Merthyr Town & A Matter of Trust
Life, as the popular twenty-first century vernacular would have it, comes at you fast. Over the course of the seven years since the club’s reformation following the collapse of its predecessor, Merthyr Town FC have looked like a model of steady improvement in the shark-infested waters of the non-league game, an environment in which the vast majority of clubs live a hand to mouth existence and financial insecurity is never that far away. Since joining Division One of the Western League in 2011, the club’s ascent had been solid, with three promotions lifting it to the Premier Division of the Southern League and only a penalty shootout defeat against Hitchin Town in last year’s play-off semi-final preventing them from taking a shot at a place in the National League South.
The excitement of the end of last season couldn’t have felt much further away for the club’s supporters last weekend, though. Following a disastrous week which saw multiple resignations from the club’s board of directors and the release of the vast majority of its playing squad, Merthyr travelled to Buckinghamshire to play mid-table Chesham United with a team made up largely of youth and development squad players, with perhaps predictable results. Nine goals down by half-time, the home side ended up winning by thirteen goals to one, a result which made nationwide headlines, with perhaps the biggest cheer of the afternoon for the players coming in the bar after the match, when supporters of both teams joined together to give the previously untried – and presumably completely unready – players a reception worthy of a grouping who were called upon at extremely short notice and at a level of the game in which few had ever found themselves before.
Tremors of what was to come had been building up over the previous few days. Four board members quit the club over the course of last week – Chairman Meurig Price and former treasurer John Strand followed them yesterday morning – and on Friday morning a statement from manager Gavin Williams on the club’s official website confirmed that “80% of the players” had been released, despite the manager’s best efforts to prevent them from signing for other clubs. Williams’ efforts have been little short of Herculean over the last few days. It often feels as though professional players – and former professional players – have little to no understanding of the non-league game, but his actions over the last few days have been a credit to him and to his hometown club. Merthyr, we might contend, have been lucky to have him in charge throughout this traumatic spell.
At least restructuring of the non-league game at this level means that there is only one relegation place from the Premier League of the Southern Division this season, and with Gosport Borough having only managed to acquire four points from their first seventeen matches of the season, it’s entirely possible that the twenty-six points that Merthyr had acquired by the point of their meltdown might even already be enough to spare the club relegation this season, although it’s worth remembering that, pride aside, issues of promotion or relegation begin to feel like relative trifles in comparison with the small matter of keeping the club alive in the first place.
There followed a supporters meeting this evening at which the level of the club’s current difficulties were revealed, and almost in greater detail than they had been previously. There have been rumblings of discontent from some supporters since the end of last season at the way in which club has been managed, and claims that some board members had been left in the dark regarding the current financial position of the club led to the club commenting that “Cashflow at the club has become extremely tight due to lack of home games since October”, starting to sound a little thin. At the meeting last night, Strand confirmed that, “The situation is that if we try to pay overdue tax bills we will have overspent by about £20,000. We hope to get that down to £8,000 by the Hereford game (on Boxing Day).” Strand’s further comments at least admitted the culpability of the board:
Two and a half years ago we tried to increase spending on and off the pitch after our successful promotion. At the end of last season we increased that again. Again there was the hope that income would increase significantly. Unfortunately that just hasn’t happened hand we’ve lost thousands of pounds since.
I was aware of the deterioration some five or six weeks before the board. I apologise for that delay. I should have brought it to the board at the time.
We are working accountants from Cardiff who are a bit more hands on. We’re also working with the landlord to prepare plans to recover and try to put things right over the next three months. In the very short-term I’m right in the middle of preparing the figures, with two meetings lined up this week. We the board do accept failure of judgement for events over the last couple of years.
There are, however, questions that should be asked of the way in which Merthyr Town has been running itself which do not apply to the vast majority of other clubs. Like so many other “phoenix” clubs, Merthyr Town are supporter-owned and proudly so since their reformation, and this adds an extra layer of concern to the fact that the club could find itself in such as position as this in the first place. This certainly isn’t the first time that a reformed club has found itself in trouble several years after its return. The same has happened at Farnborough and Ilkeston, to name but two.
These two clubs, however, were not supporter-owned when reformed and were, therefore, exposed to exactly the same vagaries as their predecessor clubs had been. At Merthyr, however, things were meant to be different. As a club owned and run in accordance with Supporters Direct guidance, there should have been an extra level of insulation against such an outcome coming to pass as has done at this club over the last few days or weeks. The club needs to look extremely closely at how this could have come to pass, regardless of the specifics of its current predicament and how uncomfortable such an investigation might turn out to be.
The supporters will at least likely have breathed a sigh of relief at the latest resignations from the club. Dial M For Merthyr had this to say on the subject of the club’s recent difficulties, all delivered with the air of weary familiarity and shock at history repeating itself at the club yet again. This brief precis points the finger of blame firmly at those that have been running the club over the last few months, pointing at the rumours of an unpaid tax bill of £60,000 and an employment tribunal being brought against the club by its former CEO as being examples of recent mismanagement. “Gavin Williams, Team Manager, has already shown more leadership than our beleaguered Chairman”, was their assessment of the club’s now former chairman. An interim board expected to lead the club now until Christmas.
It is to be hoped, of course, that Merthyr Town pull through this situation with lessons having been learnt for the future. There also, however, instructive lessons for us all to learn here, most notably that being owned by a supporters trust is not necessarily a panacea for the ills of a football club. Good management is good, bad management is bad, and it doesn’t matter a jot what the shareholding structure of a club is if those at the top of it are making the wrong calls. The fan ownership model has taken some heavy hits in recent years. FC United of Manchester descended into something approaching chaos last season. AFC Telford United offered shares for sale to investors. Portsmouth’s supporters sold up to an American investor who courted the club. There is also a salutary lesson for all of us to learn here, that a club ending up in supporter ownership isn’t the end of a story. Rather, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in the story of a football club, a story that can only continue with skilled stewardship on the part of those tasked with the job of delivering it.
With seven minutes to play at The Meadow on Saturday afternoon, Merthyr Town broke away and Jacob Flower scored a goal for the visitors to reduce their deficit from thirteen goals to twelve. It elicited one of the bigger cheers of the day from those present, supporters of both the home and away teams. The Merthyr players celebrated as though they’d just won the FA Cup, a goal of significance far beyond anything that could appear in Saturday evening’s statistics columns. After the match, the sponsors confirmed their man of the match to be Ed Hewitson, the young Merthyr goalkeeper who’d done so much in attempting to keep the Chesham United score down. The JustGiving page set up to help to secure the club’s future has sailed through the targets that it had set, with over £11,500 now raised against an initial target of £5,000. The efforts of the manager over the course of these few days have been exemplary. It is vignettes such as this which demonstrate why Merthyr Town should be saved. The directors of the club have been made mistakes. This much we know for certain. And with a new board of directors and the attention of the local population having piqued by recent events, there’s no reason why this can’t be achieved. It may not have felt that way for those who travelled from South Wales to Buckinghamshire last weekend only to see their goalkeeper pick the ball from the net for the thirteenth time, but there’s light at the end of that tunnel yet.