Notts County: The Long View

Vic Crescit is an Arsenal fanzine writer and blogger. Here he breaks down recent events at Meadow Lane, the home of the world’s oldest professional football club.

Notts County logo

Notts County might not be a name that sets the pulses of football fans around the world racing. It doesn’t even do that for most of the city of Nottingham, never mind the rest of planet football. In recent decades County has been comprehensively outshone by its near rivals just across the River Trent at Nottingham Forest.

Any football fan who has visited Nottingham will know that Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium is a VERY short walk from Nottingham Forest’s City Ground. They’re literally opposite each other on either bank of the River Trent in a “sports triangle” that includes Trent Bridge, home of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club and a regular venue for international cricket matches.  One of English football’s classic trivia quiz questions is, “What is the only major professional football ground in Nottingham?” The answer is Meadow Lane. The political boundary of Nottingham City Council runs along the middle of the River Trent. The City Ground isn’t in fact in the city of Nottingham. It’s in the neighbouring  Borough of Rushcliffe.

Notts County was established in 1862, a full 24 years before my beloved Arsenal first saw the light of day in 1886 as Dial Square FC, a team of munitions workers at the Dial Square Factory, part of the state owned Woolwich Arsenal armaments complex in south-east London. Notts County is even older than the Football Association, the world’s first national football governing body, which wasn’t formed until 1863. The club was also a founder member of the Football League, the world’s first professional football league in 1888. Arsenal didn’t join the League until five seasons later in 1893, having turned professional in 1891.

Despite its long history, County has never been a member of the football elite. It has never been in the Premier League formed by a breakaway of the top clubs from the Football League in 1993, although it has had spells its immediate predecessor, Football League Division One, including a three season spell from 1981-84. This appearance in the limelight immediately followed the high water mark of local rivals Forest who, having won promotion from the old Football League Division Two in 1977 had an amazing assent to the summit of the game, becoming champions of England and Wales in 1978 and going on to win back to back European Champion Clubs’ Cups (the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League) against Malmö FF of Sweden in Munich in 1979 and Hamburger SV of West Germany in Madrid in 1980.

Forest subsequently fell upon hard times and were relegated as low as Football League One (the third tier) 2005. They’re now challenging for promotion to the top flight Premier League from the Football League Championship once again, although sill a pale shadow of their 1970s/1980s selves under the great Brian Clough.

County on the other hand haven’t won one of the game’s top prizes since their last FA Cup win in, er, 1894. Their most recent silverware was the old Football League Division Four (now Football League Two) winners’ trophy in 1998.

Meadow Lane

Meadow Lane

The recent history of Notts County off the field has also been pretty desperate. Overspending on player transfers and salaries,  along the costs of redeveloping Meadow Lane,  antiquated and unsafe,  into something more closely resembling a modern professional sports arena led the club to bump along the bottom financially for a couple of decades, keeping its financial head barely above a sea of red ink.

Finally in 2006, the Notts County Supporters’ Trust, formed in 2003, took control of a sixty percent majority stake in the club. It was always going to be a very rocky road for the fans. The debts were large and pressing. The playing side of the club was, to say the least, not promising. Just keeping the wolf from the door financially with no big money-bags backer for three seasons was a major achievement for the Trust.

Results on the field at least didn’t get any worse when the Trust took over. County finished thirteenth in Football League Two in 2006/7, then slipping back to relegation flirtation, finishing twenty-first in 2007/8 (six points above the drop to the fifth-tier Football Conference) and nineteenth in 2008/9, ten points above the drop. This might not seem much of an achievement but given they’d finished only four points above relegation in twenty-first in 2005/6 it was at least no worse on the field than previously and progress was being made in digging the club out of the financial hole into which its previous owners had dug it.

The first rule in dealing with any crisis is when you’re in a hole, stop digging. The Trust did that at Meadow Lane. There will always be siren voices calling for a sugar daddy to make life sweat again though. Cue the entrance of Munto Finance, fronting for a group of allegedly money-bags Middle Eastern investors with offers to take Notts County to new and dizzy heights of fame and fortune. A group of foreign owners appeared to want to carpet-bomb Meadow Lane with ready cash.

Here’s a quote from the brief history of Notts County from the club’s official website:

On 14 July 2009, Notts County moved into a new and exciting era after the Munto Finance, following successful due diligence, completed the acquisition of the Football Club. The previous month Supporters’ Trust members voted overwhelmingly to gift their shares to Munto to take the club forwards. Peter Trembling became executive chairman with immediate effect following the takeover. Less than two weeks later, Munto signalled their intent with the appointment of former England and Mexico Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as the Director of Football at Meadow Lane.

As the Magpies moved into 2010 a lack of funds from Munto Finance led to the management buy-out of the club by Trembling. His search for new investors came to an end when Ray Trew agreed to purchase the club for £1, taking up the majority shareholding and full control. Trembling, along with CEO Gary Townsend and Eriksson stepped down from their positions.

