It was the blind leading the blind when a local radio station called on me one autumn Friday in 2001 to comment on my club Kingstonian’s descent into “administration.” Much of the interview through which I semi-bluffed my way centred on how administration did not equate to liquidation. If only I knew then what I know now. What little I did know came from reading journalist David Conn’s already regular delving into the murkier aspects of football financing, then appearing in the Independent newspaper. Three years later, he called on me to comment on my club’s descent into administration and subsequent, scarcely less nightmarish events. I knew more then, but still not enough.
Ryman (Isthmian) League Ks went into administration before ITV Digital’s collapse made it de rigueur for Football League clubs. And the end for Ks, when it came, was quick. In January 2001, Ks were one-up at Bristol City in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Referee Graham Poll added on three minutes’ stoppage time. In the fourth of those three minutes (Poll’s problems with the number “three” pre-dated the World Cup) Bristol City equalised. City won the replay. And six months later Ks lost their next FA Cup match, 2-1 at Wessex League Brockenhurst in the second qualifying round. The following Friday, local radio was on the phone. But if administration came six months after possibly the high point of Kingstonian’s history, it had been on the cards for a lot longer.
What ultimately tipped the scales was relegation from the Conference in 2001. Ks league form after Bristol City (bar a 2-0 win at Doncaster – how tales have diverged for those two sides in red and white hoops since) was hideous and they were deservedly relegated a week-and-a-half before the season’s end. The board dispensed with manager Geoff Chapple, by “mutual” consent, but not the excessive wage bill on which Chapple had built his sides. And an excessive wage bill in the Conference became a ludicrous one – a “Croydon Athletic” if this week’s stories are to be believed – in the Ryman League. It was little wonder the money ran out. Yet Kingstonian’s relationship with money had been fraught with danger for a decade beforehand, ever since the decision to put one Chris Kelly in charge of it.
If you’ve heard of Chris Kelly at all it’s because of FA Cup glories from the 1970s and his sobriquet the “Leatherhead Lip.” He earned that, and boy did he earn it, for his outspokenness after various giant-killings by Isthmian League Leatherhead. Kelly was a very skilful, highly imaginative, hugely entertaining footballer. He played for Ks at the fag-end of his career (and there were always plenty of fag-ends around Chris). But he was still an inspirational, attention-grabbing figure. He fell into the Kingstonian manager’s job in 1986 and steadily built a team in his own image. His outspokenness, off-the-cuff genius and disregard for convention worked to a point on the pitch. And with a modicum of organisation, it would have worked to the point of actually winning things – Kelly won nothing as a player and next-to-nothing (i.e. the 1987 London Senior Cup) as a manager.
These qualities, however, were disastrously inappropriate for the general manager and chief executive roles into which Kelly “fell” as he reluctantly backed out of football management. Even a “modicum” of organisation was beyond him – his general management and chief execution were a shambles. Stories abounded of the most basic financial incompetences; cash being left lying around in unguarded offices, players’ wages envelopes containing no…wages, and many more. Some may have been just tales, but having seen some for myself, I readily believed the others. The club’s bar facilities at its Kingsmeadow Stadium were extensive, with punters’ drinking habits to match. There was a very lucrative deal to stage Chelsea’s reserve fixtures in the old Football Combination, with a pre-season fixture against a strong Chelsea side which was a licence to print money, almost literally as Kelly was once reputedly still printing match tickets at kick-off, when the only seats available were “Toilet Roof A” and “Tea Bar Roof B.” And home gates throughout the early 1990s were good for our level, 500+ the norm where before Kelly became manager, the crowds would be a hundred and something and a dog (literally, as our now club president used to take his dog home and away).
So the club was making money. But Kelly, one way or another, was wasting more, not least on a salary which seemed, shall we say, “comfortable” for a second-tier semi-professional football club. In a fit of mid-90s pique, Kelly said angrily that he could “leave Ks tomorrow and live on a yacht in the Mediterranean from my investments.” If I knew then what I know now, I might have questioned those “investments” – Kelly was an upholsterer by trade. And it is an eternal source of my regret that I didn’t just say to him: “Why don’t you **** off and do it, then?” The arrival of Chapple as manager lifted Ks onto a new level, and to a new level of players’ wages. It was felt that Ks would be able to cover this, with £20,000+ coming in from Chelsea games, and bar and conference facilities capable of raking in the cash.
