The Derbyshire town of Ilkeston and Sheffield are a mere forty-five miles apart, but that difference must have felt like light years today at the High Court in London, as Ilkeston Town of the Blue Square South were wound up over a claim for £47,000 brought about by HMRC while Sheffield Wednesday of League One managed to cheat the grim reaper after the Co-operative Bank agreed to fund a payment of £780,000 to HMRC to keep Wednesday ticking over while the search for the a new buyer for the stricken Yorkshire club continues. The extent to which this is a moral conundrum is a debatable one. Wednesday clearly seem to have access to the sort of credit facilities that a club of Ilkeston’s means don’t have. That a judgement that Ilkeston were “plainly insolvent” could be made in under two minutes, as happened this morning, while Wednesday were rescued by the same registrar on the same day may stick in the craw of some, though.
Ilkeston Town’s recent travails have been reasonably well documented. They were rescued in the first place by local businessman Paul Millership in 1992 when their ground was sold by Erewash Borough Council, but Millership’s untimely death at the age of fifty-nine in 2007. The club was taken over by millionaire construction company owner Chek Whyte in 2008 but, although the club managed to get promoted from the Northern Premier League and into the Blue Square North via the play-offs, Whyte’s companies ran into trouble that left him £30m in debt and close to bankruptcy, and at the end of last year he confirmed that he would no longer be able to fund the club. New chairman Gary Hodder managed to keep the ship steady until the end of last season but new owners were desperately needed and not forthcoming.
It feels as if, at some point, wires have become crossed. The Football Conference were presumably given assurances by Ilkeston Town before the start of the season that club could get the funding in place to keep the club solvent and fulfil their fixtures. By today, however, with new owners not forthcoming and no action apparently having been taken by the club itself towards into administration (which would, at least, have stopped today’s case against them), the decision was taken by Registrar Derrett – the same registrar, for the record, that wound up Hyde United last season before the club won on appeal after a desperate money-raising effort – that the club couldn’t be allowed to continue to trade. They have the right to appeal and it was being reported by late this afternoon that an appeal had been lodged, but whether there is much scope for it to be overturned is open to question. The club had claimed that it would be tying up the sale of one of its players for £20,000 in the couple of weeks, but this was less than half of the amount owed and payments of £1,000 per month from the start of this season (when, of course, existing PAYE liabilities would have to continue amongst other things) feels like an optimistic offer to put at such a time.
The seven teams that, at the time of writing, have had wasted their time playing Ilkeston Town so far this season may well already be wondering how their matches so far this season were allowed to be played. It would be easy for us to direct our ire at the High Court or at the HMRC, but it should be understood that, no matter how many times football clubs have been perceived to have “gotten away with it”, the fact of the matter is that no-one has any legal obligation to accept anything less than the full amount owed by the date of the hearing. Turning around and saying, “they should have given us more time”, after the event isn’t necessarily going to be good enough under such circumstances. Did everybody get complacent on the basis of the vast number of previous winding up orders that clubs of all shapes and sizes have managed to sidestep? At the time of writing, there has been no official statement on the part of the Football Conference.
Which way now, though, for supporters of the club? The good news for them is that, whilst Ilkeston Town Football Club own the stands that surround their New Manor Ground stadium, the land upon which they are built is owned by the local council, meaning that it is unlikely that they will be of much interest to anyone winding the club up and selling of its assets. This means that there is no reason, presuming that the council are in agreement, why a new club can’t start at a lower level from the start of next season. Hopefully, this will be done under the ownership of a Supporters Trust, and it is to be hoped that everyone at the club falls in behind any such plan. Supporters of the club may look at the example of Chester FC, who won their first home league match as a new club by six goals to nil in front of a crowd of over 2,700 people at The Deva Stadium this evening. If the will is there it can be done but with such control comes responsibility. If they own their own club in the future, a new football club for Ilkeston has to be run with one primary goal: that this must never be allowed to happen again.
Ilkeston Town, then, seem likely to follow Bromsgrove Rovers into the history books, and the season is only just a month old. The appeal may yet be successful, but this will be likely to only come with payment of their HMRC date having been made in full by the appeal date. Whilst we can only offer sympathy for the supporters of Ilkeston Town FC, it is also a reasonable time to remind them that they themselves are the “club” in Ilkeston Town Football Club, and their future remains in their own destiny if they have the gumption to make it work. The examples of how this can work are all around them and, should they decide that this is the only (or the best) way that football in Ilkeston can progress, there is a community that will help them to realise this ambition. It may seem dark at the moment, but all tunnels have light at the end of them.