Nuneaton Borough: The Club That No-One Owns

by | Oct 21, 2018

The last time that we stopped by at National League North club Nuneaton Borough, at the very end of last season, its future seemed to be in limbo. The owner, Lee Thorn, had put the club and its home ground up for sale, and negotiations with the Nuneaton Borough Supporters Co-operative (NBSC) had fairly rapidly reached a state of deadlock. The future seemed uncertain, but there were at least grounds for some degree of optimism that a deal could be reached to ensure the future of the club. Five months on, there’s good news and bad news for supporters of the embattled club. On the one hand, Nuneaton Borough are still with us. They haven’t had a terribly good season so far – they went into yesterday’s match against Bradford Park Avenue in the relegation places in the National League North table, with only Southport and FC United of Manchester below them – but the club still exists.

The bad news, however, is bad. Really bad. During the summer, Thorn came good on his promise regarding his chairmanship of the club and resigned his position on the first of August, as confirmed on Companies House, having sold the club to Norman Smurthwaite, the owner of Port Vale. There are, however, several flies in this particular ointment. Firstly, Thorn was the sole director of the club, which has meant that the club has been without any directors at all since that date. The club has one hundred shares (PDF), but it is unclear who owns them – presumably Thorn, but he spent the summer distancing himself from the club as much as he could. Secondly, Smurthwaite claims that he is only acting as a “facilitator” for the club, in order to help to find buyers for Boro Leisure Ltd., the company from which Thorn resigned in August, but there’s a significant problem, here. Football Association rules stipulate that no individual can own more than one club, which means that Smurthwaite isn’t – and this, of course, is a state of affairs that would exist whether he wanted to or not – able to take ownership of the club itself.

Few supporters might be interested in the minutiae of these matters were it not for the fact that the club’s manager Nicky Eaden confirmed earlier this month that the money has now completely run out, and that it is now unlikely that players and other staff will be paid at the end of this month. The non-payment of players is usually considered to be a critical point in the disintegration of a football club that is hurtling towards insolvency. Other bills – tax excluded – can usually be structured or deferred in some way or other, but the players have to be paid on time. A failure to do so ordinarily means a breach of contract on the part of the club, and which professional or semi-professional player would want to hang around a club that is unable to even pay them on time? Should Nuneaton be able unable to pay their players at the end of this month, there is no question that the club’s overall position will have gone from bad to worse, and that closure – because the club has low debts, which makes administration an unlikely option, and in any case the club has no directors that could sign it off from this form of bankruptcy protection – will have become a distinct possibility.

Even well-meaning gestures don’t seem to be working out particularly well for anybody there, at the moment. The club caught some social media attention earlier in the week when eighty-nine year old supporter Tony Packer turned up at the ground on his mobility scooter with a £500 donation from his life savings to try to help the club tide things over. The decision to post this on social media, however, significantly backfired on the club, who later had to release a statement confirming that they couldn’t accept this donation and requesting that no further donations should be made to the club itself. It was probably the worst publicity that Nuneaton Borough could have hoped form and at a time when it really does need every penny that it can find if it is to survive.

Last week, Smurthwaite issued a statement, reproduced in full here in the Coventry Telegraph, that the club needed to have its new board in place by the next meeting of the Football Conference’s board on the first of November, and that therefore “The next week to ten days is the most critical time I believe this club has ever faced” and that “I will endeavour to help within the constraints the regulatory bodies have imposed upon me and hope that a solution can be found to what are some serious challenges in front of the club and the town as a whole.” The statement confirmed that “The current monthly payroll of the players is circa £25,000 per month but with the gates as they are the monthly shortfall of the club is between £17,000 and £19,000 per month” but that, ultimately, “If the town wishes to keep the heritage and the football club alive it now needs your immediate assistance.”

At present, the club is effectively being run on a day-to-day basis by Eaden, assistant manager Lee Fowler, club secretary Adam Etheridge and general manager Carly Morris, but none of these are directors of the club, and as such do not have the authority to make decisions that could safeguard its future. Indeed, while Boro Leisure Ltd doesn’t have any directors there is no-one who can. It’s not difficult to see where the pleas for people to turn up to matches are coming from, either. Prior to yesterday’s match, attendances at Nuneaton have sat at around the 500 mark for their few home league matches so far this season, pushed up slightly by the visits of Hereford and FC United of Manchester, both of whom have – for this level of the game – relatively large away supports.

That figure does seem a little light for this level of the game – their average home crowd this season of 580 is the eighteenth highest out of twenty-two clubs in that particular division – but it’s also worth bearing in mind that, at a level of the game at which match day revenues are critical the the financial health of a club, if this figure is substantially lower than what was budgeted for during the summer, then of course it would be difficult for the club to keep its head above water on a day-to-day basis.

But who would have okayed the budget for the coming season? Would it have been Lee Thorn, even though he’d already stated that he would be leaving the club? Or is there simply no budget at all, and just a hope that somehow something would “happen” in order to keep Nuneaton Borough on an even keel? The last set of accounts for Boro Leisure Ltd – which hadn’t even been made available when we discussed this last in May – showed it having lost half a million pounds for the year between June 2016 and June 2017. If the club how requires £20,000 per month to keep itself afloat at the moment, that would suggest that inroads have been made into reducing the club’s losses, but this only counts for anything if the £20,000 per month required now is there in the first place, and it certainly isn’t at the moment.

The rules are pretty clear on the matter of ownership. No-one is allowed to own or hold a controlling interest in more than one club, and the Football League confirmed that Smurthwaite gave them a series of undertakings when buying the ground “to ensure that he was acting purely as a landlord and none of the current regulatory protections were contravened.” Smurthwaite has been keen to impress this through his own public statements, but he also wanted to make clear in his recent comments that yesterday’s match was crucial if the club was going to have much chance of clinging on through the rest of the month. The people of the town seemed to respond, with 823 people turning out for the match against Bradford Park Avenue. Unfortunately, though, while the supporters put in their shift and did their part, the players couldn’t match it. Bradford won by six goals to nil.

Nuneaton Borough will go into their next match as they’ve gone into every match this season, with a landlord and “facilitator”, but no owner. And the facilitator isn’t exactly popular at Vale Park at the moment either, as this thread from the supporters forum One Vale Fan makes abundantly clear, so even if he were able to somehow take control of Nuneaton Borough as well as Port Vale, what sort of owner would he be? This is, of course, largely a hypothetical question. Unless something deeply underhand is or has been going on, everyone is already fully familiar with the limits of Smurthwaite’s involvement at Nuneaton, as has previously been set out by both the Football League and Smurthwaite himself.

Without any company directors, with the money just about having run out, and with the club having been on the market for some considerable time without new owners having come forward, though, what is the future for Nuneaton Borough FC? Well, the NBSC had wanted to put together a bid to buy the club, but their previous attempts to do so with Lee Thorn grounded to a halt pretty quickly and a statement issued on the eighth of October stated that “Outright ownership of the football club is not one of our main aims.” With the ownership of the club and that of the ground apparently having been separated since the summer, no new owner in sight, and the team fresh off the back of a six-nil home defeat in the league, it’s difficult to see a positive prognosis for Nuneaton Borough at the moment.