Macclesfield Town: Thirteenth Time Unlucky
When the axe finally fell at the High Court in London this morning, it was over an amount of money that represented two things at the same time. The half million pounds that finally did for Macclesfield Town were, in the broader context of football’s finances, a drop in the ocean. A little less than one week’s worth of Gareth Bale’s weekly salary, which was gleefully being reported by the press at the same time as part of his possible loan from Real Madrid to Tottenham Hotspur.
But at the same time, it was clearly and obviously not an amount of money that Macclesfield were going to be able to pay. The club had been in and out of the court for months, obtaining deferrals against their own demise with promises of an imminent sale that never came. They’d had so many opportunities to resolve the matters at hand, twelve adjournments since the petition was first raised in January 2019, that the latest request from owner Amar Alkadhi to adjourn the hearing for yet another eight weeks in order to secure a new buyer for the club, seemed to have been requested more out of desperation than reasonable expectancy of a sale going through. There was to be no lucky thirteenth adjournment for the Silkmen.
Shocked but not surprised is an emotion that many of us have been through quite a lot during this wretched year, at some point or other, and Macclesfield’s collapse fits this bill very neatly. The club’s financial affairs have been farcical for longer than most care to remember. The players went on strike in November after failing to be paid, which resulted in the club fielding youth players for an FA Cup match against Isthmian League Kingstonian which ended in a humiliating home defeat, while they were deducted points on three separate occasions for issues relating to payment of salaries and failure to fulfil League Two fixtures against Plymouth Argyle and Crewe Alexandra.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has been ruinous for the finances of football clubs across much of the game, then, we can say with a degree of certainty that was almost certainly not a significant in Macclesfield Town finding themselves where they ended up. That’s an important point to remember, because it would be easy to gloss over the fact that this club has been an accident waiting to happen for several years and ascribe their collapse to this particular force majeure, but to do that would be to let those responsible off the hook.
The improper running of Macclesfield Town has been an issue for more than a decade and a half, now. The club was already in hot water when Amar and Bashar Alkadhi became involved in the club in 2003. At the start of 2006, an FA disciplinary commission found the club guilty of improper conduct relating to a 2001 Football Stadia Improvement fund grant towards the costs of a new £1.5m stand at their Moss Rose stadium, resulting in fines and compensation approaching £300,000 that they were initially told would have to be repaid within weeks. The FA later extended the payment deadline to December 2008.
By June 2013, the club was reportedly half a million pounds in debt, having been relegated from the EFL a year earlier. East Cheshire Council acquired the Moss Rose freehold for £285,000, but £90,000 more was needed by 30th June. Plans were afoot to make the club a “Community Interest-Company”, with directors writing off all their loans. Amar would be one CIC director (Bashar resigned in October), alongside ex-club chair Mike Rance and ex-vice-chair Andy Scott. With the club still needing occasional injections of cash, though, the CIC plan fell through at the end of the year, with the debts being the key reason.
In 2018 the club returned to the EFL as champions of the National League, but it soon became apparent that the problems behind the scenes were so severe that there were questions to be asked over whether they should even have been admitted in the first place. The club had problems paying its wages throughout the entire second half of the 2018/19 season, and whilst manager Sol Campbell managed to steer them to one of the most unlikely League Two survivals of all on the pitch – Macclesfield were in the bottom two from the second game of the season until the 41st – it was evident that matters off the pitch hadn’t been resolved.
Frustrated at the club’s failure to perform its most basic responsibility as a business and pay its staff on time, a group of players took over the winding up petition against the club in July 2019. The matter was settled the following month, but even then Alkadhi sought to blame everybody but himself for the ongoing issues, including a statement which claimed that the players who’d been trying to recoup what they were owed “decided to close down our 145-year-old club.” One of those players, Elliott Durrell, had scored the goal against Cambridge United the previous May which had saved the club from relegation. David Seligman, the players’ lawyer, was scathing in his reply to this horrible accusation:
At no point did they want Macclesfield Town go out of existence, they just wanted what they were owed. They aren’t Premier League footballers, they are earning very modest salaries, living month-to-month, paying rent, for food, for their children, and they couldn’t afford it. I’m sure fans can sympathise. They probably can’t go three months without pay.
So, to last season. The Kingstonian travesty, more unpaid wages, the feeling that whatever financial projection the club submitted to the EFL during the summer probably wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Ironically, supporters may have had reason to feel relieved when the season was curtailed in March. Bury’s collapse at the start of the season had meant that there would only be one relegation place, and Stevenage’s abject performance meant that even 23rd place would be enough to preserve EFL football at Moss Rose for another season.
