Perhaps the most important thing about a financial crisis at a football club is how the club itself reacts to the situation that has pushed it to the edge. Two non-league clubs in the south of England, Crawley Town and Lewes, have given every impression of being in a perpetual state of flux over the last few years but their behaviour this summer couldn’t have been more different, with one choosing a new ownership structure which should go some way towards ensuring that its recent near-death experience is never repeated, while the other has decided to go down the opposite route and spend, spend, spend.
Crawley Town’s name has become synonymous with financial management for several seasons, with debts rising as high as £1.8m in 2006 before being cleared, although the club did end up back at the High Court in London in March of this year, fighting off another a winding up petition. Azwar Majeed, one of the brothers that had driven the club so close to the edge, ended up in prison for tax fraud. One might have expected the club to have learnt that financial prudence is key to the club’s long-term survival, but their behaviour in the transfer market this summer is raising concerns that their cycle of boom and bust is about to start again.
Since the start of July, when Bruce Winfield became the new co-owner of the club, they have brought in eight new players, but alarm bells have started to ring with the largesse of a couple of these new signings. Sergio Torres has arrived at The Broadfield Stadium from Peterborough United on a two year contract worth £100,000, while Matt Tubbs has also signed for them from Salisbury City for £70,000. The club was losing £400,000 per year and Winfield himself admitting that, “the club was pretty much bankrupt and would have gone into administration”. With their previous difficulties having been finally overcome, they might have been expected to promise themselves that this must never to be happen again, but it would appear that this is not the case.
Quite what return they would be expecting to see from spending this sort of money is anybody’s guess, but if they are expecting a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow from promotion into the Football League, they seem likely to be disappointed. Manager Steve Evans has already uttered the dread word, “project”, in media interviews over his club’s rash of recent acquistions (and, considering his prosecution for conspiracy to evade tax whilst in charge at Boston United in 2005 and his time at Crawley, he should know a thing or two about financial mismanagement). They have been installed as second favourites to win next season’s Blue Square Premier behind Luton Town, but any optimism over their future will surely be tempered by grim memories of what happended to them in the very recent past.
On the other side of the county, meanwhile, Lewes are also preparing for a brave new world, but whilst their new reality may not bring them immediate trinkets, they are taking action which seems likely to secure the long-term future of the club. The Blue Square South club has faced a constant battle for survival for the last two years, but they managed to avoid relegation at the end of last season even as their financial position continued to leave them in a perpetual state of near-bankruptcy. However, the club’s owners, Martin Elliott and Kevin Powell, have ceded control of the club to a newly-formed Community Benefit Society called Lewes Community Football Club.
LCFC, founded by a group of local supporters called Rooks125. They will run the club and oversee a complete overhaul of the club’s processes, with the intention of opening itself up to complete owner-membership in the near future. They have spent the last six months consulting with other supporter-owned clubs, as well as with Supporters Direct. The new board seems realistic in its assessment of how it needs to proceed:
Community ownership is not a magic wand, but it is an entirely different approach from just another private individual or consortium coming in with a bit of cash and promising to get everything done overnight.
They will, over the course of time, be judged upon how they deliver – not necessarily on the extent to which Lewes FC can be successful on the pitch, but on overseeing the passing of the club into the hands of its community and ensuring the long-term secuity of the club. As such, it is too early to say how successful they will or will not be. However, the return of this club to its community is enormously positive news, and our most heartfelt congratulations go to the supporters of Lewes FC, who, if all goes according to plan, will shortly be able to take their destiny into their own hands.
In this one county, then, it seems that there are two very different reactions from football clubs emerging from under clouds of financial mismanagement playing out. At this time, at the end of a season that has been defined by financial folly throughout British football, we probably don’t even need to say which one of these two approaches seems more likely to lead to stability in anything like the long term. That there are still people prepared to throw money on the bonfire of players’ wages (and so on) seems remarkable, and Crawley Town supporters need to be asking questions over where this money is coming from and how the ongoing contractual obligations that their club is entering into are going to be guaranteed into the future. This sort of issue doesn’t seem likely to trouble Lewes in the the future, and their future may be more secure as a result.