Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death: Uncertainty in Nuneaton
This coming Monday more than 35,000 Coventry City supporters will make the trip south to Wembley for their League Two play-off match against Exeter City. Just a few miles up the road in nearby Nuneaton, however supporters of the local non-league club are preparing for the possibility that, as the tenth anniversary of exactly this having happened before approaches, their football club may be staring down the barrel of a loaded gun and the very distinct possibility of extinction. The closure of Nuneaton Borough on the second of June 2008 was a supreme demonstration of the speed with which a football club can unravel under the right – or, rather, wrong – circumstances. During the previous season, ill-health meant that the club’s owner, Ted Stocker, decided to sell his shares in the club. A local businessman, Ian Neale, planned to take ownership of the club for a trial period. However, after having taken ownership of the club in April, Neale stated that he had found irregularities within the club’s accounts, and within just a few weeks the club was dead.
Just as quickly, a new club was formed. Nuneaton Town would have to have a different name to the old club and were placed a couple of divisions lower than their predecessors, but successive promotions took to the club back to the Conference North by 2010, and it only took two further seasons for them to get back into the Conference Premier, where they spent three seasons before getting relegated back, where, after narrowly missing out on a place in the play-offs at the end of their first season, they seemed settled into a comfortable enough mid-table rut, with the season just ended seeing the club finish in thirteenth place in the National League North.
The end of last month, however, brought mixed news for supporters of the club. On the one hand, the Football Association granted permission for Nuneaton Town to change their name to Nuneaton Borough – whether this constitutes the club changing its name back or not might be considered somewhere between a matter of semantics and a matter of principle – but, at the same time, it was also announced that chairman Lee Thorn would be selling both his shareholding in the club and its Liberty Way home. The decision to make the name change was taken after the club polled supporters and found that 464 out of 476 who voted backed the move. Despite the fact that the club was up for sale with no immediately obvious buyer on the horizon, though, the name change was described by the the Nuneaton Town Supporters Co-operative (NTSC) as ‘a world of opportunity’.
Just a few days after Thorn’s announcement that he was to sell the club, the NTSC confirmed that they were preparing to create a consortium to buy both the club and ground. With the assistance of Supporters Direct, they hoped to build a consortium with local businesses, though the Trust was also keen to point out that they would be prepared to go it alone, should no viable consortium be formed. A week later, further reporting stated that the Trust had been ‘overwhelmed’ by interest from local businesses, with a number of unnamed firms having come forward to learn more about plans to form a consortium to keep the club alive.
The feeling that there could be a little more to this than merely the owner of the club having “taken the club as far as he can”, however, has been growing exponentially since April, when it was confirmed that a Winding Up Order had been issued against the club by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill and, despite Thorn’s bullish assertions that the bill had been paid in full and the case dismissed, in the process of looking into the background of the club’s financial position, it became clear that the company accounts for Boro Leisure Ltd for the year to the end of June 2017 hadn’t been filed and were now overdue. This is still the case as of today. At the same time, the club announced that its final league match of the season against Boston United would have to be hastily switched nearby Alfreton Town rather than at Liberty Way following a “floodlight failure” at the ground. Just 154 people turned out for the match.
Earlier this week, however, came news that may well have sent something of a chill down the spine of supporters. Despite reportedly being ‘overwhelmed’ with interest from local businesses, the NTSC were forced to confirm that attempts to form a consortium had failed, with the understanding being that the amount of money required to fund such a venture, which has not been made public, was too high for the businesses to entertain, with the Trust stating that, “However, the price that has been quoted, coupled with information available in public domain about the operational situation of the football club, was deemed too high a risk for anyone to be interested in making financial support for our bid.” All of this led to a statement from Thorn on the club’s website which has somewhat darkened the mood over the likelihood or otherwise of the Trust taking over the club:
Two options were presented to the Coop:
Option 1 to buy the club and stadium at a figure supplied to them.
Option 2 to rent the stadium on a long-term lease which satisfied the competition criteria, based on an, under market value, rental figure (this option included taking over the clubs trading debts).
At no stage was any financial information requested by the Coop regarding the running costs, trading debts, or any other costs involved in taking on a club of our standing.
So, as of this precise moment, there seems to be an impasse, with both sides of the negotiation – such as it is – seeming to be drifting away from each other. The timing could hardly be any worse for the club. A deadline in place for the end of this month for the club to have sorted this all out. That’s the date of the National League’s AGM, and there can be little doubt that this situation is being monitored very closely indeed by the league. Thorn’s club statement claims that, “Other offers have been tabled which we hope to progress now that a line can be drawn, once again, under the Coop’s ambitions”, but there remain unanswered questions over the events of the last few weeks. What does Thorn want for the club, and how does this compare to what he paid for it when he purchased it? Why haven’t the accounts for the last financial year been filed with Companies House? What are Thorn’s intentions, should these “other offers” end up coming to nothing?
There have clearly been underlying issues at this particular club over the last couple of years, though we can only guess at the extent to which they’re influencing Thorn’s decision-making now. It certainly seems odd, that the owner of the club who seemed to really want a buyout to convert Nuneaton Borough into a true community club, should have performed such a volte face so quickly. The NTSC will obviously need time to get a community share offer together, and whether this might raise anything near the amount of money required to buy the club and/or ground is far from certain.
At the moment, there seems to be a lot of assumption going on that Nuneaton Borough will start next season, but at the moment it feels as though the situation surrounding the future of both the club and the Liberty Way stadium is as clear as mud, and we can be almost certain that the league will want assurances, if they are to allow Nuneaton to start next season. And this has ramifications elsewhere, as well. Non-league football – albeit at a slightly lower level than that at which Nuneaton play – is undergoing significant restructuring in terms of the make-up of its leagues for next season. The expected placement of some clubs will cause controversy – it always does – and throwing in an extra layer of instability that really shouldn’t even exist in the first place makes it feel unlikely that there will be too much grace offered in the eventuality that there is much significant doubt that Nuneaton Borough will be able to start next season. And if Lee Thorn does walk away at the end of this month… who will be there to ensure that the club can do so, if allowed?
Buying a football club takes time. It may do so in order that new buyers can put the financing in place to do so – did Thorn seriously believe that this could all be sorted with the Trust within a few weeks? If he did, we have some magic beans that we’d like to talk to him about – or it maybe required for the new buyers to carry out due diligence against the club’s accounts. Considering the winding up order, the late filing of last year’s accounts and the Boston United match being switched, we’d ventured that any prospective buyer would be foolish not to carry out its due diligence under an electron microscope, if possible. It would be desirable for the Trust to find a way to purchase the club, but they certainly shouldn’t throw good money after bad. And Thorn surely knows this. After all, it’s hardly as though he hasn’t been involved in the purchase of a distressed football club before. For the second time in ten years, Nuneaton Borough needs a fresh broom swept through it. It is to be hoped that someone can be found to buy the club and ground, to secure the future of senior football in the town. Whether this can happen, though, feels rather as though it’s in the lap of the Gods, for now.