Is This How Bolton Wanderers Die?

How quickly things can change. In the middle of last week, it seemed as though there was finally a glimmer of daylight for Bolton Wanderers. A takeover of the club by the Cheshire-based businessman Parminder Basran and fellow purchaser Sharon Brittan had been reported to have reached an advanced stage, with an agreement in principle having been reached for current owner Ken Anderson to sell his 94.5% stake in the club’s parent company, Burnden Leisure for a sum reported to be in the region of £27m. Under new ownership and with the toxic Anderson having left, perhaps Bolton could finally find a period of stability after several years fighting financial fires left, right, and centre. It might have been a little late to keep the club in the Championship for this season – the team is currently seven points adrift of safety with eleven left to play – but at least the club could move into the summer with a relatively clean bill of health and the opportunity to build for the future.

It’s taken just five days for that to start to feel wildly, hopelessly optimistic. On Monday, the Bolton News reported that the takeover by this point hung in the balance, while this was followed up with the news that the club’s training ground, the Eddie Davies Academy, had been closed because there would be no available food, drink or supplies. And as though this wasn’t bad enough, this afternoon came the news that the club’s council have given it twenty-four  hours to persuade them that they can meet safety requirements for Saturday’s fixture at the University of Bolton Stadium against Milwall, with the threat of the match being called off because of the growing feeling that the club will not be able to meet required legal standards in order to safely host the match. Under such circumstances, a prohibition notice would be issued under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975, effectively closing the stadium as a venue because the safety of supporters cannot be guaranteed. A council statement clarified the position:

The club has recently been unable to demonstrate it can meet the legal conditions of the ground’s safety certificate.

After consultation with all members of the SAG [Safety Advisory Group], the council has taken the decision to give the club 24 hours to address all safety concerns, otherwise we will reluctantly issue a prohibition notice.

We understand some fans may be alarmed by this news, but the council is bound by legal process and we are not prepared to risk public safety by allowing any event to go ahead without proper resources in place.

The club has the full support of the council and all the SAG agencies, and we are hopeful a resolution will be found.

So, how have things spiralled out of control again so quickly, when the club seemed to be so close to an agreement that would have given the club something approaching a fresh start? Well, it was already known that players and staff have not yet been paid for the end of February. This may not be a huge immediate issue for players who are earning thousands of pounds per week, but for other backroom staff it is a different matter, and it was reported that some lower paid members of staff had made requests for smaller cash amounts to be given to them in lieu of their full wage packets in order to enable them to put petrol in their cars and buy food. Ken Anderson, let us not forget, paid himself a £525,000 consultancy fee, as detailed in the club’s previous set of financial accounts, which were published in June 2017.

What, though, of this takeover bid? Less than a week ago, it was being reported that it was all but agreed, with the next stage being to move it into a period of exclusivity for Basran and Brittan’s deal. Indeed, the club even issued a statement confirming how advanced the talks were on the 24th February:

The Chairman is pleased to announce that an agreement in principle has been reached that will result in Inner Circle Investments selling its total shareholding in Burnden Leisure. A period of due diligence has now begun, once this process has been completed and the requirements of the EFL have been satisfied a further announcement will be made to supporters.

It doesn’t seem to have taken very long for this agreement to crumble to dust, though, and the obvious presumption to reach from the timing of the stories that have been emerging over the last few days is that due diligence threw up something unpleasant enough for the new group to be quickly dissuaded from proceeding with the purchase. TalkSport’s Jim White attempted to contact Anderson in order to discuss the situation but reported on Twitter that he Anderson had refused to talk to White and that “I understand the deal appears to have fallen through.” At the time of writing, no statement has appeared on the club’s website, although its Club News page does still contain adverts for stewards and part-time customer service representatives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither listing contains any details of what successful applicants might be paid, if they’re to be paid at all.

It has been reported that Anderson has begun talks with two alternative parties interested in buying the club, but with a winding up petition brought against it by HMRC to be heard in a couple of weeks time, to say that the clock is ticking would be, if anything, something of an understatement. It seems reasonable to assume that the club will not have the money to pay the amount owed at this hearing, which really leaves Anderson with two options. On the one hand, he could put the club into administration at any point up to the hearing itself, but this would effectively guarantee Bolton’s relegation and would likely end any likelihood of him walking away from the club without having made a financial loss from it. The insolvency practitioners would be legally bound to try to sell the club as a going concern with the best interests of creditors in the front of their mind.

