Stockport County entertain Grimsby Town at Edgeley Park in the Blue Square Premier on Saturday in a match which hints at the extent to which the fortunes of clubs can wax and wane over a period of time. Ten years ago, both clubs were in what we now know as the Championship. They start this evening as non-league clubs, and not exceptionally successful ones on the basis of their starts to the season. Grimsby Town found last season that this division was tougher than they might have anticipated it being and this season has been little better, while Stockport, who had started the season optimistic that a quick return to the Football League might be on the cards after several seasons in the doldrums, are learning a similarly tough lesson.
The two clubs will kick off in fifteenth and sixteenth place in the table, and may even have cause to look at the top ten of the league table and wonder how it come to pass that they would ever get to be below the likes of Gateshead, Braintree Town and Tamworth. For the home side, though, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that whatever happens on the pitch tonight will be upstaged by what is going on in the club’s boardroom at the moment. We covered the ongoing sense of unease at Edgeley Park a couple of times over the course of the summer, but the situation at Stockport is worth revisiting because of the recent news that the take-over of the club by Liverpool-based businessman Anthony Evans is already at the point of collapse.
Evans’ bid for the club began with the sort of fanfare that most clubs outside of the Football League would consider most out of the ordinary. The 2015 Consortium had purchased the club from administration after a disastrous spell of ownership at the hands of the club’s supporters trust in 2009, but they were unable to prevent the club tumbling down from League Two at the end of last season. There were, however, causes for optimism during the lazy months of the summer. The sale of Anthony Pilkington from Norwich City to Huddersfield Town for £2m earned Stockport a tidy add-on fee and the arrival of Dietmar Hamann as the club’s new manager also indicated that this was a club that had little intention of hanging around in the fifth division for very long.
Since the start of the season, however, things haven’t gone according to plan for the club. The team’s form in the league has been patchy – the club has won one and drawn six of its opening eight matches of the season, and that sole win came four weeks ago – and, arguably more troublingly, the wheels have already started to come off the Evans take-over bandwagon. Some Stockport supporters could have been forgiven for believing that this take-over had already been completed as Evans has spent much of the last couple of months acting very much as the public face of the club, but the truth is that this take-over had begun to stall not long after it had become a matter of sitting down to discuss it with the 2015 Consortium, and confirmation that talks had broken down came from from the club’s chairman, Lord Peter Snape.
According to Snape, there were two main bones of contention that were impossible to overcome. Firstly, there was the matter of £200,000 which Evans felt that the club’s current directors should put into the football club with immediate effect. Evans felt that this was a debt that should be repaid by the 2015 Consortium, but the consortium itself was of the opinion that this amount of money was related to the day-to-day running costs of the club, and that they would not be putting this money into the club. The second question was an arguably more contentious one. Lord Snape, in the clearest possible terms, stated that the current directors of the club didn’t even know who the backers behind Evans’ consortium were. “The shareholders, at this time, still do not know the composition of the Tony Evans’ consortium. This information is essential before any transaction goes ahead”, he said.
This question might not have been quite so much of an issue, were it not for Evans’ links to the disgraced former owner of Barrow AFC, Chester City and Widnes Vikings RFLC, Stephen Vaughan Senior. Vaughan is currently disqualified from acting as a company director and is currently serving fifteen months at Her Majesty’s pleasure after breaking a police officer’s cheek in April 2010. Evans repeatedly stated that Vaughan is nothing to do with this take-over, but his apparent reluctance to name the backers of the consortium (although he does claim to have named them to one share-holder, who cannot repeat who is involved for reasons of confidentiality) has been a cause for concern for some County supporters. What, we may reasonably ask, is the big deal over the details of these backers that it could become a deal-breaker in terms of reaching agreement with the 2015 Consortium?
By this lunchtime, the BBC was reporting that the Evans take-over was dead in the water, although the man himself stated in an interview with BBC Radio Manchester this morning that, “If we want to decide and come back and try and purchase the club outright then we’ll make a statement accordingly”, which would seem to indicate that he intends to leave his foot in the door in the pursuit of some sort of compromise with the club’s current owners. Whether such a compromise will be possible is, of course, very much open to question, but the truth of the matter is that, for better or for worse, the Evans take-over of the club seems over, for the time being at least.
As such, all eyes at Edgeley Park will turn back to the 2015 Consortium. The club should, in theory at least, be in a reasonable financial position. Attendances have out-stripped many pre-season expectations, and it is also worth bearing in mind that this was a club that should have been debt-free when it exited administration in 2009. If Stockport County has started running up losses again now, however, the question of whether these are losses that the 2015 Consortium will be prepared to continue to fund is a valid one. For the supporters of the club, then, it seems likely that the uncertainty over its future – which has been going on for more years than most care to remember – will be continuing for the time being, at least.
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