It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and it has become increasingly apparent in recent years that Stephen Vaughan and his gaggle of followers may be doomed to repeat their mistakes forever. The first current owner of a football club to fail the Football Association’s Fit & Proper Persons Test while the owner of the soon to be deceased Chester City, Vaughan is still serving an eleven year long disqualification from acting as a company director in this country, but this didn’t stop him from heading to the Mediterranean in the summer to have another go at running a football club with, as it is starting to look, predictable results.
Football in Malta might not bring the riches that the game does in this country, but its clubs have access to European club football and its domestic top division, the Maltese Premier League, is competitive, with three divisions sitting below it. Floriana FC is one of its more illustrious members. Founded in 1894 – six years before the Maltese Football Association was formed – this is a club that has been the champions of Malta twenty-five times, won the Maltese FA Trophy on nineteen occasions and has played against the likes of Internazionale, Porto and Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Cup. Eyebrows were raised when the Vaughans (Stephen senior and his son, Stephen Vaughan Junior, along with the former Liverpool, Derby County and Oxford United defender Mark Wright) first pitched up in Floriana during the summer. This, after all, is a club which, while it might have fallen upon hard times, is one of the more venerable institutions of Maltese football and the Vaughans’ record in England has been well-publicised.
Six months after their arrival, a predictable series of events has started to unfold. On the pitch, Floriana – who, it should be added, haven’t been the champions of Malta for twenty years – are fourth from bottom of the twelve club Maltese Premier League and without a win from their last eight league matches. Not in any danger of relegation, but in no danger of troubling the top of the table, either. It is not, however, events on the pitch that will be troubling the club’s supporters today, though. As soon as the Vaughans arrived in Malta, they started tapping up players back in England to bolster Mark Wright’s squad and several arrived on loan deals from clubs in the Football League. What is starting to become apparent, however, is that promises made to players have been repeatedly broken and the situation has now become such that FIFPro, the worldwide representative organisation for professional players, has started to get involved.
One such player is Aaron Brown, formerly of Reading, Bournemouth, Yeovil Town, Aldershot Town, Stockport County and Preston North End, amongst others. He became a free agent after being released by Preston North End at the end of last season, and was tempted to Malta by a promise of tax-free wages and a club under new ownership. It is to be presumed that he wasn’t made aware of who this ownership was before signing this contract although, of course this is hardly the player’s fault. If an agreement is reached it should be honoured – that much should go without saying. Brown told FIFPro that, ‘I was lied to virtually from the very start. We had to share a house with four guys. I had been told that I would get a place of my own, as were the others,’ and that, ‘…midway through September, I got three weeks’ salary instead of six weeks. Since then, I have not received anything else: not at the end of September, October or November. I chased the owners and they told me they would pay me on Friday. On Friday they told me it would be Monday. And on Monday they told me I would be paid next Friday… It was broken promise after broken promise. I left halfway through December.’
Last week, FIFPro issued its thoughts on the subject of the Vaughans’ ownership of the club. “FIFPro is astonished that a person who has been banned from English club management – because he failed the FA director’s test – can apparently join and run a professional football club in Malta, as is the case at Floriana FC,” it said, in a withering statement on its website published on the sixth of February, before going on to add that, “This has its consequences, as various professional footballers have found out and their family’s lives have been put in jeopardy.” On top of these problems, the club has also found itself in hot water with the Malta Football Association after fielding an ineligible player in a league match against Hibernians. Midfielder Harry Agombar only played two minutes of Floriana’s recent win against Hibernians, but their opposition claimed after the match that Agombar was ineligible to play for the club because he had already made loan appearances for Histon and Grays Athletic in England this season. In their submissions, Floriana argued – and we might expect a club whose owner had previously owned two of them to know better than this – that a non-league club in England is similar to an amateur club from one of the Malta FA’s member associations and compete in regional leagues, and that in any case Agombar only had emergency-loan spells with the two clubs. According to FIFA rules, players can’t represent more than two clubs in one season, though, and the Malta Football Association found that non-league clubs are full members of the English Football Association and dismissed the notion that emergency loans should not be taken into consideration when counting the number of clubs a player has represented in one season.
That this should have happened under the ownership of Stephen Vaughan is no great surprise. This is, after all, the man that owned two clubs – Barrow and Chester City – at the same time and then sold his shares to a painter and decorator a few days before the two clubs were due to play each other in the FA Cup in order to bypass their rules on the ownership of more than one club, only to buy them back after the match, and then later oversaw the club being demoted from the Football Conference for failing to exit administration, having illegally transferred the ownership of Barrow’s Holker Street ground into his own name without getting the consent of the other directors of the club. This is the man whose ownership of Chester City ended in it being liquidated in the middle of a season, and whose ownership of the Widnes Vikings Rugby Football League Club ended with that club in administration, having been involved in a £500,000 VAT fraud which involved the club.
There is a level of responsibility to be levelled at the Malta Football Association here, although it is entirely possible that their resources may not allow for a rigorous checking of new club owners. There is a responsibility, perhaps, also on the part of the previous owners of the club to ensure that the legacy of a football club is protected when it is sold. Ultimately, however, responsibility for the non-payment of wages at Floriana lays with the owners. The Vaughans and their entourage have all but burnt their bridges in English football, as could be seen in the reaction of Wrexham supporters when it was merely rumoured that they were behind a bid to buy their club when it was in considerable financial difficulty a couple of years ago. A move to Malta, bringing success back to Floriana and doing things in the right way might – just might –have been an opportunity for them to demonstrate that they have changed their tune and that they can run a football club without it ending up attracting headlines for all the wrong reasons. It is to be hoped that they don’t drag this club down in the way that they did with every club back in England with which they became involved, but nothing that we have heard from Malta since the start has indicated that these particular leopards have changed their spots.
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