The Ryman League title came in Chapple’s first year, which surprised even Geoff himself. But the club only turned a profit in its first Conference year thanks to £150,000 generously donated by West Ham – some things never change – for striker Gavin Holligan. Crowds didn’t rise as much as hoped. Under Kelly’s team management, Ks were fantastic at home but feeble away, which boosted crowds but not promotion prospects. Chapple’s sides were set up for the counter-attack. This worked a charm all over the country from Morecambe to Yeovil – Ks had the best away record in the Conference in 1999/2000. But it failed to charm the locals who weren’t going to turn out in the required numbers for two teams waiting to counter-attack. And the financial misjudgements continued. Ks were converted from a members club into a limited company in 1996. The sensible move was rendered controversial by the board’s insistence that only they should have voting shares. But it failed as they didn’t organise the ten nominations required for the issue to even be discussed at a general meeting.
This was trumped in 1998 when allegations that Ks had unfairly dismissed an office secretary made the front page of the Sun because the club claimed it was for her over-emotional response to the death of Princess Diana. The club’s response at the subsequent employment tribunal was a blanket denial, which met with blanket disbelief. The tribunal’s findings exposed the chaos at the heart of Kelly’s management of the club (not to mention the boorish sexism of certain other board members). But he took the view that “all publicity is good publicity”, even as sponsors were phoning up to end their association with such a morality-free environment. Kelly’s attitude to attendance figures was an eye-opener, too. A small, self-explanatory fundraiser called “Guess the Crowd” was discontinued after Kelly announced one attendance of about 600 as “1,032.” This, apparently, was to “impress the sponsors” and the small but regular money raised by “Guess the Crowd” was, apparently, not wanted.
The fundraiser had been for ground development, which was another costly failure supervised by our chief executive. A small cover for one end cost £27,000, which caused every expert eye who looked at it to look again and wonder about misplaced decimal points. And after the other, larger end was revamped to bring Kingsmeadow’s capacity up to Football League standard, the difference in capacity was only 400. Cue more incredulity when sight of a health and safety report on the ground some years later revealed that the re-vamped end’s capacity was 400 less than its ill-covered counterpart. A combination of all this led to the inevitable after relegation from the Conference. Despite a windfall of about £300,000 from Ks 2000/01 FA Cup run, the club still owed considerable back taxes and was in breach of its overdraft facilities with its bankers, Barclays.
In October 2001, according to the report from eventual administrators Begbies Traynor, “the company received a letter from the Inland Revenue demanding repayment of outstanding payroll liabilities of £179,924 within seven days or a winding-up petition would be presented.” In those days, that threat was as serious as it sounded. The club didn’t have the money, and administration was the only option. The list of creditors was as long as your arm, but I know now that it wasn’t a particularly unusual list – a lengthy one of small local business which seemed to be everybody the club could possibly have had the time to trade with. They’d even forgotten to pay “Forget Me Not Florists.”. Including bank facilities and Football Trust grants, Ks owed about £885,000. And Begbies Traynor’s Nick Hood took on the Andrew Andronikou role for Ks fans when a sale was made to a hitherto unknown Indian family of unclear background, the Khoslas.
If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have touched the Khoslas with a bargepole… I’d have whacked the money-grabbing attempted asset-strippers around the head with it. They proved to be a disaster. But unfortunately, the only other interested party offering to buy the club out of administration was a “supporters” consortium led by…Chris Kelly. And he already was a disaster. Accusations flew that Nick Hood had somehow been “induced” to accept a lower monetary bid from the Khoslas. But the sharp-dressed Hood didn’t look like he needed the money. He made noises about making a decision in the best interests of the football club. But he was paid to get secured creditors, Barclays Bank, as much of their money back as possible. And if that meant Hood selling to an asset-stripper with no interest in, or knowledge of, football, then so be it.
Kingstonian’s post-administration history was every bit as grim as anything above. And if you don’t behave yourselves, I’ll recount that tale in the lead up to the next “non-league day” next month. These days, such tales of financial woe are ten-a-penny. Kingstonian and Chris Kelly’s combination of overwhelming ambition and overwhelming incompetence has served as something of a template for clubs up and down the leagues, from Cardiff to Southend and quite a few points in-between. And even though I know so much more now than I knew then, it would still be a case of the blind leading the blind if I was asked to explain why that should be.