Stag wars

Blessed with an unpopular chairman, Colin Dobell writes on how a group of fans were encouraged to formulate a plan to make Mansfield their own once more

The story of Mansfield Town’s decline is a familiar one of dubious financial dealings, serially broken promises and a wanton lack of investment. However, it may not have a conventional ending if the efforts of a group of fans achieves its goal of ousting the current chairman Keith Haslam. Unlike other such campaigns, they also have concrete ideas about how to go about replacing him effectively.

Haslam, son of the former Luton and Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam, bought the club from its previous owners Abacus in 1993. The ground, however, was transferred to Abacus to pay off a debt of £1.63 million owed to them by the club.

Since then Haslam has succeeded in alienating the fans, players and manager of the club, not to mention the local press. From the start he took action to ensure that the football club would break even, resulting in large increases in ticket prices, the playing staff being cut back to the bare minimum and administrative staff losing their jobs. He has made repeated promises either to build a new stadium or to redevelop Field Mill, none of which has yet come to fruition. The ground is currently one of the worst in the league, with only one stand to speak of, and holds only 4,500.

The club has had to borrow money from the PFA to pay players’ wages on more than one occasion. In April 1998 the players only secured their cheques by barricading Haslam’s car into the car park with their own vehicles. Meanwhile Haslam himself has drawn an annual salary of £30,000 since changing the club’s articles of association in 1994 and has illegally borrowed more than £110,000 from the club (directors are not allowed to borrow more than £5,000 from their company).

The club has no shirt sponsor, the lottery has collapsed and the team has sunk to almost the worst position in its history as successive managers have been starved of resources. Steve Parkin, who miraculously took Mansfield to eighth place in the Third Division last season, despite operating under a transfer embargo for long periods, quit in the summer after “certain assurances” he had received from Haslam were not upheld.

As a result of this embarrassing decline, a group of Stags fans felt they could no longer sit back and watch the club being destroyed and formed TEAM Mansfield Ltd in August. They took the view that Keith Haslam was interested only in making as much money as possible for as long as possible from Mansfield Town. More unusually, they set about securing for themselves the professional, financial, marketing and legal management – not to mention the goodwill of the community – the club needs if it is to prosper.

TEAM Mansfield encourages its members to invest in a trust fund in order to build a financial base to purchase the majority shareholding in Mansfield Town. Each member is to be restricted to 1,000 voting shares ensuring that no individual can control the club.

Already membership has grown to over 600 and the fans group has established fruitful links with the local paper, business, the local council and many individuals with the requisite skills both to run a campaign and to plan for the future of the club.

They envisage an elected community management board, with a professional chief executive to run the club on a day to day basis. The main problem is that Haslam is not willing to sell the club for anything less than “a Lottery win”, although the fans are not ruling out a dialogue with him.

There is no guarantee that Haslam will leave soon, or that he will sell to TEAM Mansfield. However, the fans have developed a professional organisation with a structure and a business plan that could be adopted immediately if the club was to go into receivership, learning the lessons from Bournemouth and Chester in particular.

If Haslam does hang on, the contacts TEAM Mansfield has made with business mean that in the longer term they should be able to make him an offer he cannot refuse. The challenge will be to motivate the fan base for the long haul.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month