Going into tonights match aganst Altrincham, Wrexham FC had won five matches in a row in the league, lifting them to fourth place in the table and, while they may have left things a little too late to be able to launch a challenge for the title itself for this season, a place in the play-offs is firmly within their grasp and should they continue the sort of form that they have shown of late they would fancy their chances against anybody come the end of the season. Yet, while this makes a refreshing change for a support base that has become dispiritingly accustomed to under-achievement on the pitch, the story of Wrexham’s season could yet turn out to be defined by what is happening off the pitch rather than the team’s achievements on it.
We have reported before on the behaviour of the club’s owners, Ian Roberts and Geoff Moss, at the beginning of January, in what looked like a deliberate strategy of separating Wrexham FC from The Racecourse Ground, its home since 1872 and the oldest international football stadium in the world that still hosts international matches. Although Roberts protested, somewhat feebly, that, “We actually view it as strengthing The Racecourse position because one of the sideways issues is as a football club owning the stadium”, it is already starting to become apparent that Roberts and Moss have no apparent intention to keep Wrexham FC as part of a happy sporting family in the town with Crusaders RFLC. The sale of Wrexham FC is set to go ahead, and it will quite possibly mean the separation of the football club from its home forever.
If Roberts and Moss remain the owners of Crusaders RFLC and, through their “Wrexham Village” company, of The Racecourse Ground, there is no other prism through which the situation at Wrexham can be viewed other than to regard them as tenants in their own home, of Wrexham Village and, by extension, of Crusaders RFLC. Presuming that this is concluded without further challenge, the asset strip will be complete. This, however, could (believe it or not) only be the beginning of the issues facing supporters of the club in the future, because yesterday – a good day to bad news, as we established last night – it was announced that there is a party looking to purchase Wrexham FC, the loss-making Blue Square Premier club with no ground of its own, from its current owners.
The company looking to purchase the club is called Van Morton Investments Ltd, and is understood to involve at least two individuals called Robert Bickerton – a former director at Macclesfield Town and Shrewsbury Town – and Tony Allan, a former secretary at Chester City. It’s easy to read too much into Allan’s appointment to the board from the point of view of investment. He is likely to be effectively an employee rather than an investor himself but, perhaps in view of the 2006 revision of the Companies Act that did away with the legal requirement for a company secretary – who may work as, effectively an auditor and could be considered “the eyes and ears” of a company – Allan is to be the Chief Executive of the group rather than the secretary, this time around.
So far so normal, then, but it is the other names that are being linked with Wrexham that should be causing alarm bells to be ringing among the club’s support. Stephen Vaughan, an old bête noire of this site, was very specific about possibly getting involved at Wrexham as long ago as last November. He is currently disqualified as a company director and, having denied fracturing a police officer’s cheek last year, subsequently admitted the offence and is due to be sentenced in March. Some Wrexham supporters may have been of the opinion that they were expressing delusions of paranoia about Vaughan’s involvement, but “Van Morton” seems a singularly nonsensical name for a company, although, perhaps in an eerie coincidence or perhaps not, one of the companies that Vaughan has been involved in over the years was called “Vaughan Promotions” and “Van Morton” could be interpreted as a contraction of that. It certainly has to be said that, of all of the company names in the world that could have been chosen for this venture, one that has allowed supporters to start to form an opinion that Vaughan could be involved (if he isn’t) would seem to be a foolish decision. In Vaughan’s November interview, he stated that:
Wrexham FC is up for sale and I have been approached to join the consortium that is putting in a bid for it. They have offered me a stake of around 30 per cent in the special purpose vehicle which has been put together to make the bid. The offer will be made to the club via our legal people within the next seven days. I would be involved strictly as an investor and would have no part in the day-to-day running of the club. As far as ownership is concerned we would put in the relevant funds that the club requires.
Well, a consortium has now appeared and there are links to Vaughan, albeit not always direct ones. Allan worked for Vaughan at Chester (although it is important to point out that there is no suggestion of any impropriety on his part at that club), and there are rumours of links between Bickerton and Vaughan, as well. Indeed, when interviewed on BBC London’s Non-League Show last night, he stated that, “Stephen Vaughan is not involved in the running of Wrexham Football Club”, which is what Vaughan himself said in his November interview – the question of whether he is an investor in Van Morton or not, however, is a slightly different one, which wasn’t asked and… wasn’t answered either. It goes without saying that banned directors are also not permitted to use shadow directors to act for them or “in any way, whether directly or indirectly, be concerned or take part in the promotion, formation or management of a company unless (in each case) he has the leave of the court”, under Section 1 of the Company Directors Disqualification Act of 1986. The Football Conference are certainly taking an interest in the goings-on at The Racecourse, though, as evinced by a statement that appeared on their website yesterday:
We note the statements made by Wrexham FC on their web-site, which has given rise to enquiries from the media and supporters. From a Football Conference perspective we have had no communication from those named as taking control of the club nor those who would appear to be handing over control. Their membership as a football club is first vested in the FA of Wales and it is their parent FA who may wish to deal with some of the issues raised already by the media and supporters of the club.
We are mindful that this news was only issued into the public domain today and accordingly it would be inappropriate of the Football Conference to make any further statement at this time until we receive more factual information from the club as required under rules, whereby changes are made to directorship or any other issues which could impact on their eligibility to compete in our competition.
At this juncture all we can say is that similar to our recent statement with regards to Mansfield Town, they will be fully aware that if Wrexham FC, due to these changes do not own the freehold of their ground upon which they play fixtures, then they must have in place by 1st March a minimum ten year lease to be eligible to compete in the Football League next season.
So, Allan and Bickerton are definitely on board while the spectre of Stephen Vaughan may or may not linger in the wings, a pugnacious and pungent stench that wasn’t successfully exorcised by Bickerton’s interview last night. As Van Morton Investments Ltd has not even been registered at Companies House yet, it is impossible to say – for now – what the exact make-up of its board of directors will be, but it is also being strongly rumoured that someone that will be involved will be the former chairman of Bury FC, Terry Robinson. We’ll return to the subject of what happened at the end of his time there should his involvement be confirmed. The link between Robinson and Vaughan is oblique – Robinson was/is a consultant for the property consultants Robson Lloyd, who Vaughan engaged “to undertake a viability study for the community sports development” at The Deva Stadium during the 2007/08 season – but it would hardly seem out of the question to suggest that they could be at least acquainted.
At this stage, the critical thing for Wrexham supporters that are concerned by recent developments at the club to do is to join the Wrexham Supporters Trust. As at many clubs, there are those that are vocally opposed to the existence of the supporters trust in the first place for a variety of reasons, but the supporters need to be united if they are to stand any chance of their voice being successfully heard. A constant theme of clubs where supporter protest has been successful in recent years has been where attempts on the part of their opponents to “divide and conquer” have failed. What we can be certain of is that Wrexham supporters, who fought long and hard to rid their club of their previous nemeses, Hamilton and Guterman, will not give this up without a battle.
It is encouraging that the Football Conference – who have significantly tightened their financial regulations over the last year or so – are taking a pro-active stance over these events. When they wavered at the start of last season over the case of Chester City, their decision to allow the club to start the season ended up causing many more problems than it could ever have solved and it is to be hoped that lessons have been learnt from that particular debacle. We cannot be certain at this stage what the eventual outcome of the current turbulence at The Racecourse Ground will be, but that the authorities may already be paying attention is good news for everybody that wants nothing more than normality to return to Wrexham Football Club.
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