It is very seldom that a non-league football club makes the headlines of a national newspaper for any reason other than a surprise result in the FA Cup, but at the start of the 2010/11 season exactly this happened to Croydon Athletic of the Ryman League Premier Division when The News Of The World reported a covertly recorded interview, beginning a chain of events that would end in death, imprisonment and the closure of the club. But how did a previously anonymous football club from the southern suburbs of London come to get involved in this story, and what did the experiences of Croydon Athletic have to teach us about the dangers of that very anonymity?
The summer of 2010 was a time of celebration for Croydon Athletic. At the end of the previous season, the club – which had been founded in 1986 – had win Division One South of the Ryman League, taking it to its highest ever level of football. The club had been owned by Mazhar Majeed, a British-based agent, property developer and bookmaker in his mid-thirties, since 2008 and Majeed had been spending lavishly on the team to ensure promotion. As the new season started, however, footballing concerns would become amongst the last things on the mind of anybody at the club.
On the twenty-eighth of August 2010, The News Of The World reported a story that would ruin four individuals, blacken the reputation of international cricket and ultimately lead to one death and the closure of Croydon Athletic Football Club. They published a transcript of a covert meeting that one of its investigators had held with Majeed that summer in which he had accepted money for bowlers from the Pakistan cricket team to bowl no balls at pre-agreed points in a test cricket match against England a month previously for the purposes - an activity known as “spot-fixing.” The story, it’s fair to say, was calamitous for the world of cricket. The players named were amongst the best in the world, and cricket is the number one sport in Pakistan. Criminal charges were brought against those concerned.
For Croydon Athletic, though, one detail in the story was particularly damaging. The club had already been the subject of an FA investigation after a previous chairman, Dean Fisher, was sent to prison for three years for defrauding the company for which he worked, TCS Media in Bayswater, of £525,825, of which approximately half had found its way into the clubs accounts. In his interview with the News Of The World, Majeed had stated that the only reason” he bought Croydon Athletic was in order to launder the money recouped from the spot-fixing sting. What might otherwise have been an uncomfortable position for the football club was now a definite crisis with a player exodus due to unpaid wages, but all of this would pale into insignificance compared to what happened next.
The story would take a tragic turn at the start of October 2010, when club chairman David Le Cluse was found dead at his home in Surrey in an act of apparent suicide. Having been been described as distraught at the money laundering allegations laid at the clubs door, Le Cluse, who ran a pest control business, had been personally affected by the unravelling of this story because of his close personal involvement in the club and in his role in bringing Majeed to the club. On the pitch, meanwhile, a team of triallists carried on fighting a losing – and, it often seemed, increasingly irrelevant – battle to keep its head above water in the Ryman League Premier Division, but finished the season in second from bottom place in the table with just thirty-one points from its forty-two league matches.
The spot-fixing trial would go on to transfix the world of cricket. The three players concerned – Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir – all appealed the suspensions against them that were put in place by the International Cricket Council, but in February 2011 the ICC confirmed that Butt was banned for ten years, of which five were suspended, Asif for seven years, of which two were suspended, and Amir for five years. Along with Majeed, criminal charges were also brought against these three players and in November 2011 all four were found guilty of conspiracy to cheat at gambling and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments. All four received custodial sentences: thirty months for Butt, one year for Asif, six months for Amir and two years eight months for Majeed. At the end of May, appeals against these sentences were rejected by the courts.
Relegated back to Division One South of the Ryman League, Croydon Athletic FC found itself in hole from which there could be no recovery. The club was charged with twenty-four breaches of FA Rule E1(b) – relating to illegal betting, discrimination or giving or accepting payment to influence a match – in relation to the 2009/10 season. Still owned by Majeed’s sister-in-law Jenna Manji, the club was found guilty of all charges on the eighth of December 2011, and two days later failed to fulfil a league match against Ramsgate. At the end of the following week, the local newspaper the Croydon Advertiser confirmed that the club had effectively ceased to exist. A new club, AFC Croydon Athletic, has been formed by supporters and has been approved to start in the Combined Counties League for the start of next season.
It will not yet, however, be playing at The Keith Tuckey Stadium, the clubs original home in Thornton Heath, and will play next season at the largely unsatisfactory Croydon Arena, elsewhere in the borough. The ground is still owned by Jenni Manji, who has refused thus far to relinquish its lease. It would be nice to think that, considering that this club was effectively killed by the criminal behaviour of her brother-in-law, some sort of agreement could be found to return this new club to its spiritual home. Whether moral considerations will come into play in this case, is not a question that is easy to answer. Still, though, the supporters of Croydon Athletic will have a club to next season, even if they do have to crane their necks somewhat in order to be able to see across The Croydon Arenas expansive athletics track. And at least supporters of the club can take solace from the fact that it can’t be as badly run as its previous incarnation ended up being.
The demise of Croydon Athletic could have been a watershed moment for non-league football in this country. A business environment in which many transactions are carried out in cash will always be likely to attract those with something to hide when it comes to their business dealings, and the relative anonymity of non-league clubs, when paired with the vast number of them, the difficulty of proving any sort of under the counter financial dealings and the meagre resources for monitoring them means that rumours of shady financial dealings have always been rife at lower levels of the game. Croydon Athletic were caught out and suffered the consequences because they became embroiled in a scandal relating to a completely different sport which took in a handful of that sports superstars. Had this not been the case, there is every chance that the club would still be trading today and, while it may be cathartic to blame a lack of enforcement on the part of the authorities for what happened to the club, the question of how to effectively police the lower regions of the non-league game is not necessarily easy to answer.
Still, at least in this case the individual concerned received his comeuppance. For all we know, there are other clubs that are engaging illicit behaviour as we speak and the question of how to lance this boil is a valid one, especially when we consider that the very business model that these clubs have to follow provides such a fertile environment, not only for activities such as money laundering to be carried out, but also to be covered up. Stricter regulation of non-league football club finances would be welcome, but who is going to pay for it and could it ever be truly effectively managed? It may be considered an ignoble tradition, but dodgy financial dealings have arguably been an unwanted part of the culture of non-league football for as long as it has been with us and it doesn’t feel as if this is going to radically alter in the foreseeable future.
What, we might ask ourselves, does Mazhar Majeed think about when he lays in his bed at Ford Open Prison at night? Does his mind turn to the late David Le Cluse, whom he befriended and who took his own life the day before his daughters ninth birthday after having been so deeply affected by the events of the last few weeks? Does he consider what will happen to The Keith Tuckey Stadium, named for a former chairman who gave twenty years of his life to this little club prior to his death in 2006, a stadium that now sits empty on account of his actions, with the lease still held by his family? Or does he merely curse the journalists that caught him out in the summer of 2010 and idly wonder what might have been had he got away with it all? At least, the rest of ourselves might consider, it is almost certain that he won’t be getting involved in our game again.
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