Seaside sickness

Stephanie Pride reports on the legal scrap over Scarborough's ownership that has left football – and the fans – as the main casualties

When striker Steve Brodie parted company with his boot during a dismal midweek goalless draw against Barnet in October in front of barely 1,000 spectators (Man Utd were on the telly), it just about summed up the potency and pulling power of a thoroughly disheartened side seemingly on the road to relegation. But, dismal though events on the pitch have been, it is not the football that Scarborough fans have been talking about in recent months.

Following an excellent season, in which one more victory would have clinched promotion, no one ex­pected it to be easy this time around. After the loss of key players Gary Bennett, Jason Rockett and Neil Snodin – not to mention the resignation of chairman John Russell following the team’s humiliation against Torquay in the play-offs – morale was at a low ebb and team-building an obvious priority for 1998-99.

Enter maverick businessman Anton Johnson, pro­mising to give the club an immediate cash injection to buy new players. After much touting around by an emotionally exhausted Russell, who had put the club on the market, we had a new chairman and, ostensibly, a new owner. But three months later, with the team renewing its acquaintance with the wrong end of the Football League, where were the new signings? And, more to the point, where was the elusive Mr Johnson? “We thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel to get this club out of the Third Division,” admitted Russell to the barracking of supporters at a recent fans’ forum, “but it was actually the light of an oncoming train.”

While many fans are now seriously questioning his judgement, few would doubt the personal and financial commitment of Russell and his wife Gillian to the club. After taking over in 1995, Russell’s first priority was the construction of new stands, which remain the envy of many larger clubs in the Third Division. That they have only been filled this season by crowds around the level seen in Boro’s Conference days is taken as evidence by Russell of a town that manifestly “doesn’t support its club”. In fact, he implies, we are lucky to have a football club at all.

But while previous owner Geoffrey Richmond (now chairman of Bradford) at least succeeded in taking the club out of the red, Russell has been attacked by fans for generating large but apparently “manageable” debts. Reminding fans of his high-profile exploits to raise funds for the club, from touring the nation’s 92 League grounds in a Reliant Robin to accepting a much-touted loan from a spotty Dutch teenager he appointed a director, he now presents himself as a victim of the media. “Please, press, don’t go back to Mr Johnson,” he appealed (or should that be threatened?) at the forum, “because as far as I’m concerned we go out of here united or we don’t go out at all.”

The desire of the club’s die-hard supporters – to whom he was also appealing – to see the back of Johnson is matched only by their anger at being kept in the dark for so long. With Johnson seemingly unwilling to face his critics, or even turn up to a recent seven-hour board meeting, his actions and motives have re­mained as opaque as his darkest pair of shades. With the local daily paper currently being sued for libel over a front-page war of words, it would be unwise to com­ment on any of the rumours and allegations currently doing the rounds of the terraces – suffice to say that some journalists are paying barr­isters’ fees before even going to press.

What has been established in recent weeks is the reason why the club – which had not received a fee for a player in three years until the sale of leading scorer Gareth Williams to Hull in November – has been barred all season from entering the transfer market. Suspicions were aroused when the trumpeted purchase of Andy Saville from Cardiff for £20,000 fell through, as Johnson failed to come up with the money.

But it was only “by accident” that Russell – who remains a director and the fans’ most direct link to the club – discovered that Johnson, who had previously pledged £1 million to bring in new players, had been borrowing money just to pay the present players’ wages. Worse, he had done so from the PFA, in contravention of his own contract and without the required consent of the board. Using the opportunity of a rare media interview at the end of October to announce his intention of “setting things in motion” to acquire new players “within a matter of days”, Johnson then borrowed a further £40,000 from the same source.

That manager Mick Wadsworth has succeeded in rallying the team to some spirited performances in spite of the increasingly apparent weaknesses in the squad can only enhance his reputation. Yet even W­a­d­­s­­worth can hardly relish his opportunities for some im­aginative tactical experimentation, and recently called on the board to “get together and sort out this mess”.

While no one wants to see him leave, it is unlikely that he would stay at the club without the introduction of new blood on the pitch. According to former mid­fielder Michael McElhatton, who was released on a free transfer and currently plies his trade for Rushden and Diamonds, the players too were unaware of the scale of debts last season.

At the moment, it may be that the only realistic prospect of League survival that doesn’t rely on the Doncaster-like collapse of another club is the return to the helm of John Russell himself. That the once universally popular Russell might not be able to take his customary stroll round the ground these days without being called names he prefers not to repeat in front of “ladies” is a reflection of the continuing anger of fans. But if he can honour his pledge to see the club’s legal owner ousted through the courts (and as far as he and his allies are concerned, Johnson has “contradicted nearly every page” of the hefty contract he signed on his arrival at the club), then he stands a chance of restoring his credibility.

Whoever is in control, the club has to raise substantial funds to pay off increasingly impatient creditors, and while Russell has indicated the conditional availability of further help from present sponsors, as well as the backing of Wadsworth, winning back the stay-away supporters will be a still harder task. Embarrassingly, at a recent local derby with Hull City, visiting fans outnumbered the home support. Many of Scar­borough’s former opponents in the Conference now attract larger crowds and have considerably more funds at their disposal than Boro, or indeed many of the other strugglers of the Third Division.

No Battle, No Victory, the club’s motto grittily proclaims, but with any realistic chance of building on last season’s success rapidly fading from view, most fans would gladly settle for an honourable draw.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month