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An interesting article by David Conn in The Guardian yesterday highlighted steps being taken by the Football Conference to limit the boom and bust culture which has blighted the league over the last few seasons. They have lost Scarborough, Canvey Island, Halifax Town and Boston United in recent years, and drastic measures have been put in place by a league that is keen not to be seen in the wider press as the home of some financial basket cases. These moves are most welcome, as they seek to force a more responsible form of management upon its member clubs, yet the suspicion remains that life in the Blue Square Premier is still not as rosy as some might want us to believe.
The league is currently headed by Crawley Town, a club whose financial misdeeds have been much reported over the last two or three years, but it is the goings on at two other clubs, Oxford United and Grays Athletic, that are causing alarm bells to ring, with the possibility of one or both of these clubs being unable to continue in anything like the medium to long term being a very real one. Both are clubs that have spent heavily since entering the Conference from very different routes, and both provide distinct warnings to others that seek to take the “spend, spend, spend” route to what is perceived within the world of football as “success”. Other clubs are also believed to be in a financially perilous position, but Oxford and Grays are both currently at the centre of news stories which threaten the clubs’ very existence.
When Oxford United tumbled out of the Football League in 2006, many believed that their stay in non-league football would be a brief one. They spent heavily on the team and led the Conference for much of the first half of the 2006/07 season, before fading in the league and imploding in the play-offs. Last season, they could manage no better than a mid-table finish, and their start to this season has been little more disastrous, with the club currently sitting in nineteenth place in the table. The club was purchased by Ian Lenegan and Nick Merry just before relegation from League Two, but relations between them and OxVox, the Oxford United Supporters Trust, have deteriorated to such a point that the Trust recently met with the owners and voiced their concerns over the long-term stability of the club. The exact extent of the club’s woes remain unknown – Lenegan and Brown refused to advise what they thought that losses would be for this season, citing “confidentiality clauses”, but they did admit that losses for last season were even greater than losses were for the year before. The debt is rumoured to currently be in the region of £4m, with the club possiblt losing over £750,000 per year. To put this in perspective, a debt of under £2m was enough to force the closure of Halifax Town at the end of last season. Their stadium is still owned by the club’s previous owner, Firoz Kassam, and rent there has just increased. Should the club go out of business, whether Oxford council would be able to resist the temptation to allow planning permission for Kassam to build houses on a piece of land in a city which, to put it simply, doesn’t have enough housing, is open to question. The BBC’s “Non-League Radio” show attempted to contact the owners to comment on the situation on Monday, but were unable to.
In Essex, Grays Athletic were briefly a very successful club. They won the first Conference South championship in 2005, and the FA Trophy in 2005 and 2006, but rumour and counter rumour and now encircling The New Recreation Ground. The club is owned by Mick Woodward, who was also the club’s manager until last weekend, when they lost 3-1 to Woking in the league and he resigned. More worryingly for those concerned about the club’s future, he also offered his resignation as chairman and benefactor in an interview with the local radio station, although this stance may have softened slightly since then, with a public meeting having been called this evening to discuss the club’s future this evening. Setting aside the extraordinarily sycophantic nature of the interview for a moment, it’s worth briefly look at the background behind the decision. Grays recently sold Danny Kedwell to AFC Wimbledon for £10,000, and it was rumoured that a couple of supporters contacted the non-league press to inform them that the proceeds for this sale had gone straight to Woodward rather than to the club. It seems enormously unlikely that this would have happened – Grays is, after all, a limited company that has to submit full accounts to Companies House every year – but the question remains as to whether this is the real reason for his sudden volte face. The club’s ground appears to have been sold earlier this year to two property developers, Galliard Homes and Fairfield New Homes, who remain as main sponsors of the club, but plans to move the club five miles to a new stadium at Aveley fell through because it was felt to be too far from their current site and, while there has been talk of moving to a new stadium in the Blackshots area of Grays, there are no concrete plans for a new stadium and, in the current financial climate, it could take some time to find the funding or the council support required to build a new stadium. In the meantime, crowds at The New Recreation Ground have fallen from an average of almost 1,500 three years ago to an average of under 600 this season. This is, to put it simply, an unsustainable course for the club to chart should it wish to retain a full-time playing staff.
