Summer of Discontent, Part Three: Bolton Wanderers – Strangled To Death Before Our Very Eyes
The first sign of the scale of the task ahead of the administrators at Bolton Wanderers came shortly after confirmation that the club had finally been placed there, when it was confirmed by the administrators that a team of ten people would be sifting through the club’s accounts in an attempt to make some sense of the latest mess in which it had come to find itself. If they’d known then what they know now, they might have had second thoughts about getting involved in a football club that has become a byword for the absurdly speculative wild west boom and bust culture that the clubs of the Football League have so heartily embraced over the years.
They had plenty on their plates, for sure, not least Laurence Bassini, whose protracted and comically incompetent attempts to curry favour around the club by making lavish promises that he almost immediately didn’t come good on, and his extremely public announcements that, despite the fact that practically nobody wanted to see him hanging around The University of Bolton Stadium, he would be submitting a bid to buy the club from administration. These vampires simply don’t know when to quit, even when the sun is starting to rise behind them.
Desperate times bring out the best and worst in people. While Bassini was performing his pantomime white knight act for the cameras, others were doing what they could to help the club’s staff, who were struggling without pay on account of their employers’ rank incompetence, with Preston North End chipping in with £2,000 worth of food vouchers for them. There is a certain irony about the fact that, in a time of genuine crisis, those in need have been treated considerably more kindly by one of the club’s local rivals than they had previously been by those who’d been running the club or claiming that they would rescue it over the previous couple of years.
That, however, is the nature of administration, when it comes to football clubs. First comes the sigh of relief at the fact that the club’s immediate extinction has been spared, and this may even be coupled happiness that a previously unwanted owner has finally been shunted out in favour of grown-ups who might be able to find their club new owners and a happier future. The realities of administration, however, are far from pretty. Cost-cutting in order to keep an insolvent business trading have to be savage, and if a very quick sale can’t be agreed it doesn’t take long for familiar existential woes to start raising their heads. What if the administrators can’t find a new buyer? What further cost might have to be cut in order to keep the club’s head above water?
The administrators placed a £25m price on a debt-free club, and the administrators stipulated a £25,000 fee to look at the books, refundable to the winning bidders only and with a non-disclosure agreement in place too, a measure presumably put in place to deter tyre-kickers and ghouls from wasting their time. It was suggested that there had been four of five expressions of interest in the club, though it was also later reported that only one paid the £25,000. By the end of the first week in June, the administrators were able to confirm that they had received six bids that were under consideration, which was quickly whittled down after one dropped out.
Bassini hadn’t gone away, of course, and at the start of June he was back in his favourite place, mouthing off in front of a microphone about his spurious deal to take control of the club prior to the arrival of the administrators and claiming that he would be launching a legal challenge against their appointment. “I am trying to save the club,” he said. “I am very worried that if I don’t do something now that it could go into liquidation. The club is in a vulnerable position.” Quite why he should be so “worried” about a club with which he’d had no prior involvement was a mystery. Most observers could smell a distinct scent coming from his latest outburst, but it was confirmed that he was one of the bidders who’d made it through to the final five.
The winning bidders were Football Ventures (Whites) Ltd., a consortium set up earlier this year which was reported as having been close to a deal earlier in the year before shying away after establishing that there were “hidden debts” in the company’s accounts at that time. There was even some reason for supporters to be optimistic. When the announcement was made, joint-administrator Paul Appleton confirmed that the owners-in-waiting had already put £1m into the club to fund squad rebuilding and running costs. Football Ventures was confirmed as a gang off four: businesswoman Sharon Brittan, Cheshire businessman Parminder Basran, London-based Jeff Thomas and lifelong Bolton fan, Michael James. Furthermore, it was confirmed that Football Ventures had already passed the Football League’s Owners & Directors Test. The club, meanwhile, confirmed that they retained fourteen registered players – nowhere near enough, but something for the new owners to build on.
Then silence for two and a half weeks, before they were confirmed as preferred bidders on the 1st July, although Basran, who’d been front and centre in the consortium’s previous bid to buy the club, had dropped out by the time it was confirmed. The next day, Bassini announced that he would be seeking an legal action, claiming that he had made “by miles” the biggest bid for the club, claiming that he had a letter confirming financial backing from the West Ham United Vice (no pun intended) Chairman David Sullivan.
Meanwhile, the new owners confirmed that they would be retaining the services of manager Phil Parkinson, who already had an uphill battle on his hands, with the club evidently continuing to ship players and a twelve point deduction for the start of the new season for having had the temerity to enter into administration in the first place. They also confirmed that their “football advisor” would be Keith Cousins, a name that will be familiar to long-term readers over his involvement in the absolute and utter shambles that the Nene Park fiasco become – total casualties, one club liquidated and one club homeless – and will, therefore, raise an eyebrow or two.
The following week, the Bolton News released a document – by the sound of it, a copy of the CVA proposal – detailed the club’s creditors. No fewer than 294 different secured and non-secured creditors were listed, with the club’s debt coming in at £25m. The document also confirmed that the CVA was likely to offer a 35p in the pound dividend to non-secured creditors, which sounds low at first glance but is actually quite a substantial offer for a CVA from a football club. When administration was more commonplace than it has been over the last two or three years, offers of less than 10p in the pound were far from uncommon.
