When Morell Maison arrived at Southern League club Halesowen Town in 2007, he had high hopes for the club. Few, however, would have guessed that rather than being merely the manager of the club he was actually the owner, and fewer still would have even hazarded a guess at the absolute chaos that has engulfed the Midlands club over the last six months or so, a story which is now involving administration, a boycott of the club by supporters and even the involvement of the specialist fraud officers of the West Midlands Police’s Economic Crime Unit.
It certainly seems odd that no official announcement was ever made that Maison had taken over the ownership of the club. In May 2008, made its plans for the future a little more clear, including a pledge “to exercise business transparency and practise an appropriate level of corporate governance” and “to successfully balance sporting success and ambition with prudent financial management”. Soon after the start of last season, however, things began to unravel. At the start of August 2008, then-chairman Martin Kearns told the Halesowen News:
The aim has to be to get into the Conference in two years and then push on from there.Realistically we have to take one step at a time, we can’t overstretch ourselves. There are clubs in League One or Two who are poorly structured financially – we don’t want to be like that.
However, just a few weeks later Maison was involved in a brawl with a player after a league match at Chippenham Town (in March 2009 he was banned for twelve months for violent conduct, although this was reduced to three months upon appeal), and things have unwound rapidly since then. Kearns resigned in November of last year, and this January the club received further publicity for reneging on a promise to supply one hundred kits to local junior football clubs.
By the spring of this year, a familiar smell crisis was starting emanate from the club. They were briefly suspended from playing in April and were barred from this year’s FA Cup and FA Trophy competitions after failing to pay Maidstone United and Durham City their split of the gate receipts for an FA Cup and FA Trophy matches last year. This ban was lifted (although the club was docked a further three points for fielding an ineligible player), but by this time the club’s debts were rumoured to have risen above £250,000. They were briefly suspended from all football again, this time until former players owed wages were paid in full and an embargo of registering any new players was also put in place.
The club’s supporters trust, The Yeltz Trust, was formed in July in reaction to the behaviour of the club. It immediately became a shareholder in the club and attempted to force the club into administration, but this was thrown out in court on appeal. In reaction to Maison’s running of the club, the Trust announced a boycott of all matches which has been observed by an overwhelming majority of the club’s supporters (crowds are down from an average of 450-500 last season to just over 100 so far this season). The full extent of the club’s debts, meanwhile, remain unknown, with Maison claiming that they were over-exaggerated by those wanting him out, although his claims are hardly substantiated by previous events at the club.
This week, meanwhile, things have taken an alarming turn. The club’s AGM was scheduled for the 15th of September, but the previous day an announcement that the club had been placed into administration was put on its official website. This wasn’t all. The official site also announced that the club had already been bought out of administration, that the winding up order had been brought by a “vexatious” former employee and that – no surprises here – the AGM was cancelled. Here is the announcement in full:
IT IS WITH GREAT REGRET WE HEREBY ANNOUNCE THAT ON MONDAY 14TH SEPTEMBER AT 15:47 HALESOWEN TOWN FOOTBALL CLUB WENT INTO ADMINISTRATION
We were forced to take emergency action following a series of coordinated attacks concluding with a threat to wind up the club by a particularly vexatious former employee of the company, who instructed solicitors of an equally malevolent shareholder.
THE DEADLINE TO COMMENCE WINDING UP HALESOWEN TOWN FOOTBALL CLUB WAS MONDAY 14TH SEPTEMBER.
HAD WE NOT TAKEN EMERGENCY ACTION IT WOULD HAVE MEANT THE END OF HALESOWEN TOWN FOOTBALL CLUB.
A new group has bought the club out of administration thereby preserving football at the Grove for the foreseeable future. We wish them, the players and the fans all the best for the future.
Who, then, is this “vexatious former employee of the company”, and who is (or are) this “equally malevolent shareholder”? The employee is believed to be club’s former groundsman Ian Hipkiss. Hipkiss is owed in the region of £7,500 in unpaid wages by the club, who seem to be unaffected by the fact that they have cut off someone’s livelihood. Given the club’s recent history on repaying its debts, what exactly was Mr Hipkiss’ alternative? The “equally malevolent shareholder”, one would have to assume, is the supporters trust, who appear to have committed the cardinal sin of trying to take on the owner(s) of the club.
What is intriguing about the above announcement is its claim that “A new group has bought the club out of administration”. Certainly, a new company – Halesowen Town Football Club 1873 Ltd – had been formed on the 7th of September . The new company has a sole director, and he is a chap called Graham Ingram. Graham Ingram is the brother of Godfrey Ingram, and Godfrey – who is on the advisory board at Luton Town – already has connections with Halesowen Town, and has been put forward by Maison as a potential backer for the club. If this is the company that is to take the club over, Maison is almost certain to stay at The Grove.
There are, however, a couple of small questions that need to be answered. First of all, some sort of official confirmation would be welcome that the club actually is in administration, because there isn’t anything on the London Gazette website yet. Secondly, if the club is in administration, the administrators have to try to keep the club solvent as a going concern and have to sell to the club to the best bidder. That, however, would be a decision for the administrator to make rather than Maison. If, as is believed, Maison only owns 46% of the shares in the club, what was his authority to take this action? In the meantime, West Midlands Police’s Economic Crime Unit has started an investigation into the club, which is believed to be linked to the activities of former Halesowen chief executive Guy Simpson, who was recently charged with tax evasion after customs officers discovered a 20 million cigarettes at Southampton docks on a cargo ship from China.
It is possible that Maison has managed to blind-side everyone and that he will remain in control of the club. There is now every likelihood that a new, supporter-owned club will form in the town, such is the level of resentment at the club towards the current regime. Maison and Ingram can then get on with running their dying club with no supporters in whatever way they like while a new club starts up the road. This, however, is the worst case scenario. The future of Halesowen Town Football Club – the oldest football club in the West Midlands – is still up for grabs, and one suspects that there is still a considerable amount of mileage in this story.