The walk to Isthmian (Ryman) League Croydon Athletic’s ground from the nearest road is a dangerous one. And in that, it mirrors the club’s recent relationship with money and those that, allegedly, do illegal things with it and to get it. As fellow Kingstonian fans gathered for their Bank Holiday fixture in Horsham, the talk was of little else but the Rams’ supporting role in the latest match-fixing allegations attached to Pakistan’s cricket team. The alleged cricket agent allegedly filmed by the News of the World allegedly predicting the precise time of no-balls bowled by Pakistan during their test match at Lord’s last week was also alleged to have said he was laundering his alleged ill-gotten gains through his very real local football club (“the only reason I bought a football club is to do that”). And, as a result, Croydon FC got some unhelpful attention from the lazier newspapers, and the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” lost its credibility in Thornton Heath in the London Borough of Croydon, as said cricket agent was one Mazhar Majeed, co-owner of the Rams since 2008.
Back in Horsham, there was a none-too-brief conversation about German football teams with railway links. But once we’d got that sadly regular lunacy out of the way, the inevitable questions began to be asked: “Does anyone know how Croydon Athletic got on next Saturday?”, “With all that money about, why couldn’t they get that walk to the ground lit?” And the horribly selfish “Does that mean they’ll get chucked out of the FA Cup?” (Kingstonian host the Rams in the next round). We’re a gracious bunch. Last season, the Rams ran away with the Ryman League Division One South title, amid accusations that the success had been “bought.” Manager Tim O’Shea was bullish in response, noting, correctly, that “we have had a fair amount of stick and unwarranted second guessing in relation to what we have. Players have been coming to us for the right reasons while others say they have come for the money.” Such accusations are common enough at our level of non-league football. In my short time working at the Non-League Paper in 2008’s close season I spoke with managers who seemed to have an in-depth knowledge of Kingstonian’s budget and were claiming that “we can’t compete financially with the likes of them and Met. Police.”
Such comments were ready-made excuses for failure. As a Kingstonian club patron I knew they had their figures wrong, which stopped one particular Kent manager in his tracks. But the accusations stuck, however speculative and under-informed they were. And when Croydon Athletic were building a quality title-winning squad on the back of average gates of phone-box proportions even for Ryman Division One South, the accusations naturally stuck to them too. Co-owner Roy Price was even more bullish in response than O’Shea, telling the Croydon Guardian newspaper in no uncertain terms that the accusations were “bitterness and sour grapes…contrary to what everybody may think, which is fine if they want to gossip, we would say our budget is top 10 but that would be it. I know there are clubs that have bigger budgets than us.” The defensiveness seemed partly-justified. The Rams’ were a mixture of big names and academy talent. Price added, pertinently if, allegedly, inaccurately: “We will not pay players exorbitant amounts next year, either. If you do that you are likely to self-destruct.”
He was speaking from experience, having bought the Rams out of trouble in 2007, after “Mr Croydon Athletic,” Keith Tuckey died, leaving them bereft of a hugely-loved figure at the club… and his hugely-important financial backing. Tuckey co-founded the club in the mid-1980s when his Norwood FC merged with Ken Fisher’s Wandsworth FC to form the imaginatively-entitled Wandsworth and Norwood FC, which quickly morphed into Croydon Athletic. They spent much of the 1990s finishing second in the London Spartan League and being refused entry to the Isthmian League because their ground wasn’t deemed good enough (“not enough gin in the boardroom,” was one Kingstonian fans contemptuous dismissal of contemporary ground-grading criteria).
In 1994, they hosted Kingstonian in the FA Cup and made their only stand all-ticket… to away fans. We had a good away following for our level (still do, as the Queen’s Head in Horsham will readily testify). But this seemed remarkable. It was actually a sensible piece of organisation. And Athletic seemed like a club on the rise, not least because despite being three levels below Ks, we were reliant on a very late winner (Sports Report was well underway) to sneak a fortunate 2-1 win. They eventually won the Spartan League and, after another refusal, eventually got into Isthmian ranks (possibly on the back of the bar take from the Ks game…hic!) and, having run through its Third Division like a dose of salts, they settled in Division One South. Roy Price and others helped the club survive the post-Tuckey trauma and it’s been onwards and upwards since. And there was nothing illegal about spending money… ah…
If it wasn’t for bad luck, the Rams would have had no luck at all with recent owners. Among the “others” who helped the club survive the post-Tuckey trauma was one Dean Fisher, who was son of the afore-mentioned club co-founder Ken and had served Athletic in many important capacities down the years. Fisher became Rams chairman when Tuckey passed away and when he stood down in November 2009 he cited “many reasons, the main one being that I have worked tirelessly for the club over the years and have not devoted enough time to my family and myself.”
