Barnet, Bournemouth, Chesterfield

Tom Davies gives us an update on clubs in crisis

Barnet fans hope to use May’s council elections to break three-and-a-half years of deadlock surrounding their attempts to find a new ground. Club and council have been at loggerheads since 2002, when the Conservatives won control and scuppered plans approved by the previous Labour administration for a stadium on land immediately south of their existing, and inadequate, Underhill home. The Tories refused to sanction the sale of the land necessary for the stadium.

Pressure group Keep Barnet Alive is now considering fielding candidates under a “community alliance” umbrella, which it hopes would also focus on the general need for sports facilities in the borough (nearby Hendon’s Claremont Road ground is also under threat from developers, for example). Campaigners will also talk with all the main political parties and in a marginal council – in which the Tories’ courting of anti-stadium votes in two key wards nearest the proposed stadium site is potentially decisive – a bit of electoral pressure of their own could help the Barnet fans’ cause.

Bournemouth fans are voting on board proposals to sell and lease back their ground to meet the club’s most pressing debts, principally the £500,000 owed to the Inland Revenue, in one of the most expansive exercises in supporter democracy yet seen in Britain. Members of the Bournemouth Community Mutual supporters’ trust, who have 51 per cent voting rights in all key decisions at the club, are being asked to approve plans to sell Dean Court to an unnamed developer, who will then rent it back to Bournemouth at £300,000 per year on a 25-year lease. (The club is currently paying almost as much as that in debt interest alone.)

Chairman Peter Phillips insists the proposal is the only show in town and that the club could well be wound up were it to be voted down. The club owe £6 million on top of their tax bill. Phillips says the deal would raise £4m at a stroke and told WSC that the deal was far more generous and secure than the sale-and-leaseback deal mooted in 2002 that would have included the buying-out of covenants preserving Dean Court for sporting use. The new proposal has no such clauses.

However, many fans have been critical of the board’s stewardship (with events ranging from pop concerts to sportsman’s dinners losing money) and some question the wisdom of selling off the ground and renting it from an outside concern. The ballot of the trust’s 2,500 members closes on November 9.

This column’s not just here for the nasty things in life, though. The last couple of months have seen celebrations for fans of three clubs who have endured some of the most notorious examples of malign mismanagement. As WSC was going to press, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott finally announced his approval of Brighton’s plans for a new 23,000-seat stadium at Falmer, bringing a happy end to a saga that began ten years ago when former chairman Bill Archer sold the Goldstone Ground.

At Chesterfield, news of the four-year jail sentence handed to former chairman Darren Brown for fraudulent trading during his time at Saltergate offered sweet vindication for fans who had seen Brown loot the club and almost force them to the wall during his brief tenure at the start of the decade. He was forced out in March 2001, handing control to the supporters’ trust, with the club insolvent. It was revealed in September, after reporting restrictions on the case were lifted following the conclusion of separate proceedings against Brown, that he had drained Chesterfield of around £800,000 in an attempt to bail out his failing business concerns elsewhere. These included the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey club and the Sheffield Sharks basketball team. Oh, and to fund a £55,000 deposit on a new house as well as three company cars. A trail of false invoices was uncovered, as Derbyshire police and the Serious Fraud Office took up the case initially pursued by the FA’s compliance unit. Brown eventually pleaded guilty in September 2004 to two charges of fraudulent trading (he was found not guilty on three other counts and 14 others were left to lie on the file).

The law has also caught up with Wrexham owner Alex Hamilton, with the High Court ruling last month that ownership of the Racecourse Ground must be transferred back to the club administrators from Hamilton’s company, CrucialMove. Hamilton had shifted ownership of the ground to his firm after taking over in 2002, with the intention of selling it to developers. The High Court ruling has sparked rare optimism among fans, who see positive signs in the fact that the administrators’ preferred takeover contenders, a consortium led by former director Neville Dickens, also have the backing of the supporters’ trust. There’s work to do yet, though – Hamilton, still the majority shareholder, intends to appeal and the club need to be out of administration by May or face expulsion from the League. Perhaps the League might see to it that their fit-and-proper-person test, introduced in the wake of the Chesterfield fiasco, might be made to work against the likes of Hamilton, who passed it.

Keep Barnet Alive
AFC Bournemouth
Chesterfield Football Supporters Society
Wrexham Supporters’ Trust

From WSC 226 December 2005. What was happening this month