As 2011 got under way with the eyes of the football world turned in the direction of how long Manchester United can stay unbeaten in the Premier League or how long Roy Hodgson can stay in his current job, supporters of Blue Square Premier club Wrexham, a club that seems incapable of going for much more than a couple of years without some sort of crisis engulfing it, were finding out about a scheme that could potentially come to threaten the very existence of the club itself. Wrexham’s supporters are, however, somewhat long in the tooth when it comes to protesting against owners that are planning to sell them down the river, and the club’s owners might just find that their latest wheeze ends up proving to be something of a headache.
When Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman took over the ownership of Wrexham in 2004, the fears of supporters were quickly realised. They anticipated that Hamilton and Guterman planned to run the club into the ground capitalise on the value of its only significant asset, The Racecourse Ground, which he had acquired the freehold to in 2002. The club’s rent jumped up from £1 to £30,000 per year and, sure enough, in September 2004, he gave the club notice of eviction. This, however, was challenged in court after he resigned his position as chairman of the club whilst retaining his majority share-holding in the club. Meanwhile, the club was placed into administration in December of that year with debts of £2.6m and the administrator, David Acland of Begbies Traynor, challenged the transfer of the ground into the name of Hamilton’s company, CrucialMove.
In October 2005, the High Court at Birmingham concluded that CrucialMove had improperly acquired the freehold of the ground, and handed it back to the administrators. Upon appeal, this decision was upheld with Judge Alistair Norris concluding that the “fiduciary position in the club has been misused for the benefit of those interested in the exploitation of its property assets”. Wrexham FC’s new owners were Neville Dickens and Geoff Moss, and supporters of the club looked forward to a more successful and stable spell under their ownership while, on the sixth of April 2010, Guterman was barred from acting as a company director for seven years after action taken by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills over his actions whilst involved in Wrexham. His address was given to the court during that action as being in Monaco.
This being Wrexham, however, things were never going to be as simple as merely a happy ending. Dickens owned the land surrounding The Racecourse Ground, but this was sold to Moss, who transferred the ownership of Wrexham FC (2006) Ltd into the name of a company called Wrexham Village after a plan to sell the land to a third party to redevelop land around the ground as student accommodation for a local university fell through and Wrexham Village undertook to carry out the development themselves. In February of 2009, the club placed a Q&A on their website to allay the fears of supporters that The Racecourse Ground was being sold down the river to speculators. It makes for interesting reading now – here are a couple of highlights:
What percentage of the development money will be used for football purposes and what percentage will be taken as dividends by the shareholders? All development profits will be retained for the benefit of the Football Club. For the avoidance of doubt this means 100%. As has already been stated by the Board, all monies raised from the development will initially be used to pay off the club’s debts and provide working capital to the club, with the balance to be invested in a new ‘Kop’ stand. Assurances on this have already been given to Wrexham Borough Council.
WFC Ltd effectively becomes a property development company through this deal. How are the club’s footballing activities protected? Wrexham FC (2006) Limited is not the developer. Wrexham Village Limited is undertaking the development and will pay for a Performance Bond (an insurance policy to ensure that the development is completed). The only impact on club footballing activities is a positive one, in that the club’s debts are paid off, working capital is introduced and a new stand is built.
All of this was taking place against a back-drop of the club having reported losses of almost £1m for the twelve months ending in June of 2008, but the club’s then-Chief Executive, Paul Retout, was optimistic about the club’s future, stating in June 2009 that, ““We must get away from the idea that we are trying to screw the football club. The truth is that we are here to secure its future, to keep it going beyond my lifetime and for at least the next 100 years”. Paul Retout has been on an extended sabbatical since last year.
