The story of a non-league football club sitting on a valuable piece of land but vulnerable to take-over by those with less than honorable intentions has become something of a morality tale in modern football, but few clubs have fallen prey to it in such a protracted manner as Cambridge City of the Southern League. The story of how this particular club found itself in the High Court battling against two of its former directors in order to save its ground is one that will sound familiar to the supporters of many smaller clubs, and this is a story that has not quite yet reached its conclusion even as 2012 draws to a close. Such is the legacy of Brian York and Arthur Easthams time in charge at Milton Road.
It has been said that there was a time when the more likely of the two senior football clubs in Cambridge to find a way into the Football League would have been Cambridge City rather than Cambridge United. Having already turned down an invitation to join the Football League in 1936, at the end of the 1962/63 season City won the Southern League championship by finishing three points ahead of United. They had the crowds – regularly averaging in excess of 3,000 for home matches – and they had now acquired, it seemed, the ambition that had been missing when the Football League made its offer to the club three decades earlier. This form, however, proved temporary and they were relegated from the Southern League Premier Division in 1968. Two years later, meanwhile, Cambridge United were elected into the Football League in place of Bradford Park Avenue. In the years following this it was United that attracted the crowds as they rose as high as the second tier of English football, whilst City continued to scratch a living, its crowds decimated by a combination of a relative lack of success in comparison with its neighbours and a more general decline in attendances in non-league football.
In 1985, the club sold its ground to developers and built a new, smaller one on the site of its old training ground, adjacent to its previous home. This sale addressed the matter of the clubs indebtedness at the time, but this didn’t prove to be a panacea for all of its ills. By the start of 2003, the Football Association’s financial advisory unit had noted the club’s “parlous financial position”, and this proved, albeit in almost inadvertently, to be the beginning of a story that would come to make headlines in the national press and would result in the supporters trust taking ownership of the club. It was, however, headlines of a different sort that the club made early in 2004 after supporters were advised by its chief steward that they would not be allowed to bang drums or chant too loudly following complaints from a neighbouring old peoples home. Such stories concerning non-league football clubs occasionally appear in the national media and are, of course, so much fluff. Within a couple of years of this story, however, Cambridge City would be deep in trouble, and this would largely be down to the actions of two people: Brian York and Arthur Eastham.
York joined the board of directors of the club in February 2003, but his stay on the board of directors of the club proved to be a short-lived one. A property developer who had been involved in the local football scene for some time, it was assumed that he, alongside Arthur Eastham, would be bring a little business acumen to a club that been living beyond its means for some considerable time. Seven months after his arrival at Milton Road, however, he resigned his position at the club and twelve months later, in September 2004, he bought Milton Road for £1.3m through another of his companies, Ross River, agreeing that he would share any increase in value equally with the club once planning permission to build houses on the site had been obtained. In April 2005, however, Cambridge City gave up its right to a share in any further profits from the sale of the ground when one Michael Harney, an advisor to Yorks property development company, offered the club £500,000 to buy out its 50% share of Milton Road’s development value, a figure based on his valuation of the ground less the cost of rebuilding on the site. A figure of £900,000 – and a clause in the lease meaning that the club could be evicted at six months notice – was eventually agreed.
In November 2005 that notice was served, and a month later Eastham announced that the club was to resign its place in the Football Conference (the club was at the time in the Conference South) and merge with Cambridge United, although perhaps “merge” was a trifle strong, since Easthams plan was to scrap the Cambridge City first team and make the reserve team into a feeder club for United. Concerned supporters formed the Cambridge City Action Group (CCAG), and at a public meeting of 200 people in February 2006 this group unanimously voted to form a supporters trust. The story continued to develop at a furious pace. With protests at the club having made it absolutely clear how the supporters of the club felt about the boards manoeuvrings, three of its four directors resigned their positions in April 2006, and by the time of the trusts launch on the 18th April 2006, less than two months after the decision to form one had been taken, it was in a position to be able to take over the running of the club, which has been subsequently been granted successive reprieves with regard to having to leave Milton Road.
