Surely it’s a wind up?

The current most fashionable place to be seen as a football club is in court facing a winding up order. Virtually all of these relate to debts owned to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – i.e unpaid tax. So far in January we have seen Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Cardiff City, Plymouth Argyle and Southend United from the league, and Lewes and Chester City in the Blue Square. So why now? Southend’s Chairman Ron Martin has a theory:-

HMRC appear to be sending out winding-up petitions against football clubs like confetti,” Martin said. “The club may now need to apply to the court for an injunction against HMRC“. HMRC has indeed become more aggressive in its dealings with debtors after it lost its protected creditor’s status, meaning that once football debts have been settled in full in insolvency cases, the taxman must wait in a queue alongside all other creditors. HMRC refused to discuss the specific case at Southend, but a spokeswoman said: “We do not take these steps lightly.”

Chester City's Deva stadium

Winding up orders rarely lead to the end of a football club.  We did see the demise of Kings Lynn in November 2009 when the courts took the side of HMRC and wound the club up for a debt of £77,000.  Lewes, on the other hand have faced 3 in the past year, despite paying off most of their outstanding debt in accordance with a plan agreed with the Tax man.  Unfortunately it appears a new man took over the case and got aggressive, giving the Blue Square South club just 72 hours to find £48,000 a few weeks ago, which they managed to do at the 11th hour.  Chester City face a “final” hearing on 10th March where they need to stump up £26,000 otherwise they will go the same way as Kings Lynn.

Selhurst Park

However, winding up orders do more than often lead to Administration for a club.  In the last 25 years, 69 Football League clubs have entered Administration, some more than once. This week we have seen Crystal Palace decide for a second time that they cannot afford Simon Jordan’s sunbed sessions and have appointed P & A Partnership as the clubs only hope of survival.  The administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle admitted he was not a football fan to Talksport’s Danny Kelly.  His stance was very clear – “I will do everything to ensure the long term survival of this football club.” It is no surprise that the club’s biggest asset currently is Victor Moses, the 19 year old utility player.  Rumours of his departure had been circulating long before Guilfoyle was asked to try and rescue the club.  The Administrators first act was to “ban” Moses from playing at Newcastle on Tuesday.  When asked by Kelly why, his response was cold –

“One of the options for the administrators is to sell players during the transfer window,” he said.  “Independent football agents appointed by the administrators to assist with player sales have reported that there is a great deal of interest from clubs wanting to buy Victor Moses.”

Wearing the shirt for the last time?

“I could not sleep last night worrying that Victor might be injured in the forthcoming match against Newcastle which could jeopardise the future of this long-established club.  I therefore took the tough decision to instruct the manager that Victor Moses was not available for selection. The manager was very disappointed.”

Interesting enough, one of the liabilities of the club was payments to agents (Palace paid nearly £250k in agents fees in 2008 alone), yet here is the administrator using one (in this case WMG) to try and get the best deal for the club, and of course themselves.

Asked if a situation could arise when other players were under offers would be “banned” from playing, Guilfoyle stated of course, and even if the club were forced to field less than eleven players.  Luton fans may remember Mr Guilfoyle from their time in administration last year.

But what is Administration, why do clubs do it, and why don’t any ever actually go out of business?  Administration is essentially another world for Insolvency.  A business is deemed as insolvent when its debts outweigh its income.  A company can call in an Administrator at any time if it feels that it cannot continue with its ongoing business.  The Administrator is there to protect the long term and secured creditors (such as staff) and will do everything within their power to ensure the long term survival of the business.  In footballing terms it means as soon as a club goes “into administration” they lose control of the club.

The Administrator takes sole charge and can essentially dictate all affairs, apart from naming the team of course, within the football club.  Their interest is to freeze all debts, including those to staff and players, and find a viable solution to the issue.  Normally, a creditor will negotiate a settlement of x pence in the pound.  Which means that if a club owes £100,000 and a settlement is agreed on for 50pence in the pound, all creditors would get half of what they were owed – but not immediately.  This is where the Company Voluntary Agreement comes into play – the CVA.  This is the reason that Luton were docked further points.  They had what they believe was an agreement, but it was not ratified so by coming out of Administration they had no legal backing and the league thought they were naughty boys.

