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The Lower League Week – Dramatic Endings

Nick_Powell

Kettering Town Rolls Downward

It was starting to look like Kettering would, relatively speaking, be alright. Although relegated from the Conference, new owner George Rolls has already poured some of his money into paying off the club’s debts.

However, Kettering still have debts of £1.2m, and the Conference authorities demand all the debts of teams in their leagues (Blue Square Premier, North and South) are repaid in full. By reaching an agreement to pay creditors 10p in the pound, Kettering have guaranteed that they’ll be relegated an additional division.

There is an unusual complication to Rolls’ ownership. When in charge of Weymouth, he took them into administration in order to reduce their debts from £900,000 to £80,000. The FA’s ‘Fit and Proper Persons’ regulations bars anyone who has been involved with more than one Insolvency Event (which calling in administrators falls under) from acting as a club director. A few months ago, before investing his money, Rolls claimed that he was simply “having chit-chat to try and help other clubs out.” He doesn’t appear to have been named to the board before administrators were called, despite having put in £42,000 of his own money, and apparently preparing to interview prospective managers.

The definition of shadow directors can be difficult, and is beyond my expertise. (My understanding essentially is of the banned Del Boy naming Rodney as sole director of Trotters Independent Trading, then telling him what to decide.) But it seems that the FA could punish Rolls for acting informally, as harshly as if he had been formally named in that position. It’s possible that George Rolls could fail a test that suspected human rights abuser Thaksin Shinawatra and the possibly fictional Ali Al-Faraj both passed.

Darlington FC, and the Death of Decency

Last week I covered the fact that there were fears of Darlington being relegated multiple divisions, but didn’t expect it to actually happen. However, on Friday the FA announced that Darlington will compete next season in the STL Northern League (Level Nine of the pyramid, four levels below the Conference). This means that in addition to being relegated one league for footballing reasons, they’ve been relegated an additional three as financial punishment.

Darlington will compete next season in a league based almost entirely in the north-east, where the champions often don’t apply for promotion to the level above because of extra costs in wages and ground improvements.

The most commonly cited reason for the level of punishment is that the club were unable to agree a Creditors’ Voluntary Agreement. But, according to most reports, the major creditor at Darlington was Raj Singh, the former chairman who decided how the club’s money was spent.

Of course, the full financial books haven’t been released to the public, but Singh has claimed that he was subsidising Darlington with £80,000 a month, and he was in charge for 29 months when he decided to withdraw his funding. That gives £2.32m as an extremely rough estimate of the money owed to Singh, who’d agreed the deal on both ends. If a local company agrees to cater a match, or clean the offices, and provides that service, it’s only reasonable that they be paid the agreed amount. But if the head of a company decides on a high-risk, high investment strategy that’s dependent on success (in this case promotion) to break even, shouldn’t they bear some of the burden of failure?

The NE Stand, Darlington FC stadium.Seen from the managers' technical area by the half-way line. Courtesy of Stanley Howe

Darlington won’t be allowed to compete in the FA Cup or the FA Vase, as, they are classed as a new club, and they supposedly didn’t exist at the time of registration for those competitions. The FA are also insisting they’ll have to be known by a different name as they haven’t agreed a CVA and don’t have the Darlington FC’s official licence, commonly known as the ‘football share’. The football share is, legally, what prevents a mad billionaire setting up a team in Manchester and declaring them to be the real Manchester United – while grounds, players, managers and directors can change, whoever has the share legally is the club. But, for reasons that no-one outside the FA seems to understand, while administration means the club and it’s assets are taken away from the control of the owner, the football share appears to have stayed with Singh.

Darlington 1883 have spoken of their intent to honour the debts to players and local businesses, but it appears to be their unwillingness to pay back Singh that has prevented a CVA being agreed.

In addition, the standard of Shildon’s ground means that the FA would not allow Darlington to play any higher than the Northern League – the ground has been judged only good enough for the ninth tier of English football (or Step Five of non-league), the level of the Northern League.

In 2008 Luton were deducted 30 points after going into administration, with the fact it was their third spell in administration apparently being a factor in punishment for the Hatters, something shared by Darlington. Like The Quakers, Luton were punished heavily for the events of a previous regime, despite the club having since passed into fan ownership and the club being relegated under the previous regime in both cases (suggesting mismanagement, rather than cheating their way to success).

