Tom Davies explores the role supporters are playing in saving their clubs
The supporters’ group that has assumed control at Exeter City is facing a sizeable battle to keep the club alive over the summer. Their relegation from the Football League on the last day of the season was swiftly followed by the arrest of chairman John Russell and vice-chairman Mike Lewis over allegations of financial irregularities. The pair, who were bailed to return to police in September, promptly stepped down, leaving the club’s reported debts at more than £2 million with creditors closing in.
Into the breach stepped members of the Exeter City Supporters Trust, who took majority control on May 20. Trust chair Ian Huxham, its chief executive Terry Pavey and trust member Julian Tagg (a director of Old Tiverton Road Ltd, the company that owns the club’s offices) were given a 28-day period of “due diligence” to see if they could turn things round.
It’s a big ask. The trust is optimistic that, with the help of a co-operative city council, agreements can be reached with Exeter’s biggest creditors, and has set itself the target of raising £100,000 by the time the 28-day period ends on June 16, and a further £100,000 over the following month. Membership of the trust has expanded rapidly (more than 500 and rising), and help has been offered from fans at York, Lincoln, Swansea and Bournemouth, all familiar themselves with such traumas in the recent past. But whether all this proves to be enough remains in doubt, given the stark situation bequeathed to them by the previous administration. “Despite their protestations of 24/7 hard work, Russell and Lewis did nothing during their tenure to resolve our problems,” says trust secretary Dave Treharne.
Exeter, managerless too after the departure of Gary Peters, will still try to resist pressure to go part-time as they prepare for life in the Conference. Whether spoon-bender supreme Uri Geller, whose boardroom role was never official or clarified, will be around much longer is harder to gauge and of less importance to fans. The trust has said it will be talking to Geller about whether he wants any role at City, but, as Treharne says: “The club does need publicity – but not of the Michael Jackson type.”
One wonders how the Football League’s proposals to dock points from, or even relegate, clubs that go into administration might have affected the likes of Huddersfield Town had they been in operation last season. It was Town’s own players who applied to put the club, £17m in debt, in administration in March – against the wishes of the board. Chairman David Taylor said he felt “stabbed in the back” by the players – who hadn’t been paid in full for five months and were dependent on PFA assistance. Taylor’s own efforts to attract investors to the club had met little success.
But the players’ action had a galvanising effect. The newly formed supporters’ group the Survival Trust (which already has more than 1,000 members) raised vital funds to keep the club going and last month a con-sortium led by popular former chairman Terry Fisher launched a takeover bid which was accepted by the administrators on May 13. Also on board is Ken Davy, chairman of Huddersfield Giants rugby league club, Town’s McAlpine stadium co-tenants who would have been left in the lurch themselves had the football club folded.
The task ahead of the new consortium is considerable, with sizeable debts to pay off and the club still, for the time being, in administration. The Terriers, relegated to the third division last month, are also looking for a manager following the end of Mel Machin’s temporary tenure, but the mood among supporters has brightened considerably.
A fans’ takeover of sorts has helped ease Port Vale’s financial worries. Valiant 2001, a supporters’ group headed by former Vale director Charles Machin, assumed control in April. Within a few weeks the club was able to pay off its preferred creditors and move out of administration after seven months.
The new owners have brought season-ticket prices down to 1993 levels (£230 for early buyers) and are promising more player signings – depending on the volume of season-ticket sales. Sceptics see this as something of a fallback excuse should investment in the team not be forthcoming, particularly as Vale have just let seven players as well as the coaching staff leave. Of more concern to those fans seeking increased supporter democracy at the club is Valiant 2001’s structure, which is based on the conventional maxim of the more you pay the greater your stake, rather than the one member, one vote system sought by the Vale Supporters Trust (VaST). Full membership of Valiant 2001 is £500, which clearly takes it beyond the pockets of a lot of supporters, although associate membership is on offer for £5. Not all fans are yet convinced that better times lie ahead.
From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month