Wrexham FC: Familiar Faces And Even More Familiar Divisions
It was recently noted by some wise soul that if the recent tribulations of Wrexham FC were to be suggested as the plot for a soap opera, they would be rejected as being too far-fetched. Any lingering doubts that these particular truths are stranger than fiction have been swept from the mind over the last seven days in a tumultuous week that has seen two of the bids for the club – apparently – fall by the wayside, two new ones appear and some of the old faces that we mentioned on this site just a couple of weeks ago re-enter the fray. Meanwhile, Wrexham’s supporters can now only wait and watch to see where the ownership of their club.
After the events of last weekend, it all seemed cut and dried. Prior to last Saturday’s match against Forest Green Rovers, Booth’s status as the preferred bidder was confirmed in a somewhat ridiculous ceremony on the centre circle before kick-off. Surrounded by cheerleaders, a stapled envelope was opened and Booth read out her own apparent succession to the throne before closing with a rendition of the Welsh National Anthem, “Land Of My Fathers”. The whole “ceremony” can be seen here:
What, though, was the substance of her bid? Answers to this, of sorts, came in the form of this leaflet, handed out at the ground on Saturday. It makes for interesting reading, to say the least. It offered three levels of shareholding, the cheapest of which was set at £1,000 (for ten £100 shares in the club) – all of which would seem to preclude too many ordinary supporters from investing – and offered no olive branch to people of organisations that she disagreed with. The Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST) received a couple of side-swipes, as did “a few hot-heads”, who would, she stated, “scupper this chance”.
There was little coherence that could be deciphered from the pamphlet itself, and the business plan revealed little more (we’ll come back to what it did reveal later). Equally worrying was what was it actually did say. Booth boldly stated, apparently oblivious to the fact that those prepared to support a non-league club through sponsorship are doing that club a favour, and not vice-versa, that, “Every single local company will be approached to sponsor WFC and I will not be slow to name and shame those that refuse”. Quite how local businesses might have reacted to a threat to “name and shame” them if they were unwilling or unable to support her club. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that raising commercial activity through the use of passive-aggression hasn’t been more widely-adopted, even by the most cash-strapped of clubs. Comments like this, so tactless, so seemingly ill thought-out, characterised her spell in the spotlight, as did the final sentence. At the end of a pamphlet that contained the words “I” or “me” no fewer than eighty-three times, she concluded by saying:
This has nothing to do with Stephanie Booth or The WST, this is purely about who you want to lead the last chance to save Wrexham Football Club.
We could have been forgiven for believing that this was the Game Over moment. With Booth installed as the preferred bidder, WST’s bid for the club was more or less dead in the water, especially when we consider that they were effectively unable to publicise greater detail of their own bid because the club’s owner, Geoff Moss, wouldn’t offer them access to the club’s books so that they could carry out due diligence for their bid. They finally threw in the towel last night, with a weary press release which noted the “needless antagonism promoted by Ms Booth” and admitted that their financial backer had pulled out, due to “their reluctance to get involved in a bidding war with other locally based consortia”. Those that had spent the last couple of weeks rubbishing WST had their wish – or at least they might have, had yet another spanner not been thrown in the works with a pronouncement from Booth’s Facebook page this morning:
Sadly I think it is all too late now as Geoff has just contacted me and said they want to go for a quick cash sale to an individual sorry we came so near and I feel bitterly disappointed.
This all seems most odd. Let’s not forget that Booth’s bid was announced on the pitch at The Racecourse Ground on Saturday and that this was preceded with banners hanging from the ground supporting it. What could have happened between Saturday and Wednesday? Surely, if the issue was – as many suppose it has been – her not having the money up front, this would have been raised at any one of the meetings between her and Moss. We can only speculate on what might have gone wrong (and even as this is being written Booth still seems to be trying to drum up support for her bid – as with everything she has said so far, she is heavy on hyperbole and light on detail), but it must surely be apparent to anyone by now that “Back The Booth” is, if not quite dead yet, at least on a life support machine.
Meanwhile, the “individual” referred to in the above quotation appears to be the former Premier League footballer Ashley Ward, but this particular bid doesn’t seem to be him on his own. Ward had has difficulties of his own, but these are not our main concern right now. What is more interesting is the company that he may be seeking to keep in getting his bid off the ground. One name linked with the Ward bid is that of Colin Poole, a former executive at Shrewsbury Town, but it is not Poole’s time at Gay Meadow that we are interested in either (although it is significant – we’ll come back to that), because Poole – and it’s difficult to stifle the temptation to sigh at this point – has a past of his own.
