18 April ~ "How can you be sure?", was a standard reaction to Friday morning's news that John Batchelor – former York City chairman, racing driver and sometime toilet roll salesman – had left this mortal coil. Tradition has it that death is a simple fact, one that's not up for debate – but nothing was simple with Batchelor. His reputation for deceit, publicity stunts and financial mismanagement was so pervasive that the first reaction of many York fans was pure cynicism. Perhaps this was just another attempt to grab column inches for yet another scam? He certainly had form.
But if this is a stunt then it is a very convincing one. Hospital sources say he died on Sunday night in a Stockport hospital aged 51, reportedly of multiple organ failure. His death ends an unhappy life that left a trail of debtors, job losses and personal failures. He openly asset-stripped companies, struggled with alcoholism and almost destroyed the already crippled York City through rank mismanagement and siphoning off club funds to his own account.
He started out in door-to-door sales in Lancashire, becoming the sort of local businessman that is described as having unspecified "interests" and is always willing to give a good quote to the press. In reality he was sliding from crisis to crisis, taking over companies with the aim of making a quick buck. Sometimes this was by reviving their fortunes but often it involved the use of pre-pack administrations, laying off staff and selling the assets. Former friends and business partners describe how he was happy to walk away from bad deals and leave them with mountains of debt.
When Batchelor arrived at York City the club was in a crisis that he quickly set about turning into a full-blown disaster. His actions seemed unbelievable at the time and are simply bizarre in retrospect. The club became a "Soccer Club" and was cross–branded with his racing car team, supposedly to attract American interest. Luther Blissett turned up and quickly left. A Brazilian player was signed on account of being Brazilian. Promises of a club radio station, city centre sports bar and even a breakaway league featuring Scottish teams spouted forth from his mouth.
That much could be excused as the naïve actions of a misguided dreamer. But off the pitch he was systematically extracting cash from a loss-making football club. The club's lease on the ground was forfeited as part of a sponsorship deal with Persimmon Homes who coughed up £400,000 – payment made via personal cheque to J Batchelor. The end of his rule had a certain black humour about it. He went on the pitch at half-time, a little tired and emotional, and pledged to hand over control of the club to the Supporters' Trust – before recanting the following morning. Instead he sold season tickets six months in advance, bought himself a new house with the proceeds and left supporters to pick up the mess.
Having found a taste for football, Batchelor set about preying on other lower league clubs. His silver tongue would promise the world to desperate fans – big ideas, big finance and a complete absence of detail – but he would usually vanish a few weeks later, usually after a local journalist looked past his press release and did even the gentlest questioning of his credentials.
In 2008 he proposed buying Mansfield Town and renaming them "Harchester United". Calling a traditional community football club after a team on a defunct satellite television series was bonkers but it made a great story on a slow news day – and Batchelor could not resist the media. Within hours the story was all over the national media – even though his only contact with the producers of Dream Team had been a brief email asking for a meeting. Still, he thrived on confrontation, turning up to stand with Mansfield fans at their next away game before being led away by police for his own safety.
Accrington, Chester and Southampton were among the other clubs that had a lucky escape from his advances. At Chester he achieved the astonishing feat of causing supporters to back Stephen Vaughan's regime as the lesser of two evils. At the end of 2009 he was disqualified from acting as a company director and vanished from view. His illness remains unknown, his personal life was a mess and he left a trail of destruction that is still causing repercussions in both business and football. In a 2008 interview he defend his tactics: "I have always worked, brutal though it sounds, within the boundaries of what is legal." He was unrepentant to the end. James Waterson