In May, York City beat Luton Town by two goals to one in the Blue Square Bet Premier play-off final at Wembley Stadium, ending an eight year long stay in non-league football and the the return of League football to one of the English games more idiosyncratic venues, Bootham Crescent. For seventy-five years between 1929 and 2004, York City had been stalwarts rather than starts of the Football League, with two seasons in the Second Division between 1974 and 1976 being their sole stray from its bottom two divisions, but Bootham Crescent, a short walk from the centre of the city, has long been a favourite of many lower division supporters, being as it is a traditional English football ground set amongst rows of terraced houses and cobbled stones. The club is likely to be leaving this home in the near future, however, with planning permission having been agreed earlier this year for a new home in the Monks Cross area of the city. Yet the stories of how York City FC came to be relegated from the Football League and to be having to find a new home can both be traced back to one man, former chairman Douglas Craig.
Craig had been involved with York City since 1978, when he joined the club as a director. A former chairman of the York Conservative Association who was awarded an OBE in 1981, he had been the chairman of the club since 1991, after former chairman Michael Sinclair was seriously injured in a car crash during the 1990 World Cup finals and, during his recovery, decided to give up running this football club and become an Anglican priest instead. Craig was always tolerated rather than adored. He had fifteen minutes of infamy in 1994 when he hit the headlines for being the only chairman to refuse to sign up to the Kick It Out campaigns ten point code of conduct for dealing with racism inside football stadia, but was considered one of the great and the good, a good burgher whose prudence took care of the clubs finances, delivered a reasonably successful youth system and the occasional surprise in the cups, such as their victories against Arsenal in the FA Cup in 1985, Manchester United in the League Cup in 1995 and Everton in the same competition a year later.
By the end of the 1990s, however, dissatisfaction at his tenure as the clubs chairman was growing. There was a campaign against him which was becoming angrier, both with his stewardship of the club and the way in which he interacted with its support. The tipping point came in July 1999, when Craig wrote a letter to the share-holders of the club stating that he was to transfer the ownership of Bootham Crescent into the name of a holding company called “Bootham Crescent Holdings.” The reason for this, Craig stated in the letter, was because of the FAs Rule 34, an ancient rule put in place to prevent directors from profiteering from the closure of clubs by insisting that all profits from the the sale of assets after the closure of a club had to be paid to the FAs Benevolent Fund or other charitable organisations. This, Craig claimed, “could adversely affect the ability of York City to continue playing football at Bootham Crescent”, and it was already a fait accompli. He and three other directors already owned ninety-four per cent of the shares in the club, and had already decided to bypass this rule by transferring the ownership of the ground into the ownership of a holding company. Bootham Crescent was subsequently “sold” to BCH for a little under £166,000. In December 1999, Craig said with a degree of prophecy which lays bare his intention from the outset:
In the absence of any buyer therefore, I am more than happy to carry on but I should point out that I do have an alternative. It is one, however, at which I am sure all the decent loyal supporters of the club would be horrified should I contemplate taking it. The alternative, put bluntly, is that I should use my share-holding to start a campaign to close the club down.
Over the following eighteen months or so, something surprising – although perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, not so surprising – happened. York City, who had previously been a club that had been run as a model of prudence, went into absolute financial meltdown. This was a time of difficulty for the club. It had, after all, been relegated from the Second Division to the Third Division (now League Two) of the Football League at the end of the 1998/99 season. By 2001, the clubs wage bill had topped £2.2m or, to put it another way, 151% of its annual turnover being a figure sufficiently dreadful to draw special attention from that summers Deloitte % Touche report as the worst in either the Football League or the Premier League. By the twentieth of December 2001, the club was put up for sale, having lost £1.2m in the previous year, for £4.5m. Craig, for the record, had taken his share-holding in the club to sixty-five per cent when he purchased former chairmans 123,000 shares in the club from Michael Sinclair for 90p each in 1991.
The sale priced was based on the value of Bootham Crescent itself. In a residential area close to the city centre, the £4.5m demanded for the club and stadium reflected the ground’s perceived market value, based upon a market valuation of £1m per acre. Far from securing the club, the transfer to the holding company had come to mean that Craig and his three fellow directors stood to share nearly £3.5m as a result of selling BCH and the ground. Suddenly, that £166,000 spent on “buying” Bootham Crescent made considerably more sense, as did the decision of the share-holders to turn down a £1.5m bid for the club made by a group of local businessmen. It also explained why, when the club was put up for sale, an alternative was offered of buying the club only for £1, although, according to a statement released by Craig three weeks later, “Any parties seeking to acquire the ownership of the Football Club will be required to vacate the ground and premises at Bootham Crescent.” In other words, the custodian had turned asset-stripper.