As long ago as December 2000, Poole was being described as the “baby-faced boss, raking in the dosh” at Claims Direct after it floated on the stock exchange, a deal which netted Poole and its co-founder, Tony Sullman, £50m, but by the summer of 2002 the company was in receivership with its share price having fallen from 363p to 3.25p (yes, pence, not pounds). Poole is understood to have made an estimated £10 million personal fortune from selling shares in the company prior to its closure, although he had departed by the time of its receivership. He was subsequently investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry, and was – you guessed it – disqualified from acting as a company director for ten years from the 22nd of April 2008.
So, what is the significance of Poole’s involvement with Shrewsbury Town? The answer, of course, is the company that he may have been keeping at the time. Amongst the people that he may well have come across at the time would have been Jon Harris and Rob Bickerton, who, as you may remember, were amongst the names involved in the aborted Van Morton Investments vehicle, which was looking to buy the club before dropping out after it became apparent that one of their backers was one Stephen Vaughan. In February, Vaughan stated that:
I was part of a consortium which included former Premier League footballers and a cosmetics retail magnate. That was the reason for going the overseas route with the company and retaining anonymity – they didn’t want their business interests revealed. The new Wrexham chairman, Robert Bickerton, has been criticised by some people for saying he didn’t know who we were, but he was telling the truth. I am a stakeholder in Van Morton Investments, but if the proposed purchase had gone ahead I wouldn’t have been part of the day to day running of the club.
Could one of those “Premier League footballers” have been – or, indeed, still be – Ashley Ward? If Booth, Ward and Vaughan are involved together (and no-one has issued a statement suggesting that they’re not at the time of writing), this would surely create some sort of record for being a consortium looking to buy a football club, two of the backers of which would fail the FA’s Fit & Proper Persons Test. Add Booth and Stephen Cleeve to the equation, and there may be another record. Two bids and one possible bid, and four people that are or have been disqualified from acting as company directors in recent years. Of course, Ashley Ward is perfectly welcome to come out and state, publically, that Poole and Vaughan are nothing to do with him. Until then, a profound sense of unease will be felt whenever his name is mentioned amongst Wrexham supporters.
Against this background, the continuing interest of Stephen Cleeve has become an issue at the club again. Compared with the likes of Vaughan, Cleeve has been speaking a good deal of sense this week on his Twitter feed, but his past (which we went into some detail on this site a couple of weeks ago) will obviously count against him. He has not previously shown any interest in football and a loss-making non-league football club is far from an obvious place to try and make money without irrevocably damaging said club. Words from the sidelines are one thing, but Cleeve will need to produce much, much more if he is to receive anything like the backing of those that will ultimately end up propping the club up financially on day-to-day basis if Wrexham’s problems can ever be resolved – the supporters.
We noted that, at the core of all of this, was a deep division amongst the supporters of the club, to the extent that we described them previously as being “pathologically unable… to unite, even in the face of adversity that is threatening to overwhelm their club”. Nothing has changed over that last couple of weeks, although it is worth pointing out that this disunity is probably not specifically the reason for the events of the last couple of days. Uniting behind the WST at the start might have given them a better chance of the “community club” that so many seem to wish for, but old scars are proving impossible to heal to the point of ridiculousness – there was, for example, still somebody on the Red Passion forum this evening trying to claim that Stephanie Booth is not disqualified from acting as a company director based on a newspaper report of a telephone call to Companies House during which a reporter was apparently told that she wasn’t. We cannot answer the question of how this conversation played out, but we can say for certain that Companies House’s Webcheck confirms her disqualification and that even Booth herself has not denied it since it entered into the public domain.
As such, Wrexham FC is at a crossroads. The WST has been diminished by language from several sides over the last few weeks (it has, this week, finally answered one valid criticisms of it by starting to issue more regular press releases), and the likelihood of it being able to do so would depend on the club’s support coming together as one behind them. Since this has thus far proved to be more or less impossible, Wrexham FC remains at the mercy of whatever the hell Geoff Moss is playing at. Indeed, for all the talk of democracy, this feels as if it has been the case all along. If, somehow, the WST’s bid for the club can be rescued, there is a chance that Wrexham FC can flourish. There is very little between all of the other candidates to suggest that they could do the same.
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