THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Tom Davies rounds up the news on clubs in crisis

Rancour is in the air at Swindon Town, where supporters are rallying around a “fans consortium” seeking to wrest control of their club, which is around £3 million in debt and perilously in arrears on Company Voluntary Arrangement payments. Fans have been staging “orange protests” – turning up in orange garb, in part because it’s manager Paul Sturrock’s favourite colour and was the symbol of Ukraine’s revolution – at games. But the old guard are proving tough to shift.

Confidence in the existing board, fronted by the patrician tobacco magnate Sir Seton Wills and family, who have long-standing connections with the club, has declined rapidly. It recently emerged that Swindon have failed to pay a £100,000 CVA instalment that was due in June 2006, even though supporters at the club’s AGM were led to believe that it had been met. If that amount and the remaining £900,000 of the CVA are not paid by June 2007, then liquidation looms. Throw in the fact that the club haven’t filed their accounts for last year either and the task confronting the fans’ consortium is clear.

The consortium has been put together by the supporters’ trust, TrustSTFC, with the bulk of its funding provided by former director Bill Power (who only quit in the autumn after falling out with fellow board members) and his business partner Phil Emmel. The takeover package includes the promise of one, possibly two, elected supporter seats on the board as well as a redevelopment scheme for the expansive County Ground site, drawn up in conjunction with the local council, to include leisure, retail and ­residential projects.

Funnily enough, the board have put forward near-identical plans. “We came up with the plans, now the board are passing them off as their own,” says trust spokesman Andy Ratcliffe. But the issue of the stadium revamp issue and its revenue-generating potential may offer clues as to why the board haven’t yet managed to let go. “Given that they talk about being willing to sell and how much they’ve put in, they seem to be holding on with a remarkable amount of tenacity,” says Ratcliffe.

Much speculation, too, concerns the role of the Wills family’s adviser Mike Diamandis, a one-time disqualified director, who is widely regarded as the power behind the throne. He has promised that the club would be £4m in the black by the summer, but fans have heard such promises before. It was amid such backroom squabbling that Dennis Wise left for Leeds in October after steering Town to a promising position in League Two.

The size of the task facing Brentford supporters’ trust Bees United, a year into their takeover at Griffin Park, is becoming ever more apparent. With ongoing debt of around £7m, a pared-down squad floundering at the bottom of League One and a desperate need for progress on securing a new stadium, it’s fair to say that few supporter takeovers have inherited as many difficulties.

Some fans believe the trust took over without the clearest of plans for the future, having concentrated all its energies on the takeover itself. Brentford are still dealing with the debts and losses sustained under Ron Noades’ management (Noades is still owed around £1m by the club) and in living beyond their means in recent seasons to fund Martin Allen’s side’s promotion challenges.

Brentford’s situation has exposed some of the tensions inherent in balancing long-term planning – paying off of old debts, concentrating on off-field sustainability such as new stadium developments, without relying on sugar daddies – with the inevitable desire for playing success.

Bees United have recently initiated a player-buying appeal, a fundraising strategy and other initiatives, but it’s clear that such dilemmas can put a strain on the popularity of the supporter-control model, even while working towards an ultimate goal – an accountable club playing in a stadium abundant in community resources and other amenities – that most would envy.

“We didn’t really hit the ground running [after the takeover],” says Tony Cross of BIAS, the Brentford Independent Association of Supporters. “There’s been some positive stuff off the pitch but not much elsewhere. But the objectives are fantastic and if we can pull it off we can set a great example for the model of fan-owned clubs.”

The potential new stadium site, at Lionel Road in Kew, that Bees United want to develop with council support is owned by the Strategic Rail Authority. The SRA has agreed to sell to a private developer, but the club are seeking talks with the developer to arrange an alternative site for their plans in return for a deal to build a stadium at Lionel Road.

Financial obligations have proven too much for the trust that took over Rushden & Diamonds in 2005 from Doctor Martens owner Max Griggs. The trust has now had to cede control to a new group of investors fronted by businessman Keith Cousins, a former Peterborough United vice-chairman. Having whittled down the club’s annual operating losses from £1.5m to £600,000, at a cost of relegation from the Football League, the trust board none the less felt unable to continue their essentially voluntary role running the club without significant outside investment. The trust will retain two nominated positions on the football club’s executive committee (and its stake in the club), but not any positions on the board.

truststfc.co.uk
beesunited.org.uk
bias.org.uk
rdst.co.uk

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month

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