Bolton Wanderers’ Debt of Gratitude
Professional football is very good at creating heroes and villains. The departure of Neil Lennon from Bolton Wanderers “by mutual consent” earlier today probably leaves the former Celtic manager in the latter of these two categories, even though the horrific circumstances that have overtaken the club of the pitch this season can hardly be laid entirely at his door. Although Lennon himself may well suggest that the club was a basket case and that the relegation that seems highly likely to come at the end of this season has a degree of inevitability about it, his critics will point to the choices of players that he brought into the club – even taking into account the limited means at his disposal to do so – and tactical stagnation which has led to just four league wins all season as being sufficient justification for his departure.
Just as a football club can create villains, though, so can it create heroes too, and sometimes these heroes are to be found in the most unlikely of places. Last Tuesday at the High Court in London, a stellar performance from barrister Hilary Stonefrost may well come to rank as one of the most important in the history of the club. The hearing concerned was the third regarding the winding up order brought against the club by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill of £2.2m, and Stonefrost managed to earn the club one last reprieve, for fourteen days, in order to facilitate the takeover of the club by the Sports Shield group fronted by former Bolton player Dean Holdsworth.
It went to the wire. The case had first been heard at the court in January and been adjourned, and then adjourned again on the twenty-second of last month, after the court saw proof from Holdsworth that the Sports Shield takeover was imminent. This still, however, had not been completed by last Monday’s third hearing and HMRC’s counsel posited the viewpoint that the takeover had been “on the verge” of being completed twice before without anything having happened. It was almost an argument persuasive enough to convince the judge, who confirmed that he was exercising the benefit of the doubt because the club had previously paid some money into a current bank account. When confirming the further adjournment, however, the judge added that “The club has stretched judicial discretion.” Eddie Davies, the now former owner of the club, had gone so far as preparing a notice of administration. It was an extremely close-run thing.
Three days later, details of the takeover confirmed. Sports Shield have acquired a 94.5% shareholding in Burnden Leisure, the holding company of which the football club is a wholly owned subsidiary, for a nominal payment of £1, with a promise of £7.5m in investment to carry the club through to the end of this season. Eddie Davies, whose shareholding has been taken over – the other 5.5% will remain in the hands of small individual shareholders – is believed to have written off the club’s debt owed to him (which has been variously described as being different figures between £170m and £175m), and he will stay on as an honorary president of the club. His time as being one of the decision makers at Bolton Wanderers, however, now seems to have come to a close.
Even this, however, has come with strings attached and to suggest that the club is out of any woods just yet would certainly seem to be premature. Relegation from the Championship at the end of this season remains a near-certainty in spite of Holdsworth’s bullishness over fighting to stay in the division and this will result in a further drop in revenue from the start of next season. The club has already had to sell its training ground – to Wigan Athletic, who may well be passing Bolton in the opposite direction at the end of this season after their own brief spell in League One purgatory – and it remains under transfer embargo for breaking Financial Fair Play regulations.
The Football League clearly have some reservations about the previous situation at the club and are seeking to put safeguards in place to ensure that the events of the last few months aren’t repeated in the highly likely event of relegation in a few weeks time. The League has given it approval to the deal going through “subject to future conditions.” Sports Shield has been asked to provide evidence of future funding for the club should they be relegated to Sky Bet League One at the end of the season, as well as wanting the final say on all transfer dealings in which the club is involved for the next five transfer windows. With players still on high wages still to offload if the club is to balance its books in the long-term, Bolton Wanderers are going to need to thoroughly restructure. The lessons of the past have to be learned, and over-reliance on the munificence of one individual can never again become a part of the make-up of this football club.
For now, though, the club survives. A club that is woven into the history of English football will live to fight again, and on this occasion the heroes of the piece aren’t those who turn out on the pitch at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon or who parade from the stands wearing suspiciously clean club scarves and sharp suits whilst making promises of jam tomorrow to supporters. On this occasion, Trevor Birch, whose work behind the scenes after being taken on by the club as a financial advisor towards the end of last year achieved the goal that he was working toward, even if it did end up being a close call, in the end. Following on from his work at Portsmouth, should he now from depart Bolton Wanderers soon it will be secure in the knowledge of a job well done. More than anybody else, though, the work of Hilary Stonefrost in securing that final adjournment at the High Court last week might just turn out to be the most important last-ditch tackle in the history of Bolton Wanderers Football Club.
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