So why also dock clubs 10 points?  Surely this will make it harder for their long term survival?  Yes and no, but the sole reason for this lays in the Leicester City case.  At the start of the 2002/03 season the club moved into their new 32,500 all seater Walkers Stadium.  Unfortunately the club had run up monsterous debts of £30m and just ten weeks after the start of the season they went into Administration.  The club was eventually purchased by a consortium led by Gary Lineker and creditors were forced to settle for a tiny fraction of what they were owed.  The club were then free to start spending again, and off the back of this they won promotion to the Premier League just a few months later.

So the Football League (note – not the Premier League – we will get onto them shortly) decided to stop this happening again, where a club could essentially gain a competitive advantage on the pitch by wiping out their debts.  So in came the 10 point Administration penalty.  Now the rules are that if you go into administration prior up to and including 6 weeks before the end of the season you get a 10 point penalty there and then (as Darlington have done this season).  If you apply for an Administration order after this date then you might get 10 points now, or you might get 10 points the following season – it depends where you finish in the league.  If you are a no hoper and already relegated then you may think that heading off into Administration may seem like a good idea – wrong!  You will get minus 10 points next season.  However, if you are fighting for survival against relegation, or pushing for promotion then it will deducted there and then.

In the Blue Square Leagues it is different once again with points penalties ranging from 10 points up to 25 points as Chester City found to their surprise in the summer.  They can also force teams out of the conference for other financial irregularities as well – just as Boston United – see Gary Andrews excellent article here. This season we have seen the first club in the top four levels of the pyramid go under for quite awhile as Kings Lynn lost their mid season fight against their debts in the Unibond Premier and folded, meaning the expunging of their records (is their an official expunger I wonder?)

And finally we have the Premier League.  The top table, the creme de la creme.  So what is the penalty for such misdermeaners here?  Well there isn’t any actually!  No Premier League club has ever gone into Administration and so they have never had to decide on a fate.  There have been a number of near misses, most recently West Ham’s situation after the collapse of the Icelandic economy (in theory West Ham were in default of a number of long term commitments in 2008 and should have filed for Administration immediately, but appear to have forgot) and Portsmouth’s current situation is fingernails if ever there was one.  Rumours circulate that the penalty will be 9 points, but any such punishment will almost certainly relegate the club, and with their precarious position it is hard to see them returning to the top table.

In 1923 the Football League consisted of 88 teams.  Seventy Five years later 85 of those teams were still in existence.  Simon Kuper in a recent article for FourFourTwo compares this with traditional business – how many theatres for instance that were in existence 75 years ago are still open today?  And what about Airlines?  Remember such greats as Pan-Am, Pacific South West, Danair or very recently Sky Europe?  All no longer in existence.  So why can football clubs “bend” the rules? Banks anyone?  Lehman’s, Barings, Northern Rock – yet little old Rochdale still carry on as normal.

So in some ways football clubs are more solid than banking institutions.  But why do they get into such a state.  We can understand some of the debt at the top of the tree as clubs chase the impossible dreams of “breaking into the big four”, or even some Championship teams who gamble on getting into the Premier League. But what about the likes of Palace?  Where did the £30m worth of debt come from?  A club living beyond its means?  Simon Jordan does not strike many as a reckless businessman, and indeed saved the club from oblivion in 2000 after their previous administration.  Cardiff City – smart new stadium, playing at the highest level they have been for decades, yet all of a sudden the vultures are circling above the Cardiff City Stadium.

The club had raised around £3m from a season-ticket initiative to buy players in the January window, but it will no longer be used for that purpose.  They will also be selling off “assets” which refers to land and holdings rather than the playing squad.

