THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Tom Davies takes a look at the ever-growing issue of separating ground and club ownership

The pitfalls of separating ground and club ownership have been well documented in recent months, at Crystal Palace and Southend among others, and it’s causing anxiety at Yeovil Town too. The League One club agreed in June to hive off Huish Park and its surrounding land to a separate company, Yeovil Town Holdings Ltd, in order to “realise the development potential of the site”, according to the club.

Yeovil argue that the creation of the company (92 per cent owned by Yeovil chairman John Fry and director Norman Hayward) will make it easier to attract investors, but supporters are concerned that this could store up problems for the future, even though Yeovil’s current situation is relatively stable. Requests for a public meeting from the London-based fans group Capital Glovers have also fallen on deaf ears, though the club did offer private talks. Fans also want to know more details about the value of the transfer, and the valuation placed on the land. After all, the oft-touted benefits of purpose-built out-of-town stadiums such as Huish Park tend to include the capacity to generate revenue directly for clubs from non-footballing sources.

As Capital Glovers have asked: “Where do the rights to income generated from the site reside... what protection, if any, will be put in place for when, as is inevitable at some time in the future, Yeovil Town Holdings Limited passes into other hands?” The club dismiss such worries by saying that 45 of the 92 League clubs have similar arrangements, though whether that’s reassuring is a matter of opinion.

As it was Non-League Day the other week, there are two contrasting ownership tales deep in the Ryman Premier League, at Croydon Athletic and Hendon. Croydon’s future is now in grave doubt following the allegations about the involvement of their owner, Mazhar Majeed, in the Pakistan cricket betting scandal. During the News of the World’s sting, Majeed was also caught apparently boasting that the sole reason he bought the football club, in July 2008, was to launder money made from match-fixing.

An apparently considerable spending splurge since the takeover brought promotion to the Ryman Premier League, but Majeed’s recent arrest on a charge of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers has thrown the future of the club into doubt. (HM Revenue and Customs are also investigating.) Wages went unpaid in August, manager Tim O’Shea and assistant Neil Smith departed at the start of this month, Croydon’s September league fixtures against Tooting & Mitcham and Sutton were postponed and they have withdrawn from the FA Cup.

Not that Majeed’s precise position at the club was crystal clear. According to Companies House, the club’s sole director is not Majeed, but Jenna Manji, a “consultant” and owner of 92 per cent of the shares. Croydon are thought to be at least £400,000 in the red and it’s difficult to see how the club can continue.

In contrast, Hendon have been taken over by their supporters’ trust after a protracted period of uncertainty sparked by the club’s eviction from their former ground, Claremont Road. Hendon left their long-standing home in 2008 as the ground’s owners, the Arbiter Group, planned to develop the site for housing, although as a result of the property slump the site remains empty and derelict. In the meantime Hendon have settled on a groundsharing deal at Wembley’s Vale Farm ground, signed at the start of last season and lasting three years. “We are starting from scratch in terms of corporate sponsorship and advertising,” admitted the trust’s Simon Lawrence, now chairman of the football club. “But at last we are the masters of our own destiny.”

There has also been a fan takeover at Stirling Albion, following a high-profile and celebrity-backed campaign to wrest control of the imperilled Scottish First Division club from chairman Peter McKenzie. Matters came to a head during the close season when, with debts mounting and an unnamed Scottish Premier League club circling with a plan to turn Albion into a nursery club, McKenzie agreed a deal with the Stirling Albion supporters’ trust in which he agreed to write off £1.2 million of debt and sell out to the trust for a £300,000 one-off payment.

None of this has eliminated Stirling’s financial difficulties. Talks are ongoing with the local council to forestall any legal action on the £110,000 rent the authority is owed and around two-thirds of the take­over funds came in the form of interest-free loans from trust members that will have to be repaid. This in turn is likely to mean a season of struggle for a side that won promotion only last year.

The trust’s policy of seeking high-profile membership from luminaries such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Andy Murray might raise some doubts about long-term sustainability – not to mention the earlier touting of selling club naming rights. Club spokesman Paul Goodwin insists, however, that the long-term commitment and planning is there and the trust has already assembled a team of around 65 volunteers contributing to the various commercial, legal, administrative and media arms of the club. 

From WSC 284 October 2010

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