Tom Davies looks at clubs experiencing difficult times
Beware rich men bearing loans might well be the cautionary mantra of this decade, and the latest to discover the perils of debt are Wycombe Wanderers. Fans’ joy at promotion from League Two has been tempered by a rancorous summer in which managing director Steve Hayes has been accused of bullying the supporters trust into giving up its shareholding to grant him outright control. Hayes, who also owns the rugby union club Wasps, with whom Wycombe share Adams Park, wants to shift both to a 20,000-seat new stadium, to be operated by a separate stadium management company.
Hayes’s main line of attack was the club’s debt to him, which had grown to £6.9 million since 2004, the year Wycombe ditched their historic supporter share ownership model and became a plc (also the year they were relegated from the third tier). So when Hayes offered to convert £3m of the debts into shares in return for full ownership it felt like an ultimatum to the supporters trust: relinquish its shareholding and agree to his full takeover or see funding dry up and face the spectre of administration. The trust’s board was split eight-seven in favour of Hayes’s proposal, and the membership eventually gave it 81 per cent backing, but not without dissatisfaction. Trust board member Joe McKenna quit, complaining that members had been “bullied into their decision”.
“There was an element of resignation about it,” admits trust spokesman Trevor Stroud. “A couple of our board members have resigned, and the rest are still quite upset about the way it happened.” The trust has now committed itself to working with Hayes, and Stroud points to “assurances” that have been secured in negotiations with the owner – the preservation of two supporter directors (though their voting rights are somewhat nominal), and guarantees that none of the remaining £4m debts would be called in for five years – but Wycombe are now essentially at the whim of one man. Nor are fans convinced by the need for a new stadium. “We cannot see the logic to the assumption that crowds would rise,” Stroud says.
Action to protect an existing stadium is the priority at Wrexham, where supporters’ website Red Passion is petitioning for the local council to protect the Racecourse Ground as specifically for sport in its local development plan. Wrexham came perilously close to losing the ground four years ago when former chairman Alex Hamilton threatened to sell it for retail before administrators scuppered the move, and this latest campaign is aimed at pre-empting such problems in the future.
It takes place while the Conference club is seeking to start new redevelopment plans. Wrexham plan to develop student accommodation on land around the stadium, through a separate development, Wrexham Village, generating revenue to pay for a new 5,000-seat Kop as well as clearing the club’s debts. Planning permission has been granted but the Wrexham Supporters Trust was unhappy with its terms, concerned by the removal of a section 106 agreement that guaranteed a new stand, and its replacement by a weaker “unilateral undertaking”, which the trust dismissed as mere “verbal assurances”. The trust says it has “always supported a development at the Racecourse in order to clear the club’s debts. However it is imperative that the development meets the clubs needs”.
Problems in Scotland, where Livingston have gone into administration, while an attempted high-profile “fan buyout” at Stirling Albion has hit the skids. At the root of Livingston’s woes are the First Division club’s £330,000 debt to West Lothian Council in rent and rates, and administration at the end of July confirmed long-standing fears of supporters. When Livi had their power cut off earlier in the summer over an unpaid electricity bill, owner Angelo Massone declared that the non-payment was deliberate, as fans had not donated enough. The Livi for Life supporters trust is backing former Cowdenbeath chairman Gordon McDougall as the best option for a post-administration takeover.
Stirling’s supporter bid stalled when the chairman of the debt-laden Division Two club, Peter McKenzie, turned down a £300,000 offer from the Save Stirling Albion campaign. The trust has opted for a publicity-conscious route towards fan ownership, pitching its campaign at fans throughout Britain and garnering celebrity backing from luminaries such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Andy Murray. But McKenzie’s rejection of the offer, despite the trust meeting an initial asking price, has left the club in limbo, with the local council now poised to take possession of the stadium over £50,000 it is owed, and no known alternative offers for Stirling on the table.
The trust says it will continue its fundraising for a takeover. Its model bears some resemblance to the Myfootballclub website takeover of Ebbsfleet, interest in which has faded after an initial splurge of enthusiasm, but campaign spokesman Paul Goodwin stresses differences. “We’re closer to Barcelona than Ebbsfleet,” he told WSC. “Theirs always felt more like a marketing thing, but we’re going for 100 per cent ownership of the club rather than 75. We’ll have one-member, one-vote elections and we’ve got council and community support.” Goodwin estimates that of the 2,000 members signed up to the campaign so far, around 1,200 are local. Time will tell if the novelty wears off for those who have signed up from further afield.
From WSC 271 September 2009