This was a cover-up by the club, apparently. It soon emerged that “overweight Dean Fisher” – as newspaper reports branded him in the relevant stories – had been funding the high life for himself and the Rams via a “£500,000 fraud” at Central London-based advertising company TCS media, where he was administration/production manager. Among the juicier elements of the story were Fisher’s “fat-busting gastric band”, luxury spends such as Rolex watches and Rolls Royces and a particularly invidious lie about suffering from cancer which, reportedly, he’d told in order to get time off work to go horse racing and help fuel a six-figure gambling spree. Among the more pertinent elements of the story was the prosecution claims of “more than £250,000 running costs” associated with the Rams, which suggested that they were very high among the top 10 budgets in Ryman League Division One South – some way higher than second.
Especially as the ground remained ‘perfunctory’ throughout and the path to it remains an expedition which even Sir Ranulph Fiennes might regard as “risky.” (BBC London’s broadcasts “live at Croydon Athletic” were done from the road rather than outside the ground). The club denied receiving any of Fisher’s ill-gotten gains, citing a “recent accounts audit by the FA” which “confirmed that no financial contributions (from Fisher) had been used to fund the club in any way.” But the club had known when Fisher stepped down that he’d been up to no good and that the “not devoted enough time to my family” statement was the pure guff that “spend more time with my family” usually is.
When they did their own accounts check, they noticed that Fisher was “answerable for considerable unauthorised spending which disrupted the club’s financial planned budget for the season.” But the FA could make their statement about the non-involvement of Fisher’s finances because his “role as chairman was to manage the Rams’ accounts, settling bills and invoices where necessary before being paid back by owner Mazhar Majeed every month.” At the time, that served as exoneration. “You tried to look big,” said the judge at Fisher’s trial earlier this summer, either clean forgetting the gastric band or producing the sort of unintended irony for which judges are all-too-well-known. “And you were prepared to steal…to do it.” Fisher got three years.
The fraud took place between May 2008 and August 2009, just as Majeed’s Croydon Athletic career was getting underway. Majeed was born in Croydon, schooled in nearby Coulsdon and current mansion occupant thanks to his property development business Bluesky and…well…check press for, alleged, details – although his business history is littered with failed companies too. Majeed became Rams co-owner, with Price, and majority shareholder in July 2008 promising “promotion this season and then hopefully get another promotion.” He added: “What this club has achieved and how much it’s spent achieving it compared to other clubs in the same division is quite outstanding.”
What the Rams achieved since was more “outstanding,” especially as gate receipts remained a ‘limited’ contributor to income. The first promised promotion didn’t arrive. Yet they took four points out of six from champions Kingstonian, and deservedly beat us 3-1 in a very high-class London Senior Cup tie (if that isn’t an oxymoron). So their promotion last April was no surprise. But now that Majeed stands accused of admitting money-laundering through the club, manager Tim O’Shea’s April bullishness doesn’t sound so clever. The Rams beat Folkestone to automatic promotion only because the Kent side were deducted 10 points for entering administration. But O’Shea had “no sympathy whatsoever. We have carried the burden this year of everyone guessing what our budget is…and they were deducted those points because they overspent.”
“Rules are rules and they are there for a reason,” he concluded. And whilst he remains combative when it comes to “bought the title” accusations, he admitted that Majeed funded the club and Fisher “supported us all season.” As I type (Tuesday evening), HM Revenue and Customs are crawling over the Rams’ books and the Daily Telegraph newspaper is quoting sources claiming £500-per-week wages for Rams’ players (“absurd when you consider the crowds are between 150 and 250”). O’Shea may soon discover how right he was about “rules” being “rules.”
Majeed is currently an innocent man, on police bail, charged with nothing. But without Majeed’s money, the Rams might be without key players for Saturday’s “Non-League Day” hosting of fellow-promotees Concord Rangers. Sympathy for their plight is not all it might be among fellow non-league fans. The air of self-confidence which has emanated from certain sections of the club and its support in recent seasons hasn’t always smelt pleasant. But amongst even such a small band of fans as the Rams there will be those who have supported the club through thin and thinner, put the hours in cleaning the ground, operating matchdays, raising funds (in the old days) and doing the literally thankless, unpaid tasks without which clubs at this level would struggle so much more. If the money-laundering allegations are true, they are a kick in the teeth to these people who, in this lead-up week to “Non-League Day”, deserve our sympathy, even if many in this sorry tale do not.