The alternative is an even higher risk policy, to refuse administration and seek to get an extension or deferral on the amount due under the petition. Entering into adminstration could then be postponed for a few weeks while the club tries to raise the money to pay off HMRC, but the risks of following this route are obvious. Without the legal protection that entering into administration offers and with the club having been in deep financial difficulties for several seasons, there are no guarantees that such a deferral would be offered. No Football League club has been sunk by a winding up petition brought by HMRC at court yet, but with this having been the tax collectors’ modus operandum for some considerable time, the possibility remains that an application to extend will one day be refused and the business wound up. Just because something hasn’t happened in the past doesn’t mean that it somehow can’t in the future.

There has been suggestion that administration hasn’t already been considered an option because of the amount of back wages owed to players and staff, and because this is now being used by Anderson as a bargaining chip with any new buyers. In other words, he wants any prospective new owners to pick up a wage bill that he has (and continues to, for so long as he owns that 94.5% shareholding) run up. It all feels like a dangerous game of brinkmanship, but perhaps this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, coming from someone who was barred from acting as a company director between 2005 and 2013 over goings-on at eight of his former companies.

The disqualification notice gave its reasons for being as being because Anderson had failed to ensure his companies paid VAT and then subsequently failed to co-operate with liquidators, adding that at one of his companies, Professional Sports International Ltd, “Mr Anderson diverted, sought to divert PSI funds by depositing them into a personal bank account in his own name and invoicing in the name of another connected company.” Because the disqualification order had been completed, Anderson passed the Football Leagues Owners & Directors Test. Another victory for financial propriety in professional football.

What next, though? Well, the next test comes tomorrow afternoon, when the club has to prove itself capable of hosting Saturday afternoon’s match at Millwall. Should they pass this, attention will turn to the – still extremely pressing – matters of paying the staff their wages and the club’s upcoming court appearance, all the while with the ongoing talk about takeover bids rumbling on in the background. The club owes more than £600,000 in back wages, and it owes HMRC over £1m. With an email having been sent to staff at the end of last week which implied that they wouldn’t be paid their back wages until the club is sold, it would appear that the likelihood of staff getting paid in the next week or two is slim, whilst the club’s lack of financial liquidity surely makes it all but impossible that anyone will turn up on the steps of the High Court with a cheque to make that small matter go away.

And on top of all of this, Heathcote & Co., the club’s catering partners since 2013, this afternoon confirmed that they will withdraw their services unless the club’s account with them is settled, and Paul Heathcote, the owner of the catering company, stated that, “We have a responsibility as a director and we see no visibility on payment. Therefore in the absence of that we have to make a decision. We are talking about 300 staff on a matchday, of which about 250 are our own. All our staff have been paid up to date, so our conscience is very clear, but as a company we need income to move forward.” With a similar situation arising with match-day staff, including turnstile operators and safety stewards, it has been estimated that the club will have to find £250,000 in order to right this. There doesn’t seem any obvious place from which this quarter of a million pounds will emerge at the moment.

So, is this how Bolton Wanderers die? A founder member of the Football League? A Premier League member as recently as seven years ago? The club of Nat Lofthouse, Eddie Hopkinson andFrank Worthington? It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the whole of professional football – every governing body that allowed this to build up unchecked, every player, manager and agent who put taking money before anything else, everybody – should be hanging their heads in shame at what has happened to this club, but they won’t. They never do. Should the worst come to the worst, there’ll be the usual trite statements of regret for what has happened before everybody shrugs their shoulders, whispers “that’s business” under their breath and carries on as though nothing has happened. That this should be happening to a club of Bolton’s standing should be one of English football’s greatest shames, but it won’t be, and that’s no small part of the reason why the likes of Ken Anderson end up as emboldened to treat one of the Football League’s great institutions in such a way as they do. It’s the mantra of the modern world, and it’s the mantra of modern football. If you can’t make a buck from it, it’s not worth a penny.