The timing of the announcement, coming as it did on a Friday evening, might have been a little unusual, but there can be no doubting that the take-over of Wycombe Wanderers Football Club by its supporters trust is very positive news indeed. The clubs future has been a source of some conjecture over the last couple of years on account of the plans and whims of now former owner Steve Hayes, but by repositioning the club as an asset of its local community, and with the future of its Adams Park stadium now considerably more certain, it seems as if a new dawn is rising over the Buckinghamshire club today.
A former double-glazing salesman and finance broker, Hayes first became involved at Wycombe in 2004 when he purchased a twenty-five per cent shareholding in the club. He followed this up in 2007 by buying a stake in the London Wasps Rugby Football Club and then securing ownership of that club at the end of the following year. In the summer of 2009, he completed a take-over of Wycombe Wanderers in a deal which saw £3m of debt written off and converted into shares (which, as we will see below, turned out to be a far from harmonious affair), but after this the future of both of these clubs became intertwined as Hayes sought to build a Sport Village containing a 17,500 capacity stadium in the town.
Like many other rugby union clubs, London Wasps had entered into the age of professional rugby union in the mid-1990s without the facilities in place to be able to cope with the rapid increase in attendances that the rebranding of the game brought with it. The club had traditionally played its home matches at Sudbury in Middlesex, but moved to Queens Park Rangers Loftus Road in 1996 and stayed there until 2002, before moving out of London to Wycombe. Hayes purchase of the club – at the same time that he purchased Chrysalis Record from former Queens Park Rangers owner Chris Wright – seemed to embed it in Wycombe, but the plans for the Sports Village were far from popular amongst Wycombe supporters.
First announced in 2007, the plans ran into a familiar tangled web of opposition and planning complexities. First supported by the local council, vocal opposition to the planned site at the Wycombe Air Park aerodrome grew, criticising the proposals for encroaching onto Green Belt land (a familiar problem with all planning applications made just outside of London), the traffic burden that the development would place upon the area and the involvement of public funds in a private venture, whilst supporters of the club itself expressed concerns over what benefits a club with an average home crowd of less than 5,000 would get from playing in a stadium that was far too big for their needs. Last summer, the council finally blocked the proposals and by the autumn the plan was completely dead.
Relations between Hayes and the clubs supporters trust had also deteriorated in recent years. Wycombe had been owned under a supporter share ownership model, but this ended in 2004 with Hayes’ first involvement in the club and the full take-over was regarded by many as a matter of Hayes bullying the supporters trust into handing over its share-holding under the implied threat of funding for the loss-making club being pulled – and, in all likelihood, administration looming – if they didn’t. One trust board member, Joe McKenna, quit at the time of the issue, complaining that members had been “bullied into their decision”, and there can be little doubt that such strong-arm tactics on Hayes’ part at the time proved to be highly divisive for the trust itself. In the long-term, however, perhaps the writing was written on the wall for the future of the club at this time.
The blocking of planning permission for the new stadium turned out to be the beginning of a downward spiral in Steve Hayes’ fortunes. In October of last year, he announced that he would be putting London Wasps up for sale. Several groups came forward expressing an interest in buying the club, but by April it was announced that the club would need £2m by the middle of next month or face the prospect of entering into administration, and at the time of writing a new consortium led by former player Ken Moss seems likely to complete a take-over in the next couple of weeks or so.
Wycombe Wanderers, meanwhile, had continued their yo-yo existence between League One and League Two, and they continued to accumulate debt, mostly to Hayes himself. Hayes, however, had bigger fish to fry. In February he was arrested as part of Operation Tuleta – the police investigation by the Metropolitan Police into allegations of computer hacking relating to the News International phone hacking scandal – relating to suspected offences under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and was bailed until June of this year. These arrests were not directly linked to any news organisation or the activities of journalists, but were relating to police interest in targeting anybody suspected of commissioning computer or telephone hackers. No specific details of Hayes’ alleged involvement in this have yet been made public, but the timing of it all could explain why the Wycombe Wanderers Supporters Trust are now running the club again.
From the perspective of the club, this couldn’t have come at a better time. A failure to file accounts on time had led to a transfer embargo being placed upon the club at the end of March. While this, perhaps, didn’t significantly impact upon the club during the season, it did mean that manager Gary Waddock has spent the close season so far operating with one arm tied behind his back. It is expected that the club will file these accounts in the next few days, and that this embargo will now be lifted. In addition to this, the club will retain the ownership of Adams Park – its home for the last twenty-two years and the training ground under a new holding company named Frank Adams Legacy Ltd (named for a former player who gifted the club its previous ground in 1945), which will be owned by the Trust and will secure both the ground and the clubs training ground for the future.
For the supporters trust and for the supporters of the club, however, the hard work starts here. The clubs statement, issued last night, states that “The plan is to work to a break-even model which will secure a sound financial footing for the club”, but this will not necessarily easy and the first challenge that the Trust faces is now that of maximising commercial revenue and seeking to persuade more people in the town to go and watch its local football club play. By engaging productively with its local commmunity, this can be done and Wycombe Wanderers, a club owned – albeit under a very different sort to that which we see these days – by its supporters is now back in the right hands. Frank Adams, one suspects, would heartily approve.
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