This same statement had, however, a sting in the tail. Craig added that if no buyer for the club was forthcoming by the thirty-first of March 2002, the club would resign its position from the Football League. It was an unprecedented announcement to make publicly. BCH would pay £1m towards renovating the Huntingdon Stadium, an out-of -town stadium used by the city’s rugby league club. The result was a predictable level of uproar from supporters, while the York Evening Press, local appropriately plain-speaking local newspaper, stated that, “York City fans have been betrayed… The directors call themselves City fans. Today they sold the real fans down the river.” Within three weeks later, a supporters trust had been formed to try and fight the actions of the clubs directors. The trust wrote to the FA seeking clarification of the intentions of Rule 34 and an answer to the question of whether it could, as Craig had stated in his letter of 1999, “adversely affect the ability of York City to continue playing football at Bootham Crescent.” The response, received from the arguably appropriately-named Nic Coward, head of legal matters and regulation, made it perfectly clear that no-one within that body gave a damn what happened to the club. “Clubs have in the past claimed that the existence of Rule 34 is a disincentive to investment”, wrote Coward, “However, the rule persists.” Coward, for the record, was appointed as the general secretary of the Premier League in December 2010.
York’s supporters were on their own, then. The supporters trust couldn’t buy the club. There was no way that they could afford the £4.5m that BCH were demanding for Bootham Crescent and buying it alone for £1 with nowhere to play was not a viable option. The trust had meetings with Craig, at which the possible reasons behind his behaviour became apparent. He had come in for some abuse from a tiny minority of supporters in recent years, and his reference to that was clear in telling them that, “This is payback time.” When questioned on the morality of behaviour – considering that what he had done was not actually illegal – his answer was as blunt as could be imagined: “Don’t give me that morality crap.” On the fifteenth of March 2002, BCH sold York City FC to a name that would go on to earn himself a chapter in this series, one John Batchelor, but Batchelor had, in spite of a promise that he would buy both the club and the ground, only purchased the club for the nominal fee of £1. If anything, Batchelors ownership of the club only pushed the club nearer to the grave, and by a week before Christmas 2002 it was in administration.
Douglas Craig, meanwhile, had been busy. In the summer of 2002, Persimmon Homes lodged a planning application to build ninety-two houses on the site of Bootham Crescent, and it was later revealed that they had purchased ten per cent of the shares in BCH. Yet within twelve months of this, they were starting to look for an exit route from their involvement in this sordid little saga. They were receiving considerable amounts of bad publicity locally, with a pressure group called Friends Of Bootham Crescent now actively campaigning against them, including turning up at their home launches to protest against them. After a spell in administration, the supporters trust had managed to raise enough money to propose a CVA and take the club over, and in the summer of 2004, although York City had been relegated from the Football League by this time, the trust managed to wrest a £2m loan from the Football Foundation – the club had been entitled to grants to this amount under Craigs ownership for renovation, but these had never been taken up – and agreement was reached for York City to stay at Bootham Crescent “for the foreseeable future.” In May of this year, with “for the foreseeable future” having apparently been defined as ten years from 2004, planning permission was granted for a new ground to be built on the site of the Huntington Stadium.
In the summer of 2006, the supporters trust gave up ownership of the club to Jason McGill, one of those that had worked so hard to save Bootham Crescent several years earlier. It wasn’t an ideal situation for the trust, but they had found it difficult to break even in the Football Conference and they do at least retain a twenty-five per cent share-holding in the club. Douglas Craig got his money, but lost York City FC, and not merely the ownership of it. His name will remain dirt amongst the clubs supporters. Another reputation perhaps damaged beyond repair was that of Barry Swallow, captain of the team that played in the Second Division against Manchester United and Aston Villa in the mid-1970s, who was one of the directors who profited from the sale and did absolutely nothing to temper the asset strip carried out on his behalf by BCH. He turns seventy years old next week, but it is unlikely that he will be particularly welcome back at Bootham Crescent in the foreseeable future, but it is Craig that is the real villain of the near-death of York City Football Club. Brought into the club as one of the city’s great and good, his legacy was ruined by the pursuit of money over morality – which, as we will see as this series progresses, a common enough human failing. As it prepares for life back in the Football League again this summer, though, those connected with York City FC may well pause to consider how much better off they are without him anywhere near their clubs management.
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