It was one of those facts that everyone knew. The Drill Field, home of Northwich Victoria, was the oldest continually used football stadium in the world. Indeed, the Vics even managed a couple of years in the Football League there in the 1890s. However, they decided to leave for a new stadium, The Victoria Stadium, in 2005, and it’s probably fair to say that this is decision that many people at the club have come to regret. The Victoria Stadium has hung like a millstone around the club’s neck over the last three and a half years, and this week the crisis turned into a farce with possibly the most petulant behaviour ever recorded by someone involved in the management of a club.
In all honesty, the warning signs were there from the beginning. It was pretty obvious from the outset that chairman Mike Connett couldn’t really give much of a damn about the club, frequently describing Victoria Stadium as his “pension fund”, having swiftly moved ownership of it from the club itself to a holding company, Beaconnett, which he owned. Northwich effectively became tenants at their own stadium, with a twenty-five year long lease to play there. There was, however, onw small problem with this. Connett couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the bills. He offloaded the club itself to local businessman Jim Rushe, although he did, of course, keep his “pension fund” for himself. It wasn’t really a satisfactory outcome for Northwich, but with a recent of history of seemingly perpetual struggle to survive, it was better than nothing.
Northwich overcame the worst of their financial difficulties, eventually coming to an arrangement with HMRC, to whom they owed £300,000. None of this, however, is to say that Northwich’s problems have ended. Electricity at Victoria Stadium was disconnected a couple of months ago, and the club had to bring in a generator in order to be able to continue to play matches there. For Connett, however, things were going from bad to worse. His incompetent financial management – borrowing to pay for loans that he had already taken out – had been an obvious failure, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, to whom Beaconnett owed £1.2m pushed the club into adminstrative receivership, with the official receivers, Deloitte Touche, taking ownership of the stadium on behalf of the bank. Northwich’s tenancy agreement, however, means that whoever comes to purchase Victoria Stadium will be buying the stadium with a sitting tenant that has twenty-three years of its twenty-five year lease still to run. No-one can kick Northwich Victora out of their home.
Over the last couple of days, however, things have taken a turn for the bizarre. On Tuesday, the gates to the stadium were locked and removal vans arrived. On Wednesday, Connett was due in court for a winding up petition brought against Beaconnett by The Royal Bank of Scotland. An adminsitrative blunder by the bank, however, meant that the order couldn’t be granted and the case was adjourned for two weeks, leaving Connett still as the legal owner of Victoria Stadium. Over the last couple of days, Connett has been ransacking the ground, taking literally everything he can, claiming that he is the owner of it all. He refused to allow the club to get its kit unless they handed over £2,000, took away the electrical generator, boxed up every item of safety equipment needed to host a game, barred owner Jim Rushe and secretary Derek Nuttall from entering the Victoria Stadium and fired groundsman Joe Biddle after accusing him of talking to outsiders on the phone about his plans to strip the stadium of its fixtures and fittings. It is petulant, desperate, childish behaviour from a man that seems to be have made it his mission to destroy Northwich Victoria Football Club as some sort of revenge for his own financial incompetence.
Unsurprisingly, considering that the stadium has no electricity, the stadiums safety certificate was removed, meaning that Northwich had to play this afternoon’s match against Histon – which ended in a 1-1 draw – at nearby Altrincham. There seems to be no point in trying to appeal to Connett’s better nature. He doesn’t seem to have one. With the new Northwich owners said to be close to finalising the financing to buy the stadium from the administrators, there is cautious optimism that the club will be able to survive. The administrators need to absolutely ensure that Connett is evicted from Northwich as soon as possible, preferably with somebody’s boot up his backside.