It’s one step forward and two steps back for the long-suffering supporters of Chester City. They might have hoped (or even expected) that relegation back into the Blue Square Premier and a spell in administration might have been as bad as things could get, but the Football Association last week suspended the club’s license to play, forcing them to cancel their pre-season matches and throwing into doubt yet again the likelihood of their starting the Blue Square Premier season in three weeks’ time. Yet again, we have to look at the behaviour of Stephen Vaughan – one of lower division football’s more “colourful” owners – to see the reasons for the FA’s disquiet over goings-on at The Deva Stadium.
The story seems to have started earlier this year when the legal ownership of Chester City Football Club was transferred from Vaughan into the name of his son, Stephen Vaughan Junior. Following their relegation from the Football League at the end of last season, Chester brought in the administrators, and it is this that seems to be the reason for the transfer of ownership of the club. The FA’s “fit & proper person” test may be weak and feeble, but anyone that takes a club into administration more than once is barred from being a club director. Vaughan circumvented this ruling – he wasn’t in charge, on paper at least.
He did, however, remain their biggest single creditor and was able to call the shots with regard to the sale of the club via the administrators. Negotiations with a former Chester player, David Jones, had reached the advanced stage of due diligence before he was unable to reach agreement with the administrators. Vaughan then confirmed that he would buy the club back from the adminstrators with a CVA to pay 15p in the pound, meaning that Chester City’s other creditors would have to accept a tiny proportion of the money that they are owed. Vaughan himself would write off the debentures that he had put into the club, but whether this was an act of overwhelming generosity is something of a moot point. How, realistically, would Vaughan have got that money back by other means? Chester City have no significant assets, after all.
With his new company in charge at The Deva Stadium, it seemed likely that a debt-free Chester City would start life in the BSP this season without too many major problems off the pitch. They have a new manager (Mick Wadsworth having replaced Mark Wright), and a ten point deduction isn’t insurmountable if they are seeking a season of consolidation this year. The Football Association, however, threw a spanner in the works at the end of last week when they refused to renew the club’s license for the coming season. As an unlicenced club, they are barred from playing until the FA’s concerns have been addressed. Their pre-season friendly at Marine on Saturday was called off and the club has since called off all of their other pre-season matches.
Exactly what the FA’s concerns are is not yet known and Vaughan is bullish about the club’s prospects, stating that this is just a matter concerning some paperwork, but the fact that such a perfunctory piece of paperwork as a licence to play football has been refused by the FA is clearly of great concern. They clearly feel that something is wrong at The Deva Stadium. The Chester supporters seem split on the issue. Some are blaming the FA themselves, claiming victimisation. Others believe that Vaughan may have stretched the patience of the authorities too far. The truth will almost certainly out over the next few days or so, but if this is merely a problem with paperwork, why have the FA taken the drastic step of banning them from playing anybody? This is not an organisation that ordinarily rules with an iron fist when it comes to such matters, after all.
It is not completely implausible that the FA have lost patience with the sleight of hand that seems to surround football club ownership these days. That Chester have entered into administration and emerged from it with the same owner that they had five months ago and without him having earnt a black mark for taking the club into administration is certainly perverse, and we should perhaps hope that this is the sort of loophole that the FA will seek to close over the next few months or so. If nothing else, the fact that this is what has come to pass at Chester shows up the weakness of the current regulations. There will always be those that seek to play the system. The FA’s most urgent issue at hand should be to make life as difficult as possible for these people.