As Peter Trembling left his post of Chairman and major shareholder of League Two’s Notts County, he expressed the disgust he felt at the way he had been treated by the previous owners, Munto Finance, and the way that their representatives had “disappeared off the face of the earth” since backing out of their promises to pour millions of pounds into the club.
Trembling’s reputation has been damaged, as has the supporters’ trust who had sold their club to an unknown entity in the summer, based on hot air and promises of glory. The dream seemed, for a while, to be coming true; Kasper Schmeichel was joined by Sven-Goran Erikkson and Sol Campbell. The first remains, the other two smelt a rat and jumped ship, with the latter moving to Arsenal. However, as the Football League became more suspicious of Munto and their representatives, the Jersey-registered trust Qadbak, the fragility of the promises made by the owners became ever more apparent. The money would not be coming.
Trembling also has departed the club. Jim Rodwell is the new Chief Executive, and former Lincoln City Chairman Ray Trew has taken over the running of the world’s oldest league football club. As Trew said upon taking over :“The problem with this club is that is has been living beyond its means and that cannot go on.” Trew and Rodwell now have the unenviable task of clearing up a mess of gargantuan proportions, the first and foremost being paying the taxman. Notts County face a winding up order over unpaid taxes that are measured in 6-figure sums. They have less than a month to find a solution.
Trembling is convinced that he had acted faithfully: “The plans were right, the dream was right, but unfortunately the money wasn’t there.” Notts County, it seems, had spent before they received, and the plan to keep them afloat when the funds from the mystical Munto never materialised was to avoid paying their taxes. Whether or not Ray Trew and his boardroom staff can save this club, one steeped in footballing culture, is yet to be seen – what needs to be learned from this lesson is that football must protect itself from potential bogus investors.
Ray Trew had expressed concerns back in August about the proposed takeover by Qadbak et al., saying he: “would seriously question their motives.” It appears that Trembling still hadn’t learned his lesson, though, even when he had bought out’ the Swiss-based Middle-Eastern group in January, saying that he: “refutes any allegation that we would turn down a multi-million pound deal.” The point should be that, given the activities of the last few months, that not every buyer offering investment is good for the club, or good for football. The British government strictly controls the takeover of British companies by foreign consortiums, as does the Football League through its fit-and-proper persons act. The difference is that football’s fit-and-proper persons criteria seem to be so broad as to be deemed irrelevant. Munto Finance were given the green light with the League deeming it unnecessary for the names of the owners of one of their clubs to be ascertained before giving them the go-ahead. When the League became unduly worried and issued a transfer embargo on the Magpies, Qadbak gave the names of the owners as being two Pakistani based gentlemen- as it turned out, these individuals had never heard of Notts County and were agriculturalists in Pakistan with no aspirations for a 5-year plan to propel the League Two club to the heights of the Premier League.
With not just Notts County, but Portsmouth threatened with administration because of (amongst other things admittedly) poorly judged decisions about who should own their football club, the Football League needs to take control. The story of Notts County should be precedent enough for the League to have a say in who owns a club, and not after the horse has bolted but at the takeover stage. Rigorous checks of the validity of bids and the integrity of investors should be made before clubs are allowed to sign over ownership of the football club. Too many chairmen will be dazzled by the potential millions being poured into a club as they crunch the numbers on how to afford a youth team, pay the lease on the training pitches for another year, or in the case of Trembling and Notts County, how to make the grass grow under the Jimmy Sirrell Stand. This is not to say that football clubs should lose any of their autonomy, more a realisation that any individual club is only as good as the League they play in, and that any club going under has implications on not only themselves but the integrity of the English game as a whole. In the case of Notts County it should not just be Trembling, Erikkson and Campbell who feel a little sheepish, but the Football League in general.