Ill-gotten gains

Simon Goodley looks back on a successful but deeply uncomfortable season

I have an awful admission to make. I am a Notts County fan (that’s not it) and a strange thing has happened to me during our farcical season. Having had nothing much to celebrate since we won the old Third Division championship in 1998, I spent the majority of my team’s League Two title-winning season hoping that our challenge crumbled.

Followers of the bottom tier of English football will instantly recognise the genesis of my disloyalty. Back in the summer, a group calling itself Munto Finance was gifted the club by our rather credulous supporters’ trust. British Virgin Island-based Munto (a front for BVI-based Qadbak) could never demonstrate it had anything like the funds it claimed, but Notts fans mesmerised by the arrivals of Sven-Göran Eriksson, Sol Campbell and Kasper Schmeichel assumed that the millions must follow. They never did.

At the risk of sounding impossibly smug, this was always going to happen. I’d long been aware that one Russell King – a convicted fraudster who the Jersey financial authorities were keen to contact – was actually pulling the Munto strings. I knew this after placing two phone calls to football industry contacts (something which, it seems, was too much effort for those running the club) and subsequently being invited for a job interview at Meadow Lane (to my astonishment, King conducted the meeting).

However, at that stage, while I knew I didn’t want to work for King, I still wanted my team to win. At least, for a while. I began feeling uneasy as I stood on away terraces and observing the distasteful way our fans had begun to behave, waving wads of cash at rival supporters to the woefully predictable refrain: “We’re so rich it’s unbelievable.”

What was really unbelievable was the sales pitch given by Munto, and the fact that so many Notts fans swallowed it. Yet when a few sceptics politely raised questions on the club’s unofficial internet message board, not only did we garner no support, but we were actively abused by our fellow fans.

Many demanded the upstarts be barred from the site for peddling such insolence towards Munto and their smooth frontman, Notts “executive chairman” Peter Trembling. Furthermore, much of the extreme vilification seemed to stem from people with only a very recent acquaintance with the club (and, ditto, the English language).

They were not alone. The players were often just as graceless. After Notts slumped to a 1-0 defeat away to Barnet in August, our midfielder Ricky Ravenhill told the Sun: “We shouldn’t be coming to places like this and getting beaten. We were devastated to lose to a team like them.”

Ravenhill should have taken a moment to listen to himself. For the record, in each of the past two seasons Notts had finished behind Barnet and while we’d just signed lots of new players, they included the likes of Ravenhill from, er, world-beaters Darlington.

It got worse. Even at the start of the season, King was telling potential sponsors that Trembling would soon be sacking manager Ian McParland, a legend at Meadow Lane since his playing days in the 1980s. The axe finally fell after October’s 2-2 home draw with Torquay United, when Notts were just three points off the automatic promotion spots.

That finally did it for me, and not because I was a particular fan of McParland’s coaching. The people running our club were behaving appallingly on almost every level and I began looking for more and more reasons to dislike the team I’d supported since I was six.

Suddenly, I started believing that we’d cheated our way into promotion contention. We’d signed players who would have never joined Notts if they’d researched Munto, including ones we’d coaxed from our (now) promotion rivals – like midfielder Ben Davies from Shrewsbury Town. My view that we were bending the rules eventually proved less controversial and the Football League slapped a transfer embargo on Notts for running up a wage bill which exceeded 60 per cent of turnover. Meanwhile, managers of rival League Two teams, such as Bury’s Alan Knill, argued articulately against County’s conduct.

Coupled with all that, as Munto fled to leave Trembling in charge, Notts pleaded poverty and withheld payments owed to other sides such as Burton Albion. Yet still we chartered private jets to take our players to away games and failed to offload any of the star names we clearly could not afford. Even to somebody who has supported the club since 1978 (my first game was Les Bradd’s testimonial) County’s behaviour towards our rivals looked impossible to justify. We had distorted the competition.

All this, of course, was the doing of Munto and Trembling, so naturally I expected that my secret longings would fade once Ray Trew took over the club in February. Yet, somehow, they could not be repressed. As my parents pray their son is going through a silly phase, I feel I must finally come out of the closet. I’m ashamed to say it but, for this season at least, I’ve been supporting a football team that I wanted to lose.

From WSC 280 June 2010