One Of The Richest Cities In England And One Of The Poorest Clubs
There was a good reason why, when Parker Brothers were deciding upon a UK-wide version of the board game “Monopoly”, they chose St Albans to represent the coveted Mayfair spot. The Hertfordshire city has become one of the most become one of the most expensive cities in the south of England, with housing prices said to be amongst the highest in the country outside London and average incomes matching it. The irony, therefore, is all the more sharpened with the crisis involving its local football club, St Albans City of the Blue Square South, where a crisis involving the clubs owners, the construction company William Verry Ltd.
The irony of one of England’s most affluent cities being the home of a club that seems to lurch from occasional financial crisis to occasional financial crisis isn’t lost on the club’s supporters. St Albans City is a football club that should have it all. In the middle of a well-to-do county with few local predators (Watford and Luton Town are equally far apart and both are a bit of a pain to get to, while Stevenage Borough are miles away on the opposite side of the county), they should be able to attract a decent support. This isn’t the way that things have worked out, though. The club has always suffered from something of an image problem, and the glittering lights of the Premier League aren’t that distant. Walk through St Albans city centre and you’ll find precious few clues to the existence of the local football club. You’ll find an Arsenal Megastore, though.
The roots of the problems at St Albans go back several years. Under previous chairman Lee Harding, the club overspent at the end of the last decade and found itself entering into a CVA. When the club failed its CVA during 2001 Harding put the club up for sale for a nominal price, but the Ryman League (of which they were members at the time) were unhappy at the club’s apparent insolvency and suspended them from playing until the mess was sorted out. With a winding up order already brought against them, it looked like being the end of the line for the Saints, especially when Harding initially refused to sell his shares to the first people to offer to buy them from him. The arrival of William Verry Ltd – in the form of John Gibson – came just in time to avert the closure of the club.
What, then, could Verry – a company specialising in property development and construction – possibly want with a non-league football club that was haemorrhaging money? The obvious answer isn’t the right one. City’s Clarence Park ground is not only council-owned but also part of a public park. Property, however, remains a likely cause for their interest. St Albans is in the heart of the “Green Belt”, the ring of greenery which surrounds London and prevents provincial towns from being swallowed up by their gargantuan neighbour. Getting any sort of planning permission in St Albans is notoriously difficult. This, combined with the already sky-high property prices in the city, makes for a tempting and heady mixture for the commercially minded.
Various plans involving the relocation of St Albans City Football Club have come forward over the last few years, most of which involved moving the club from their town centre home to an out of town site, surrounded by housing. On the pitch, the club went from being the sort of football club at which nothing very much happened to being somewhat more eventful. City spent the first half of the 2002/03 season tussling with Aldershot Town at the top of the Ryman League before fading during the second half of the season. They spent much of the next two seasons struggling against relegation from the newly-formed Blue Square South before surprisingly getting promoted into the BSP in 2006 through the play-offs after finishing second to another of non-league football’s perennial crisis clubs, Weymouth. City lasted just one season in the BSP and were almost relegated again the following season, before stabilising again to mid-table this year.
Off the pitch, the club could be hardly be described as harmonious. Gibson is a character best described as “abrasive”. He made serious allegations against AFC Wimbledon regarding the deliberate under-reporting of crowd figures following an FA Trophy match between the two sides towards the end of 2005 and was reported as threatening to move the club to nearby Welwyn-Hatfield if the council didn’t grant planning permission for a – frankly unnecessary – 10,000 seater stadium in 2006. He has often mistaken being “straight talking” with being downright rude towards anyone that doesn’t agree with his exact way of thinking, including his own club’s supporters.
Earlier this year, however, William Verry’s fortunes took a drastic turn for the worse. Verry Construction entered into voluntary administration at the start of May, but Gibson issued a statement to the effect that City wouldn’t be affected by this, as it is owned by William Verry (Holdings) Ltd rather than Verry Construction. This, however, was something of a smokescreen. As the carcass of Verry Construction was picked at by other construction companies, the truth emerging was stranger still. It was reported by the contruction web site Building that Verry Construction had been lending money to City even when on the point of collapse, and that this had led to considerable tension between Gibson and Verry Construction’s chief executive, Craig Jones.
The size of the club’s debt is said to be in the region of £500,000, which is a worry. Hyde United of the Blue Square North are currently fighting a winding up order from HMRC over a £200,000 unpaid debt, but the thing to remember is that no two financial crises in football are the same. Asset-free and owing money – probably – to an administrator that will be fully aware of the futility of further legal action if there is a chance that an alternative solution can be found, City are in a strong position in that they’re not worth anything. How this debt built up is anyone’s guess. There is a chance that Verry Construction paid off all creditors in 2002, paid for bits and pieces ever since and that this, over the space of seven years, has been enough to build the debt up to this commanding position.
Then, something more worrying still happened, when City’s manager Steve Castle and the club secretary Steve Eames were reportedly made redundant by the administrators. This would seem to indicate that these two at least were employees of Verry Construction. When pressed on the matter by the local press, both Castle and Eames declined to comment, and an email to Leadbitter Group (a construction company that has bought some of Verry Construction’s assets and is rumoured to have taken over ownership of the football club) went unanswered. Leadbitter have taken on some of Verry’s most lucrative contracts, but they themselves are up for sale and later (understandably, considering everything) confirmed that they had no interest in the club. At the moment, Steve Castle and Steve Eames remain at Clarence Park, but a month after Gibson’s original statement claiming that the future of the club was secure, there has been no further comment on the subject from him.
There has been talk that former Watford defender Darren Ward wanting to invest in the club, but City supporters are understandably wary of more white knights on horseback turning up at Clarence Park. At a meeting last month, almost a hundred supporters voted almost unanimously to start a Supporters Trust. Taking over the running of the club on a day-to-day basis may be beyond them for the time being at least, unless something catastrophic happens. The good news for the club is that is has no significant assets, so a winding up order from whoever they owe this £500,000 to would be unlikely. Even should the club be wound up, it seems inconceivable that the council wouldn’t hand the lease to Clarence Park to a new, supporter owned club. Few at Clarence Park, however, would want to have to start again from the very bottom. What St Albans City FC needs right now is absolutely not another sugar daddy, robbing peter to pay paul and putting off a potential timebomb of debt for yet another day. They might even find that now, with a lot of other clubs suffering as well, is as good a time as any to admit their insolvency and cut their cloth to ensure that they never find themselves in this sort of mess again.