The Summer of Discontent, Part 5: Notts In Distress
There’s some way yet to go, but after not having lost a founder member since 1896 there’s every chance that the Football League could still lose two in the foreseeable future. The travails of Bolton Wanderers are a subject we’ve covered recently here, but along with Bury (Football League members since 1894), Notts County are also deeply imperilled, with a winding up order due to be heard next week at the High Court and the club having already been up for sale since January with no takers, so far. The speed with which it feels as though Notts County have been forgotten has been frightening. The club only lost its Football League status at the very end of last season, but there doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of attention paid to the state of the club in the national press of late. The hardest questions have been asked by the Nottingham Post, which dedicated its front page last Saturday to the absolute silence that had been coming from the club in the face of this desperate situation.
The story is as familiar of those at The University of Bolton Stadium and Gigg Lane. Notts face the fourth hearing of a winding up order brought against the club by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill of £800,000, which was last adjourned to the 31st July. The case has already been adjourned three times because it has been claimed that the sale of the club is imminent. At the last hearing, held on the 10th July, a three-week adjournment had been agreed because owner Alan Hardy stated that he “will be exchanging contracts with the new owners in the coming days.” On the 1st of July, Hardy was “extremely confident” that the sale would be completed by the 10th of July. This week, it was supposed to be completed by today.
Hardy’s previous statement was better than nothing, but not by much. It did at least confirm that somebody is still at Meadow Lane and that the windows haven’t already been bricked up in anticipation of it becoming Nottingham’s least lucrative car park for a while. The identity of the new owners, however, still hasn’t been officially confirmed. There had been two groups reportedly interested in the club, one Danish and one South African, but it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the South African group had dropped out of the running. They reported that they had already been told that Hardy had already agreed to sell to the Danish group, but their bid ultimately stumbled when the front man of their group, Terry Pritchard, was taken seriously ill at the start of June.
The Danish consortium is believed to be partly made up of people Football Radar, a company which provides statistics to betting companies. It is unlikely that a company of their size could support the investment required to make Notts County sane again and the identity of the individual(s) holding the purse-strings remains, for now, a mystery, though it is understood that talks have been held with the National League. In a summer when gambling has more or less completed its annexation of the game, it’s probably appropriate that a gambling-related club should be buying a football club. The problem, however, is that nobody really knows. What wacky plans might they have in store for the Oldest Professional Football Club In The World? Do they fully understand that Notts County have been a financial basketcase for longer than most people can remember? Do they fancy themselves as… “disruptors”?
For people coming in with no experience of running a football club, making a go of Notts County is a tall order, and has proved to be beyond considerably more battle-scarred veterans (so far as we can ascertain) than this consortium. For all we know, they’ll have a completely refreshing approach which will respect the club’s history and heritage. They may already have experienced faces who can steer the choppy waters that Notts face in the National League next season on board. But the waters lapping around Meadow Lane are certainly choppy at the moment. Notts County are under a transfer embargo, and the club’s kit was last week still in a warehouse because the club doesn’t have the money to release it. The players haven’t been paid for the end of last month yet. A failure to complete the takeover and get HMRC paid in full by the 31st July would most likely result in the club being forced into administration at the last minute.
The manager remains Neal Ardley, and it really is impossible to say whether he’s done a terrible job there or not because the club has been so unstable over the last couple of years or so. And the National League is competitive. Notts County shouldn’t approach it from the point of view that returning to the EFL will be swift and painless. Regardless of the club’s currently desperate position, others with fewer financial worries than Notts have right now have tricked themselves into thinking that “non-league” means “roped-off park pitch and being watched by one man and a dog.” Not at the top of the National League it doesn’t, and going into the start of the season with a transfer embargo in place when even last season’s team needs strengthening leaves Ardley with one arm tied behind his back, and that’s without considering the possibility of a hefty points deduction, should the club be forced into administration before the end of the month.
Late this morning came the announcement that most had been trying to convince themselves wasn’t coming but was always likely. There will be no takeover confirmed today. After three adjournments at the High Court, after a statement made at the start of this week claiming that Alan Hardy was already clearing his desk… it’s been delayed yet again. In keeping with the lack of transparency evident since Hardy first claim there to be buyers waiting in the wings, there is no confirmation of why this should be, and yet again supporters are left wondering whether their club will be able to survive through to the start of this season. The answer to this question is probably yes, they will. The last resort of administration exists right up until the next court hearing on the 31st July, and this would at least afford the club protection against immediate liquidation.
Were that to happen, though, what would happen next? The club’s accounts for the year to 2018 haven’t been published to Companies House and are now four months overdue. The last available set showed the company as almost £6.3m in debt, but these don’t include either of the last two seasons, and it’s likely that the club’s losses were even heavier than they had been under former owner Ray Trew. The ultimate facts remain simple. Notts County need to stop spending more money than they’re bringing in, and they need to spend the money that they do bring in more wisely. None of this, however, answers the question of how they get out of this situation. For all we know, the Danish consortium may yet come good and rescue the club before next Wednesday’s deadline. What we know for certain, however, is that they haven’t done this yet and that the clock is ticking inexorably down towards that all-important next court date.
This is, of course, extremely familiar territory for a club that could be considered “repeat offenders” in terms of their financial dealings over the years. And Notts County have tried the lot. They’ve had supporters trust ownership, traditional patrician owners and businessmen who promised that their acumen could turn the club around, and they’ve all failed. That Notts County were allowed to fall out of the EFL in the first place is a scandal that really hasn’t been covered in the detail it deserves by the media. Now a non-league club for the first time in 131 years, Notts County are starting life in the National League under the worst possible circumstances, and after their repeated near misses in the past it’s entirely realistic to believe that the club’s luck in avoiding the worst has to run out at some point. Whether that happens to be this summer or not isn’t a question that we can answer at present, but the fact that all that anyone has heard from Alan Hardy this summer has been hot air, so perhaps supporters are best advised to simply ignore anything further that he says. After all, with three High Court adjournments behind him and still nothing concrete about the club’s new ownership, how much is a promise from Alan Hardy actually worth, these days?