The Football Conference, ultimately, can put in place whatever rules it wishes to try and secure the long term viability of its member clubs, but the end repsonsibility for the running of those clubs ends with the people that sign the cheques. Through the smoke of rumour and counter-rumour, it is difficult to see what the exact truth behind the health of the likes of Oxford United and Grays Athletic is, but it is difficult to offer either of them a positive prognosis based on what we know, and the situation at neither club is helped by the apparent intransigence of the owners of either of them to communicate openly with their supporters. Oxford United may yet prove to be beyond help, but it is impossible to say when the owners stop taking calls from the press and allow relations with the Supporters Trust (who, it should be remembered, only really have the long term future of the club at heart). Grays Athletic’s supporters, on the other hand, still have the time to mobilise and organise themselves into a Supporters Trust, which may ensure that football of some sort continues to be played in that particular corner of Essex. Their meeting this evening should prove to be an interesting one. There are many questions that need to be asked there, the most important of which is, “what are the plans for our new home?”.
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
I’ll close the bloody gates…your banned. Like Casey in ’07
This article is all lies. Everyone knows that Cambridge are next.
Thanks for publicising the plight (or alleged possible plight) of Oxford United. It’s been a disastrous decade for the club, which is probably still paying for the Glory Years of the1980s. It’s almost exactly ten years since FOUL was formed, in response to the last financial crisis at the club which almost saw it fold (until, with an irony only available in hindsight, Firoz Kassam turned up to save the club and get the new stadium completed). At that time players’ wages were funded by the PFA and the backroom staff went unpaid for two or three months. There’s no suggestion of that happening at United yet, but if Ian Lenagan decides not to continue funding the losses then, whether or not he walks, this could become the reality again. Even if things don’t get to that stage it’s all looking pretty bleak, and some supporters are talking (some rather hysterically) about relegation, or even doing an AFC Oxford scenario. While we’re not at that stage yet, and hopefully never will be (it would mean United dropping at least two or three divisions and having to find a different ground to play at, of which there are precious few in or around the city), it is a measure of how serious things are (or rather, how serious things might be – we don’t know for sure because the owners have a bunker mentality and aren’t telling us), and also an indication of how good a job OxVox are doing in bringing the problems to the supporters’ attention.
The main problem was that the new owners arrived with a weight of expectation: initially that Jim Smith would prevent the side from being relegated to the Conference, and then that United would bounce back to the league instantly. A lot of money was thrown into the club to try and ensure that happened, and when it didn’t there was no plan B, but a lot of players on expensive contracts and not a lot left in the pot for others. It looks like they are gambling again on promotion this season, bringing in expensive signings, and early indications are that they’ve got it horribly wrong. Personally, I don’t think Darren Patterson is a bad manager (there are some United fans who disagree, loudly) but that working under his current constraints, and with that weight of expectation, he’s been hamstrung. It’s a vicious circle – the more desperate the club becomes, the less likely they are to succeed.
Some of these compounding problems have also come from the ‘parachute’ payments system, which encourages clubs to overspend in their first season in a lower division.
When a club is relegated to the Conference in particular, it is symptomatic of deeper problems than just not winning enough matches to stay up. When Exeter City were relegated in 2003 their ‘parachute’ payment was immediately gobbled up by creditors so they didn’t have the opportunity to throw money at team in an attempt to go straight back. Oxford did over spend and then crashed in the play offs and last season Torquay did the same. They are both looking at a much longer stay in non-league than they thought and of course, Oxford are in even deeper ‘do-do’. The 5 years it took Exeter to get promotion back to the league were spend in re-structuring the club, with the Supporters Trust holding 62% of the shares, forming a sound off the pitch organisation as well as re-building the playing staff by the appointment of young untried Managers (Eamon Dolan, Alex Inglethorpe and Paul Tisdale). All of these were/are able to work within budgets, have a strong commitment to youth development and the recruitment of young players who have potential but haven’t quite made it elsewhere. No overpaid journeymen joining to enhance their pensions, but honest team players.
The result is not only playing success, but a solid financial model with the bonus of being able to gain the rewards from selling on players up the pyramid. Recently George Friend joined Wolves in a deal that is realistically worth a potential £500k + sell on clauses.
Scrap parachute payments and those teams relegated will have a better incentive to get the basic right as early as possible.
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