Cardiff's City Stadium

A statement issued by the club this week said: “The financial health of the club is the ultimate priority.” The Bluebirds face a second winding up order 10 February if they fail to pay an outstanding tax bill of £2.7m owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.  Chairman Peter Ridsdale made assurances earlier this month that the club was “trading as normal” and there was “no immediate threat” to the future of the club.

So how many more will fall foul of the taxman this season?  Surely it is only time before a club in the league is wound up, and if that happens do we enter the forth age of football in England?  Author Alex Fynn famously quoted that the first three ages were 1) The creation of the Premier League, 2) The first Sky TV deal, 3) The arrival of Roman Abramovich….All positive measures in terms of money creation…so now are we seeing reality at last hit the beautiful game? Maybe just maybe.

No silence of The Lamb

Two weeks is the longest I had gone without football for nearly three years. With summer leagues in the Nordics combined with major UEFA tournaments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Sweden providing more than a few games to go to I had not been in short supply of a game or two. So since my visit to Cardiff two weeks ago I had thrown myself into my new job, and more importantly, new flat in Copenhagen. I had even chosen to avoid the “mirth” and “mayhem” in Amsterdam as 5,000 England fans with little imagination descended on one of Europe’s over rated cities for the friendly between Holland and England.

But fear not dear reader the games are coming thick and fast over the next few weeks. But first it was time for a new ground. Not just any old game either – we are talking about major league stuff here – step forward Tamworth FC and Grays Athletic. Since my last post about Grays (see “A local Team“) the club had gone through a strange few weeks. They had added to the squad (in fact bringing in 15 players in just one week including John Terry’s brother Paul and ex-Luton striker Dean Morgan), sacked their manager (their twelve in just nine seasons) and were all ready for the big kick off at home to Chester City when the FA came a-calling, demanding that the game was called off down to issues around the ownership of the Welsh/English team. So Grays got a day off, starting their campaign against Histon a few days later, gaining a very good scoreless draw.   Tamworth had also been due to play Wrexham, but like Grays their game was postponed (for the reason that the Welsh team had a number of players on International duty) as well but they had opened up with a credible draw away to Stevenage Borough.  So pretty even really.

The Little Fullers had been on their annual pilgrimage up north to their Grandparents and we had to go and pick them up before they started talking some foreign language. As luck would have it I manage to arrange a subtle detour on the way home to take in the delights of Tamworth, home of The Lamb.

Now the people of Tamworth must have some real balls. Not happy with their original ground, the Jolly Sailor ground (named after a pub and not a drunk naval character), they moved to The Lamb in 1933 and have called the stadium home since. They had won the Blue Square North league last season, coming out on top of a close bunch of teams including Alfreton Town, AFC Telford United and Gateshead. They had actually played at this level before, having completed two seasons a few years ago.  The time at the top level was eventful to say the least.  After winning the Southern League in 2003 the club found life tough in the top level of non league football.   They also reached the FA Trophy final but surprisingly lost to Burscough at Villa Park.

In early 2006, with the team struggling to retain their Conference position they stunned the football world (well in the East Midlands anyway) by announcing that they had signed Paul Merson.  Unfortunately time and years of off the field distractions had taken their toll on the ex-Arsenal player and just over a month later, and with only one appearance for the Lamb Merson announced his retirement from football.  At the end of the season the club finished in the relegation places, but Canvey Island decided to concentrate on redeveloping their caravan park and so they went down, and Tamworth stayed up.  But twelve months later they couldn’t avoid the inevitable and they were relegated to the Conference North.  Their exile lasted just twelve months as they won the league last season, not before the fans had won the prestigious “most drunk fans in non-league football” award.

With West Ham’s Premier League campaign kicking off on the other side of the West Midlands at Wolverhampton, and Kent’s crusade to be England’s number one Twenty20 side taking place in Birmingham at Edgebaston I was spoilt for choice. However, who needs Premier League or Twenty20 commercialised crap when you can have Blue Square football!

