Identity Politics: Notts County’s Fall From Grace

The last time this happened was in 1893 when, after having lost a test match against Sheffield United, Accrington FC – no relation to Accrington Stanley – resigned from the Football League rather than playing in the Second Division. After unsuccessfully reapplying after a season away, the club folded in 1896. The importance of the founder members of the Football League is deeply ingrained into all English versions of the history of the game. These are English football’s apostles. Yesterday afternoon, though, something unprecedented in living memory happened. One of that original twelve was relegated from the Football League. Next year, Notts County will be a non-league football club.

In practical terms, of course, it’s just a relegation. Notts will be big fish in the National League next year and, while promotion straight back does tend to be rare, Leyton Orient’s return at the end of this season after two years away (coupled with their upcoming trip to Wembley in the final of this year’s FA Trophy) has proved that it can be a relatively painless experience once you’re there. They’ll be on the television more in the National League, and they’ll likely win a few more matches, into the bargain. But this isn’t a matter of practicalities, is it? Notts County dropping out of the Football League is an emotional matter. For the club itself, the oldest professional football club in the world, it was a badge of identity, and people cling very tightly to their identities, these days. That record of 131 consecutive years has disappeared into the night. It hurts, in a very deep and meaningful way.

The odds were already against them, going into yesterday afternoon’s match at Swindon Town. With Yeovil Town’s precipitous fall already occupying one of the relegation spots, it was a straight shootout between Macclesfield Town and Notts County, but Macclesfield had a strong advantage. If they could pick up a point from their match against Cambridge United, what happened at The County Ground would be an irrelevance. If Macclesfield slipped up, though, a Notts win would keep them up and send Sol Campbell’s team down instead, and a minute from half-time Cambridge took the lead at Macclesfield. Going into half-time, if Notts County could grab a goal, they would go above Macclesfield in the table. Seven minutes into the second half they got it, and for fourteen minutes Notts’ heads bobbed above the water before Macclesfield equalised against Cambridge, Swindon first equalised and then took the lead against them, dragging them back under again. A third Swindon goal in stoppage-time sealed the deal.

Few emerge from Notts County’s least season in the Football League with a great deal of credit. The buck ultimately stops with owner Alan Hardy. He has had a year of both personal and professional humiliation, with the collapse of his other business into administration, the football club that he owns falling out of the Football League for the first time in 131 years and 120 seasons, and accidentally flashing his genitalia on Twitter.

And then there are the managers. The season started with Kevin Nolan. He was sacked after they lost five of their first six matches of the season and drew the other one. Nolan was replaced by Harry Kewell, but despite a three match winning run early on, he only lasted until November before being replaced by Neal Ardley. Perhaps errors were made in team selection. Perhaps tactical errors were made. But this is League Two, and it feels difficult to believe that all three of these managers, with their combined decades of football experience, were incompetent. Perhaps the problems at Notts County run deeper than most managers could ever hope to fix.

When Notts County collapsed into administration in June 2002, one of the more peculiar pieces of news to emerge from the wreckage that was the club’s accounts was that chairman Derek Pavis owned the West Stand at Meadow Lane, in conjunction with former chairman and local MP Jack Dunnett. In May 1987, while Dunnett was still the club’s chairman, he arranged for the West Stand to be rented to his company, Park Street Securities, for nothing. Pavis then sub-let the stand’s executive boxes back to the club, as well as rooms inside the stand to a social and sports club. He bought the lease in 1999, for £500,000.

The following year, Pavis sold up to the American businessman and journalist, Albert Scardino. Scardino needed to borrow £3.5m to secure the purchase of the club but only made one payment of £565,000 before defaulting. In the meantime, Peter Storrie had arrived as the chief executive and had started spending money that the club didn’t have but was expecting on wages, aiming for promotion to the First Division (Championship.) With no money coming from Scardino and the collapse of ITV Digital costing them £1.3m, however, administration was inevitable. The West Stand at Meadow Lane remains The Derek Pavis Stand to this day.

The club remained in administration for what was then a record period of 534 days. With no buyers on the horizon there were points at which it felt as though liquidation had to be inevitable, but a supporters trust was formed in 2003, and the NCST raised £300,000 to pay for a 30% shareholding in the club. The biggest shareholder was businessman Haydn Green, who bought a 49% stake in Notts and the Meadow Lane lease from the administrator for  £3m. In January 2007 Green sold his stake, which made the supporters’ trust the club’s majority owner with more than 60% of the shares. Green, himself a trust member, arranged to give the trust his shares, with the trust to pay him for them only if they subsequently sold any shares on. He died four months later.

By the end of the 2008/09 season, though, patience with the Trust was running out. The club had only finished above nineteenth place in the league twice in the previous eight seasons – and those were thirteenth and fifteenth place – and money was tight to non-existent. When a company called Qadbak Investments, acting as a vehicle for a company called Munto Finance, pitched up at the club making big promises in the summer of 2009, supporters were ready – some would say far too ready – to listen to their offer.

Chairman John Armstrong-Holmes argued that the trust should hand its shares to Munto for free, as well as write an earlier loan of £170,000 loan. He also stated that,  that as the shares were to be “gifted” to Munto rather than sold, the trust would not have to pay Green’s estate. Some members objected, asking if it would not be “the honourable thing” for Green’s estate to be paid for the shares, but Armstrong-Holmes could only offer a snake-oil salesman’s response, that “Haydn Green’s position in the club’s history is acknowledged and will be honoured by Munto.”

