Torquay United: Going To The Dogs?
This year has been a somewhat unusual one for Torquay United Football Club. Speaking to BBC Radio Devon at the start of February, manager Kevin Nicholson, who’d brought in six new players to try and turn around a disastrous season which saw the club ten points from safety at the foot of the Conference National, stated that, “They’ve got to gel quick”. Nicholson got his wish. From the start of March, his new look team won nine and drew four of their remaining games of the season, dragging themselves to safety with three games to spare and eventually finishing in eighteenth place in the table.
For some years, the club had been both literally and symbolically indebted to former chairwoman and owner Thea Bristow. Bristow left the club last summer, selling it to a group of local businessmen, but not before one final act of considerable generosity towards the club, writing off a debt of £3,070,201 that was owed to her through a holding company called Plainmoor Ltd. She had purchased the club in 2007 from previous owners Mike and Sue Bateson and continued to bankroll it after his death in 2010. Indeed, annual accounts for the 2014/15 financial year showed her putting a £200,000 loan into the club 12 months ago, interest-free and with no fixed term of repayment, last year.
She’d resigned her position as chair of the club in March of last year, selling her shares to the remaining directors of the club, who in turn sold them to a consortium of local businessmen in June of last year. Having taken control the club, however, they were unable to raise the money to get it back on track, and in March of this year the club confirmed that it was in talks with new owners to take control of it. These new owners were a Swindon-based company called Gaming International Ltd, which, for all of the company’s exotic-sounding nomenclature, makes its living – through its subsidiary, Stadia UK – in the management and operation of greyhound and speedway racing tracks, with stadiums in Swindon, Poole, Reading, and Milton Keynes.
The man who runs the Gaming International is one Clarke Osborne, and this is a man with a long history in this are of business, but it’s not a history that will fill Torquay supporters with a great deal of optimism over the club’s future. Osborne was a director of Bristol Stadium PLC when Bristol Rovers could no longer afford to pay the company the rent to use Eastville stadium, its home since 1897, in 1986. Rovers were forced to play in exile at Bath City’s Twerton Park for ten years before returning to the city to play at the Memorial Stadium in 1996. The following year, greyhound racing at Bristol came to an end. Osborne was Chief Executive of Bristol Stadium PLC when Eastville was sold in 1997. On 27th October 1997 company sold Eastville to Ikea for £19m, and plans for a new Bristol greyhound stadium but never came to fruition. The Bristol Stadium Group management team switched the entire operation, including trainers, racing office staff and bookmakers forty miles away to a newly-acquired stadium in Swindon.
This wasn’t the only occasion that Gaming International became involved in such activities, either. Smallmead Stadium was built to host greyhound and speedway racing on the outskirts of Reading in Berkshire in 1974, but was closed in 2008 and demolished the following year. Once again, it was announced that there were plans to build a new facility – a combined track and casino – but these collapsed after the company behind the casino pulled out of the deal. Reading Racers supporters are still trying to get a club back playing in the town, but none of the plans for a new stadium have yet come to fruition and those left to pick up the pieces are currently trying to form a supporters trust in order to crystallise the desire to get a speedway club back in Reading.
What, though, of Swindon? After all, this was where the operation moved after the closure of Eastville in 1997. Well, In 2014 Stadia UK operations announced that planning permission had been granted for sixty-six new houses on part of the existing Swindon stadium site and the plan was to use some of the funds to build a new stadium with the old site being subsequently demolished to make way for four hundred and fifty new homes. In April last year, fans were told it was only a matter of weeks before the necessary documents would be submitted to the council for planning permission to be submitted, but those plans were not made public until February of this year and at the time of writing no new stadium has been granted planning permission after fundamentally flawed applications were submitted. There was a similar story in Milton Keynes, where Gaming International bought the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1999 and closed it in 2005. Plans for a new track again did not materialise.
Torquay supporters may find out a little more information about what exactly is going on with regard to whatever is going on behind the scenes at the club at a shareholders AGM which is to be held next week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Torquay United Supporters Trust (TUST) have questions for those that are currently running the club at a boardroom level:
- Why was the takeover not completed at the end of May as promised?
- TUST understand that the extended period of exclusively ended on 1 July – does this mean the deal with GI is dead?
- Is there therefore an alternative investment plan in place and if so what progress is has been made?
- What reassurance can the board give that football will be sustainable for the 2016/17 season?
In addition to this, the matter of whether Gaming International has been putting money into the club in the form of and loans and, if so, how much these loans might be for is an important one. If there’s one thing that we can say for certain abut Torquay United over the course of the last few seasons, it’s that the club was kept alive despite horrific financial losses thanks to the munificence of one individual. That person has now retired from the club, so what is the new financial plan? Because putting money into a football club means a degree of control over how it’s run, and considering the extent to which Torquay United has been haemorrhaging money, what assurances can be given concerning the club’s future for a company with a long history of closing down unprofitable venues and not coming good on building replacements for them.
The good news for Torquay supporters is that the land upon which Plainmoor is built is owned by the local council, and that there is a covenant which restricts use for the land to recreational purposes. The bad news, of course, is that covenants can be overturned and that it has already been reported that a new stadium is very much a part of Gaming International’s future plans for the club. Given their current track record in getting new stadiums built in other sports, the club’s long-suffering supporters could easily be forgiven raising an eyebrow at such talk. “We are still the owners of the club, and we are running it”, said chairman Dave Phillips at that time, and the current directors expect to continue to carry out the day-to-day running of the club if or when Gaming International’s involvement at Plainmoor is formalised. How desirable a state of affairs that turns out to be remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the club has become perhaps the first in the history of English football to sign a shirt sponsorship agreement with a business whose name includes a slang term for marijuana. Considering the club’s fall from grace over the course of the last few years, the history of the company now apparently at the point of taking ownership of it, and the apparent desire to knock down Plainmoor and replace it with a new stadium which remains a pipe-dream for the time being, perhaps this might be appropriate for a club that looks as though it may well have a very eventful rest of the summer coming up.
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