Meanwhile, Wrexham Village was adding further strings to its bow. Not satisfied with being property developers and football club owners, they completed the purchase of the Crusaders Rugby Football League Club in December 2009 and moved them into The Racecourse Ground. By November, however, Crusaders RFLC were in adminstration over what the club stated were inherited debts. Wrexham’s hopes of making much money from the development of The Racecourse Ground, on the other hand, were disappearing fast. It had already been confirmed that the football club couldn’t anticipate any more money from the Wrexham Village development, but the icing upon the cake was delivered earlier this week when, in an interview with the local newspaper, Ian Roberts confirmed that he intends to set up a new company which will lease The Racecourse Ground to both Crusaders and Wrexham. Roberts said:
My aim is to one day have a Racecourse company that leases the ground to both the rugby and football clubs. I know people will complain about that but, at the end of the day, I am the owner and things have to be set up properly.
Before going on to add:
Until it is sold, both clubs will share the cost of running the Racecourse, which is £300,000 per year.
Curiously, whilst the article is covered with pictures of the Crusaders club, Wrexham are nowhere to be seen, in spite of being the oldest professional football club in Wales and having played at The Racecourse Ground since their formation in 1872. It could almost look as if the football club is being airbrushed into the background, in comparison with the Super League rugby club. Roberts may claim that this is repayment for loans put into Wrexham over the last couple of years, but it must be seen for what it is: Wrexham FC, who are already losing money hand over fist, seem likely to have to pay thousands of pounds in rent to play at the ground that they have called home for one hundred and thirty-eight years, and all of this on top of having the ownership of said ground taken away from them in the first place by Wrexham Village.
Such comments were always likely to provoke fury amongst Wrexham’s support, and Roberts must have known this when he gave his interview. But his comments leave many gaps to be filled. How would these annual running costs be divided up? It would not be unreasonable to suggest that Crusaders, with larger crowds, Sky Television money and fresh out of administration, should bear the lion’s share of them, but whether this would be how it would pan out is a different matter altogether. If costs were, say, split fifty-fifty between Crusaders and Wrexham, Wrexham would be in a position in which they were having to pay £3,000 per week in rent, which is surely an unsustainable amount for a club that is already losing money. Some supporters are suggesting that this may be a ploy to force the sale of The Racecourse Ground and the (loss-making) football club. Others are suggesting that Wrexham Village may even wish to force Wrexham FC out of business with a punitive rental charge for the ground. There are almost as many different theories on what the motives of those running Wrexham Village are or what may happen next as there are Wrexham supporters, but the one thing that we know for certain is that they need to act now.
Wrexham Supporters Trust has been criticised by some of the club’s supporters for reacting too slowly to events at the club, but they can and should act now and division amongst the supporters needs to be set aside for a wider good. A petition is up that has already received almost 1,500 signatories and the local MP has already written to the club, requesting an explanation for recent events. It is also worth noting that the redevelopment of the area around The Racecourse Ground, which was to be completed in two phases, isn’t complete yet. Were any conditions relating to the continuing presence of the football club part of the process? Were, for example the, “assurances… already been given to Wrexham Borough Council” (regarding the building of a new stand) legally binding? Moreover, concerned Wrexham supporters have already bemoaned what they perceive as apathy on the part of sections of the club’s support, but even the most apathetic may be raised by the fact that a club seeking promotion to the Football League has to have a minimum of a ten year lease in place on its ground to be able to apply to go up. What might the Football Conference or the FA have to say about such goings-on, and could this be used as leverage against Wrexham Village?
What is happening to Wrexham is, ultimately, happening to all of us, and we all owe it to each other to show support for supporters of our fellow clubs when they find themselves in this sort of predicament. You can show a token of solidarity by signing the petition, but it seems likely that Wrexham’s supporters, having seen off Hamilton and Guterman, now have another struggle on their hands, and one which may even prove to be more difficult to fight than that against against their previous nemeses. The issue of a breakaway club is a thorny one (such a club would most likely have to join the Welsh league structure, something that would seem unlikely to please many of their supporters), but Wrexham supporters have proven themselves before to be very adept at active protest. Moss and Roberts may well believe that they could be at the point of getting the best of all possible worlds, but it seems likely that their time at Wrexham Village is about to get rather more uncomfortable than they might have wished for.
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Further information on the situation at Wrexham is available here.
With thanks to Gary Pritchard and Rob Taylor.