FOOTBALL | ROD LIDDLE
july 21 2019, 12:01am, the sunday times
Bailing out Notts County makes no financial sense, but one can only hope
England’s oldest football league club, Notts County, are now just 11 days from ceasing to exist. A mountain of unpaid debts mean they face liquidation, 157 years after they were formed.
It is entirely possible that the 3-1 defeat by Swindon on the final day of last season, a campaign that saw them relegated to the National League for the first time, will be the last time their players kicked a ball in anger. Technically, it’s a tax bill of a mere £250,000 which is seeing them dragged before the High Court once again. But the problems are a lot more serious than that.
The players and staff of the club have not been paid since May — and so are entitled to walk out as free agents before the next season begins. It is quite possible that the club will not be able to field a team to fulfil their league fixtures, and so expulsion awaits. County’s — er — colourful owner, Alan Hardy, is up to his neck in debt. His company, Paragon Interiors, was plunged into administration earlier this year, owing at least £13.5m. Mr Hardy has been trying to sell the club — for in excess of £5m, which would be steepish for a lower-level Championship outfit, let alone a club in the National League. The new owners would, of course, cop all of Notts County’s debts on top of the extortionate asking price. At the end of June, Hardy assured fans and players alike that they had no need to worry, a prospective buyer was in place and all would be sorted out by July 10. Unsurprisingly, you might think, nothing at all was sorted out by July 11 and still nobody has been paid.
You may or may not remember Hardy’s previous claim to fame, which was to send out a tweet to fans of the club showing him with his old fella flapping about in the breeze (“an honest mistake”, he explained, somewhat red of face).
Hardy put the club up for sale in January and seemed to have found a suitable buyer quite quickly in a consortium led by a chap called Alex May. This foundered a little when it was discovered that Mr May previously went under the name Alick Kapikanya and had been sentenced to six years in prison for his role in a £3.5m mortgage scam. Kapikanya’s modus operandi was to steal the identities of elderly homeowners and consequently nick their houses before re-mortgaging them and then pocketing the dosh.
Even by the Football Association’s somewhat lax standards, it is hard to imagine Alex/Alick passing their fit and proper test. According to Hardy, there are new prospective buyers, but he won’t tell anyone who they are (it is whispered that they might be “Danish”). Frankly, anyone who would pay the sort of sum Hardy has been asking would fail to pass my “fit and proper” test, unless it was a “fit and proper” test to gain entry to the nearest booby hatch.
Lilian Greenwood, the MP for Nottingham South, has at least been doing what she can to find out what is going on at Meadow Lane. At prime minister’s questions she called for an investigation into Notts County’s affairs by the Football Association, the Football League and the National League. As a consequence she is meeting the FA in Westminster on Tuesday. But both supporters of the club and the Nottingham Post have been serially frustrated by the failure of any of the footballing authorities to take much of an interest in Notts County’s plight. The Post forwarded to the FA a secret dossier supplied by a club insider concerning Notts County’s financial issues. But having been told that the FA would look into it, nothing more has been forthcoming. It is heartening, mind, that Nottingham has both an MP who takes an interest and a local paper prepared to do a bit of digging and campaigning.
If Notts County go into liquidation, as seems highly likely at the moment, then the best fans can hope for is its resurrection as a “phoenix” club, perhaps owned largely by its supporter base. That would mean a change of name and relegation several divisions down to the Evo-Stik Premier League.
What is the cause of Notts County’s parlous state? The short answer is that they spent beyond their means. In the 2017-18 season, in particular, they were heavily fancied as favourites for promotion from Sky Bet League Two, the consequence of a large squad and generous individual salaries. As a gamble, this almost worked: they finished fifth in the division only to lose in the playoff semi-finals to Coventry City.
But almost was not good enough and it may prove to be the death of them. Added to which, of course, is that old truism — that the only people who would wish to own a lower-league club are the very people who should never be allowed to run any sort of business. I repeat, buying Notts County for five million, or even five grand, does not make much financial sense. It is a minor miracle that so many of these smaller clubs are still in existence.
Maybe Juventus can bail them out. They have an historic link, based on relative antiquities and similar strips. It would be cheering if someone did.
You've got to go there and come back, to know where you've been.