It turned out, however, to be a long, hard summer for the club. On the 19th of June, an EFL Independent Disciplinary Commission (IDC) issued a convoluted ruling, finding Macc in multiple breach of EFL rules, mostly involving late salary payments, applying a two point deduction suspended by a previous commission and suspending a further four-point deduction until 2020/21. This application and suspension of points deductions saved the club from relegation. They were also ordered to “deliver to the EFL a professionally prepared business plan seeking to demonstrate sustainable financial resources and management to be put in place for next season and beyond” by the end of July and fined £20,000, “subject to the EFL considering whether to waive, defer or repay the same” if the business plan was delivered to its satisfaction.”
The EFL, however, were unhappy with the conclusion reached by the IDC and appealed, and in the second week of August their appeal was successful. The arbitration panel confirmed not only that the two point deduction would stay in place, but also that, in addition, Macclesfield would be deducted the four further suspended points, changing their Points Per-Game total for the season to 23.62, adrift of Stevenage’s end of season PPG of 28.11 and therefore in bottom place in the entire EFL. The club was, without having even kicked a ball, relegated from the League. Some might say, such was the vehemence with which the EFL pursued the case, that they were effectively expelled from the competition.
Against this background, the news from the High Court doesn’t come as much of a surprise at all. After twelve deferrals going back twenty months… eight weeks? Perhaps there had simply been so many beforehand that Alkadhi merely assumed that another would be granted. He had, the previous week, claimed that a sale of the club to Robert Benwell – who, having been involved with a similarly empty attempt to buy Bury, is developing quite a reputation for himself – was at an “advanced stage”, but Benwell’s name didn’t even come up in court this morning.
Instead, the court was told that Alkadhi understood the amount due to creditors to only be £4,000, that he’d made a late offer to pay an initial £20,000 of the debt owed to HMRC, and that he’d produced a screenshot of a bank statement with £1.1m of available funds to to repay creditors. The judge later confirmed that Alkadhi hadn’t told him where the £1.1m had come from or why the club’s debts had not already been paid with this money. In the end, Judge Prentice granted a compulsory order, stating that “nothing gives me comfort that the club can pay its debts in a reasonable period” and that there had been “ample opportunity” for Alkadhi to pay off the club’s creditors.
This isn’t quite the end, but there will now be no survival for the club in this form unless its debts are paid in full, and quickly. The directors’ powers will cease in every respect, the company’s assets will be liquidated, and it will cease to exist as a legal entity, after being struck off the register at Companies House. Can this be averted? Yes it can. Will it? There’s little evidence from the previous couple of years to suggest that it will.
And then there’s the small threshold of the National League to consider. They haven’t commented on this yet, but the season is due to start on the 3rd of October, and that’s only just over two weeks away. At the time of writing, they haven’t issued a statement on the matter, but without this matter having been comprehensively set to one side it’s difficult to see how they could allow them to start the season. An October start date tells its own story of how tightly packed this season is going to be, and in the current financial climate clubs are not going to be wanting to waste travel expenses on matches that are as likely as not to be expunged from the record at some point throughout the course of this season. At the time of writing, the National League’s website has Macclesfield’s first match of the season against Bromley listed as on, but Bromley could be forgiven holding fire on booking that team coach, for now.
It can feel a little at times as though leagues relegate financial basket cases in no small part so they’re not their problem any more. The EFL seem to have been determined to hit Macclesfield hard, and as a result of this Macclesfield will end their time as a non-league club. But they’re a distinguished non-league club, winners of the first two iterations of the Northern Premier League in 1969 and 1970, and the first FA Trophy, in 1970. With three titles, they are the joint record holders for the most National League titles alongside Barnet. This is a club with a distinguished history, going back to 1874. That’s 146 years of history, and you can’t just make that go away. Macclesfield Town will rise again. The town will have a football club, and supporters will go to watch it. It might not be called Macclesfield Town. It might not play at Moss Rose. But it will be there, for those who want it.
But this certainty shouldn’t dissipate our anger at those who let this happen. When writing about their demotion just five weeks ago, I described the EFL as “a regulator that doesn’t want to regulate, overseeing 72 clubs that don’t want to be regulated.” To extend that criticism to the National League would be a little unfair. The EFL have dumped a problem upon them. The failure falls primarily with the EFL, for allowing somebody who was manifestly unfit to run a football club – the club’s current position as it presents itself confirms this – to retain ownership of that club, and it falls with Amar and Bashar Alkadhi. Football will be a little bit more competently run for their absence from it. And if or when Macclesfield Town slide from view, we should all pause to consider who may be next, where it will all end, and if anybody is going to actually do something about it. Because at the moment, it rather feels as though the game’s governing bodies’ laissez-faire attitudes towards regulation may be about to reach crisis point.