Friday, 14 January 2011

Following York's Disturbing Example

The names on the bricks are still there, stretching down the Mold Road. Sadly, while fans cling to the notion that their club is part of the local community, and a fitting repository for family memories, the sad truth is that the current generation of club owners just don't see it that way.

We aren't the first set of fans to fear for the future, and we won't be the last by a long chalk.

There's been plenty of comment on how our position is similar to Mansfield's, as they suffer the consequences of renting their ground. Fair point, but to me the scenario which I fear we might stumble into is that which befell York City at the turn of the Millenium.

It was a tale explained with typical clarity by David Conn in his book "The Beautiful Game?" York's owner and chairman, Douglas Craig, had been in charge for twenty years, and although there were the usual gripes about the chairman not putting his hand in his pocket enough, and an inability to warm to him as a person (he was a rather uncommunicative, cold and autocratic character) there was no sense that he'd be someone to sell the club down the river. He had bought the club from a chairman who, in the great Football League tradition, hadn't run the club for himself, and he was thought to be cut from the same cloth.

However, he began to object to criticism from the fans. Clearly he was closely reading the internet forums and taking exception to what he saw, speaking of "the foul-mouthed few and the media-obsessed people, who also appear to have nothing else to do except play with the new toy called the internet".

In 1999 he transferred the ground to a holding company, for the long term good of the club, he claimed. Uniquely, his justification was that he wished to avoid FA Rule 34, still in existence, which says that if a club is liquidated its assets are passed to the FA, who will redistribute them to a local charity or sport. In reality, quite obviously, he'd opened up the possibility to liquidate the club but keep Bootham Crescent in his possession to sell for himself.

The accounts hardly offered much of a defence against the charge that Craig was running the club into the ground. Before the creation of the holding company, York had been run very carefully; the fans' frustration had been at a lack of extravagance on Craig's part. Suddenly, their wage bill rocketed. It reached 151% of the club's income; Deloitte & Touche described their situation as "one of the worst in the history of British football."

Next Craig announced he'd kick the club out of its ground, which he'd paid £165,000 for. If any new owner of the club wished to buy Bootham Crescent back it'd cost them £4.5 million! The four majot shareholders, Craig included, had paid less than £200,000 between them for their 94% stake in the club. Not bad business!

Members of York's supporters trust often met Craig to try and talk him round. They reported back on strange conversations: Craig clearly, somewhere deep inside, had a love of the club, and would talk wistfully of its past or discuss the prospects of a promising youngster. Yet he wouldn't budge from his plan and spoke of it as "payback time".

This is what scares me. I've plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest Geoff Moss has a long-standing commitment Wrexham Football Club, much from personal experience. I've always found him, when speaking to him, to be interested in the players, the ins and outs of its daily running, and particularly the success of the youth policy. He just doesn't fit the profile of someone looking to run us into the ground. Yet people hit tipping points, change their minds, decide the possibility of making money for the family outweighs other factors.

I really don't know what's going on at the Racecourse. I do know that recent developments are very hard to see in a positive light for the club.

Yes, York City are still with us, but have they recovered from the traumas Craig put them through? And can we, still wounded from the days of Hamilton and Guterman, expect to emerge unscathed if we go through another life-threatening experience?

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