When Crawley Town travelled to Old Trafford for an FA Cup Fifth Round match against Manchester United in February of 2011, those who made the long journey north from West Sussex might have been forgiven for believing that they were living a dream come true. Previous financial issues had pushed the club to the brink of closure, yet in the winter of four and a half years ago the team was disappearing into the distance at the top of the Football Conference with a expensively-assembled team that made a mockery of the very idea of a distinction between “league” & “non-league” football and playing the biggest football club in the land for a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. The thing about dreams, however, is that most people wake up from them in the fullness of time.
Throughout the majority of the first decade of this century, Crawley Town Football Club became synonymous with mismanagement and a seemingly perpetual state of financial disarray. The club had first entered into administration at the end of the 1990s, but it was in the summer of 2006 that the club’s very existence – it was then under the ownership of the now notorious Majeed brothers – was first threatened. Rescued at the last minute, then run first by a group of directors led by Victor Marley and subsequently by a company called Prospect Estate Holdings Ltd, it was the announcement of Bruce Winfield in July 2010 that he and one Susan Carter had become majority shareholders of the club with substantial investment – some of which, it was almost cryptically added, had come from overseas – that really changed the future of the club.
At the age of sixty, Winfield died shortly after the Manchester United match, but nineteen days after his death Crawley were promoted into the Football League and at the end of the following season the club was promoted again, this time into League One. With Susan Carter’s husband Ian running the club following Winfield’s death the club was put up for sale in March 2013, although the club’s Chief Executive, Richard Low, confirmed at the time that, “The owners still have enough patience, drive and money to keep us stable in League One and improve the business side of things.” At the end of the 2013/14 season, however, the club confirmed that budget cuts would have to be introduced. Manager John Gregory, in need of heart surgery, resigned his position in December 2014, and Crawley Town were relegated back to League Two on the last day of last season.
So, when the club talked of “the owners,” who exactly were (or are) they speaking of? Over the course of this summer, curious rumours had started to circulate concerning the possibility that the financial funding that paid for Crawley Town’s acceleration from non-league football up to League One might have originated from somewhat unusual sources in Thailand. There had long been an element of innuendo concerning the origins of Crawley Town’s previous wealth. Bruce Winfield might well have been a wealthy man, but it had long been suspected by some that somebody (or somebodies) else had been at least the financial power behind this particular throne at the club, quite possibly acting as shadow directors without even having ever sat the Football Association’s Owners & Directors Test. The apparently unwavering desire for anonymity on the part of Crawley Town’s backers was certainly never satisfactorily explained by anyone at the club.
After all, it was hardly as if foreign investors with potentially murky motives from this part of the world hadn’t tried to get involved with the acquisition of English football clubs whilst seeking to bypass the Owners & Directors Test before. In the summer of 2011, a Channel Four investigation for the current affairs series Dispatches showed people working on behalf of an organisation called the London Nominees Football Fund – including the former England captain Bryan Robson – discussing loopholes that might enable foreign owners, with the help of offshore bank accounts and front groups, to circumvent FA rules and run an English football club whilst skirting around potentially inconvenient regulation. Individuals reportedly acting on behalf of this fund were shown on camera boasting of links to the very top of the English professional game, and there was deep discomfort on the part of many viewers at the way in which clubs were talked about in this broadcast, as little more than commodities to be purchased, developed and sold on.
Robson was later reported as “seeking legal advice” over the Dispatches exposé, but no formal action was ever forthcoming. Nine clubs – Sheffield United, Leeds United, Leicester City, Cardiff City, Sheffield Wednesday, Oxford United, Derby County, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace – were named throughout the course of the Dispatches broadcast as possible targets for takeovers by these organisations and Crawley Town, it was occasionally whispered at the time during the summer of 2011, had been identified as a “trial run” before moving on to another, bigger club. The London Nominees Football Fund failed as a result of the Dispatches investigation. Its CEO, Andrew Leppard, later claimed to have lost a six figure sum of money when members of his team started to pull out of the venture en masse whilst Robson, who was employed by Manchester United as a “global ambassador,” was “ordered by his club to withdraw” from the venture.
