The tangled paths that various football clubs weave across each other don’t come much stranger than the ongoing saga of Accrington Stanley and Oxford United. When Accrington resigned their place in the Football League in controversial circumstances in 1962, Oxford were elected in their place. When Oxford surprisingly fell through the trap door and into the Blue Square Premier in 2006, Accrington were promoted in their place. Now, three years later, Oxford United are top of the Blue Square Premier after an outstanding start to the season and Accrington are staring the financial abyss square in the eye again.
The club’s most recent difficulties started with the resignation of former chairman Eric Whalley, who took up a position at Chester City just a few weeks after quitting the club at the end of last season. The club was then landed with a winding up order from the Inland Revenue over an unpaid tax bill of £308,000. The club believed that it had reached an arrangement with their creditor to pay the debt back over twelve months, but this week they found themselves back up in court, with the petition having been represented. This time, the In land Revenue have given the club just eight weeks to find the money or be wound up.
The question of how and why the club believed itself to have a twelve month arrangement is open to question. Their press statements have been unsurprisingly oblique so far. “Over the last few weeks the Revenue have become pushy and want their money back, which is fair enough”, said Chief Executive Rob Heys, adding that, “It’s forced our hand, which is perhaps a benefit as it means if we can raise the money earlier so we won’t have it hanging over us for 12 months. In an ideal world, in that eight week period we can pay the full amount off, but we certainly hope to have paid off a significant amount. I don’t mean tens of thousands, we’re looking at ways of giving them around £200,000, pay off two-thirds of the debt and then they’ll hopefully give us extra time to pay off any more we might have to find”.
The white knight on the horizon at Stanley continues to be the Accrington Stanley Supporters Fund, which was recently formed by a group of fans and backed by Stanley shareholder Ilyas Khan. Khan has been trying to wrest control of the club for some considerable time now, and is said to have put £250,000 into the Fund, although the club is unlikely to see very much of this money unless Khan takes control of the club, a situation which the current owners are loathe to to agree to. Despite the name, ASSF is not a Supporters Trust, rather a vehicle for Mr Khan to take control of the club. Whether this is a completely desirable or not may not be known until he takes control of the club, if he takes control of it but, for most supporters, this seems like their only option.
What happens next for Stanley, then? Well, first they have eight weeks of “going around with buckets to various places collecting money”, though how on earth this is going to raise them £308,000 in eight weeks anybody’s guess. Should they fail to raise the sum within this period (and comments from Heys such as, “we’re looking at ways of giving them around £200,000, pay off two-thirds of the debt and then they’ll hopefully give us extra time to pay off any more we might have to find” seem over-optimistic to the point of being reckless), they would ordinarily be put into receivership with the liquidators then asset stripping the club to pay off creditors. It is unlikely, however, that things would get that far – it is far more likely that they would enter into administration before this could happen.
This would mean an automatic ten point deduction, and the possible sale of the club by the appointed administrator to ASSF. Accrington have only earned three points from their opening five matches. It is far from guaranteed, of course, but a ten point deduction could prove to be the death knell of the club’s short time back in the Football League. Khan probably has the financial backing, but much of the medium to long term future of the club will come down to whether the actions of the people currently running the club. At this moment in time, ASSF have no automatic right of accession at The Crown Ground. Everything, for the time being, is up in the air at present.
Of course, it is the tax that has been put on the back burner rather than players’ wages (there are no reports at the time of writing of players not being paid by Accrington Stanley) and herein, for the thousandth time in the last couple of years, is the problem. Accrington haven’t been paying their bills. They are, therefore, insolvent by legal definition. There is every chance that the authorities will bend over backwards to see that the club at the very least completes this season in some form or another. Consider what they did for Chester City last month. Whether Accrington deserve their Football League place is another question, though.
Accrington drew an average home attendance of under 1,500 last season and things seem no better this season. They need to look very hard at whether they can afford to maintain full-time football on crowds of that size. In the Blue Square Premier this season, for example, both Luton Town and Oxford United seem likely to average crowds of four times that number. Football League and FA regulations should effectively ensure that clubs pay these bills first by giving HMRC preferred status alongside football creditors. In football terms, the Enterprise Act of 2006 (which removed preferred creditor status from HMRC under insolvency law) has been treated almost as a get-out clause for football clubs whose behaviour has come to seem like little more than tax evasion.
There is no moral alternative to this, and such a move would also ensure that in the future these circumstances (currently also being played out on a smaller scale on the south coast, where Blue Square South club Lewes also survived a winding up order after a donor paid £30,000 of a £110,000 bill to HMRC, giving the club a further three months to match the amount already paid) don’t reoccur. This constant mismanagement by football clubs drags the name of the game through the mud and drags the name of lower division football through the mud when there is absolutely no need for smaller clubs to be as badly run as they frequently seem to be. On top of all of this, no-one ever seems to get their comeuppance over it. The likes of Accrington (and others – they are the first this season, but almost certainly won’t be the last ) have been getting away with this sort of thing for too long and, as time goes on, it feels more and more like somebody will be made an example of.