Northwich are hoping a takeover will save them, reports Michael Whalley
Neil Redfearn certainly knows how to pick a club in crisis. In the summer of 2006, he quit the manager’s chair at Scarborough as they lost their Conference place amid a host of financial woes. The former Barnsley and Bradford midfielder might have hoped for an easier ride when he pitched up at Northwich Victoria this summer. He didn’t get it. Nine Blue Square Premier matches brought eight defeats and a draw. So Redfearn packed his bags to find something less stressful to do.
Since then, Northwich have lurched from one crisis to another. Redfearn’s successor, Paul Warhurst, lasted a week before walking away, citing a lack of financial backing. Tunisian striker Dino Maamria, a well known figure in non-League circles, became their third manager of the season in the opening week of October. But then came the winding-up order brought by HM Revenue and Customs over an unpaid £350,000 tax bill. Redfearn may feel he got out just in time.
As WSC went to press, owner Mike Connett was applying to take the club into administration. But the Vics have hardly any assets to call their own; even paying off a reduced debt may prove beyond them.
With the Conference part-timers accruing just three points from their opening 16 league games, relegation was a near- certainty even before the prospect of a ten-point deduction loomed. Now most Northwich fans will be happy if the club just see out the season – and those fans blame one man for their club’s plight.
Connett owns the Victoria Stadium through his company Beaconet; he has stated publicly that he sees the ground as a pension fund for himself and his family. Connett’s statement may seem an odd one to make about a stadium situated next to an asphalt plant at the far end of an out-of-town business park, but Northwich’s ground has acquired a lot more value over the last few months. That is partly because Manchester United agreed a deal with Connett to play their reserve games at Victoria Stadium. While Northwich’s home gates rarely reach four figures, a United reserve game against Liverpool in October attracted 3,500. There were even rumours that United were planning to buy the stadium, but Connett quickly quashed that idea.
On the pitch, the seeds of Northwich’s destruction were sown as Connett’s working relationship with manager Steve Burr deteriorated last season, even as Vics finished comfortably in mid-table. It culminated in a bizarre end-of-season stand-off, as Burr filed an action for constructive dismissal against Connett and walked away from the club. The chairman refused to release Burr from his contract and there followed two weeks of inaction before the departing manager finally faxed over his resignation.
Burr then vented his spleen at the owner’s “hands on” style in a newspaper column, alleging that Connett ranted at the players after an early-season defeat at Morecambe, and told him to get rid of striker Mark Sale and midfielder Danny Mayman. To complicate matters further, there was also an alleged disagreement over Burr’s decision to drop goalkeeper Ben Connett, the son of the chairman. In response, Connett senior has declared himself above such public mud-slinging. But it has clearly hurt him.
In a statement made to the Northwich Guardian after the winding-up order had become public in early October, Connett senior said: “It is easy for people to criticise, and over the last three years some of the personal abuse I have received has been sickening.” It’s all a long way from the optimistic days when Connett bought the club and the then-unfinished ground in 2004, rescuing Vics from an earlier financial crisis that had also seen the club plunged into administration.
One way or another, the club and ground will soon be in separate hands. A consortium led by Manchester businessman Jim Rushe and construction engineer Ian Campbell, the former chairman of Unibond League side Woodley Sports, spent much of October in talks to take Victoria off Connett’s hands.
Should the takeover fail, then Vics will almost certainly fold, but the supporters’ trust has already pledged to reform the club in the North West Counties League should that happen. Either way, Vics would probably continue to play at Victoria Stadium as tenants.
Connett has offered Northwich free use of the ground for the rest of this season, but it is believed that the rent for next year would be £50,000. Right now, paying next season’s rent is the least of Northwich’s worries. The first priority is just to get to next season.
From WSC 250 December 2007