Darlington 1883 have said that they intend to honour the debts to local companies ran up by Singh, but apparently encouraging good behaviour is not something that interests the FA.

Back in 1999, George Reynolds took over as Darlington chairman, talking about reaching the Premiership in five years and he inspired a jump in results and attendances. As a fan of arch-rivals Hartlepool United (maybe now just historic rivals?) I remember at a derby match shortly afterwards being on the receiving end of chants like ‘we’re so rich it’s unbelievable’ and ‘we’ll never play you again’. In the footballing drama, there was the sense that these were the dark side, the rising force, the undisputed bad guys, and it would be a major struggle to even compete with our neighbours. It felt a little like what being a Manchester City fan must have been like until recently.
But now, Darlington have been screwed over so thoroughly, by Reynolds’ ego, ex-chairmen Houghton and Singh refusing to take a financial hit for their failure, and the irrational harshness of the FA, that when I heard the news I was outraged on their behalf.

HMRC vs The Football Creditors Rule

While not specifically linked to the lower leagues, HMRC’s defeat in their attempts to overturn the Football Creditors rule  will impact on many teams.

The logic of the rule, that footballing debts (transfer fees, player wages) must be dealt with before others (local businesses, St. John’s Ambulance) is that a domino effect is avoided, wherein a series of clubs would be placed at risk by the mismanagement of one club. With football being closer to a zero sum game than other industries (competitors in the carpet industry are allied against the floor tile industry), it also prevents clubs deliberately using administration to rob their rivals.

However, this has reached some ridiculous lengths – the most dramatic cited in court was when Plymouth went into administration last year – football creditors were paid in full, while others were given 0.77p in the pound. In case you assume that’s a typo and there’s a pound sign missing, that is 77 hundredths of a penny in the pound. This meant some ludicrous comparisons such as Tottenham being paid their £21,000 owed in full, while St. John’s, owed £8100, were paid £66.

However, Damian Collins MP has spoken about introducing legislation to achieve what HMRC could not in the courts.

Cheltenham Goalkeeper Called up by England

John Ruddy broke his finger in training on Friday, ruling him out of Euro 2012, meaning that Birmingham’s Jack Butland, who spent half of the season on loan at Cheltenham, will be called up instead.

The teenager played for England at every junior level, and, despite just turning 19 in March, Butland has played in every U21 match this season and has played 24 games across two loan spells, keeping 11 clean sheets, until an injury to Boaz Myhill meant he was recalled to Birmingham at the end of the season.

While it looks like his selection is based on his international achievements (and his huge reputation as a prospect, which Football Manager fans will know all about) his experience gained with the Robins will have helped prepare him to make the next stage in his development.

Kirkland to Sheffield Wednesday

Since being pushed aside by Ali Al-Habsi at Wigan, Chris Kirkland hasn’t played regularly at any level, with loan spells at Doncaster and Cardiff, slightly predictably, being cut short by injury.
This week Kirkland has agreed to move to Sheffield Wednesday in the summer.
With Stephen Bywater and Nicky Weaver already on the books, Wednesday have a pair of pretty decent Football League goalkeepers, so it seems a little odd they’d gamble on someone with such a long injury record.

Chris Kirkland warming up for Wigan. Courtesy of Dan Farrimond

Where did it all go Rong?

Richard Wright came through as a a hot prospect at Ipswich, and the talk was that he would be number one for England and develop into one of the top goalkeepers in Europe.

A move to Arsenal didn’t go to plan, so, aged 34, at a time when he should have been holding off his young rivals Joe Hart and Szczesny for club and country, instead he has just signed for Preston.
Given that Thorsten Stuckmann is highly thought of at North End (and is Preston’s reigning Player of the Year), Wright possibly wouldn’t even be first choice – not quite the way his career was supposed to go.

Luke McCormick on trial with Swindon

Like with Ched Evans, this is a matter I don’t feel remotely comfortable taking a position on.
In 2008 McCormick, then the first choice goalkeeper for Championship Plymouth, was driving back from a wedding drunk and upset, when he fell asleep at the wheel and caused the death of two young boys.

