The crises faced by Portsmouth and Darlington call into question the way in which of some our clubs are run, argues Tom Davies
Past failures of regulation are rebounding on perhaps the two most persistently crisis-plagued English clubs of the past decade, Portsmouth and Darlington. The legacies of years of debt, unsuitable ownership and mismanagement have pushed both closer to the brink than ever.
Portsmouth's supporters' trust is trying to co-ordinate a community buyout in the face of the winding-up order brought by the taxman for £1.6 million. The club need to find the money by February 20, but their room for manoeuvre is extremely limited. With no suitable owner on the scene – while one extremely unsuitable one hovers in the wings – and with up to £20m needed to keep the club going over the next two years, fans are already contemplating having to start up again from scratch.
The latest descent into chaos was sparked by the arrest last autumn of Vladimir Antonov, owner of the club's parent company Convers Sports Initiatives. The arrest related to an inquiry into asset stripping and led to the freezing of his assets. Portsmouth's parent company descended into administration and funds required to keep the club going dried up. Two months of tax non-payment followed, sparking HM Revenue & Customs' action against the football club.
Meanwhile, the previous owner Balram Chainrai's company Portpin – under which Portsmouth collapsed into administration in 2010 – still holds a charge over the club (which Chainrai claims to be around £17m) and is seeking guarantees of up to £5m from prospective buyers. Not a penny has yet been paid on the Company Voluntary Arrangement that took the club out of administration two years ago. Chainrai clearly wants to extricate himself from Pompey, but fans' hopes of getting an owner in whom they can vaguely trust – hopes already tested beyond limit by the years of Milan Mandaric, Sacha Gaydamak, the invisible Ali Al-Faraj and Vladimir Antonov – have scarcely been lifted by the latest arrival on the scene, the Italian-American businessman Joseph Cala.
Cala has been in talks with the administrator, Andrew Andronikou, about a takeover but a glance at his credentials causes concern. His company, Cala Corp, purports to be involved in developing underwater hotels and sea resorts, though none has yet been built. The company has accumulated deficits of £1.5m according to financial reports from 2010. "We've done quite a bit of research into Cala," says the chairman of the supporters' trust, Ashley Brown, "and let's just say he has had no notable business success in the past 30 years. If the Football League were to allow him to take over the club there would be serious questions about their governance."
Supporters are promoting their Pompey's 12th Man initiative in the city, to gather expressions of support (financial or otherwise), demonstrate their intent to potential investors and to demand a more accountable form of ownership. "It would be good if we can get to a situation like at Swansea, where the fans have 20 per cent," says Brown.
Darlington spent January on life support, having slipped into administration for the fourth time in a decade after their latest chairman Raj Singh said he was unable to continue funding the Conference club. At the time of going to press the latest potential new owner, Yorkshire venture capitalist Paul Wildes, has pulled out. The mess to clear up is considerable, much of it the legacy of former chairman and convicted fraudster George Reynolds, who saddled the club with the wildly unsuitable 27,000-capacity Reynolds Arena.
The latest crisis has sparked a fundraising scramble, with £50,000 found to keep the club going through January, despite mass player redundancies. The situation was not helped by a rift earlier in January between the supporters' trust and the Darlington Rescue Group campaign over the use of the trust's money. This led to the resignation of two of the trust's board members, including chairman Tony Taylor. The trust had been asked to contribute £50,000 towards the rescue efforts but there was unease about pouring money into a black hole should the club fold anyway. Relations have since picked up, with the trust contributing £10,000, but the need for more unity is paramount.
Wildes offered to invest £300,000 to bail out the club to add to £200,000 raised by supporters, who would be offered a 40 per cent stake in return. But he was unable to reach agreement with former chairman Raj Singh, who is owed £2m by the club and with whom a deal needed to be struck. If Darlington do fold, of course, Singh will lose his money anyway. Wildes talked of making greater use of the Darlington Arena to resource the club. The two investors who own the arena, Philip Scott and Graham Sizer, had offered him the ground on a peppercorn rent for the first three years. Whether the stadium, which is subject to covenants restricting the scope of its use, can ever be made viable is a matter of serious doubt.
The recent upswing in gates – Darlington attracted two crowds of around 6,000 in January – points to the goodwill that exists towards the club. But this latest and most serious crisis also illustrates the need for a more comprehensive and accountable overhaul of how clubs such as this are run.
From WSC 301 March 2012