Until two days ago, I was viewing this article as an exercise in exorcism, writing about Kingstonian’s post-administration travails and my inglorious part in them. Handily, it was also going to be an article that didn’t require much research as I was, largely, “there at the time.” But the end of Kingstonian’s first post-administration ownership regime had parallels with the desperation shown this week by Thomas O Hicks to cling onto power at, and more importantly, the chance to get his money back from Liverpool. Kingstonian were bought from administrators Begbies Traynor (though not out of administration, as we’ll see) in April 2002 by a Goan family, the Khoslas. The 125-year lease to Kingstonian’s ground, Kingsmeadow Stadium, was transferred from the old Kingstonian company to an individual Khosla family member, Anup.
Anup was a young, fiercely intelligent twenty-something who played football well enough to impress at the annual Supporters Club v Ks staff game. But he was leaseholder in name only, and the chants of “Anup Khosla’s red-and-white army” at Ks first post-sale fixture were as inaccurate as they were naïve. The real power lay with his father Rajesh, a stern-looking hard-nosed businessman. He wasn’t Chris Kelly, whose 20-year association with the Ks ended in the sort of sheepish ignominy which hopefully awaits Hicks. And “not being Chris Kelly” was a passport to instant popularity in April 2002. By July 2002, “not being Chris Kelly” was already not enough. At a supporters’ forum, Rajesh Khosla introduced us to three letters that shook English football, “CVA.” Unfortunately, his “Company Voluntary Arrangement” had failed. And his attempts to explain to us why it had failed… also failed. He blamed the football authorities for “moving the goalposts,” and blamed the “old directors” for anything else that was going. He then gave attending press people a stark warning “not to print lies,” which took the attending press people by surprise as they were, at the time, anxious to support Khosla in whatever moves would get Ks out of administration and get the old directors out of Ks.
The practical effect of the failed CVA was that Ks were suspended from the Ryman League for the first few weeks of the season. But just as troublesome was Khosla’s restructuring of the club’s finances. He had announced that gate receipts and bar takings would be organised in two separate accounts. But the novelty of Ks finances being “organised” at all blinded us to what Khosla intended – that the club was to survive on gate receipts alone, and that the “account” for the bar takings would be a Khosla family one rather than a Kingstonian one. Had we known then what we know now, many of us would have pointed out that no club at our level, “even Sutton United” (the benchmark for such things), could live on gate alone. And we could have pointed to the significant historic contribution made by the bar to Kingstonian’s turnover.
In non-league circles, the summer of 2002 is less well-remembered for our travails than for the emergence of AFC Wimbledon. But the two stories quickly collided as AFC Wimbledon, and their considerable fan base…and their considerable fan base’s money, were welcomed with open arms by Khosla. In the 1990s, Kingstonian’s arrangement with Chelsea reserves was a cash-cow – one shudders to think how quickly we might have gone under without it. In 2002/03, a similarly lucrative arrangement got under way with the fledgling Wimbledon who, despite starting in the Combined Counties League, averaged “home” gates of 2,500. But with Kingstonian’s finances now split from the “bar account” and Anup Khosla’s name on the ground’s lease rather than Kingstonian’s, we benefited not a jot from the new influx of fans and their cash. And “worse” was to come.
By March 2003, Kingstonian’s first season under the Khoslas was drifting. Having started late, the team quickly caught up via a long unbeaten run under the management of former Spurs “star” Steve Sedgeley. Yet the Khoslas’ lack of empathy with the game was soon laid bare as matters began to unravel behind the scenes. Stories circulated of Anup Khosla’s disinterest in the nitty-gritty of running the club. The CVA continued to founder on the resistance of Chris Kelly and others to handing over control of the club’s parent company to the Khoslas. And as finances began to tighten, Sedgeley left. In March, Rajesh Khosla summoned Kingstonian’s great and good – and me, for some reason – to tell them he was selling Kingsmeadow’s lease…to AFC Wimbledon, leaving Ks as sub-tenants of another club in what had, two years previously, been their own ground.
Khosla’s declared rationale was that Kingstonian could start anew, debt-free and with “a ground to play on.” In reality, the club was carrying on the struggles to make ends meet, asset-free and with a 20-year sub-lease to replace the 125-year lease under which they moved into Kingsmeadow in 1989. And Khosla’s real rationale was money. He had, to use the technical financial jargon, “seen Wimbledon coming,” and seen their desperation to establish a home of their own, in or as near as possible to their home borough of Merton.
