Southport’s Summer of Discontent
Exactly forty years ago, Southport Football Club was looking forward to another season in the Fourth Division of the Football League. The club had finished the previous season one place off the bottom of the League but had survived re-election, unlike the the unfortunate Workington, who’d been voted out and replaced by Wimbledon already that summer. Clubs weren’t voted out of the Football League often, and when they were, it made national news headlines. Still, Southport shouldn’t have anything to worry about, should it? The club had won the Fourth Division championship in 1973 before being relegated straight back a year later. Two twenty-third place finishes in a row following that… that was a blip, wasn’t it?
Ten months later, Southport became the last club to be voted out of the Football League. The vote was tight. Rochdale had been the subject of pre-vote speculation regarding the possibility of a Fourth Division club losing its place, but at the end of the first round of voting Southport were tied with Wigan Athletic of the Northern Premier League. Wigan won the second vote, and so it was that fifty-seven years of League football at Haig Avenue came to a close. A year later, the Alliance Premier League began without Southport. Despite having finished in fifth place in their first season in the Northern Premier League, their relegation had come too late to secure an invitation to join the sparkly new league which had been formed by invitation to clubs from that and the Southern League.
The thirty-nine years that have passed since that relegation have seen Southport and what is now called the National League Premier seem to lock into something of an elliptical orbit. The club finally won promotion from the Northern Premier League in 1993 and stayed in the Football Conference for a decade before being relegated back for a season. From then on, there’s been three years on and two years off before relegation at the end of last season – again in that dread place of twenty-third place in a twenty-four team division – marked the end of seven consecutive seasons in the fifth division of the English game.
Southport had spent the previous three or four seasons resembling a man trying to prevent himself from falling over the edge of a waterfall, but relegation at the end of last season was as meek as they come, twelve points from safety and only separated from the very bottom of the table by five goals on goal difference from North Ferriby United. This was not a demotion against which any case could be made. There was no injustice robbing Southport from a place in the National League Premier at the end of the 2016/17 season. But if the club had been circling this particular event horizon for some time… why hadn’t greater steps been taken to prevent this? It felt as though Southport sleepwalked their way to relegation at the end of last season.
It sometimes looked, peering in from the outside, as though the only option the club ever felt that it had at its disposal during this period was sacking its manager. Since Liam Watson left the position after almost five years at the end of April 2013, Southport have burned their way through nine managers. Last season, the club had three. Andy Bishop was the manager at the start of the season, but he only lasted until the first week in September. His replacement, the former Macclesfield Town striker Steve Burr, lasted until January. His successor, Andy Preece, lasted until the first week in May.
With such a high turnover rate, there will inevitably come a point at which supporters start to look beyond the identity of this month’s manager and begin to question the abilities of others further up the club’s hierarchical structure. A bad managerial appointment is a bad managerial appointment and it is a fact of life in the non-league game that bad appointments are easier to make than good ones, but when it’s nine in a row that can’t get it right the managers start to feel like more of a symptom than a cause of the club’s issues on the pitch. It is, therefore, unsurprising that attention started to turn towards chairman Charlie Clapham as the club spiralled out of the National League.
As the season wore on, there was talk of red card protests and walking out after seventy-eight minutes of matches in protest of his custodianship of the club, but this talk ended towards the end of April, when Clapham suddenly announced that he was stepping down, with Nigel Allen, who’d become a director of the club the previous September alongside former manager Liam Watson and another businessman, Dave Barron. Barron, Watson and Allen all left the club on the fifth of May, having been prevented from attending a meeting at the club two days earlier. Meanwhile, on the same day, Phil Hodgkinson, the CEO of Pure Legal Group (shirt sponsors of Huddersfield Two last season) confirmed that he had made a written offer to the club to which he had yet to receive any acknowledgement of receipt, before going on to reveal that he had agreement in place with a manager and nineteen players to join Southport, along with details of a business plan in order to secure its future.
