On a Saturday afternoon, it usually takes quite something to draw attention away from what has happened on the pitch. At Wrexham, however, the truth is proving to be stranger than fiction and so it was that on Saturday even a 7-2 home defeat at home against mid-table Gateshead was overshadowed by a protest the likes of which The Racecourse Ground has seldom seen before. This was hardly surprising, when we consider the club’s bizarre public statement last week, but it might just be possible that this protest could prove to be a turning point in the game of roulette that the future of the club has started to resemble.
Yet for all of this, there remain dangers ahead. The main business of Saturday’s protests were against the club’s owners, Geoff Moss and Ian Roberts, as well as against the disgraced former Chester City owner Stephen Vaughan, who had been publicly been talking of buying into Wrexham FC in spite of only being just over a year into an eleven year long disqualification from acting as the director of any company. Vaughan may yet seek to make his move for the club and it will be down to bodies ssuch as the Insolvency Service to decide whether they wish to investigate the extent and nature of any control in investment, should this come to anything.
Arguably even more troubling than Vaughan looming on the horizon, however, is another face – this one new to football – with a chequered past of his own. Step forward, Stephen Cleeve. Cleeve first came to the public’s attention over his involvement in two companies during the mid to late 1990s – the Napier Spirit Company and Forrester & Lamego. The Napier Spirit Company was wound up at the High Court in London in 1996, whilst Forrester & Lamego was closed down in 1997 after an investigation by the Department of Trade & Industry – for trading while insolvent – and Cleeve was subsequently banned from acting as a company director for eight years.
It didn’t take long for Cleeve to re-emerge, of course, and in 2006 the BBC’s “Inside Out” documentary series caught his company, European Land Sales, overstating the value of land to investors in what is known as a “land-banking”, in which plots of land are purchased and sold to investors in the hope of it being “re-zoned” (ie, given planning permission for housing, thus dramatically increasing its value). This caused considerable consternation in Australia, where Cleeve was trailed by the investigative journalist Neil Jenman, who went as far as setting up website using Cleeve’s name, detailing his previous misdeeds.
He failed to take control of the web domain himself, even though he set up a domain name in Jenman’s name, making various allegations against him (which you can see by downloading this – it’s all on the Wayback Machine). Last year, Cleeve was due to be running as a candidate for the UK Independence Party in the newly-created Kensington seat, but the revelations about his past meant that UKIP seem to have found him to be beyond the pale and he ended up standing down, although Cleeve claimed that this was for “business reasons” rather than anything else. He was replaced by Lady Caroline Pearson, who finished in fourth place with 754 votes.
Cleeve confirmed earlier today that he was interested in getting involved at Wrexham and a message on his Twitter account this evening confirmed that a statement regarding his involvement in the club would follow, but things have been moving very quckly at the club over the last couple of days or so. First of all, two official statements appeared on the club’s official website, the first confirming that Rob Bickerton, Tony Allan and Jon Harris would not be making a bid to buy the club and that Bickerton – in possibly one of the shortest reigns in the history of football club chairmanship – would be resigning as Wrexham’s chairman. The second statement, meanwhile, stated that the club was still up for sale and that, “Moss & Roberts maintain that their preferred route is to sell a fan-based consortium”, all of which is something of a turnaround in stance when set against the statement issued by the club as recently as the 11th of February.
All of which brings us to this evening’s BBC London Non-League Show. Cleeve, when interviewed, stated that, “the council had got involved with the discussions” and that, in view of this, his investment is “on hold”. He offered a different on the slant on the court cases from the 1990s (which is available on the podcast – we’ll leave you to decide whether you are convinced by his take on what happened then), but is this the sort of person that Wrexham supporters want involved? Another party believed to be interested is a local hotelier Stephanie Booth, but perhaps the best of all worlds might be for the local council – as Cleeve intimated in his interview – to invest in acquiring The Racecourse Ground to be held for the good of the town of Wrexham and for the Supporters Trust to run the club for the good of the club’s supporters.
This is, perhaps, the most valid point that can be made about the future of Wrexham FC. Through Hamilton and Guterman to Moss and Roberts, the traditional model of individuals coming in and running this club as has failed it over and over again. Of that there can be no doubt. Some Wrexham supporters believe that the WST don’t have the funding to be able keep the club going but the fact of the matter is that more or less nobody has the money to sustain the sort of losses that they have been being rumoured to be making of late. It’s time, at Wrexham, for a fresh approach, something different to clean out the cobwebs of a club which has failed its support base and its town on too many occasions.
If the club’s commercial operations are in as bad a way as has been rumoured, then this can be changed with a new broom and a fresh outlook, but no-one is going to sponsor a club that is, at this moment in time, in a state of civil war. The exact state of the club’s current financial condition is not known – What are the debts? What are their day-to-day obligations? – and it may be a harsh reality that the club may have to cut its cloth accordingly while it adjusts to not haemorrhaging money with every passing day, but possible short-term pain will in the long-term be far outweighed by the twin gains of regaining ownership of The Racecourse Ground and the fundamental knowledge that what they have been subjected to more than once must never be allowed to happen again. Confusion has reigned at Wrexham over the last few days, but these long-term aims must remain the core goals of all of their supporters.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.