Last week, though, alarm bells started to sound with the news on Wednesday that Football Ventures had reportedly been in contact with the PFA over the matter of a loan for players wages. Funding through administration can be an issue for any business in that position, but it had been presumed that Football Ventures would have the capital to be able to do this. After all, who else was ever going to? The administrators should make this a part of their standard procedure. That Football Ventures should be going to the PFA for a loan was extremely troubling. What if their bid foundered and they ended up going into liquidation themselves?
If there was confusion over the reason for the loan, that became apparent early in afternoon when it was confirmed that this Saturday’s pre-season friendly match at Chester was cancelled, because the players were to play, citing the pay problems and lack of communication from the club. A full statement was released to the Bolton News, in which the players stated that they had not been paid by the club since March, and that there had been a lack of assistance from the club for players who were having difficulties. A bullish reply from Appleton stated that, As football creditors, Phil, his staff and the players will get paid in full once the deal has been completed.” and that, “This is in contrast to other creditors, who will receive nothing approaching that level of compensation.” At the end of his statement was confirmation for the reason behind the delay:
One outstanding element of the deal, which is not under my control, is the sale of Whites Hotel. Football Ventures’ ownership model, one supported by the EFL, is based on a deal for both the club and hotel, so I would encourage all parties involved to act swiftly to ensure the pressing timeframe for completion is met. I would implore everybody to drive through this deal and ensure this great football club is restored to its rightful position.
White’s Hotel was all under the same ownership as the club but was put into administration separately. Just a couple of days earlier, however, the administrators for White’s, Quantuma, had stated that they’d had no communication with Football Ventures to that point and very little communication with Appleton himself. There are many possibilities for what on earth could be going on at this stage, but there seems to be some issue with Football Ventures and the sale of White’s Hotel, and with this being fundamental to the funding model for the football club… this felt like more than just another roadblock.
It also raised the question of how, considering that the success of the hotel is dependent on the football club and the funding of administration for the football club is dependent upon the hotel sale, they were now seemed so detached from each other by this point in time. After all, when the documents were prepared over the course of the summer, they showed that the club owed the hotel £800,000, whilst the hotel owed the club £1.2m. Few seemed interested in asking how this could possibly come to be.
The following day, though, it was reported that Football Ventures wouldn’t be getting a loan from the PFA any more after all, but that they were still pressing ahead with the bid. The latest name to be mentioned in connection with the club is the former Nottingham Forest owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi (fresh from settling with Nottingham Forest over unpaid debts, though the club has already confirmed its intention to appeal), at which point one can only ask, “If Fawaz Al-Hasawi is the answer, then what on earth was the original question?” A second pre-season friendly, which had been scheduled for Tuesday night against Preston North End, has now all been postponed. That fourteen players reported just a few weeks ago has already been whittled down to seven.
But it’s always the same at this desperate point. The tyre-kickers and the fantasists, the wilder and wilder promises, the vultures starting to circle. How any semblance of normality can ever return to this club is, at this stage, utterly beyond me. And to be clear, there is no single person that can be held responsible for what has happened to Bolton Wanderers, that it has come to this. It’s easy to pick off individual targets, but the fact of the matter is that it has taken a considerable number of people a considerable amount of time to reduce Bolton Wanderers Football Club to this.
Some individuals doubtlessly are more to blame than others, but this is clearly and evidently an institutional failures. The Football League, the regulators, have shrugged their shoulders, apparently incapable of anything bar inertia as one of their original twelve founding members is strangled to death before their very eyes and approving a financial package which included the revenue from the purchase of a hotel which still hasn’t even been completed yet. Fans long ago gave up on any chance of the Football League stepping in and intervening in this wretched saga in a meaningful sense. They’ve lived thoroughly down to expectations in their lack of leadership.
Somewhere between the prospective new owners of the club, the administrators of the hotel, and the administrator of the football club sits what at best is a near-negligent rupture of communications between two organisations who are acting as though they barely know each other when in fact that are inextricably linked from top to bottom. The administrator of the club doesn’t seem to have done much about the sale of the hotel apart from occasionally bark, “Someone needs to buy the hotel!” Football Ventures haven’t bought the hotel. The likelihood is that they don’t have the money. The manager can’t manage because he hasn’t got any players left to manage. The people hanging around like hungry vultures have been of the calibre of Fawal Al-Hasawi and Laurence Bassini. And no-one, but no-one, seems interested in telling the truth of what actually might be going on concerning this takeover at the moment.
This, however, now runs the risk of becoming about considerably more than the financial incontinence of Bolton Wanderers and the clown car of a cast that has been somersaulting around the orbit of the club of late. With just two weeks to go before the start of the league season, other clubs need assurances that playing Bolton Wanderers isn’t going to be a complete waste of time and resources when Bolton are liquidated and their results for the season are expunged. And who in their right mind could give a complete assurance that they will complete them coming season? After all, they didn’t complete them last time around, after their players refused to play their final league match of last season against Brentford and the club were unable to get a security permit for the proposed rearranged fixture. How much confidence, exactly, does the Football League have right now that Bolton Wanderers are going to be able to even start the new season, never mind finish it? Because if they can’t answer that question clearly and concisely, everything else feels somewhat academic.