Tamworth FC 2 Grays Athletic FC 1 – The Lamb – Saturday 15th August 2009

Tamworth v Grays

Tamworth v Grays

Lolly had the option whether to come to the football or go to the cinema for this one.  She is growing up fast and faced with the opportunity to dress up and put on make up she inexplicably chose Aliens in the Attic rather than the football.  So after depositing the Fuller girls at the Odeon I walked through the maze of tunnels and found myself at The Lamb – probably the best named ground, behind the Dripping Pan, in England.  The sun was shining and I managed to have a nice pint outside the social club, located in the corner of the ground as the players warmed up.  Today’s match sponsor was the local baptist church, perhaps feeling the club needed some divine intervention.  However, the choir were here in full voice behind the dugouts and from the first whistle tried to rouse the home team.

The first ten minutes was relatively open, with Tamworth looking the most positive.  Grays looked like a team who hardly knew each other (not really surprising considering the past few weeks) but their innovation of putting the first initial as well as surname on the back of the shirts must have been designed to help them get to know their team mates.  They started with Paul Terry in centre midfield and Dean Morgan up front and it was the ex-Luton man who broke the deadlock on 14 minutes when at first he appeared to lose control of the ball, putting the Tamworth defender off guard before stabbing the ball home from 12 yards for the Essex’s teams first goal of the season.

Just over five minutes later it was 1-1 as Bradley Pritchard slotted home after Gray failed to clear a dangerous cross into the box and Slade’s “Com feel the noize” boomed out around the ground.  One became two in the 25th minute when the Grays defence seemed to go to sleep, their attention diverted by Alex Rodman wandering around the edge of the pitch holding his head and Jake Sheridan drove the ball home from the right hand side of the penalty area just inside the far post.  Grays were almost level a few minutes later as Richard Graham’s shot was cleared by Tamworth as it rolled towards an empty net, after Dean Morgan had again shown his class in the penalty area for the visitors.

Both teams made changes at the start of the second half, believing that the game was their’s for the taking.  Tamworth’s manager, the Ex-Nottingham Forest player Gary Mills, had certainly got them playing some attractive football, with passes finding feet rather than heads and some excellent overlapping from both full backs.  Some very questionable offside decisions did not endear the assistant referee to the home fans when time and time again the final forward was flagged for offside despite making his run from behind the last defender.   Grays played their part to in an entertaining game, often breaking with pace but just lacking the final ball, especially when Dean Morgan was withdrawn just before the hour mark.

The crowd behind the dugout continued their vocal support although they were along way short of the mark when they sung “No one likes us, we don’t care”.  Talk like that leads to all sorts of issues in later live, and anyway what was there not to like about a traditional Non-League ground in the summer sunshine.  It was a bit disappointing that the official attendance was just under 750 as the club seemed to have made an effort in providing a decent ground, and with things on the up on the pitch they should be rightly proud of their club.  I am sure for the bigger games such as the visit of Luton Town or Kidderminster Harriers the sizeable away support will swell the crowd, and the bar takings significantly.

Alex Rodman continued to shine for the home team, with one run in particular taking out four Grays players, and then a few minutes later a shot from 25 yards narrowly missing the net proving his emergence as a player to watch this season. Neil MacKenzie should have made the game safe for Tamworth on the 80th minute but somehow Gray’s keeper Edwards got a foot to his goalbound shot.  Grays started to lose their discipline as the game wore on and a few tackles were a bit over the top and the yellow card came out on a few occasions.

So a great start to the domestic league season.  Great little ground, friendly fans, a rare afternoon of sunshine and some decent football.  On this showing neither will challenge for the top spots in the Blue Square Premier, but likewise neither will they be fighting for survival at the end of the season – Famous last words Fuller!