May turned out to be a busy month behind the scenes at Southport FC, though. Four days after the departure of Barron, Watson and Allen, it was confirmed that accountant James Treadwell and financial advisor Adrian Shandley had taken over the club, having invested what was reported as “six figure sum” of money into it. Both were semi-familiar names within the club, sponsoring the occasional match, but by this time it was starting to feel to many supporters as though Treadwell and Shandley might as easily be acting as proxies for somebody else.
That belief seemed to be fully borne out a week later with the release of texts sent and received between a supporter pretending to be Treadwell and the club’s Commercial and Communities Director, Haydn Preece. The texts, which seemed to confirm the ongoing involvement of Charlie Clapham as a director of the club, were decried by some as fake, but this assessment seemed ill at ease with the fact that Preece resigned his position a couple of days later. Meanwhile, the club’s supporters trust had been in meetings with both Treadwell and Hodgkinson in order to try and assess both groups’ plans for the club. It’s fair to say that they were more impressed by the latter than the former.
It was the next appointments made by the club, however, that really raised eyebrows. Shortly after the trust reported its meetings, the club confirmed the appointment of Alan Lewer as the club’s new manger and Mark Wright as its new “Head of Development.” Lewer and Wright are both connected to one man, the invocation of whose name has a tendency to make the blood of north-western non-league supporters run cold a little: Stephen Vaughan. Lewer was a former Head Scout at Chester City and spent last season as the manager of Bangor City in the Welsh Premier League. Wright had a spell as the Southport manager at the turn of the century, and also had two spells as the manager of Chester City and spent some time in Malta managing Floriana whilst Vaughan was involved with that club.
Supporters are wary of Vaughan with good reason. His involvement at Barrow in the late 1990s ended with that club bankrupt and a court overturning an attempt on Vaughan’s part to transfer ownership of the club’s Holker Street ground into his own name without the requisite approval of the club’s other directors. His involvement with Chester City ended in that club’s closure and reformation during the 2009/10 season. Elsewhere, he was banned from being a company director in 2009 after he signed an undertaking that he had been involved in a VAT ‘carousel fraud’ while in charge of the Widnes Vikings rugby league club (who also ended up in administration), a ban that doesn’t end until 2020, and in 2011 he was jailed for fifteen months after punching a policeman outside his home.
Last summer, Vaughan became involved at Bangor City, ostensibly as a sponsor of the club through Vaughan Sports Management (the promotions company whose sole director is believed to be Stephen Vaughan’s daughter), whilst his son Stephen Vaughan Junior became its director of football. The Football Association of Wales doesn’t have a specific Owners & Directors Test – Vaughan’s convictions disbar him from acting as a club director in England regardless of any legal considerations – and there seems to have been little judicial or police interest in whether he’s been acting as a shadow director at Bangor or not. There has been insistence that he isn’t directly involved in the running of their club, but supporters remain sceptical.
Whatever is going on at Southport at the moment, though, it seems likely that the National League North will be competitive this season, to say the least. York City have been relegated from the National League and there are other former Football League names also there in the form of Darlington (the reformed version), Stockport County, Boston United and Kidderminster Harriers. In addition to this, Salford City are moneyed and will be expecting to compete again, whilst there are others besides. And whilst all three divisions of the National League have expanded to six play-off places from four from now on, the fact of the matter remains that there are only two promotion places this season for the division’s twenty-two clubs.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Southport could be in the hunt for promotion back to the National League come the end of the coming season. Right now, though, it feels as though the supporters of the club are being told the entirety of whatever is going on behind the scenes at Haig Avenue at the moment. But those running the club certainly have questions to answer. Why have serious bids to buy and fund the club been ignored? If the texts concerning Charlie Clapham were fake, why did Haydn Preece resign his position? Why were Alan Lewer and Mark Wright considered the best people to manage the club at a time when, following relegation, it might be considered to be in a vulnerable position? What would the club to say to supporters who might be concerned at Lewer and Wright’s arrival at a club that is clearly going some degree of upheaval in terms of its ownership structure, considering their previous working relationships with Stephen Vaughan? If Southport can answer these questions fully, frankly and honestly, that’s all and well and good. If it can’t or won’t, though, those controlling it can likely expect its summer of discontent to blend seamlessly into a winter of the same.
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