Kingsmeadow was a mile from Merton and, surprisingly, two-thirds of a mile from one of Wimbledon’s many homes in their formative years. So they were a touch closer to their “natural” home than the old Wimbledon were, in Milton Keynes. And their fans, with decision-making authority via the “Dons Trust” who owned the club, saw Kingsmeadow as the ideal home if Merton was unachievable. They were even prepared to pay four-and-a-bit times over the odds for the lease. And that was the bit of Wimbledon that Khosla really saw coming. Having paid the administrators between £400,000 and £500,000 for the lease, Khosla was now selling on for between £2m and £2.5m, and lending Wimbledon the money to do so. He was laughing all the way to the bank… and back again… and back and forth again with every Wimbledon repayment.
Some thought Khosla had a moral obligation to allow Kingstonian at least a share of the profits he’d made. But he genuinely seemed unaware of the concept. He’d done a business deal. Why should anyone else reap the rewards?The idea quickly grew that Kingstonian fans should form a Supporters Trust along the lines of the Dons Trust, and the many other such organisations that were appearing across the country under the auspices of the burgeoning Supporters’ Direct movement. Khosla seemed amenable, though only because he still owned the club and wanted others to do the work and, it turned out, pay the bills.
Not everybody was amenable. A small proportion of Kingstonian’s support realised that Wimbledon were the best possible landlords – better than having a disinterested asset-stripper who’d finished stripping the assets. But only a fraction of them – me and my mate – shared football’s mainstream view of AFC Wimbledon as a morality tale in which the “fans’ club” were the good guys. The majority of Ks fans resented Wimbledon. They were branded “ground-stealers” by some fans for whom factual analysis was a chore. Wimbledon had bought the ground’s lease and had done so well over a year after the ground had ceased to be “Kingstonian’s.”
Others, noting Wimbledon’s branding of the Milton Keynes monstrosity as “Franchise”, themselves branded AFC Wimbledon “Franchise 2.” This sounded particularly off-beam coming from an Arsenal-supporting friend, who was fully aware of “his” club’s Woolwich Arsenal origins. Disgracefully, and despite the fact that Ks would not have survived without Wimbledon replacing Khosla as landlord, anti-Wimbledon sentiment remains. But the “Ks Trust” got going. Kingston Council – criticised for allowing Wimbledon to become leaseholders, despite being powerless to prevent it if no laws were broken – helped significantly to formulate a deal for the Trust to take over the club.
First, though, we had to “prove” we could run it, which meant administering the club and attempting to control the budget while Khosla still had hold of the purse strings. Many would argue that the Trust’s second mistake was to agree to take responsibility for the running of the club without full financial control. And they would argue their first mistake was to elect me chair. I’d have to agree on both counts. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the Trust’s season running Ks, other than that it was a dispiriting experience. Most dispiriting was the discovery that the budget we’d set for running the whole club was blown entirely on wages, all authorised by Khosla.
In March 2004, Khosla agreed to a deal to sell the club to the Trust for £1 plus debts. But he reneged on each and every promise he made. An authoritative, respected, responsible chairman would have risen above all this and somehow found a way to utilise the extremely hard work other committee members were putting in. I just wanted to punch Khosla’s lights out. Proverbially, of course. The Trust failed. And it wasn’t until the club lurched through another two-thirds of a season and towards an inevitable relegation that Khosla was forced to cede control. A combination of supporter protests and “unfortunate” leaks to the press of Khosla’s dodgy business practices at the club put him under considerable pressure. And 16-page booklet entitled “Khosliar” detailed the consistent gaps between Khosla’s promises and Khosla’s deeds (modesty prevents me revealing the booklet’s author).
But in the end, Khosla’s departure was sealed by quiet, incognito words in the right Ryman League ears by Ks people who commanded infinitely greater respect than me. (I know who they are and they deserve every thanks). The League were able to force him to sell, despite his protestations. He claimed in the local press that he had left Ks in better shape than when he arrived and that he deserved some form of return on his “investment” in the club over the three years he was in charge – and doesn’t that sound familiar? Oh, and he also made some potentially defamatory comments about me and my role in the Trust, over which I was unable to sue…because his criticisms enhanced my reputation rather than damaged it.
A local flower-seller called Jimmy Cochrane took over from Khosla had left and effectively saved the club. He had his financial struggles too. But he sold on at the right time to local businessmen Malcolm Winwright and Mark Anderson, who have done the right things for the right reasons ever since, including negotiating an improved lease with Wimbledon. It would be presumptuous to suggest there are lessons from our tale for Liverpool fans. Supporters groups seem to have their communal heads screwed on. They are being careful what they wish for, which we weren’t in 2002. But we survived our rotten owner and got him in the end.