One of non-league football’s more enduring crises of recent seasons reached its head this week with news of the postponement of the Blue Square Bet North match between Hinckley United and Bishops Stortford. A transfer embargo was placed upon the club by the Football Conference at the end of October following a failure on its part to pay the wages of five players. Yesterday afternoon, the club requested cancellation of their match last night because it only had eight fit players, but a couple of the details of this postponement may cause some to raise their eyebrows. It has been reported that injuries picked up during Saturday afternoon’s match against Harrogate Town were the cause for the cancellation of last night’s match, but it was reported yesterday that not only had the club failed to provide medical certificates by 3.30 yesterday afternoon – as per requests from the Football Conference – but also that the club had rejected an offer from Dennis Strudwick, the general manager of the Football Conference, to sign enough emergency players to enable the match to go ahead, stating that it was not practical to do so when the offer was received at 1pm yesterday afternoon.
Some would point out that Hinckley United could have started yesterday evening’s match with eight players (the laws of the game requires a team to have a minimum of seven players in order to start a match), and it has to be said that if Hinckley’s form in the league so far this season is anything to go by it wouldn’t make a great deal of difference whether they started the match with eight players or eleven. Hinckley are already comfortably adrift at the football of the Blue Square Bet North table, having lost eighteen of their nineteen league matches so far this season (and having conceded sixty-five goals in the process), and with the only three points that they have picked up all season (a 2-1 win at Boston United at the end of August) having been deducted from them as part of the punishment for having failed to pay their players.
Crowds have dropped with this dismal form – as we might have expected – but not quite as disastrously as we might have expected considering the team’s failures on the pitch. Crowds have fallen away – from around three to four hundred at the start of the season to around the two hundred mark now – but the club’s home supporter is proving somewhat resilient in the face of defeat after defeat after defeat. Indeed, as at so many other clubs which find themselves in this sort of position, the supporters themselves are blameless in terms of what has happened at De Montfort Park over the last few months and years. Supporters have raised £3,300 towards trying to clear some of the club’s debts (and this is an amount of money that has been matched by the directors of the club), but what is starting to become apparent is that the financial problems at the club run deeper than merely unpaid wages for players and former players even after those supporters had been told that these figures would be enough to get the embargo lifted.
Financial difficulties at this club are nothing new, sadly. The club moved into De Montfort Park in March 2005, with a crowd of over 2,000 people watching the first match to be played there against Stalybridge Celtic. Since then, however, the club has failed, perhaps to live up to the potential that was shown in front of a four figure gate at a brand new stadium less than eight years ago. Hinckley lost in the Blue Square Bet North play-offs in 2007, but has declined since then and finished in third from bottom place in the table at the end of last season, only being spared from relegation as a result of the demotion of Kettering Town and Darlington from the Blue Square Premier following their financial difficulties. In 2010, a winding up petition was brought against the club by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill which led to a player registration embargo. This particular fire was extinguished, the problems have continued since then. The club has stated that it has paid over £100,000 to creditors since July to what it described as “aged creditors”, but that “light at the end of the tunnel” seems to be as elusive as ever.
Difficulties in the boardroom and overspending on wages have been identified as reasons why the club has found itself in this position, although a club statement at the time of the transfer embargo being put in place at the end of October stated that, “Despite the horrendous financial journey of the last four months, there is now definitely light at the end of the tunnel because we know our cost of operation is now affordable.” It is likely that the club will receive a points deduction and a fine as a result of this postponement. With the club not having any points, whether many people will be that concerned by further points being taken from the club is something of a moot point. A fine, however, would obviously be problematic for a club for which the extent of its financial woes should already be very clear and the possibility remains that the club could be expelled from the Football Conference, although when we consider the cancellation of matches for clubs such as Truro City, Kettering Town and Histon earlier this season, it seems unlikely that this would happen as a result of last night’s cancellation.
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the situation at Hinckley United is the question of what will happen to the club in the medium to long term. The club owns its own ground, and the ownership of such an asset means that it has something very tangible that it could lose as a result of its financial mismanagement. In the case of clubs that are having difficulties this severe, it is usually possible to offer the consolation of knowing that a new club should be able to rise from the ashes of the old, playing in the same colours, at the old ground and a new – and hopefully more financially prudent – management. Should Hinckley collapse under the weight of its debts, however, there are no guarantees that De Montfort Park wouldn’t have to be treated as an asset and realised in order to satisfy creditors.
Without knowing the exact extent of Hinckley United’s liabilities, it is difficult to predict what the prognosis for the club might be. What we know for certain is that if this club is to survive then it needs to keep hold of De Montfort Park. Just a few days ago it was reported that the club had been approached by Coventry City regarding a ground-share (Coventry supporters can at least console themselves with the fact that Hinckley is a nominally more suitable venue for the Sky Blues than Nene Park, the other venue that had been mentioned in the event of the League One club leaving The Ricoh Arena, even though it has a capacity than is 2,300 lower), and making the optimal use of an excellent facility is probably the key to the club’s long-term financial health. For now, however, it is the short term that will be troubling the club’s support and with no sign of any respite in this nightmare season in sight, exactly where salvation for Hinckley United Football Club might come from is anybody’s guess at the moment.
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