As the travelling supporters of Lincoln City Football Club left Blundell Park on the Sunday after Christmas, they might have been forgiven a little seasonal optimism. A Conference National win away to their local rivals Grimsby Town seemed only to cement the possibility that the Imps were turning a corner just in time for the start of 2015, and that a run that has seen the club go the last seven seasons without having done so much as finishing in the top half of the league table – a fact made somehow all the more remarkable for the fact that the club lost its Football League status in the middle of all of this – might finally be about to come to an end.
Such hopes may, however, may have turned out to have been a little premature. A week later they beat the near-runaway league leaders Barnet by four goals to one at Sincil Bank, but since then Lincoln City have won just two of their seven league matches, and are now back in a mid-table position, headed in the wrong direction just at the point of the season at which upwardly mobile clubs might be hoping to consolidate their position in the play-off positions, which are all the more important in a division in which only one automatic promotion place is available.
At a time of the season when distractions are at their least wanted, however, Lincoln City has found itself to be at the centre of unwelcome news stories, following the decision of the club’s bank, the Co-operative, the withdraw its overdraft facility. Lincoln City has found itself close to the financial wire before and the Football Conference retains financial rules that are tougher than most other football authorities, so it is understandable if those close to the club are a little jumpy at the prospect of tins being rattled outside Sincil Bank again in the near future, but any such nervousness on this occasion might be considered to have been jumping the gun somewhat.
The club’s total debt to the bank is £380,000, which is made up of a £300,000 overdraft, coupled with an £80,000 mortgage for a Playzone that it owns. In an era during which top Premier League players earn that sort of money in a month, this may sound like a relatively trifling sum of money, but the clubs of the Football Conference exist in a different financial world to bigger clubs, so clearing such a debt might be considered a considerable headache. Lincoln City, which has remained something approaching solvent thanks to directors loans in recent years, needs to raise this money on top of operating costs if it is to not be forced to sell its land assets, quite possibly for less than their market value, so the club quickly came up with plans to raise money to cover this debt. Bonds ranging in value from £1,000 to £10,000 were offered to supporters which promised a three per cent return, with bespoke yields for sums invested that amount to over £10,000.
It is a sign of the devotion of football supporters towards their clubs that, a few days later, acting managing director Kevin Cooke had to admit that the club may have been a little “premature” in making the details of the proposed bond issue public. The club had already started to receive applications for bonds when it admitted that it hasn’t yet finalised a deal with a financial services company to manage it for them. Still, there can be little question that those running the club will have been encouraged by the response from supporters, and this will to save the club was echoed last weekend when the Imps took on Chester in a home league match.
The club opted to make this match a “pay what you want” match at the turnstiles, and the success of the venture can be measured in the fact that the attendance of 4,500 was more than fifty per cent higher than the season’s average so far. Not bad for a club with patchy league form playing against another mid-table side in February. Such a positive reaction from the club’s supporters can also be seen in the fact that one supporter took the opportunity to pay £200 for his admission to the game, a clear sign of how much the club’s ongoing viability means to that particular individual. Lincoln lost the match by a goal to nil, but the venture was successful enough for the club to confirm that it is now considering making pay what you want an annual fixture at Sincil Bank.
But how did the club come to find itself in this position in the first place? Our reflex reaction to a story of this nature may be shake our heads at directorial mismanagement, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case at Lincoln City. The decision to sever ties with the club is one that has been made by the Co-operative Bank following its own recent difficulties, and this is where the story may become more troubling for the supporters of other football clubs. Lincoln City’s financial situation was far from completely disastrous – it would be surprising if £300,000 was the largest bank overdraft held by a club in the Conference National, for example – so if the Co-op is happy to pull the plug on this club, who else may find themselves not “fitting the profile” of the bank?
And whilst it’s understandable this bank may have needed to reconsider its position on a lot of matters over the last couple of years or so, it is disappointing to see a financial institution – particularly one with this name – acting in such a manner. Football clubs, and in particular small football clubs, are more than mere businesses. Their place as part of a wider community shouldn’t be harmed by the business decisions of a bank. But that, perhaps, is a morality tale borne very much of the last two decades. In the meantime, a club whose chairman has previously stated that it has a break even attendance figure of 3,000 but has been averaging only 2,500 (and losing money year on year since its relegation to the Conference) has had a warning shot fired across its bows. To find itself in a spiral of falling attendances leading to less money being available to spend on players can become a vicious circle and hopefully the decision of the bank in this case will sharpen a few minds at the club’s boardroom level.
Still, though, there is plenty of room for some optimism to be taken from this story. In the case of Lincoln City versus the Co-operative Bank, the club seems to be acting quickly secure its future without losing valuable property assets, and the reaction of supporters, both in their hurriedness to obtain bonds and in turning out in numbers for the Chester match, demonstrates that the people of the city of Lincoln haven’t quite given up on their local football club yet, even if its bankers have. Lincoln City might yet find itself well rid of the not so Co-operative Bank.
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