They went large, bringing in Sol Campbell to captain the team and Sven-Goran Eriksson in to manage it. Kasper Schmeichel, who would be a Premier League championship winner with Leicester City, kept goal Indeed, Notts County won the League Two title at the end of the season. It’s just that no-one who was there at the start was there by the end. By September, serious questions were starting to be asked about who these people actually were. A former Everton commercial manager, Peter Trembling, was brought in as CEO. It took until the third week of October for the club to somehow pass the Fit & Proper Persons test, and less than five weeks from that date for the Football League to reopen its investigation into who they actually were.

Trembling was sold the company for a nominal sum on the twelfth of December, and in turn sold it on to Ray Trew  at the start of the following February. By this time Eriksson, Campbell and Schmeichel had gone and the club was £7m in debt. Steve Cotterill guided them to promotion, but the details emerging of what had been going on with the previous owners was considerably more diverting and was thrust into the public eye with The Trillion Dollar Conman, an episode of Panorama first broadcast in April 2011. Panorama explained how King set up a network of businesses with the intention of exploiting natural assets in North Korea before his house of cards fell in upon itself.

Trew stayed at Meadow Lane for six years. Three years into his chairmanship, having claimed to have put £12m into the club, he posted on the Notts County Mad forum to state that he couldn’t put any more money into the club because of salary cap restrictions and blamed supporters for falling attendances. Bad move. Attendances might well have been falling, but a point at which a chairman needs bums on seats doesn’t sound like a good time to start criticising people who aren’t going, if he wants them to return. Notts were relegated back into League Two in 2016. Trew quit in February 2016, reinstated himself the following September, and then finally sold up to Alan Hardy in January 2017, with the club third from bottom in League Two.

They survived relegation with comfort that season, ending the 2016/17 season by finishing in sixteenth place in the table, and continued the momentum into last season, ending it in fifth place in the table before losing to Coventry City in the semi-finals of the play-offs. This season, however, saw a return to the club’s recent form. Alan Hardy’s reckless social media used cost the club an agreement over loan players with Nottingham Forest, who started sending their players to local rivals Mansfield Town instead. By the time Hardy exposed himself on Twitter, it was doing little more than exposing the club as being something of a standing joke. He put the club up for sale shortly after this. Talks are said to be ongoing.

That Alan Hardy isn’t the worst owner that Notts County have had over the last twenty years probably says more about the calibre of his predecessors than it does about Hardy himself. This season has been chaotic at Meadow Lane on all fronts. Nolan’s departure at the start of the season, when he hadn’t really been given long enough to bed in players purchased during the summer, angered a lot of players and led to two boardroom resignations. Harry Kewell was the replacement, but upon his departure from the club ten weeks after his arrival he he described the divisions in the changing room as being “poisonous.”

As the manager who took AFC Wimbledon into League One, Neal Ardley could hardly be said to be inexperienced at this level. He overhauled the first team squad in the January transfer window, but by the time headlines were being dominated by off-pitch matters and it was reported that the only reason he didn’t resign was that he didn’t want to further accentuate the culture of instability around the club. The collapse of Paragon Interiors, Hardy’s other main business interest, did that instead. Despite the fact that the club stated that the collapse of Paragon wouldn’t negatively impact upon them, subsequent papers confirmed a loan was made to a company – Paragon Leisure Group – to buy shares in the club when Hardy had bought it Ray Trew in January 2017, that Paragon Leisure Group owed just under £7.3m to Paragon Interiors when the administrators were called in, and that Notts themselves owed them a further £1.4m.

In April, meanwhile, the club found itself in court fighting off a winding up petition over £200,000 owed to HMRC. The case was deferred until June to allow a takeover to be concluded. On the pitch, though, things were continuing to deteriorate. Yeovil Town plummetted to the bottom of the table, but Macclesfield Town continued to pick up points. Notts County earned themselves a stay of execution last weekend with a two-one win against Grimsby Town, but Macclesfield’s one-nil win at Port Vale ensured that they still needed favours from others as well as a result themselves this weekend. It wouldn’t have made any difference had Notts County won at Swindon yesterday because Macclesfield drew against Cambridge, but they couldn’t even manage that.

On the one hand, it’s shocking, all of this. Those twelve founder members have had their ups and downs over the years, but they’ve always had a permanence about them. That has clearly not been the case since the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the non-league game, but even since then those twelve clubs have a special place in the story of English football. That this one should have been treated so badly, in so many different ways, and by so many different people, should be a national scandal, but it isn’t because football clubs are only really taken seriously as community institutions by supporters while owners pass them around like candy and governing bodies wilfully refuse to do anything practical to change the status quo.

It is just a relegation. The club might be away for just a season or two. Other former Football League clubs have dropped down, found their feet, and flourished again, such as Luton Town, who are still celebrating their promotion back into the Championship. Optimistic Notts County supporters – should there be any left – might already have considered that a satisfying-looking projection for the future. Others, though, will look at other examples, at Chester, York, Stockport or plenty of others, who’ve struggled both financially and on the pitch after having slipped down into the non-league game. There are no guarantees that everything will run smoothly next season, especially if their own club is as chaotically run as Notts have been for the last two decades.

And that’s where the key to all of this ultimately rests. They may have taken it to the last day of the of the season, and the hurt and disappointment of the events of the last few weeks will certainly continue to hurt, but the truth of the matter is that this has been a long time coming for Notts County. No club could “deserve” the way in which this club has been kicked from pillar to post by asset-strippers, tyre-kickers, fraudsters and no-marks over the years, but it has been the rogue’s galleries in the boardroom who have ultimately led one of the Football League’s most storied clubs to its trapdoor. Hopefully new owners can set Notts back in the right direction following years of neglect.