Whilst the eyes of most of the football world were focussed upon the likes of Stamford Bridge and the Nou Camp last night, an altogether more prosaic battle was playing out at Nene Park in Irthlingborough. The Blue Square Premier has had something of a flustered look about its lower reaches all season, with newly-relegated Lincoln City and Stockport County both finding life below the Football League tougher than they might have expected, but for existence-threatening financial difficulties, Kettering Town and Darlington beat all others hands down.
Following a 7-0 defeat at York City on Saturday afternoon, supporters of Kettering Town have had something of an air of unsurprising fatalism about them, with much of the talk amongst them being on the subject of what will happen when – rather than if – the club folds. Hit by a double-whammy of having to release players because they were unable to pay them and a transfer embargo which left them unable to bring in any replacements, the club could only take a squad of thirteen to York at the weekend, and there were only thirteen representing them again last night. Yet last night those that remain managed to pull upon their reserves of tenacity and pulled off a highly creditable goalless draw – not, perhaps, a result of great practical use to a team up to its neck in a relegation scrap, but symbolically a very important one. There’s life in the old girl yet.
Owner Imraan Ladak finally broke his silence at the start of the week and, with wearyingly predictability, the club’s current financial position wasn’t, according to him, his fault. He laid the blame at the door of a sponsorship deal which, he claimed, was due to bring the club £150,000 but hadn’t been paid. While it is difficult to argue that such a financial hit wouldn’t be difficult for a club the size of Kettering Town to overcome, some have questioned why the club had put off its eggs into one financial basket, whilst one or two have even asked what sort of commercial deal it would be that brought a sum of money that high unto a club in the fifth division.
At Nene Park last night, meanwhile, rumours were circulating that a change if ownership, which has come to be regarded by most supporters as the only conceivable route out of their current travails, could be agreed by the end if this week. The man behind this has been touted as Lee Thorn, the club’s former Commercial Manager. No formal announcement of any sort has been made and this may well turn out to be little more than an elaborate game of Chinese Whispers, but the departure of Imraan Ladak from Nene Park would only be step one in what could turn out to be a lengthy and painful process to save the club. Whether Thorn – who may have a little money behind him but could hardly be described as being in the same league as Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich. What sort of financial plan that he might have to do anything other than continuing to fight fires, however, would be interesting to see.
Whilst its wage budget has been significantly reduced over the last couple of of months after a disastrous – yet somehow predictable – summer spending spree and start to the season under Morrell Maison, it is possible that the club may be able to get itself back into an even keel over time. The real albatross around the club’s neck, however, is the Nene Park home that the club took over during the summer. If the club’s liability from rent continues to out-strip the income that it can raise from the new ground, then it will remain an uphill battle – especially in the Blue Square Premier and even more so should it be relegated – to keep the financial wolves from the door.
All of this takes us back to the heady days of the summer, when Imraan Ladak took the club to Nene Park in the first place. The assent of the club’s support was assumed on the basis of a show of hands at a public meeting at Wicksteed Park in June, though such an unscientific method if assuming support hardly holds itself up well to any sort of examination. This doesn’t seem to have been the only assumption made by Ladak, either. The excellent fansite PATGOD recently took the time to review the financial claims made during the summer and found them to be decidedly wanting. Most glaring of all is the difference between anticipated attendances and the number of people actually turning up to pay to watch Kettering Town at Nene Park. With no hard evidence to prove that would happen, Ladak budgeted to an average crowd of more than twice the average so far for this season and, in a league in which sponsorship money, prize money and television money are slim to non-existent, this was a catastrophic miscalculation.
Moreover, in anticipation of the increase in crowds flocking to see the club at its new home, season tickets were sold off at a reduced rate. This had two significant effects. On the one hand, it gave the club a lump sum of money, which it has now had and spent. On the other, meanwhile, greater season ticket sales means less people paying – and paying a higher amount – on the gate, helping to keep cash-flow turning over. When we recall that season tickets were made available for just £200 each, a sizeable proportion of the club’s support – and the ones that may have been persuaded to pay a little more should a cogent explanation for the club’s financial difficulties have been put to them – has paid less than £10 per match to get in, and that the club has already spent their money. It’s a caustic combination.
On top of this, perhaps now us also the time to be questioning the number of season tickets sold. Ladak had claimed that the club had shifted 1,000 of them, yet the crowd reported for last night’s match was just 924 people. Are Kettering Town breaking from the norm in not counting all season ticket holders as present for all league matches (a standard practice for all football clubs across the board), or was the number of season tickets sold prior to the start of the season also overstated? It’s a reasonable question to ask. If we strip out travelling supporters and those that don’t have season tickets from last night’s crowd, if we work to the assumption that the club does record all season-ticket holders as present, then number of people that did buy season tickets may have been overstated by more than twenty per cent.
It may be considered a small step in the right direction if Imraan Ladak exits from Kettering Town as soon as possible. If the club loses any more players before its transfer embargo is lifted it will run the risk of failing to fulfil its fixtures, and this would be the point at which major difficulties become a full blown crisis – miss more than one fixture and expulsion from the Football Conference becomes a genuine possibility. If the players that remain at the club can continue to perform as they did last night – and a talented manager such as Mark Stimson is more than capable of bringing the best from them – then the club should be capable of avoiding relegation this season. Unless a solution to the club’s cash-flow problems rears its head in the next few days, though, Nene Park might just claim its second victim in successive seasons.
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