York City’s Tense End of Season
With the end of the season fast approaching, one might think that a football club with half a chance of promotion could do without the distraction of being put up for sale. At a time of the year when all focus might be expected to be placed upon what’s happening on the pitch, instability of any sort behind the scenes within a club seems considerably more likely to have a destabilising effect than anything else, and we all know the extent to which the margins between success and failure can be extremely narrow indeed.
Considering the last few seasons that York City have had, though, even being in the play-off positions in the National League North might be considered something of an achievement. The two seasons prior to this one saw the club tumble from the Football League and then straight through the National League, and any arrestment of a decline following two successive relegations might be considered progress, of sorts. At the time of writing, York sit in fifth place in the National League. Twenty points adrift of leaders Salford City with seven matches left to play, the division’s sole automatic promotion place is already beyond them, and the good news that they’re separated from the dreaded dotted line by four points is a little undermined by the National League’s decision to extend their divisional play-offs to six clubs from the more conventional four.
As ever, though, events on the pitch have been overshadowed by those taking place in the boardroom. Jason McGill owns 75% of the share-holding in the club, and earlier this year he issued a fairly stark ultimatum to the York City Supporters Trust, which owns the other 25% of shares: give them to me, or I will stop funding the club. The Trust had little option but to put this to a vote of its membership, and the period between the ultimatum and the vote turned out to be a difficult and rancorous one. Membership numbers, as a result of the shares issue, increased by 36% from the end of January, rising from 666 to 910, with a special general meeting ballot on called for the twenty-second of March.
So it was that the vote was held last Thursday, and McGill didn’t get the result that he wanted. With the vote having already been framed as something of a referendum on his chairmanship of the club, 68% of those who voted – admittedly against a rather low turnout of 42% – to not hand over these shares to him, and the consequence of this was almost immediate. Huffing and puffing that “I consider there is no alternative other than to offer the interests of JM Packaging Limited in the football club for sale to someone who is able to reconcile the trust’s objective of operating on a break-even financial position, while providing both the finances and aspiration necessary for any sporting entity to be successful”, the club was immediately put up for sale, with interested buyers being instructed to contact his accountants with any queries or offers.
The timing of the deadline for offers is certainly curious. It has been set as the thirtieth of April, two days before the last match of the regular National League North Season, when their season ends with a trip to Brackley Town, who currently sit in third place in the table and are already practically assured of their play-off place and may well have a chance of lifting the league title (they are currently nine points behind Salford City with three games in hand) and may have one eye on their trip to Wembley for the FA Trophy final. There may be a lot resting on this match, but will York City supporters be celebrating new owners coming into the club, or will there be angst floating around because a buyer hasn’t yet been found?
In the event that no sale has been agreed by this time, that angst might be well-founded. York City made a loss on the 2015/16 financial year (the last for which such figures are available) of £700,000, and it feels unlikely that they will have improved very much since then, considering that a further relegation followed for the club at the end of the 2016/17 season. The club has retained its full-time status through its two successive relegations, but it seems unlikely this state of affairs would be able to continue for too much longer in the event that McGill’s funding is pulled.
The relationship between McGill and the Trust goes back a decade and a half to the fallout from York’s disastrous spell under the ownership of John Batchelor, whose twelve months in charge of the club has come to cast a shadow over almost everything that has happened to the club since then. Initially, the Trust owned an 85% shareholding in the club with McGill owning 15%, but this situation changed in 2006 when the Trust’s membership voted to change to the current structure in return for JM Packaging providing £1m of funding, which was intended to carry the club through to the opening of the club’s new Community Stadium, which was scheduled to open in 2011 but has been plagued with delay after delay. Its current completion date is June 2019, with construction work having finally started last December.
McGill didn’t only put the club up for sale this week, though. He also resigned his position as chairman of the club and put in place a new board of directors, consisting of Ian McAndrew as Stadium Development Director, Dave Penney as Sporting Director, Richard Adams as Marketing and Communications Director, and Steven Kilmartin as Managing Director. This brings to a close one of the stranger circumstances surrounding the club of its last couple of years. As readers with long-ish memories may recall, Jackie McNamara was appointed as manager of the club in November 2015 and was the manager responsible for the club losing its place in the Football League. After his dismissal as manager in October 2016, however, he was, unusually, retained as caretaker-manager until a replacement was found, and when one was appointed he assumed the position of club Chief Executive. He remained in this position until this week, despite the fact that his job description was never described in any greater detail than being “responsible for the day-to-day running of the club.”
It has already been reported that there are two parties interested in buying the club, and it is to be hoped that, come the end of April, the future of the club is starting to look more secure. Promotion back to the National League is far from a done deal. The National League North is a very competitive division, and two of the other six clubs currently in the play-off places, Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County, are also former Football League clubs with ambitions of returning to their previous statuses. A change of ownership and complete financial restructuring is now a necessity for a club that needs to be weaned from the teat of the man who has been funding it for the last few years, and the best way for York to minimise the pain of this would be to get promotion back to the National League. This much is obvious, a sharp contrast to much else of what has been going on at Bootham Crescent for a very long time indeed.