Northampton Town: The Chinese Are Coming
It was two years ago that a curious story started to emerge from the lower reaches of the Football League of a stand that never got built and an amount of money that seemed to have vanished into thin air. Northampton Town had been lent a considerable amount of money, £10.25m, by its local council between the autumn of 2013 and the autumn of 2014, ostensibly for the construction of a new stand at the club’s Sixfields home, but despite several revisions to the plans for this new building, works stalled, contractors pulled out, and before too long it started to feel as though no-one knew exactly what was going on there at all. The total amount of work carried out totalled minor works on the West Stand, new floodlights (understood to have cost a little over £100,000), and a shell of a new East Stand for which the developer, Buckingham Group, said it was paid only £442,000 before it downing tools on the project altogether.
By the autumn of 2015, the skeleton of the East Stand stood as a macabre reminder to all who gazed upon it of the trouble in which the club had found itself over this ill-starred venture. Buckingham Group confirmed that the club scaled down the original £8m East Stand plans to “a bog standard” structure which would have cost only £4m, and that even after this that they were paid a fraction of this amount, having to pursue one Howard Grossman, a north London property developer whose company, 1st Land Ltd, was contracted to manage the development for £1.9m outstanding. When this was not forthcoming, Buckingham put 1st Land into administration through the well-established accountancy firm Mazars of Birmingham, only for the administrators to find 1st Land’s bank account empty.
Chairman David Cardoza was silent for a almost a year and a half following his departure from the club, but he broke this after winning the backing of the High Court in March of this year that a council case against him with regard to a £180,000 salary paid to him during 2015 couldn’t proceed to summary judgement and would have to go to a full hearing instead. It was a victory of sorts for Cardoza – and it’s worth bearing in mind that this is only part of a much larger claim for £3m against Cardoza and his father on the part of the council – but the full details of what exactly happened regarding this astonishing vanishing of public money may not emerge for some time.
Back in November 2015, the position in which Northampton Town found itself was desperate. Facing a winding up order from HMRC over an unpaid tax bill for £160,000 and with the club’s players and staff having gone unpaid, the club was facing the possibility of administration or perhaps even extinction before being sold to the former Oxford United chairman Kelvin Thomas for a nominal fee, with the debts being taken care of at the same time. The sting in the tail of a busy season for the club came with success on the pitch. Despite the near-death experience that the club went through at the start of the winter, Chris Wilder’s team ended the 2015/16 season thirteen points clear at the top of the League Two table, just a point shy of a century.
Last season turned out to be one of consolidation in League One where, after a peculiar start to the season which saw the now Wilder-less – he departed for Sheffield United during the summer – Northampton draw their first five consecutive matches and sniffing around the play-off spots for a while before finishing the season in sixteenth place in the table. Solid, then, if unspectacular, but some way off being a precursor to the news this week that a Chinese consortium 5Usport, a “sports development and education firm”, has completed the purchase of a majority 60% shareholding in Northampton Town Ventures Limited, the company that Thomas owns (and therefore a 45% shareholding in the club overall), although the actual press conference seemed worded as if to give the impression that the entire club had been sold. Thomas will remain at the club as its chairman.
That Thomas should have decided to sell this stake should be no great surprise. His arrival at Sixfields in 2015 wasn’t driven by a particular love of Northampton Town Football Club. This was an investment and, as such, it was always likely to end up with the club being put on a stable financial footing and then sold on. But information on 5Usport is sparse, the financial details of the partnership haven’t been made public, and it feels rather as though Thomas is at the optimistic end of the spectrum when he says that, “If you look at the Swanseas, Bournemouths and Huddersfields of the world and how these clubs with the right decisions and the right investment can make inroads into Premier League and the Championship, then you’re absolutely not going to pin me down into saying where we can go”.
Well, that’s a problematic comment, one in which Thomas contradicts himself almost immediately. If he is not going to be “pinned down” on where the club might end up, why mention “the Swanseas, Bournemouths and Huddersfields of the world” in the same breath? The point is that “the Swanseas, Bournemouths and Huddersfields of the world” are relative outliers in terms of the success that they have achieved. As of the end of last season there were thirty-nine clubs sitting between Northampton Town and a place in the Premier League, and the question of what Northampton Town might be capable of achieving, with or without investment, is a valid one. Historically speaking, the club has been a member of the Football League since 1920, and has only spent four years – all during the club’s extraordinary boom and bust years of the 1960s, when it went from the Fourth to the First Division and back in the space of eight years – outside its bottom two divisions.
The club reported a 15% increase in attendances last season off the back of promotion to League One, but this still considerably less that half of those of Northampton Saints, the rugby club that continues to dominate the town’s sporting culture. This isn’t nay-saying or doom-mongering. It’s merely a reflection of the challenges ahead, should the club wish to emulate the success of the clubs that Thomas himself mentioned in dispatches earlier this week. So, bearing in mind how difficult managing the achievement of reaching the Premier League would be – and let’s not forget that the Premier League is the top, middle and bottom of everything that’s important for foreign investors – what would 5Usport get from this all? Other investors from this part of the world have bought into bigger names, the likes of Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers pr West Bromwich Albion, for example. These names could theoretically be used to “push” brands at home, but it’s difficult to see how Northampton Town could do the same without a considerable growth in the club’s profile.
The mood amongst supporters upon hearing this news is probably best described as “cautiously optimistic”, and such caution is understandable, when we consider the club’s historical close shaves with death’s sweet kiss. Any inward investment will obviously be more than welcome at a club which is at its level, in terms of income, attendances, and history. But neither should Northampton Town supporters be persuaded not to continue to ask questions, find out whatever they can about their opaque new overlords, and be a royal pain in the arse should it start to be looking as though this particular experiment is going wrong. New owners of any nationality can walk away from a football club, write their losses off against tax, and pretend the whole thing never happened. Northampton Town’s supporters, however, are in it for life.
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