It felt too good to be true. We reported last month on Keith Haslam’s decision to evict Mansfield Town from their Field Mill ground and on the subsequent agreement which allowed them to return to the ground before the matter became an issue that could seriously threaten their existence. With a public statement left on the club’s official website this afternoon, however, it becomes clear that this matter is not resolved to anything like the extent that it should be by now and that Haslam, who seems fated to return to our attention time and time again as something approaching a pantomime villain, is reneging on a verbal agreement that he reached with the new owners of the club.
It was exactly a month ago that Mansfield Town reached agreement with Haslam over the future of the club’s tenure at Field Mill. At the meeting, it was agreed that the club would return to their ground providing a payment was made in full for a reduced rental rate to cover the rest of this season as well as an ex gratia payment to be made of £2,000 to cover Haslam’s legal costs in getting the lease re-written. Mansfield Town claim, however, that these weren’t the only clauses that were agreed when verbal agreement was reached, and it is the small matter of how Field Mill came to be under the ownership of Haslam’s company, STAGS Ltd, in the first place, which has come to be something of a sticking point again.
When the club’s millionaire owner, John Radford, took ownership of Mansfield Town, the circumstances under which STAGS Ltd came to acquire ownership of the ground came under immediate – and understandable – scrutiny. Radford appointed the law firm Pinsent Masons to look into the legality of the dividends paid by the club to STAGS Ltd, and they claim that one of the clauses of the agreed on the 16th December that allowed them to return to Field Mill was that this investigation be allowed to continue. Furthermore, they claim that this verbal agreement was reached in the presence of a witness whose credentials, presumably, cannot be understated – the Mayor of Mansfield, Tony Egginton.
The club is now stating that Haslam is reneging on this agreement in insisting on a clause that prohibits further investigation into what was going on with regard to dividend payments while Haslam was the owner of the club, as well as a further payment of £3,500 for bailiff costs resulting from the action that he took last month, although the club states that it has made this payment. What may be curious about this – because, given his history, there isn’t very surprising about the idea of Haslam reneging on an agreement that he has made – is the matter of what Haslam may or may not feel that he has to hide from Pinsent Masons. It is surely not unreasonable to suggest that if he has nothing to hide, he has no reason to impede Pinsent Masons in their investigation and, as we discussed on this site before, there certainly seem to be reasonable grounds for them to look into it. Has he got something to hide and, if he has, what it is it, will be the question that will naturally pass through the minds of many Mansfield supporters.
The question, therefore, becomes one of what the validity of an oral or verbal contract might be. In most areas of contract law, verbal contracts can be enforced through the court system, although they can – obviously – be difficult to prove. The presence of the mayor of the town at this meeting, therefore, would be a significant advantage to the club in this situation. In the case of a tenancy agreement, though, matters can be further complicated by the sheer amount of conditions that would be required by such an agreement. In such situations, it is usual for a written Statement of Terms to be issued by the landlord within twenty-eight days of a verbal agreement being reached and perhaps this explains why Mansfield have gone public at this time.
At this stage, it is impossible for us to speculate on the outside on who is legally right and who is legally wrong (the argument over who is morally right and wrong seems a good deal more clean-cut), and Haslam may or may not release a public statement of his own over the next few days concerning this matter. What we know for certain, however, is that this matter throws the future of the club back into limbo. The FA and the Football Conference have rules regarding lease arrangements for grounds in their league and may well not look too kindly upon this matter rearing its ugly head again. It is to be hoped, however, that they look upon this new dispute sympathetically in terms of how they deal with the football club. Moreover, there may or may not be grounds for Radford to query the transfer of Field Mill into the name of STAGS Ltd, and agreeing to drop any investigation could well leave them in hock to Haslam indefinitely. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Radford has proved himself to be acting in the best interests since he took the club over – Mansfield’s long-suffering supporters will be hoping that he makes the right decision this time, too.
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