The story of the sale of Milton Road, however, didn’t end here. Funded by other shareholders in the club, the supporters trust took the matter of the sale of Milton Road to court, arguing that both the sale of the ground and the subsequent sale of the clubs interest in the further development profits after its sale had been unlawful. The case was heard over seven days during the summer of 2007, and the findings of the judge, Mr Justice Briggs, painted a pretty grim picture of what had happened with regard to the events surrounding the sale of Milton Road. The trust was unsuccessful in its bid to get the sale of the ground overturned – the judge found nothing unlawful about this in itself. What he did find, however, was that the circumstances surrounding the valuation of the land upon which the ground sat were deeply suspicious.
At the time of the sale, Michael Harney had valued the land upon which the ground sat at £7.8m, and that he had no other reports that would allow the club to assess this valuation. Justice Briggs found that Harneys figures worked to the principle of 130 houses being built on the land and that half of these would be “affordable housing”, which would be less profitable than building other types of housing, when the truth of the matter was that Harney himself was expecting the final proportion of social housing to be built on the land to be less than one-third. The judge also established that Harney had lied to the club about only having one valuation of the land for them to assess. Describing this assertion as “a complete falsehood”, he established that Harney had three valuations for the value of the land which valued it as being worth considerably more than the £7.8m that was presented to the club. One of them, delivered just a few days after the valuation was given to the club, valued it at £13.1m. This, Justice Briggs concluded, “deliberately concealed” a valuation that would have greatly benefited the club to the cost of Yorks companies.
The judge also confirmed the suspicions of supporters who had unearthed an unusual transaction between Arthur Eastham and Yorks company. In the middle of 2005, while negotiations regarding the sale of Milton Road were ongoing, it was established that Yorks company had paid Eastham £10,000. He confirmed that such a payment put Eastham – who at the time was still a director of Cambridge City – in a position that amounted to a conflict of interests and could, while such a word has clearly emotive overtones, therefore reasonably be described as a bribe. Last season, it looked as if Cambridge City would finally be leaving Milton Road to the extent that they agreed a ground-sharing deal with nearby Newmarket Town. A further one year extension at Milton Road was eventually agreed, but this expires at the end of this season and leaving their ground remains the most likely scenario at some point – whether near or far – into the future.
We should be clear that there is little to suggest that Brian York and Arthur Eastham were particularly responsible for difficulties which led to Cambridge City being put in a situation in which its ground was under threat. In the only other item of mitigation that we can find for the way for the way in which they behaved, it could also be argued that there was, at least, nothing illegal about the sale of Milton Road in 2005. These, however, offer little more than fig leaves in terms of their reputations. We may never know what York knew about Harneys underhand dealings in his post-sale communications with the club, and we may never be able to say for certain what the £10,000 paid to Eastham by York was for, even if the judge that oversaw the case brought against them had pretty definite ideas on the subject.
What we can say with a degree of certainty, however, is that when people are invited into football clubs in a directorial capacity they are put in a position of trust. This is true to an extent at all clubs, but especially so at non-league clubs which sit, through chance, on pieces of land that are worth a fortune whilst their day-to-day existence is very much a hand to mouth one. Such circumstances make these clubs vulnerable – all the more so because they may not necessarily have the skills amongst those who do care about it to see off those with dishonorable intentions – but there often seems to be little protection offered towards them by those in a position to be able to do so. In areas in which real estate comes at a premium, there may always be predators circling in the belief that short-term reputational damage will be more than compensated for by financial gain, yet Cambridge Citys story demonstrates that even clubs of the most modest means have a stubborn streak when it comes to safe-guarding their own existences. Cambridge City Football Club is still with us, and for now at least it even remains at Milton Road. That much, at least, is something for which we should all be thankful, but no aspect of the positive side of this particular story comes with any thanks to the machinations of Brian York or Arthur Eastham.
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