Crystal balls up

Huge debt, daily losses and a bankrupt chairman – Dominic Fifield recounts the sorry saga at Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace, founder members of the Premier League which they left just two years ago, have now been perched on the brink of oblivion for nearly a year. Over £20 million in debt and losing £40,000 every week, south London’s perennial under-achievers have been brought to their knees by gross financial mis­management.

There is enough bizarre and sinister intrigue in the Palace story to generate the scripts of a bad weekday morning American soap – The Bold and the Beautiful may be pushing it, but the Naive and the Downright Incompetent might work.

Palace’s current problems date back to the arrival of Mark Goldberg as chairman in 1998, which brought with it not just Terrys Ven­ables and Fenwick, but also a host of expensive back­room staff and dubious sign­­ings. Palace appointed a “Head of Videos”, bought a striker for £175,000 a fortnight after he had been sold for a nominal fee and recruited an Argentinian midfielder who could hardly walk without crutches.

Furthermore, the £23 million deal which had seen Goldberg succeed Ron Noades in the boardroom literally bought him only a seat in Selhurst Park’s administrative portakabin. Noades still owned the stadium, the club shops and the training ground. He even claimed a cut of season ticket sales while his successor was master of all he surveyed, as long as he didn’t avert his eyes from the eternally bare trophy cabinet.

By January the financial situation was self-evidently dire. Goldberg panicked, called in the administrators, sent them away again and tried another firm whose figures made better reading. Since salvation was sought in administration last March, 46 people have lost their jobs, while rumour and counter-rumour have linked numerous saviours with the Eagles. Richard Branson’s name has cropped up, as has that of electronics giant Philips. Supporters reacted with trepidation as a Malaysian businessman called Jerry Lim rolled into town.

However, the only plausible prospective buyers to emerge were a mysterious “city-backed” consortium and an offer put together by the current board of directors. The former was headed by stadium development guru Laurence Davies, prompted by the heir to the Marks and Spencer fortune Mark Sieff and advised by Alan Bentley, a Sky football reporter. It was concocted on Sieff’s Monaco-based yacht, but ran aground as soon as the terms of the Selhurst Park lease came under discussion.

That leaves the directors’ bid. Funded by Simon Hume-Kendall, Larry Grimes and the appropriately named (in Palace’s case) Tramp Oil, the bid has Ron Noades’s support, although exactly what this entails is a mystery. Certainly, the Brentford chairman/man­ager does not intend to become involved financially just yet, but despite his frequent reminders that the Eagles’ plight is utterly hopeless, he has hinted that he may return to SE25 at the end of the season. “I’ve been asked half a dozen times already to go back and take up the reins because no one seems capable of doing so,” he said recently. “But I won’t go back until the takeover is completed – I want someone to have actually done the deal before I would get involved. I think the adminstrators’ asking price of £12 million is ridiculous. I’d be amazed if anyone is going to pay it.”

Nothing is too far-fetched to believe. Fans have read appeals in the business pages of national newspapers for investment; they have seen players go on strike as bonuses remained unpaid; they have even seen South Americans of debatable tal­ent strut their stuff in a red and blue shirt for free in a bid to improve their CV. Nothing feels surreal at Selhurst Park any more.

In the meantime, Steve Coppell’s side has mimicked the dismembered black knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail to ensure heads stay above water. With the spine of the team broken up and a collection of old heads and youth team recruits attempting to gel, mid-table obs­curity would be a formidable achievement.

Mark Goldberg was in Spain playing golf on the day he was declared bankrupt in the High Court in December. Apart from watching the occasional game from the Arthur Waite Stand, he is no longer on the scene at Selhurst Park. Instead, the club continues in administration, hoping creditors – who include Ven­ables and the former Juventus striker and Palace flop Michele Padovano – will ac­cept around ten pence in the pound. The Turin giants and RC Strasbourg are still contesting the £4.5 million they are owed in outstanding transfer fees, with Palace unable to offer little more than the equivalent of Del Piero’s or Zidane’s monthly wage package as compensation. The Foot­ball League is still unconvinced that the Eagles will be able to fulfil their fixtures this season.

In response, a group of supporters have set up a trust to buy into the club, following the lead of Bournemouth. Admittedly, raising £20 million is beyond any fan group, but more than £600,000 of pledges have already been made and a substantial amount might en­sure supporters at least have some kind of say in the club’s future. If there is one.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month