

One of football’s more obvious pantomime villains in this decade has been John Batchelor, whose involvement with York City almost ended in the city being without ground or club and who more recently sought to foist a ludicrous name change on Mansfield. Batchelor has now been touting similar wheezes around Chester City, in whom he has expressed an interest since the cash-strapped League Two club were put up for sale in November by owner Stephen Vaughan. (On the proposed name change, Batchelor told the : “We probably have three options, all of which relate to sponsorship deals.”) Batchelor’s offer has been rejected for now and there are few other suitors for a club that continues to haemorrhage cash. An American-led consortium fronted by former player David Jones had declared an interest and had been generally well received, but was rebuffed by Vaughan, whose sincerity in wanting to sell has been questioned in some quarters.

The conditions that govern the Deva Stadium are part of the problem. While most new grounds have been built with an eye to revenue-generation through non-football activities, Chester’s ability to do so at their 17-year-old home is severely restricted by covenants restricting the site’s use for non-footballing activity. Vaughan has talked of a £16m redevelopment and says he is putting £40,000 a month into the club, but when and if that stops administration is a real threat.

From WSC 264 February 2009

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