There have been few phrases that have slipped more perniciously into the lexicon of British football in recent years as “community club”. It is a phrase that rolls off the tongue easily, which offers a comforting mental image of a football club doing precisely what it should do, engaging with its community, playing a positive role with local people and, above all else, not being run by rapacious businessmen who would seek to take it for all it has before leaving it to wither and die when it has served its purpose. One person’s idea of what a “community club”, however, might differ very much from somebody else’s and these definitions are currently being tested by an ongoing debate at a club that has graced these pages more than once in the past – Weymouth Football Club, of the Southern League Premier Division.
The trials and tribulations of this club over the last decade or so could take us all night to explain, but it should suffice to say that the club finally seemed to have reached some degree of harmony last year with a new shareholding structure which limited any individual to a 7.5% ownership of the club. It wasn’t the holy grail of a club being run by its Supporters Trust as an Industrial & Provident Society (IPS) in which each member has one vote with the club being run on a completely, purely democratic basis, but it was a significant start. The assent reached over this matter seemed to indicate that a line in the sand with the club’s troubled past had been drawn, and that, no matter what, Weymouth Football Club would in the future be run for the benefit of its supporters, with the divisions and diversions of the past finally put behind the club once and for all.
This being Weymouth Football Club, however, it was always likely that there would be a sting in the tail of some description and that arrived with the news that the directors of the club had called an EGM at which the abolition of the rule limiting shareholdings in the club would, it was hoped, be voted upon. Since this announcement, however, all hell has broken loose around the club again, with the board’s rationale for seeking to amend this rule coming in for considerable criticism and further criticism of their handling of the legalities of the matter under company law. As things turned out, under legal advice the vote wasn’t taken at the meeting, which was held yesterday, and the matter was merely “discussed” instead.
There were, it was strongly suggested, two main reasons behind the thinking of removing this rule. Some believed that the club’s financial position may have started to slide towards being parlous again, after a period of uncharacteristic relative serenity following years during which it was never fully clear how long it could contnue to survive for. The other reason that was speculated upon was that the club needed further outside investment in order to pursue a legal case regarding the legality of a sale of land surrounding the club’s Bob Lucas Stadium, and that in return for this some degree of extra control over the club’s running. Considering the recent past that the club has endured, it was entirely understandable that there were some who were looking for answers over why the directors were making such a big decision and seemed to be in something of a hurry in order to do so.
Nature, of course, abhors a vacuum, and for a couple of days there was a distinct vacuum of information from the directors of the club regarding what, exactly, was going on. Eventually, however, Paul Cocks, a long-time supporter of genuine community ownership of the club and somebody with inside access to goings on at The Bob Lucas Stadium, put his head above the parapet and made his voice heard. In a post made on the supporters’ Terras Talk forum on the eighth of October, Cocks stated there were new investors who wished to purchased the club and that, “They are Vijay Karia , through his company Nationwide Gritting Services Ltd of Southampton; and certain associates of his. Also involved in some way is Mayus Karia, whose company is RAM Recycling Ltd , also of Southampton.” As for the question of why outside investors with no prior apparent interest in Weymouth Football Club should suddenly be wishing to invest in the club… well, that’s an answer to which there has been no satisfactory answer yet.
If there was a hurry to get this matter out of the way, it came across enough legal hurdles for the vote to not take place yesterday. Some shareholders stated that they had not been given the fourteen days written notice required for an EGM by company law, and in addition the question started to be asked of how tenable the current directors’ positions might be should the expected vote go against them. Meanwhile, a representative of the Weymouth Football Club Supporters Association stated on the club’s forum that, “In principle the WFCSA Board is wholly against the idea of abolishing the 7.5% rule,” and issues relating to the legality of the proxy form issued for the EGM were also publicly raised which led to the very possibility of any vote that was taken being challenged in court. So it was that, at the meeting held yesterday, the following was outlined to those present:
- The proposed investors have requested a 51% shareholding in the club in order to take a controlling interest and a seat on the board, but that this this would not give them ownership of it – that would require a 75% shareholding.
- The investors would appoint a full-time CEO to manage the club in general, including increasing commercial revenue and looking to maximising use of the club’s facilites other than on match days. This would be funded by the investors.
- Money would be made available in order to facilitate the purchase of additional players and additional loan players could also be brought in if required.
- The Directors would like to proceed further with talks but need the condition of removing the maximum holding of 7.5% to be removed in order to have something to offer potential investors.
- The Directors anticipate being able to hold a fans forum with a representative from the investors in the near future.
This meeting also followed a lengthy statement on the club’s official website by chairman Nigel Biddlecombe, which concluded that, “I urge as many supporters as possible to come along and listen to the facts and truth not myths and conspiracy theories that are posted on a website or discussed in pubs around the town.” Ultimately, there is obviously a conversation to be had about the future direction that Weymouth Football Club is to take, but it feels as if it would be extremely difficult for shareholders to make an informed decision over where their votes should rest without many questions being comprehensively answered. What is the reason behind why these investors wish to get involved at this club at this time? Claims are being made with regard to money being available for new players, but will this be in the form of loans which may come back to haunt the club at a later date? Why exactly is there such a need for secrecy over the identity of these investors – it is worth bearing in mind that the club has not confirmed whether Paul Cocks’ announcement of their identity was correct or not – so important before a meeting that might well see them take ownership of the club? Until these questions, and many more besides, are answered, it is hardly that many supporters and/or shareholders will be extremely reticent to treat this proposal with anything other than the utmost trepidation.
Weymouth Football Club has been down the path of dependency upon the munificence of others before and it has failed to such an extent that the club’s very existence has been thrown into doubt several times. The Deed of Trust signed on the ninth of April 2012 was supposed to be a new slate for this football club, the beginning of an era during which the club would no longer be run at the behest of outsiders, during which, whilst it might well be hard work, the years of boardroom wranglings over the club’s future might take a back seat in favour of a different way of doing things. No-one would suggest that, deep in the bowels of the non-league game where every single penny that a club makes is extremely hard earned, any of this was ever going to be easy, but there are plenty of examples of other clubs at Weymouth’s level of the game which are genuinely community owned and do remain solvent. The directors of the club should be reminded that calling it a “community club” over and over doesn’t make it one of ts own accord. Based on the avalable evidence, it will be considerably less of one should it give a majority shareholding to a group of investors with no previous apparent interest in their club.
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