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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
Another loss, this one midweek to Cheltenham Town in the second round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, suggested a continuation of the poor form Wycombe Wanderers would be in the offing. Granted, this was a rather changed side from the one last playing in the league with considerable minutes given to 15 yr old Jordan Ibe, but the 1-2 reverse marked a third consecutive loss for the Chairboys and five defeats from their last seven competitive matches. Further, while Cheltenham currently play a division below Wycombe, it wasn’t too long ago–say, last season–when Wycombe was in their same league, beating them 2-1 both times on their way to League One promotion following the 2010/11 season.
At the moment, the Chairboys are facing the prospect of rejoining Town back in League Two, currently stuck between not yet playing up to the level of their competition and possibly now shorn of sufficient confidence to knock out a side they did the double on last campaign, even after manager Gary Waddock subbed in the regulars. For some Wycombe supporters, it might feel an eternity ago that Adams Park was playing host to a club like Chelsea FC in the League Cup, as a Paul Lambert-managed side kept the Premiership heavyweights at arm’s length in the two legged semifinal before eventually giving way at Stamford Bridge. The Gregorian Calendar indicates this was but four years ago and two years before the Steve Hayes revolution commened to take Wycombe up the divisions and build the Chairboys into a Championship-calibre club.
To be fair, Wycombe have been a bit of the classic yo yo club half the time they have enjoyed life in the Football League the last twenty years, but they have been walking the dog between the bottom two divisions as of late rather than being seen going around the world of the Championship and the upper echelons of League One (and there are your required references to yo yo tricks sorted). Even with a decent assortment of managers late in this past decade, including Lambert, John Gorman, and currently Waddock, the Chairboys have gone on tremendous runs that saw them leap into League One only to follow that up with disastrous ones that chucked them right back down the ladder. Perhaps there was a bit of bad luck as well, especially during Gorman’s spell, when not only did the club lose midfielder Mark Philo through a tragic automobile accident but the attention of Gorman himself, whose wife had been battling but lost her fight with a terminal illness during the 2005-06 season. The worst part of their luck, however, was running up larger than sustainable debts through increasingly larger payments to players in the quest to achieve promotions, with their spending reportedly almost equaling their actual worth in 2004. So, in this sense the club really would yo yo, with a flying saucer of ambition that endured a gravity pull once wage budgets had to be slashed, putting the club into the lindy loop they still find themselves in today (right, now the yo yo references are really sorted).
Part of the problem later became somewhat part of the solution. Presiding as Wycombe’s Managing Director during this mid-decade period of overspending, Steve Hayes could be heard telling the supporters to not worry over the influx of players that looked to be on high wages, that these would be players taking a pay cut to play for the Chairboys, and that the debt would be serviceable. By 2009, however, with debt in the neighborhood of £7 million, the very financial viability of the club came under serious question after having been bubbling under the surface and worrying the supporters for years as administration loomed. Hayes stepped in, pledging to clear some of the club’s debt with the price being his sole ownership of the members’ club. As Wycombe had run up much of the debt via loans from Hayes himself, there really was little to choose from for those supporters who didn’t want to see the club go under, and they reluctantly voted to make Hayes the first individual owner of this community club. Three million pounds of the debt was eased, but the stresses felt since the supporters were essentially bullied into voting away their control have yet to be mitigated.
For with Hayes as primary owner came a deepening of the seemingly unholy union between Wycombe and the rugby team that serves as a tenant to the Chairboys at Adams Park. Hayes had also taken up ownership of London Wasps the previous year, and immediately his grand vision for both Wasps and Wanderers was to see them removed from Adams Park to a new stadium at Wycombe Air Park at Booker. Surrounded by a neighborhood sports village with commercial and residential living spaces, the new stadium was to have a 17,500 seated capacity and be available for other non-sporting events. This summer, of course, that plan was rejected by the Wycombe District Council, principally in the name of environmental concerns, but there was supporter resistance to this that might have carried the day too. While Hayes was keen to announce Adams Park as a hindrance to the continued viability to both clubs, that it lacked the modern amenities today’s football spectator desires, and that road access limited attendances, the stadium itself is but a young majority age of 21 years, and while it may not be optimal, it resides on one of the flattest spots of land around the hilly areas of High Wycombe. As for limited attendances, the Chairboys have averaged around 5,000-6,000 yearly the past decade, which is in line with the 6,000 capacity it was originally built for in 1990. With expansions over time, it can hold over 10,000 for both football and rugby, so it would seem there is still ample leg room for those that visit for the football.
So, the proposed deal for Booker looks to have been more of a potential boon for Wasps rather than for the Chairboys with more seats than would ever be filled for Wanderers matches and additionally might have been a calculated move for Hayes to cash in on the land beneath Adams Park itself. When inspectors approved of plans to remove the designation of the Adams Park site as Green Belt in 2008, it was rumoured this increased the value of the land from £4,000 an acre up to £1 million per acre for industrial usage. A cynical perspective, then, would suggest Hayes was looking to improve the financial outlook for Wasps and finally deliver them a home to share as co-owners rather than as tenants at a disadvantage to the football club. By getting approval for the Air Park, Hayes would have been able to avoid a vote on the move by those who owned Founder Shares in Wycombe due to the five mile stipulation and he would then sell the land out from under the club, again without a formal call for any supporter referendum (or perhaps one he could easily veto), for a much improved profit to an industrial concern. With the rejection of the Booker scheme this summer, however, this all fell apart, and both Hayes and Wycombe Wanderers have been stuck betwixt and between, with the albatross of that rugby side still about.
Now, though, Hayes has chosen to cast his lot with the football, announcing he is seeking to sell his ownership of Wasps. This could potentially be a protracted ordeal, depending on the number of likely bidders and how thorough they wish to comb through the financial books of the rugby club, which was hit with a winding up petition from HMRC just last year. Where then does this leave the Chairboys, as they now fight to avoid relegation following several torrid months both on and off the pitch? Waddock already quipped to the local newspaper after the loss to Cheltenham Town that relief through new player signings likely is a non-starter, asking his interviewer, “Have you got any money? Our budget is as it is. We did the work in the summer.” Should Hayes be able to sell his interest in the rugby club in a short time this might improve matters for Waddock on this front, but it might also be proceeds simply pocketed by Hayes after his years of owning two sports teams at a loss.
A cursory glance indicates any potential gain for the sale of Wasps will likely not be invested directly into the club but instead utilised to service Wycombe’s rolling debt. The most recently obtainable financial statement from the club shows the debt of 2009 was at £8.3 million, including bank overdrafts, with £3 million due within 2010. This must have been the initial money plonked down by Hayes when he assumed sole ownership, but the club’s overall debt still remains at £6.4 million, as those pesky bank overdrafts have gone up. Combine this with the consideration that London Wasps reported a £3.1 million loss for 2010 alone, and the picture would seem to be one of Hayes paying himself off though the sale of Wasps with the status quo at Wycombe sadly being maintained rather than improved.
Seems like a bit of Peter robbing Peter to pay, Peter, doesn’t it? Perhaps once the dust settles and Wycombe Wanderers have an owner focused only on their well-being, fortunes will improve, but if the previous work of Hayes is to be considered, supporters of the Chairboys might be wishing their owner had decided he’d rather scrum instead.
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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.