Laurence Bassini & Bolton Wanderers: A Marriage Made In…

For the sixth time in eighteen months, Bolton Wanderers survived a date with football’s nearest equivalent to the gallows this morning. Having avoided being wound up at the High Court two weeks ago over an unpaid tax bill of £1.2m, the club received a further deferral, this time until the 8th of May, after confirming to the court that terms had been agreed for the sale of the club to the former Watford owner Laurence Bassini and that due diligence was now being carried out to complete the sale of the club. Under any other circumstances, this would be considered a victory for the club. Five weeks would normally be sufficient to get these loose ends tied up and the club passed into new ownership. This, however, is Bolton Wanderers, so things aren’t quite that straightforward.

Last Saturday brought a rare glimmer of sunshine in a wretched season for the club’s supporters. A two-one win at Queens Park Rangers kept a glimmer of hope alive that they can avoid relegation to League One at the end of this season (and cost the QPR manager Steve McClaren his job on Monday morning), but since then there has been bad news piled on top of bad news for the club. On Monday, it was reported that the club’s players had gone on strike, refusing to train for forty-eight hours, after their wages were paid late for the second month in a row.

Owner Ken Anderson finally put the money in two weeks late. As many would have understood at the time, however, the cracks in the dam that has kept Bolton from completely collapsing has been showing increasing signs of leakage over the last few months, and sticking  finger in this particular plug didn’t really resolve anything about the club’s future. Indeed, the club today finds itself in exactly the same situation as it was last month, only with the patience of the Football League stretched a little further and a little less goodwill in the bank.

Twenty-four hours later, the club was hit with more bad news when the area’s Safety Advisory Group confirmed that the club had been issued with an order closing The University of Bolton Stadium for its next two home matches, against Middlesbrough on Saturday and Ipswich Town on Tuesday night. The club had already confirmed that said it would be unable to meet the obligations of their safety certificate until after this morning’s court appearance. How long after was not mentioned, but the public statement made by the SAG hinted at the heavy-heartedness with which the decision had to be made:

We recognise that Bolton Wanderers is at the heart of our community and this is a deeply regrettable situation. We have done everything we can over recent weeks to support the club at this difficult time. Every effort has been made to give the club enough time to put adequate match-day operation standards in place, but regrettably the law gives us no alternative but to issue a prohibition notice. Safety and security remain our primary concern and while we recognise that spectators may be disappointed, we are not prepared to put the public at risk.

This wasn’t something that will have been unexpected by the club itself. Bolton found themselves in exactly the same situation last month before their scheduled home match against Millwall, only for the certificate to be granted with three days to go before the match itself. This all came about because of non-payment of policing fees to Greater Manchester Police and because of a statement made by part-time employees of the club confirming that they had not been given any information by the club as to when their wages would be paid.

Under such circumstances, and with the club being unable to undertake that the stadium would be adequately staffed for the match, the council was left with little alternative last month, and it appears that they’ve been left with no alternative this time around, either. Their responsibility is the safety of the public, and if Bolton Wanderers cannot provide adequate staffing for the match, they’re left with little choice but to the action that they have taken. We have stringent safety laws for a reason, and they wouldn’t be worth a great deal if they were set to one side because a football club was so badly run that it can’t pay its most basic outgoings.

The truth is that if we define insolvency as the inability to meet financial obligations as and when they fall due, Bolton Wanderers are already hopelessly insolvent, and there are some that would argue that the club has, having faced down a winding up petition every three months for the last year and a half, been given more opportunities to get its house in order than it probably deserves. It is already clear that only a complete restructure will ever give Bolton Wanderers a chance of getting itself back to anything approaching normality, but there’s little question that this will be a sizeable task requiring sensitive handling, preferably from someone with a history of nursing a stricken football club back to full health before.

