Chesterfield: The Crooked Spireites

by | Jul 20, 2016

For the great many football clubs that don’t dine at the game’s top table, the question of fundraising is perpetual. How does a club attempt to bridge the gap between it and those above it when trickle-down economics have failed and the gap between the richest and the rest takes a further leap with each new television contract? Sponsorship deals can only go so far, and many lower division clubs already have not only the fronts of their shirts emblazoned with company names, but increasingly also the backs and, in some cases, their shorts as well. Grounds have also taken on sponsors’ names, from the blue chip Emirates Stadium to the altogether more down to earth Wham Stadium, and there seldom seems to be any fixture or fitting within a football club that can’t have somebody’s name attached to it in order to maximise revenue streams.

Sometimes, though, a little ingenuity is required in order to pay for the your club’s summer acquisitions, and it is entirely plausible that precisely such thoughts were going through the mind of Kevin Fitzgerald, the (now former) head of commercial and marketing at Chesterfield Football Club, when the club announced a raffle to raise money for the club earlier this summer. The first team squad was going to a pre-season training camp in Hungary, and for one lucky supporter there would be a unique opportunity to travel with the team. The ticket prices were set a little high at twenty pounds, but this, the Fitzgerald most likely considered, was a once in a lifetime chance to meet, spend time with, and possibly even bond with the players. Who wouldn’t pay twenty pounds for a chance at such a prize?

So, the tickets went on sale and, after a few weeks of high excitement* a winner was announced – James Higgins, from Surrey. It’s not unusual for football clubs to have supporters who live a long way away nowadays. Such is the fluid nature of the way that we live our lives these days. His odds on winning the competition had been high – the club had only sold four tickets, after all – but his luck was soon to run out, and on the eve of the tournament the club issued a press statement confirming that he was ill, and that he would not be able to travel to Hungary with the team:

Spare a thought for Surrey-based Spireite James Higgins, who won the raffle for a couple of places on the club’s pre-season training camp in Hungary.

James was due to fly out with the party last weekend, but illness prevented him from travelling. It was hoped that he and a friend would be able to travel a few days later in time to watch Wednesday’s practice match against Limassol, but he failed to recover in time.

James, who is naturally very disappointed to have missed out on the trip, will be invited to a game during the forthcoming season as a guest of the club and be treated to hospitality.

As a gesture of goodwill, all those who entered the raffle are entitled to a refund. Please contact the club to make the necessary arrangements.

If this wasn’t bad enough, James’ luck was about to get even worse, when it became apparent that not only had he had the misfortune to fall ill at the exact time of the trip, but that in fact he didn’t actually even exist. It was a supporter of the club who pointed this out to the club, after considerable digging work on the part of supporters failed to turn up any evidence of a Surrey-based Chesterfield supporter by the name of James Higgins anywhere, and it was left to club secretary Ashley Carson to issue a somewhat red-faced press release:

After a thorough internal investigation, I can now confirm the person responsible for this total farce has now left the football club.

I am still reeling from the shameful incident that has attracted nationwide headlines for the club for all the wrong reasons. Kevin Fitzgerald has been a hard-working, respected, likeable employee who has, for some reason, made a massive error of judgment and has paid the consequences for his actions. The board were unaware of his actions and have taken swift action after uncovering the truth.

I do hope we can look for a replacement to head our commercial department, move forward and pick up the pieces from the whole sorry mess.

This wasn’t, of course, the first time that Chesterfield FC has found itself in the media spotlight this season. Legal reasons mean that it would be improper of us to comment on the decision to specifics of a great deal relating to the club’s decision to sign a certain Ched Evans on a one year contract during the summer, but what we can say is that the club can expect considerable press interest when Evans makes his league debut for the club, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to question – even if only from a purely practical viewpoint – the decision to sign a player on a one year contract when said player hasn’t played a competitive game in four years and who has a retrial over the rape case, his conviction for which was referred to the Court of Appeal following a ten month long investigation by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, due to start in October.

It’s possible that the signature of Evans was a way of diverting attention away from a matter relating to the club that has been dragging on for some months, now. In January, the Daily Express reported that the Player Progression Pathway (PPP), a youth development wing and associate of the club, had not refunded payment to a family, as promised, for a trip to France for a young player that was cancelled. In April the Derbyshire Times followed this story up by reporting that the PPP’s annual accounts showed it to be £77,000 in debt, with supporters concerned that the football club was having to financially prop it up. This led to football club chief executive Chris Turner issuing a public statement on the matter in May, which seemed to wish to distance the club a little from whatever may or may not be going on with the PPP:

I felt it was necessary to respond to the speculation regarding the two organisations that are associated with our club in order to set the record straight. As stated previously, it is important to note that both organisations are separate legal entities. They are self-funded with no financial connection to the club.

All of this apparent distancing was in spite of the fact that the PPP’s Twitter account carries the club’s badge. The PPP website, meanwhile, has not been updated since a week before Turner’s public statement, and there has been no activity from it on Twitter since the fifth of June. This may be at least partly attributable to the summer months, but for those that have read previous the previous stories linked above, such silence might not necessarily seem particularly golden. There is considerable talk of protests against Turner come the start of the new season amongst Chesterfield supporters, with some even talking of boycotting the club.

Meanwhile,the bad PR for the club continued earlier this week with a splash story in the Daily Mail which showed Evans, who one might have assumed would, by now, have come to understand the need to be seen as a model professional footballer in public, drinking and huffing on a shisha pipe in club colours whilst away in Budapest. James Higgins, of course, was nowhere to be seen. This story may well be something of nothing, an almost old-fashioned moral outrage piece about footballers that was far more commonplace ten or fifteen years ago than they seem to be now, but it also likely serves as a precursor to the sort of media attention that the club can expect to see over the next couple of months or so. But this is something of which the club must have been aware of when they signed him in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like it’s something that the club can complain about that much. They’ve paid their money and taken their choice.

Last season, Chesterfield finished their League One season in eighteenth place in the table, seven points above the division’s relegation places. Such a final league position might hint at a difficult job ahead for the following season, and it doesn’t feel as though the club has done a great deal to allay the concerns of supporters who may consider themselves – as the bookmakers seem to consider the club at present – to be staring down the barrel of a long, attritional autumn, winter and spring trying to fight off relegation to League Two. James Higgins may spend quite a lot of time cursing that his non-existence prevents him from travelling up to Derbyshire from Surrey every other weekend for the next ten months. On the other hand, though, he might well be forgiven for taking a few weekends off this season, if the summer break is any indicator of how the coming season is going to go for this particular football club.

You can support Twohundredpercent through Patreon by clicking here