Lewes & Fisher’s Day In Court

By on Mar 5, 2009 in Finance, Non-League | 8 comments

It has been a busy day for non-league football at the Royal Court of Justice in London. Both Lewes and Fisher Athletic were before the judge to explain themselves in the face of a winding up order and, whilst both managed a stay of execution for a few weeks, a huge question mark hangs over the viability of both clubs. Indeed, this question mark is so great that non-league football in general has to start asking itself some very serious questions about its financing, because this is all starting to get a little bit beyond a joke. These two particular clubs are just the tip of the iceberg. There have been ongoing problems at numerous non-league clubs over the last couple of years or so, and the unfortunate truth is that no-one seems to ever learn anything from the mistakes of others. Something is going to have to change.

For Fisher, the end is already nigh. For their home league match against Weston-Super-Mare last Saturday, they attracted a crowd of just 89 people. Their problems, however, run deeper than a mere lack of support. They moved from their own Surrey Docks Stadium to groundshare at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium a couple of years ago with grand plans to redevelop the site into a Football League standard ground. It seemed like a perverse decision (and there may well have been more to it than met the eye), and Surrey Docks remains derelict and now overgrown and vandalised. Success on the pitch (they were promoted to the Blue Square South via the play-offs in 2006 and made the play-offs again the following year) seemed peculiar given their low attendances, and the full extent of their financial difficulties has become apparent as the season wore on. Their players haven’t been paid since November, and their descent turned into what looked like a publicity stunt when they made turnstile operator Donna Powell manager for one match last month after she raised £500 for the club.

The creditor bringing the petition is the Inland Revenue, with the club owing them £250,000. The judge at the hearing gave them 49 days to pay them in full, meaning that Fisher will almost certainly fold at the end of the season. This is something that their supporters have been prepared for, and most had been merely pinning their hopes upon finishing the season with at least the dignity of being able to complete their fixtures. Their final league match of the season against Braintree Town is due to be played three days after the next hearing, and supporters are hoping that the league will bring their match forward to enable them to complete their fixtures. Fortunately, Braintree – fifteen points from the play-offs and ten points from the relegation places – are likely to have nothing to play for, so there seems to be no logical reason to not let them do this. The club will most likely reform at the bottom of the pyramid, hopefully under the ownership of its supporters who, it is hoped, will be less profligate than the current ones.

Lewes season has been covered on here before, and has limped along from crisis to crisis in the Blue Square Premier. On Saturday, they were beaten 3-0 at home by Histon in front of a record low Blue Square Premier crowd of just 345 people – their twelfth successive defeat. Relegation seems a certainty, but this is the least of their concerns. They were also in court yesterday, with a winding up order having been brought by Portakabin. This turned into something of a farce when the club claimed to the local newspaper not to be aware of the petition. Another stay of execution was granted, this time to April 1st, but where they go from here remains unclear. They have until March 26th to enter into administration, which would at least stave off the threat of cloure. However, the rot seems to have thoroughly set in at The Dripping Pan, and it is clear that they cannot continue to function unless drastic changes are made.

These two clubs may have been the highest profile cases of non-league insolvent (and they are both insolvent in all but legal status), but they are far from being the only crisis clubs in the non-league game at the moment. Weymouth, Northwich Victoria and Leigh Genesis, Merthyr Tydfil & Bognor Regis Town are just five clubs that have found themselves in drastic positions for a variety of different reasons this season alone. Who, then, is to blame for this? The answer, sad to say, seems to be “everybody”. An increasing number of non-league clubs themselves continue to run themselves in a wholly irresponsible way, spending money that they do not have (and, moreover, give no impression of being interested in actually paying back) on wages whilst not paying basics like their tax bill and the basic upkeep of the stadium. Supporters have a degree of responsibilty, too. How many, as a proportion, take any interest in the running of their clubs until it is too late, or join or form supporters trusts to take a more active role in the running of their clubs? None of these are comfortable questions, but the pressing issue for non-league clubs is whether they can evolve into something more sustainable than they are at the moment. The current state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

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    8 Comments

  1. An interesting article and thought-provoking until the sweeping and unjustified generalizations at the end. Of all the clubs you mention, I know Bognor Regis Town the best and I have to say I can think of few better-run clubs in English football. True, they’ve never had much money, but they’ve always tried to live within their means. Contrary to what you say in your article about clubs who “run themselves in a wholly irresponsible way, spending money that they do not have ….on wages whilst not paying basics like their tax bill and the basic upkeep of the stadium”, BRTFC’s only significant debts are to its backers. There are no creditors at the Club’s door, it’s bills are paid and it has (and has always had) one of the lowest wage bills in the Conference. True, a disastrous fire which destroyed the clubhouse, followed by a highly-contentious points deduction for fielding an allegedly unregistered player, means that the club is currently very short of money and points. But it is a sign of how well the club is run – albeit on a shoestring – that there is no danger of it folding. A case of down (possibly) but not out.

    Barry Anderson

    March 5, 2009

  2. I feel your comments about Bognor are untrue in saying they are running in a wholly irresponsilbe way. Last season we cleared all debts except to one man – Jack Pearce. This year we have had to deal with a devastating fire destroying the clubhouse which has lost us up to £1,000 per week in revenue and with this defecit, we have cut our wages again and again to accomodate the club still being here in years to come.

    To compare us with the likes of Weymouth and Lewes, who have spent and spent beyind their means, is an injustice to a well run, financially secure club who have simply been punching and succeeding well above their weight!!!

