It all started around a week ago, when a committee member at Northern League club Billingham Town found an envelope taped to the gates of their Bedford Terrace ground. Inside the envelope was a writ from Hartlepool United, who allege a debt of £10,443.97 owed for improvements carried out to the ground by them. The club has been using Bedford Terrace for its reserve matches for several seasons and had an agreement to pay for upgrades to the ground and the pitch, and they claim that Billingham were aware of and reneged upon a replayment agreement after one payment was made. Billingham, for their part, claim that the “agreement” signed was not signed by someone that is a director of the club any more, and that he wasn’t authorised to sign any agreement in the first place.
Relations between the two clubs soured at the start of this season when, Billingham claim, Hartlepool United removed the goalposts from Bedford Terrace prior to their first match of the season. The writ seems to be the endgame in a long running dispute and if the payment is not made in full by the 18th of May, Billingham Town will face a winding up order. In this case, however, the ins and outs of who signed what, who said what to whom and who did what to what seem somewhat irrelevant. What is relevant is two-fold: firstly, there is the moral aspect of one football club threatening winding up proceedings against another football club. Secondly, there is the matter of the amount of damage that Hartlepool United Football Club will do to its own reputation in the pursuit of this money.
It is difficult to argue with the repugnance that many Hartlepool United supporters feel towards the heavy-handed approach of their club over this matter. One might have expected better from a club such as Hartlepool, who have had their own fair share of financial difficulties over the years. The club’s owners, a company called IOR Ltd, may consider the principle of it to be more important than the amount of money concerned (and even if they were to claim poverty, £10,000 is a relatively trifling sum for a League One football club), but it is surely not unreasonable to hold the opinion that football clubs should have a degree of empathy towards other football clubs – in particular football clubs that are smaller than themselves. The moral argument can perhaps be best summed up by the fact that Hartlepool United hold the record for the most applications for re-election, at fourteen. On each occasion they were, to a lesser or greater degree, dependant upon the goodwill of other clubs in giving them another go and voting them back in.
Even if we disregard the matter of the moral aspect of this situation, the issue of the damage done to Hartlepool’s reputation over this matter could prove to be highly damaging. There can be little argument that, thus far, this incident has been a public relations disaster for the club. They issued a terse public statement at the end of last week, but nothing since then. Indeed, the end of the statement states pretty clearly that, “As this is now a legal issue, the Club will be making no further comment at this time”. Perhaps they simply don’t care what anybody else thinks – that would be the most rational conclusion to draw from the public statement – but the owners of the club are playing fast and loose with the good name of their club.
The ongoing silence seems unlikely to be broken, and this is causing anger amongst a section of the club’s own supporters. Hartlepool United’s average attendance this season of 3,457 is the lowest in League One this season. They may be able to afford to run a Northern League football club into the ground in pursuit of a £10,000 debt (indeed, this seems likely unless Hartlepool relent, as it seems pretty clear that Billingham, who don’t even pay their players, are going to be able to find that sort of money over the next two months), but can they afford to alienate those that turn up at Victoria Park every week? How are the floating football supporters of Hartlepool going to feel about turning out to pay and watch a club that is in the process of seeking the winding up of small, amateur neighbours?
The irony is that, on the surface, the winding up of Billingham Town would be unlikely to make much money for any of the club’s creditors. Bedford Terrace is owned by Stockton Council, so the only assets that the liquidated club is likely to own are likely to be minimal. Should Billingham Town go to the wall over this, Hartlepool United may not even get their money back. Should this just be a heavy-handed attempt at brinkmanship, it is a pretty poor show of behaviour from a football club that should have had enough brushes with the financial grim reaper to know better.