About The Lamb
Although the ground is on the small side, it is well maintained and it has a certain charm about it. The Main Stand is the most recent addition to the ground, being opened in 1996. It is a tidy little all seated covered stand that straddles the halfway line of the pitch. It has a capacity of 426 seats. The other side is a small covered terrace, known by the fans as ‘The Shed’ which runs nearly the full length of the pitch. This terrace is home to the ‘The Shed Choir’ (in reference to the Tamworth fans who sing in this stand). On its roof is a television gantry, complete with a large model owl to help deter the presence of other birds.

The Castle End is an open terrace, whilst the other end is a partly covered terrace (to the rear). This end, the Meadow Street End, is given to away supporters. The pitch has a slope running up from the Castle End to the Meadow Street Terrace. The ground is overlooked in one corner by the sizeable Tamworth , this season’s shirt sponsors. It gets its unusual name from a former public house called the Lamb Inn that used to be situated near to the entrance to the club car park.

There is an excellent club bar in the corner of the ground where you can drink outside when the sun is shining, and has Sky TV.

Thanks to Duncan Adam’s and his excellent Football Grounds Guide for the above information.

How to get to The Lamb
The ground is located on the outskirts of the town centre but well placed for local amenities.  From the railway station it is a 15 minute walk.  Exit the station and walk down to the traffic island. Turn left along the dual carriageway and continue to follow it, bearing around to the left at the next roundabout, which takes you past a garage. The floodlights and the red exterior of the ground can be seen in the distance in front of you.

If you are driving you will probably come via the M42.  Exit the motorway at junction 10 and take the A5 towards Tamworth.  Follow signs for the SnowDome off the A5 – the ground is almost opposite the huge building.  You can park at the ground for £1 or street parking for free nearby.

How to get a ticket for The Lamb
With a capacity of over 4,000 and an average attendance of less than 1,000 getting into see a game isnt a hard job.  Simply pitch up before the game, pay your £12 for a place on the terrace or £14 for one of the 500 or so seats and you are in (£7 and £9 for concessions respectively).  The club occasionally give away concession tickets free of charge via schemes with local shops such as ASDA and McDonalds.  Check the official website for details of such events.

It’s not always grim up north

A refocus on the 92 Club after 2 year gap

Don Valley Stadium1 The 92 Club has been around for a couple of decades, set up by a true anorak who had visited all of the Football League grounds and decided to form a club for like minded individuals who have nothing better to do on most weekends.  However, it is the sign of a true football fan – one who puts other clubs before his own, and win constantly be scanning the fixtures to see how they can try and fit two or more games in a weekend (In years of searching I have only ever seen it possible to do three in one day but I continue to search for the holy grail of four).

The club was set up in days before email and the internet, and entry criteria was posted to you on request.  Every year members got an annual newsletter, run off on the copier in the bedroom no doubt that gave us the details on new stadiums due to open the following season plus details on who had joined the club over the past year.  All of this for a £5 contribution per annum.  We also got a copy of the annual accounts showing the stock the club had – polyester jumpers all round by the look of it.  The club secretary had avoided all reference to the internet, and with entry criteria laid down in stone, flatly refused to consider upgrading either the rules or the methods of communication.  To summarise what did and didn’t count as a “valid” game:-

– Any first class game played at a Football League (and latterly Premier League) stadium that featured the home team, or an England first team international.  Confusingly this ruled out a club friendly fixture, but not an England fixture.

Also, you had to visit each club’s home ground – even if they groundshared.  So in the 1990’s when Charlton Athletic shared with Crystal Palace and West Ham, and Wimbledon shared with Palace you would have to go to a home game for each club, irrespective if you had already seen a game there.  If a club was relegated from the football league, and returned to the league you were obliged to revisit the stadium even if it was unchanged.  Any news stadiums had to be visited in the first full season the club played there, and if a stadium was redeveloped by more than 50% you had to revisit.