Leppard was talking to Andrew Drummond, a veteran British freelance journalist who had been carrying out sterling work in Thailand for many years, exposing corruption within the expat community in Thailand before being forced to leave the country in January after death threats were made against him and his family. One of Drummond’s specialist areas is what has come to be known as “boiler room” operations, a type of call centre which cold calls with the aim of exploiting the relative financial illiteracy of the general public in order to sell what might charitably be described as “questionable” investments, amongst many other matters in a country that the Business Anti-Corruption Portal describes as “suffer[ing] from endemic corruption.” At the start of July, however, he turned his attention to football, and in particular the ownership of Crawley Town Football Club, posting an extraordinary article on his own website which outlined what he claims to be a concrete link between one particular expat and this particular football club.
Given Drummond’s history in terms of investigative journalism, it’s hardly surprising that he pulls few punches over the course of the article. The main thrust of the article is that one Paul Hayward, a Briton born in Birmingham and now living out of Bangkok, has been funding Crawley Town for the last few years through a company under his ownership called Eclipse Management. Drummond produced, amongst other documents, photographs of Hayward and a business associate by the name of Micky Doherty at Crawley’s Broadfield Stadium, as well as a tweet from Doherty’s – now deleted – Twitter account to some of the team’s higher profile players at the start of the 2011/12 season which at the very least suggested a potential degree of familiarity between all concerned in order to seek to demonstrate this connection.
Questions were asked on Crawley Town’s foremost supporters forum but no formal response has ever been forthcoming from the club, even though Susan Carter stood down as a director of the club during the summer citing “stress and ill-health made worse by ‘bullying’ on social media,” with a local businessman, Matt Turner, having purchased her shareholding for a nominal sum. With the new season looming, however, it seemed likely that this story might just have ended up a half-forgotten footnote had the club not taken the sudden decision to ban three long-standing supporters of the club from entering the stadium, with the club’s official statement on the subject stating that, “The directors will not tolerate the extremely disruptive campaign of the individuals concerned, to undermine the board and damage the club.”
Matthew Cowdrey is one of the three Crawley Town supporters who were suddenly banned by the club. He has refused a refund of his season ticket money and states that the letter banning him from Broadfield Stadium came just a couple of days after being asked by the club to sponsor the club’s then forthcoming home league match against Wimbledon. Cowdrey is the vice-chair of the Crawley Town Supporters Alliance and has previously been a match day sponsor at the club, and the CTSA’s public statement in response to the exclusions made by the club raised real and obvious concerns over the way in which the matter had been handled by the club, particularly with regard to its failure to offer a right of reply to those excluded and its failure to provide specific examples of the allegations that had been made against them.
The CTSA has already been critical of the club this summer, too. A previous public statement, made at the end of July, was heavily critical of the club after the original story started to leak onto the internet, stating that “it appears that the Club are actively avoiding meeting with us,” that “It is not clear to us why there was no public comment on the sale of a majority stake in Crawley Town FC,” and that, “the Club was approached in March with concerns that had been raised, by a member, regarding the source of funding for the Club and the identity of the Club’s Far East benefactor.” We do not believe that, at the time of writing, the football club has replied to the request made by the CTSA at the end of last month. It is worth pointing out that Hayward may well pass the FA’s Owners & Directors Test, should he sit it. But as he hasn’t done, of course, it’s impossible to have any idea about this one way or the other and that, as we all know from previous issues relating to the anonymous owners of football clubs in this country, can turn out to cause huge problems.
At this stage in this particular saga, however, it is probably not Paul Hayward who has the most questions to answer regarding this particular football club. The remaining directors of Crawley Town should state publicly the identity of the investors who funded the club’s sudden rise into the Football League. There can be no justification for continued stonewalling on this subject on the part of the club, especially as, considering the rumours that have been circulating over the last few months, many will now assume the worst should they not have sight of concrete information which proves to the contrary. Indeed, the Football Association and the Football League have also been silent on this matter, thus far. If a club is going to ban supporters from its home ground, why hasn’t it offered a right to reply to those that have been banned? And furthermore, why have the questions that have been asked of it been met only with a wall of silence?
The contention that any football club backers have some sort of inalienable “right” to anonymity when they are getting involved is at the very least an extremely troubling one. It’s time for Crawley Town to be completely open on the subject of who has been funding their club over the last four or five years or so. Ignoring legitimate questions that won’t go away doesn’t seem like a strategy that will serve the club too well in anything like the medium to long term, and the banning of ordinary supporters for asking what seem to be uncomfortable questions certainly only seems likely to cause the club even more problems than it could ever hope to solve.
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