The ongoing crisis at Southern League club Merthyr Tydfil has been one of this season’s slow-burning financial crises, but events over the last day or two have given us a clearer idea of the motivation of the club’s owner, and further concern that football’s newest franchise club could soon be foisted upon us unless the game’s authorities step in and make a stand against the chancers, speculators and fly-by-nights and in favour of the actual supporters of the clubs themselves. It is a situation that has come about through a mixture of slow, painful neglect and that is exacerbated by the somewhat peculiar relationship between teams in the Welsh Premier League and the English non-league game. Ultimately, however, the mismanagement of one man the willingness of an anonymous other to cash in on this is threatening the very existence of a club with a long and proud history.
As long ago as August, we reported on the frankly bizarre behaviour of Merthyr owner Wyn Holloway, who seemed to want the club’s supporters trust to pay bills that had been run up under his charge and, when the trust submitted an offer to him to take over the day to day running of the club in returning for a controlling stake in the club’s shares, returned the offer to them unopened and barred the Trust Chair from their ground. In spite of these considerable off the field problems they had a reasonable season on the pitch, finishing in seventh place in the Southern League Premier Division, but their problems reached critical mass as the season came to its conclusion.
At the start of this month, Merthyr managed to stave off another winding up order, with the Supporters Trust winning a twenty-eight day reprieve from the Royal Court of Justice in London to give them time to try and arrange a take-over. Holloway has refused to budge, however, but his latest announcement has caught everybody off guard. He has, he claims, received an offer to buy the club – so as to prevent any misunderstanding, let’s hear what he has to say about it himself:
“The person I’ve had the offer from is looking at the fact that, if he wanted to get a team in the league, it would cost him a lot of money. The gentleman wants to get into the English pyramid system. To start from the beginning and go through what we have would take time and cost. This deal would be a short cut to where we are. You would start with a ground share then after two or three years take it elsewhere.”
So, to put it another way, Wyn Holloway is offering up Merthyr’s place in the English pyramid for sale and he seems quite happy to franchise his club’s place away. At least the truth is finally being revealed, and Holloway’s motives are now out in the open. He wants his money back, even if it kills his football club and, if the statement above is anything to go by, he doesn’t care too much about who he sells it to. We should probably just buy him a black cape and a fake moustache to twirl and have done with it.
Who, though, would want to buy a place at the bottom of the English pyramid? The smart money is going on one of two Welsh clubs – TNS and Bridgend Town. TNS already have a history that makes the neutral observer wonder as to their aspirations. Originally from the border village of Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, they changed their name to “Total Network Solutions” following a sponsorship deal in 1997 and, with a full-time playing squad, won the Welsh Premier League four times between 2000 and 2007. In 2006 their sponsorship deal expired and the club changed its name to “The New Saints”. They moved to nearby to Oswestry, just over the border in England (having merged with Oswestry Town in 2003) and have been playing there ever since. Owner Mike Harris is said to be keen to move his club into the English pyramid system.
The second suspects are Bridgend Town. Bridgend won the Southern League championship in 1980 but didn’t – for reasons that aren’t entirely clear – join the Alliance Premier League (which would go on to be renamed the Football Conference). They dropped back into the Welsh league system in 1983 and have rattled around a division or two below the Welsh Premier League ever since. They have, however, now acquired a wealthy benefactor and moved out of their ground to share at Treforest while a new ground is built for them as part of local rugby club Celtic Crusaders’ planned “sporting village” in Bridgend. Whether said benefactor’s long term ambitions would be satiated by the Welsh Premier League is also said to be open to question.
The club’s supporters, meanwhile, remain active. The Supporters Trust is now trying to force the club into administration in the belief that the only way forward for them would be for the club to be taken over by the administrator so that the supporters can then purchase it from them and rebuild it as a community club. Some of you may be wondering why the club doesn’t just let him go and start from scratch – after all, Penydarren Park, their ground, is a council owned facility and a new club could presumably play there. The answer to this question is the thorny issue of Welsh clubs playing in England.
When the League of Wales (as the WPL was known until 2002) started in 1992, the Football Association of Wales wanted all Welsh senior clubs to play in the competition and eight clubs (Welsh clubs playing below Football Conference level but within the English set up) initially refused to join the league, choosing instead to play their home matches in exile, over the border in England. Four of these clubs did eventually join the LoW, but it took a court case in 1995 for the remaining clubs to be able to play their home matches in Wales. What this means for any new Merthyr club is that it would be very difficult for a new club to join the English pyramid. They may be able to take the matter to court, as happened in the 1990s, but this would be expensive – arguably prohibitively so.
The good news for Merthyr supporters is that the authorities appear, for now, to be taking their side, and the ultimate decision on whether a TNS/Bridgend-Merthyr club playing in the English pyramid lies with them. “The FAW would not support this act, as it would be against the best interests of both Welsh Football and more importantly supporters of football in Merthyr”, said Peter Rees of the FAW, while the FA’s Leagues Secretary Mike Appleby said, “I feel that the FA would not be supportive of this and would support the FAW views on the matter”. It’s also worth remembering the FA’s closing statement on the Wimbledon franchising debacle of 2002:
The commission has made it clear that their decision is based on exceptional circumstances particular to Wimbledon Football Club. They see Wimbledon FC as a one-off. This is not the beginning of a franchise system. The Football Association is greatly concerned that this decision should not in any way be seen as a precedent. The view of The Football Association is that for clubs to move is not in the best interests of the game. However, this is binding on everyone under the Football League rules – there is no appeal. This will be no comfort at all to the fans and supporters of Wimbledon. The FA’s submissions and those of supporter groups had many similarities and the FA shares their disappointment. The Football Association sees it as vital for the game to stop these circumstances ever happening again.
So, the FA said quite explicitly at the time that the Wimbledon move did not set a precedent for the franchising of football clubs, and the comments made already offer tentative hope that any deal to sell and move the club would be dead in the water before it starts. Still, however, doubts remain. It has happened before, and it could theoretically happen again. I have said on here on several occasions that the catch-all excuse of “credit crunch” will be used for all manner of weird and wonderful ways for football club owners to behave indefensibly badly. The only sustainable way for Merthyr Tydfil Football Club to move forward is for its Supporters Trust, which has fought an outstanding rearguard action in the face of near intolerable behaviour over the last twelve months or so from Wyn Holloway, to wrest control of the club from this odious man.
The proof of Holloway’s motives lies in his behaviour, from banning people that have the temerity to criticise him from his club to more or less demanding that others pay for bills run up during his incompetent spell of ownership (and ultimately, as owner of the club, the buck for Merthyr’s debts stops with him) and threatening to take his toy away from the supporters and the town unless he gets exactly what he wants. His message is implicit, but clear – he’s holding the supporters of the club to ransom. In the meantime, it’s probably worth offering a gentle reminder to those in charge at TNS and Bridgend (or, indeed, anyone else looking to buy their club in the English pyramid) that doing it by this method will most likely see their clubs rendered parasites and outcasts of the English football community for the forseeable future.
You can find out more about the “Save The Martyrs” campaign here. Should you be interested in the Ebay auction currently being run to raise funds to help save the club, you can find that here. If they hadn’t been so terrible this season, I’d have been pretty taken with the signed Brighton shirt myself.