So in recent years I should have been to:-

Carlisle United’s Brunden Park, Hereford United’s Edgar Street, Exeter City’s St James’s Park and Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground.  I have absolutely no intention of going to the first three.  A 600 mile round trip to Carlisle is hardly on my list of priorities just so I can keep up my membership.  I do subscribe to the notion of visiting new grounds and so I have Doncaster’s Keepmoat under my belt recently and this season penciled in a trip to Colchester United’s Cuckoo Farm.  However, just before the season started it was announced that Rotherham United, a club in serious financial problems after relegation to the Second Division last season and a -17 points penalty to start this season had essentially been locked out of their Millmoor Stadium by the owners and they would be playing for at least one season at the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield. Not much really going in their favour but young ex-Manchester United starlet Mark Robbins had signed a new contract with the club as manager and had been very bullish in the days before the season started, even with such a huge financial penalty.

With the Hammers playing away in Manchester against this seasons laughing stock on Bank Holiday Sunday, I packed the Fullers off for a weekend in the North.  I have mentioned before that CMF actually hails from Nottinghamshire, and whilst she was still at school she had a Saturday job in Poundstretchers in Newark.  Every Saturday I used to meet her for lunch on Saturday’s then head off to a game at 2pm.  During the course of a season I managed to see 25 different clubs all within an hour of Newark (a nice trivia question if you get a spare 30 minutes to work out what the 25 were considering I drove a 10 year old Ford Fiesta).  Sheffield also has some good memories for me – during my time running Cable & Wireless’s Football project I spent many a decent night out in Sheffield, and have some great friends still in the city.  So the plan was to get up to Meadowhall area, drop CMF off with the Littlest Fuller before Lolly and I headed a mile down the road for the game.

A nice sunny day greeted us for once in this poor summer and with a traditional northern lunch of pie and gravy (one things I love from up north) under my belt, quite literally, we headed down the road for the game.  The stadium is surrounded by pubs, albeit not the ones I am used to in SE1 but still popular with the fans.  What was obvious was that the fans hadn’t deserted the club despite their enforced move 5 miles south.  The had started the season brilliantly, winning both league games and pulling off a massive shock by beating nearest neighbours Sheffield Wednesday on penalties in the Carling Cup.  Chester City, on the other hand, had had a disastrous start, including a 6-0 defeat away to Dagenham and Redbridge on the opening day.

Entry was simple – £18 for lower tier and £20 for upper tier.  Lolly went free, although we did have to say she was 7 and not 8 to get in.  It is good to see them trying to do their bit in encouraging young fans as for every full paying adult, up to for under 8’s could enter free – which did men you had an almost reverse kerb crawling situation from the seedier parts of the city with under 8’s trying to attract the attention of unattached adults so they could get free entry.

The views across the north of Sheffield and over to the Yorkshire hills.  It was a very pleasant scene for football, although the 3/4 empty stadium will get very cold and wet in the winter when the winds blow from the hills directly into the faces of the supporters.  The stadium itself is much bigger from the inside than the outside.  It can hold around 18,000 at the moment, but with Rotherham only averaging less than 5,000 only the main covered stand will be in operation this season.

Rotherham lived up to the pre-match hype and were ahead after 40 seconds when from a free kick Rotherham’s centre forward headed home.  It was 2-0 within 10 minutes as Rotherham’s very impressive Reuben Reid ripped apart the Chester defence and I thought we were on for a cricket score.  But Chester came back and their old-fashion English centre forward (big, ginger and lumbering) pulled one back, only for Reid to run rings around the defence again on the way to creating a third.  So at half time it was 3-1 and all my myths about football in athletics stadiums had been put to shame with a fantastic half.  But it couldn’t last, and the game died on its feet in the second half.  However the win did mean Rotherham had moved onto -8 points, and with both other naughty boy teams (Bournemouth and Luton Town) failing to win, Rotherham moved another step closer to safety.  But based on their attractive attacking football I cannot believe Robbins will be happy with just survival.

Ten minutes after the final whistle we were back in the hotel up the road and ready for a night out of lard, Tetley’s and exploding chimneys in Sheffield.  See – it’s not always grim up North.