Sven Goran-Erikkson

As these things tend to be, the statements above are anodyne in the extreme. They conceal an absolute tragedy. It quickly appeared that majority sentiment amongst Notts County Supporters’ Trust members was in favour of taking the money. Passions ran high on both sides of the debate with allegations of lack of accountability, secrecy and underhand tactics filling cyberspace. The argument for mutual fan ownership appeared lost. The majority of Trust members did indeed vote to give the Trust’s majority shareholding away free, gratis and for nothing to the new owners.

Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson was installed as director of football. His previous gigs included stellar periods as coach of  Sweden’s IFK Gothenburg, Benfica of Portugal, Fiorentina of Florence, both Rome clubs AS Roma and Lazio (with whom he won the very last edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, after which national knock-out cup winners entered the UEFA Cup, known from this current season as the Europa League, and, most famously Lazio’s second ever Serie A title). Less successfully Eriksson had spells in charge of the England national team -  where his bedroom antics received as much attention as his work on the field – and the Mexico national team, becoming the first-ever non-Hispanic to take charge of los tricolores.

What the hell is going on here, wonders Sol?

Former England, Spurs, Arsenal and Portsmouth central defender Sol Campbell was also signed in a blaze of publicity, along with Manchester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of former Hvidovre, Brøndby IF, Manchester United, Sporting Lisbon, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Denmark goalie Peter Schmeichel. Although Schmeichel the younger was on Manchester City’s books he only played eight times in the League for them, playing most of his football on loan at Darlington, Bury,  Falkirk up in Scotland, Cardiff City and Coventry City. That didn’t stop County splashing out for a hugely lucrative contract for the 23 year old, despite having never established himself at the top level.

Likewise Campbell was showered with £50 notes, or at least the contractual promise of them. Money was splashed in every direction for almost an entire team of new signings. The cracks in the superficially shiny new edifice began to show very early on however. Sol Campbell played one competative game for his new club, a loss away to Morecambe up on the Lancashire coast before deciding to “have it away on his dancers” as they say in London. He proved to be very astute. It wouldn’t be too much longer before it became apparent that the promised millions were just that – promises – empty  ones.

Fast forward a few months and it’s a sad, sorry tale of broken promises, unpaid bills and a fire-sale of the club, now saddled with debts of around £6 million. Eriksson has de-camped. Sol Campbell is now back on a short-term contract at Arsenal. New owner and chairman Ray Trew is left trying to right the listing ship. He’s just avoided a winding up order sought by the tax authorities for unpaid taxes of £324,000 (US$502,000). He’s threatening to sue Munto Finance if he can find them. Good luck with that. Nobody else has managed to contact them.

The only people to emerge with credit from this sad tale are those sensible voices in the Notts County Supporters’ Trust who argued that to give away the club with no guarantees or conditions was foolish; and Guardian journalist Matt Scott who stuck to the story of farce and tragedy at Meadow Lane like a dog with a bone. He was denounced for conducting a “vendetta” against the club for his troubles. He was proved to be absolutely spot on in pointing out that the new emperor had not a stitch of clothing.

It’s easy to understand why Notts County fans could be persuaded to vote for a bright, shiny new future after so many years of bumping along the bottom. Their experience should be instructive to supporters of other clubs who find themselves in the same position in the future. Not that that will be much comfort to the Meadow Lane faithful. I have absolutely no doubt that if the club had remained in the hands of the Notts County Supporters’ Trust it would be making slow, gradual progress towards a better, more stable and sustainable future for the club and its supporters.

The Trust accepted the challenge of a leg-breaking “hospital pass” when it took on the responsibility for the club’s debts after it took over in 2006. Keeping the club stable on the field in terms of results whilst addressing the big financial mess off it might not have been sexy but it was real – unlike the promised phantom millions of the chancers who made so many promises they didn’t have close to the necessary cash to keep.

The real culprits for me though are the football authorities. The Football Association and the Football League were asleep at the wheel – again. As were the Premier League and the FA in the case of Portsmouth. As are the Football Association of Wales and the Football League in the case of Cardiff City. As are the FA and the Football League in the case of Southend United.  As are the FA,  the Football League and the Football Conference in the case of Chester City. Chester was a financial and management basket case before the season even began; owned by a man banned by the British government from being a company director for a record ELEVEN years for a major tax fraud. The Conference didn’t want to accept the club, relegated from Football League Two at the end of last season. The Football League threatened to remove one of two promotion places for Conference teams if it didn’t. The Conference bent if not broke its rules to allow Chester City in.

The chances of them finishing the season were always slim. They’ve now been kicked out the Conference. Football in Britain simply has to stop hoping it’ll be alright on the night. New, robust rules, properly enforced need to be introduced as soon as possible consistent with getting it right and not introducing too many loopholes for lawyers to exploit.

The game is too important to too many people to leave things as they are. Just ask the supporters of Notts County if better rules adequately enforced on who can own clubs and what they have to prove BEFORE they’re allowed to take over are needed. Just ask how many members of the Notts County Supporters’ Trust who voted in favour of giving the club away to new owners think they voted the right way now.

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