Since the institution of the National Lottery a little over two decades ago, thoughts of what its millions of weekly players might do should they win have most likely fuelled billions of hours worth of daydreaming, and it is perhaps inevitable that, for the football supporter, many of these idle thoughts will have turned to owning their favourite football club. Indeed, on the forums of smaller clubs in financial difficulty, it has become something of a trope for at least one member to casually mention that they will step in and save the day should their numbers come up on the following Saturday evening. For all of this idle chitter-chatter, though, the number of lottery winners that have actually got involved in football is tiny.
This is, perhaps, unsurprising. People unprepared for the sudden acquisition of a large amount of money will often get professional advice on how to make the best use of that money, and anybody with so much as a cursory knowledge of lower league and non-league football will be fully aware of the fact that, at best, this level of the game is at best unlikely to win the recommendation of any serious financial advisers, and at worst can be little more than a voracious money fire, burning fifty pound notes at a rate that could reduce most people to tears. In the case of Newport County AFC, however, the idle fantasy of one football supporter became a reality and the lottery owner ended up the chairman of the club. Now, though, that chapter in the life of both chairman and club is coming to an end, so what happens to the club next?
It is now twenty-six years since Newport AFC emerged from the smouldering ashes of the original Newport County, which folded in 1988. The new club played its first reformed season in the Hellenic League at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, a one hundred and sixty mile round journey from Newport, before briefly returning to Somerton Park, the original club’s home for two years. However, a further two years would be spent in exile at Gloucester City – on account of the Football Association of Wales’s intransigence towards clubs who wished to remain in the English pyramid system rather than join the nascent League of Wales – but, once that squabble was resolved, the club moved to the Newport Stadium, a mildly unsatisfactory athletics stadium that had the consolation for supporters of actually being in Newport itself, in 1994 and moved to up to the Conference South and then into the Conference National, in 2010.
At the same time that Newport County were scrapping their way up through the byzantine English non-league pyramid, a Bristolian Newport County supporter had gone through an extraordinarily life-changing experience. In June 2009, Les Scadding, an unemployed builder who five years previously had recovered from testicular cancer, won £45.5m on the Euromillions lottery. Scadding was a County supporter, was invited to get involved with the club and, as it celebrated the centenary of the formation of the original club in 1912 by reaching Wembley, where they lost the FA Trophy Final against York City, moving from the Newport Stadium to Rodney Parade, the altogether more football-friendly home of Newport RFC, became its new chairman. With not inconsiderable investment from the multi-millionaire owner, the club won promotion into the Football League at the end of the 2012/13 season after returning to Wembley to beat Wrexham in the Football Conference play-off final.
The club’s two seasons in the Football League have yielded a mid-table finish and narrowly missing out on a place in the play-offs in League Two, but earlier this summer Scadding confirmed that he would – spoken like a true lottery winner – be retiring in order to spend more time at his holiday home in Barbados. It had looked as if Scadding’s departure from the club may cause significant issues for it. The club’s supporters trust were expected to inherit his share-holding, but a detailed examination of the club’s financial position carried out on its behalf by Supporters Direct, rumours of season ticket sales having been sluggish so far this summer, and a bill that was due to be paid by the end of this month for an amount described in memorably sentence-mangling terms by the BBC as “possibly up to £100,000,” there were suggestions that the club’s potential financial woes might be greater than were being publicly admitted.
Yesterday morning, however, an official statement on the club’s website confirmed that, “Newport County AFC can today announce that former chairman Les Scadding has agreed to transfer his shareholding in the club to the Newport County AFC Supporters Trust.” Newport County, then, will join the slowly growing ranks of clubs that are owned and run by their supporters. The challenges ahead are not insignificant. The club has already had to reduce its playing budget from around £1.4m to an estimated £850,000 for the coming season, and this is a state of affairs that will give new manager Terry Butcher significant pause for thought on the eve of the coming season. Thoughts of promotion parties in ten months time may have to be put on ice for the time being. And with supporter ownership comes considerable responsibility. Supporters trusts aren’t – or at least shouldn’t be – distant organisations over which disgruntled fans have no control. If Newport County supporters want more and/or better players, they’ll have to find the means to acquire them themselves, whether that’s through getting more people through the turnstiles at Rodney Parade, fundraising, attracting sponsorship or investment. It’s down to them, now.
It’s important to remember, however, that this responsibility also carries a sense of freedom with it. The overwhelming majority of football clubs across the whole of Europe are ultimately shackled to the whims of those individuals who own it, and we’ve seen the worst excesses of this particular ownership model over the last few years at the likes of Cardiff City, Hull City, Blackpool and Leeds United, to name but a few. The supporters of Newport County are now in charge of their own destiny in a way that will make many the supporters of some – perhaps many – other clubs turn a little green with envy. There may well be tough times ahead at times – it can sometimes feel as if, although supporters of the same club all ordinarily want the same ultimate end result, they can start a tsunami of an argument over the most insignificant of minutiae – but what the supporters have here is a huge opportunity to build the sort of football club that they actually want.
Sometimes, stories don’t turn out the way that you expect them to. The narrative of the local multi-millionaire lottery winner who decides to throw his lot in with his local football had, for some, the air of a disaster waiting to happen written all over it. Thankfully, however, this doesn’t appeared to have happened in the case of Les Scadding and Newport County. He can retire to Barbados now, safe in the knowledge that his standing amongst fellow supporters of the club is untarnished and in knowing that he played an instrumental role in getting the club that he supports into the Football League and delivering its ownership into the hands of the supporters themselves. In doing so, he is awarding himself a legacy that will long be remembered at Rodney Parade, a legacy that mere money cannot always buy. Back in the Football League, playing at a ground that is fit for the club, and soon to be owned and run by its supporters – after more than a quarter of a century’s worth of what often seemed to be perpetual turbulence, perhaps it’s time for Newport County AFC to enter a new phase in its life. It’ll be hard work, but the rewards can have a value that money cannot buy.
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