    Ian Guppy

    March 5, 2009

  3. The comments that I made were not aimed at supporters of Bognor Regis Town, which I found to be a smashing club when I visited earlier this year. They were general comments which were aimed at all football supporters. I fully agree that the circumstances surrounding insolvency or near insolvency at different clubs is always different – as such, there is no “one size fits all” solution, and everybody concerned – the leagues, the clubs, the FA and the supporters – need to come together to work out a rescue package that covers as many conceivable eventualities as possible.

    admin

    March 5, 2009

  4. I am sorry but the way you have written this article absolutely states that Bognor Regis Town to be one of those clubs that you accuse of being badly run and spending too much money. I happened to have spent 12 years of my life asisting in the administration of this club and I take it as a personal affront the way that you portray the Committee and all who assist in the running of this great little club. As has already been very correctly stated, this club owes no money to anyone other than its’ backers. This club runs on the lowest budget in the Conference South. Despite numerous setbacks this season, non more so than the burning down of its’ clubhouse, the committee this season have kept the club running against such odds. Your article, by mentioning this club by name,aligns Bognor Regis Town with clubs who have not managed their affairs correctly. I would suggest that you do a little more research in future before you go to print.

    Peter Helsby

    March 5, 2009

  5. I dispute your contention. Let’s have a look at what I actually said again, shall we?

    “Weymouth, Northwich Victoria and Leigh Genesis, Merthyr Tydfil & Bognor Regis Town are just five clubs that have found themselves in drastic positions for a variety of different reasons this season alone ”

    At no point have I said that Bognor are or were badly run, and at no point have I “compared” Bognor to any of the other clubs in that list other than to say that they have had serious financial difficulties this season.

    On the basis of the language used by supporters of this club this afternoon, I am already revising my opinion of BRTFC as a “smashing little club”.

    admin

    March 5, 2009

  6. “These two clubs may have been the highest profile cases of non-league insolvent (and they are both insolvent in all but legal status), but they are far from being the only crisis clubs in the non-league game at the moment. Weymouth, Northwich Victoria and Leigh Genesis, Merthyr Tydfil & Bognor Regis Town are just five clubs that have found themselves in drastic positions for a variety of different reasons this season alone. Who, then, is to blame for this? The answer, sad to say, seems to be “everybody”. An increasing number of non-league clubs themselves continue to run themselves in a wholly irresponsible way, spending money that they do not have (and, moreover, give no impression of being interested in actually paying back) on wages whilst not paying basics like their tax bill and the basic upkeep of the stadium. Supporters have a degree of responsibilty, too. How many, as a proportion, take any interest in the running of their clubs until it is too late, or join or form supporters trusts to take a more active role in the running of their clubs?”

    To be fair, the reason you have received these comments is that you have mentioned these 5 clubs by name and then followed it underneath with a critique of irresponsibe behaviour ranging from clubs not paying tax bills to supporters not taking an active interest. In that sense your analysis of financial problems at non-league clubs could be over simplistic. At Bognor we owe no money to the tax man and the supporters are paying the wages of one of our players Duncan Jupp. Yet we are still in trouble. The salient and important point is that you don’t need to mismanage your club to be in trouble as external factors like the lack of liquidity in the economy will have an affect on even the best run clubs. In addition to those clubs who are victims of the economy, there are as you pointed out the clubs who are spending today and worrying about tomorrow and they are the ones playing a very risky game. There are still clubs spending to gamble on promotion. This is in fact the very criticism that ex-chairman of Chelmsford Peter Webb levelled at the other directors before they sacked him. The latest clubs at the high court who owe their money to the tax man are just the honest ones. More cynically are those in denial who we will only hear about at the end of the season when the promotion gamble doesn’t pay off, so they complete their league fixtures and take a points deduction when it no longer matters, leaving their creditors high and dry. It is for this reason that league rules will change next year to end this practise. However with the economy in such a bad state this is a high risk strategy and you could end up with the scenario where a club gets promotion and then goes straight into administration. I think you are right to point out the concern about 2 Conference clubs being at the High Court. However this is just as symptomatic of the state of the economy as the way these clubs are run. I suspect that these are just the tip of the iceberg and there will be a lot more to follow after the season has ended where your argument will hold. Please do not be too down on Bognor though as the thought that we have followed your remedy and still found ourselves a crisis club in financial trouble is a sobering one indeed.

    Richard Essen

    March 5, 2009

  7. Despite whatever I and anyone else has written in reply to your article, I can assure you that Bognor Regis Town will always remain ‘a smashing little club’. I replied because you named the clubs that you did, including Bognor. The inference was that clubs were being run in an irresponsible way, your words not mine. Im afraid by naming the clubs that you did it inferred that they were being irresposibly run and thats why people reacted as they did. Had you made the comment ‘clubs in general’ then I dont think you would have received the response that you did.

    Whatever has been written, I have no doubt that during your next visit to Bognor , the club will afford you the same welcome as it always does to any visitors

    Peter Helsby

    March 6, 2009

  8. Does any club make any money, by which I mean an operating profit? The likes of Manchester United etc. might, but in the rank and file of clubs in the Football League and in the leagues below, the answer is no.

    If a business does not make a profit, then how can it survive? What is the purpose of it? It is rightly said that football is not an ordinary business, fair enough. There may be ‘investors’ who are prepared to leave their money in a club without any return thereon, indeed some may be prepared to take a loss. However the economics of professional football just do not stack up and eventually the house of cards is liable to collapse.

    To this extent the author of the article is correct when he states that ‘everybody’ is to blame. He might, however, have been more tactful and not named names.

    Ron Ipstone

    March 12, 2009

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