It also emerged earlier this week that the prospective new owner of Bolton Wanderers is Laurence Bassini, the former owner of Watford. So, a brief history lesson is in order. In 2007, Laurence Bazini was declared bankrupt after the failure of a business. Bazini blamed his father for this collapse and changed his surname to Bassini in order to “have a fresh start” following this business failure. He took ownership of the club for just £440,000 in May 2011, and such was the nature of his thirteen months in charge of the club that even his Wikipedia page describes his tenure at Vicarage Road as “a period of clown-like incompetence and financial impropriety”, whilst shortly before the third anniversary of his arrival the club, local newspaper the Watford Observer made his period in charge its April Fool’s Day joke

In March 2013, Bassini lost a High Court case brought against him by two previous directors of the club, the Russo brothers, and was ordered to pay them £3.5 million and £135,000 (along with an additional £568,000 in interest and £150,000 in costs) and shortly afterwards was banned from holding a position of authority within a football club for three years after having been found to have breached Football League regulations which governed the use of parachute payments as a form of loan security.

In 2011 Bassini and an associate approached a sports financing consultancy company, ‘Good for Sport’, which advised him to use a financing scheme called ‘forward funding’ to bring money into the the club. Forward funding, which was permitted at the time, is a term used to describe loans that are secured against other loans and player sales or secured from future Football League pool payments. Bassini entered into a contract with a financing company, LNOC Limited, using parachute payments from the league and future player sales as loan security.

However, in 2011 the Football League introduced regulations on clubs using pool payments as loan security and subsequently deemed Bassini’s actions to be misconduct, as it was never contacted for approval of the contract, and because LNOC a recognised financial institution. By way of a defence that was never likely to pass muster in a court of law, Bassini accepted only half of the responsibility for what had happened, maintaining that the Russo brothers owned the other half of his shares and had been acting secretly in order to covertly own the club. Unable to provide any evidence of this whatsoever, the court found against Bassini.

In June 2014 he was declared bankrupt for a second time following a failure to pay a £37,500 over an outstanding debt unrelated to this matter. During the case, it was reported that Bassini started asking the judge specific questions about the nature of the order, to which the judge replied: “I can’t give you legal advice. But I can tell you in this building there is a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, which can give you free legal advice.” He didn’t change his name, this time.

Such is the desperation of Bolton’s plight at present that Bassini taking ownership of the club is somewhere close to the best case scenario that supporters can reasonably hope for. This is more a reflection upon how desperate the club’s situation currently is (who, we might ask ourselves, would voluntarily involve themselves with this omni-shambles in any way whatsoever?) than how desirable it might be for a twice bankrupt, previously banned from football for three years new owner to walk into the club. At least, should Bassini take ownership of the club, the club will still exist at that point. The Football League issued a statement on the matter yesterday, noting that, “The EFL is currently engaged with the Club in regard to how they intend to meet their fixture obligations,” and that, “Whilst disappointed, the EFL understands the rationale for the position taken by the SAG at this time.”

It is worth considering what a dangerous position this is for the club. The High Court has limits in terms of its patience with football clubs and has shown more than some might feel they’ve deserved in recent years, but the ability to host a football match in front of a paying crowd is surely the most basic responsibility that any ostensibly “professional” football club should be able to manage. In a statement of his own made on Tuesday, Anderson opted to shift the blame just about everybody else for the club’s current predicament but himself. Predictably, Bolton Wanderers supporters were less than impressed by it all, and small wonder.

To be absolutely clear, this football club, a founder member of the Football League in 1888, is teetering on the brink of extinction regardless of the result of this morning’s court hearing. The inability to safely host home fixtures is a serious issue, considerably more so than it is being reported at present. It should be a shaming moment for the whole of English football that this might happen to any football club, that regulation is so weak that this can happen in the first place. Bolton Wanderers may have escaped the gallows, but they remain on death row. That a twice-bankrupt “property developer” with skeletons in his closet of a size more commonly seen in the entrance to the Natural History Museum should be the nearest thing that Bolton Wanderers currently have to a “saviour” is a poor reflection, not only upon the club itself, but also on the broader condition of the financial regulation of football clubs in the UK at the moment.