As regular readers of this site will be aware, Manchester City supporters turning up at Eastlands last week for their Monday night Premier League match against West Ham United might have been somewhat surprised to see a clutch of people outside their ground with collection tins. These collectors weren’t, to the probable disappointment of the home crowd, Manchester United supporters having a whip-round after the collapse of the Glazer empire, rather they were supporters of Blue Square North club Hyde United, who were desperately collecting money to stave off a winding up order brought against them by HMRC. They raised £7,800 – mere pennies in the world of the Premier League, but a sizeable contribution towards the money required to keep the club alive.
For people that attended football matches regularly during the 1980s and the 1990s, the collection tin became a fact of life. Like men hanging around outside a betting shop with nothing better to do, the rattling of collection tins outside various lower division football grounds was a symbol of the symbol of the state of the game at the time. It was an act of pure, unremitting desperation – the football club’s supporters lying prostrate and begging for money to keep their club alive. At such a point, the whys and wherefores of how they came to get into this situation (and it was usually the fault of the club itself though, significantly, not always) became irrelevant. “There but for the grace of God go I”, you would think, and a few coins would be donated. Local rivalries would be cast aside in the broader interests of keeping one side of the divide in an act of recognition that the mutual enmity between rivals is part of the fabric of all football clubs.
At a point earlier in this decade, however, the rattling of collection tins outside football grounds started to fall silent. There was a reason for this, and it wasn’t the fact that no-one was in financial trouble – it was because the collection tins often weren’t enough any more. In the wake of the ITV Digital fiasco and the overspending of clubs in the Premier League, debts went from being thousands to millions of pounds, or more. What would the point of holding a collection for Leeds United during the summer of 2007 have been? All that Leeds supporters could do was to impotently dress up the statue of Billy Bremner outside Elland Road, hold their breath and hope for the best. The amounts owed were to great for this to make much of a difference.
With Hyde United, however, the collection tins returned, and one suspects that they will also have returned at Accrington Stanley, where the race is now on to collect £308,000 to see off another petition from HMRC. They were given twelve weeks to raise these funds, and it looks likely to be a battle to the last. Stanley, however, have something significant in their favour – their name. Accrington Stanley (who, should they not survive, will complete what may be a unique trick of going bust three times in three different centuries) is a name that resonates, not only through English football but through the global game. They are lucky to have this. It may just save them from extinction this time.
Another club with a degree of celebrity, the oldest professional football club in the world Notts County, also face their day of reckoning tomorrow, as the Football League meets for Notts County’s Fit & Proper test. This couldn’t really be coming at a worse time for the club. When contacted by The Guardian, Anwar Shafi (who had more or less been confirmed by Peter Trembling as being one of the investors in QADBAK, the apparently fiercely secretive company behind the takeover of the club) denied having anything to do with them, stating that, “This statement was not made by me. I have no investment of any sort in Qadbak. I have no role in the club”. He also added that, “We are prominent families of the Indian sub-continent, and specifically Punjab, but we are not tycoons, not even in Pakistan”.
All of this, obviously, piles the pressure onto Trembling to such an extent that his name is starting to take an almost onomatopoeic feel to it. In an interview with the BBC, he stated that the new owners were “high profile in the countries in which they operate” in one sentence and “very private” in the next (which is not quite a contradiction in terms), repeated that they want to “invest in a Division Two football club” without offering any sort of explanation as to why this should be and then, having blamed the media for actually trying to find the truth out about these people, gave a very good impression of someone that couldn’t even confirm whether the takeover would go through, even if the Football League does pass them as “fit & proper”.
Trembling also – as he has repeatedly done over the last three months – referred to the investors as being from the Middle East, which has started to grate a little since the names of the investors released turned out to be from Pakistan, which is plainly not in the Middle East. Of course, one of the supposed investors has said that he isn’t an investor, so maybe the rest of these very “private” investors are oil-rich sheikhs with money to burn. The one thing that we know for certain is that we don’t, at the moment, know. He finished off by saying, with reference to press interest in the story, that, “I don’t know if it’s jealousy or a vendetta or pure spite and maliciousness”. Maybe it’s time for somebody to stick their head above the parapets and actually answer that question.
There is a possibility that the press are interested in this story because it feels like a jigsaw in which the pieces don’t fit together, and because some of us are genuinely concerned that Notts County Football Club will not even be here in five years time, once the circus has packed up its bags and left town. It’s not “jealousy”, and this site – this small, inconsequential corner of the big, bad media – said as much in no uncertain terms when this deal first became apparent during the summer in the full knowledge that the “j” word would predictably and lazily start to be thrown about. More questions have been raised since Notts County’s supporters bought into their get rich quick scheme, and it is about time that they started asking some questions themselves about this, even if the Football League passes them as “fit & proper” tomorrow”. The collection tins were only out at Meadow Lane five years ago, after all.