The decision to expel Chester City from the Football Conference comes amid a backdrop that is both tragic and unique. The dire financial straits the club finds itself in were documented in Tuesday’s article and A Different League continues its coverage of the crisis club with a look at what is to follow in this desperate saga.
The days that have followed have seen something previously unwitnessed in British football. Chester’s own supporters have sent a petition to fans of other Conference sides, urging the other clubs in non-league’s top tier to expel them. Seeing their best hope as the chance to rise again as a phoenix club, they felt threatened by the Danish group who intended to purchase the club via an online share issue not dissimilar to the way in which Ebbsfleet United were taken over in 2008. Another bizarre spectacle was Steven Vaughan Snr, who has no official capacity at the club since being disqualified as a director, labelling his club’s supporters as “idiots” on Sky Sports News during the week. If turning the football community against CFU was his aim, then it backfired spectacularly. The motion to expel Chester was passed with the 75% majority required, meaning no more than five clubs could have opposed it. Strangely, nobody from Chester attended the meeting. The next important date is March 10, which sees a winding-up order issued by HM Revenue and Customs for the sum of £26 125 in unpaid taxation. With the club now existing in name only, with no revenue streams via gate receipts or television monies, it is hard to see how the court will come to any other conclusion than to declare Chester City 2004 bankrupt. Anyone with a basic grasp of accountancy will know that a company that has zero assets, not even a licence to play in a registered league, zero guaranteed income and multiple liabilities, cannot be considered a going concern. That the situation has worsened since the adjournment of January 27 only adds to the expectation that common sense should prevail.
The courts claim to disregard the ‘emotional’ argument. But experience suggests that where football clubs are part of the economic and social fabric of a region then the element of leeway is much greater than that applied to a corner shop. Even Portsmouth fans have acknowledged that an everyday business with their financial track record would have been wound up several months ago. The crucial difference here is that no such emotional tie exists between the majority of Chester supporters and the current incarnation of the football club. City Fans United actually wish for CCFC 2004 to be wound up so they can press on with their plans to restart with a clean sheet and the chance to build something that belongs to their city. The danger of the current ownership surviving is twofold. Firstly, despite CFU’s polite but firm request to leave them alone, Palle Rasmussen’s group remain interested in taking over any company that bears the Chester City name and has the right to play at the Deva Stadium. With CCFC 2004 currently having licence from the council to hold games there, there is the prospect of a deeply unpopular version of Chester City playing in the Blue Square North or Unibond League next season. There is also the added misery that would come from Vaughan being ‘re-imbursed’ by money raised in Odense on March 6. With rewards for failure featuring regularly in the newspapers, it is likely that bankers’ bonuses would be overshadowed somewhat in that part of the world.
With the ‘Projekt Chester’ bid being so unpopular with the club’s support, it is difficult to comprehend the appeal of an insolvent club with a fan-base that will not support you. Mercy would hope that this tortured creature is put out of its misery on March 10. A victory for common sense will give its real owners the chance to run it better than Steven Vaughan or Palle Rasmussen ever could.
This also re-awakens the long-running issue about football clubs’ ownership, the Fit and Proper Person’s test and the whole culture of football insolvency in the UK. How do we prevent a score of Chester City’s from occurring in the next decade or so? One angle that is often explored is the question about what defines a ‘Fit and Proper’ person to own and run a club. It does seem that some people have come into football in the last few years with the misplaced conception that there is money to be made out of game. All the evidence suggests quite the opposite. Football League clubs that break even, let alone make a profit, are tiny black dots in a sea of red.
Perhaps any Fit and Proper person should at the very least have significant capital and understand they may lose large amounts of it? Such a clause would certainly flush out the fakes, the chancers and those waving monopoly money. However, expecting a wealthy individual to underwrite losses ad infinitum smacks of a sense of entitlement. Perhaps it is football culture that needs to change. New fan-orientated clubs such as AFC Wimbledon are run along the lines that a club at any level in a generation’s time is better than a brief flirtation with unaffordable glory followed by the bubble bursting. They spend what they earn, do not rely on one individual to bankroll them, and are run semi-democratically. They may well be the way forward. Chester’s fans are hoping they will soon be one of them.