Swindon chairman Jeremy Wray has announced that McCormick will be offered a trial in pre-season, saying it is “a community issue and not a footballing one” adding that

“Tragedy is a word used too often, but this was a tragedy and it can never be changed. He’ll have to live with that for the rest of his life. Our role as a club becomes that of rehabilitation and integration.”

Now that the past is done and can’t be unwritten, there really is no option that seems to me to be the clear right or wrong choice. But, at the very least, it takes bravery for Swindon to do what they believe to be right, to open themselves to criticism, particularly in the wake of the allegations facing Paolo di Canio.

Martin Allen Wouldn’t…Surely?

Martin Allen is currently in his third spell as Barnet manager. In 2003 he began his managerial career at the Bees. They were up at the top of the Conference when he left them for Brentford the following March, where he made headlines by swimming the River Tees before a game against Hartlepool United as a motivational technique.

In March 2011 Allen took over at Barnet, now threatened with relegation from League Two, only to leave after three games for Notts County. Being sacked by County a few months back, he took over at Barnet with three games left, winning the last two to keep Barnet in the Football League.

Allen’s contract ended at the end of the season, but he has claimed that he wants to stay on as manager. He’s been linked with the vacant Gillingham job, and is the favourite with many bookmakers. If he does take the job, what are the odds on a fourth spell in charge of Barnet?

League One Playoff Final

The game between Huddersfield and Sheffield United  was a pretty dull one. Huddersfield’s Daniel Ward struck the bar early in the second half, and there was a goalmouth scramble in Town’s favour ten minutes from the end. There was a header down from Huddersfield’s Peter Clarke cleared from the six yard box as it was being chased in by Jordan Rhodes, and that was pretty much the sum total of the chances through the 120 minutes.

The finishing was even worse during the shootout – after three penalties each, United led 1-0. The score was 2-2 after five penalties each, until both teams got their acts together and continued a perfect conversion rate in sudden death until with the scores tied at 7-7, it came down to a battle of the keepers. Alex Smithies, Huddersfield’s hotly rated young keeper who looked shaky since coming on for Ian Bennett in the semifinal, converted powerfully, then Steve Simonsen, who’d been commanding during the match, skied the vital kick.

The Blades are definitely one of the better League One teams I’ve seen this season, and their record is good enough to take them up in 9 of the last 10 seasons, and give them the title on two occasions in that time.

United are rumoured to have made ambitious plans to sign Hearts captain Marius Zaliukas, who has just lifted the Scottish Cup, but new Financial Fair Play regulations, limiting clubs to spending only 60% of their turnover on wages will come into force next year.

Zaliukas warming up for Hearts earlier this season. Courtesy of Edinburgh Wanderer

Chairman Kevin McCabe has been subsidising the club, but he may find it difficult to do the same next year. In fact, some reports have claimed that United will need to cut their wage bill by 40%, so fans can expect a number of star players to leave, with Simonsen already being released.

Sheffield United have a smart manager and a chairman who cares about the club, meaning they should find ways to manage their lesser spending. The financial troubles of Portsmouth and Coventry mean that the Blades, along with MK Dons, should be favourites for promotion but they may need to make some clever deals and enforce pay cuts first.

League Two Playoff Final

Cheltenham, as has been mentioned in many places, were amongst the favourites for relegation at the start of the season. But they have some talented players, with three players having reached double figures this year. Meanwhile, the latest graduates of Crewe’s famed academy under the management of Steve Davis, have been playing with a creativity and flair that Cheltenham don’t really have the personnel to match.

Crewe took the lead with a spectacular opening goal from Nick Powell, flicking the ball into the air and dummying in the opposite direction before turning after it, then struck the ball from the edge of the area, straight into the top corner.

Cheltenham had their chances afterward, forcing Steve Phillips into a number of saves, and had a shot cleared off the line just before the break. But Crewe had a few good chances of their own.
Byron Moore was released by a ball ahead of him down the right flank, he exchanged diagonal passes with Leitch-Smith on the edge of the area, and slotted past the keeper – an impressive demnstration of Crewe’s technical abilities, which put the result beyond doubt.

Paper talk has long linked Powell with clubs right at the top of the English game – Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in the past, and recently Manchester United appear to have stepped up an interest.

The impression I’ve had as an outsider looking in is that since the glory days that saw Crewe spend five successive seasons in the Championship at the turn of the century (and seven seasons from eight), Dario Gradi has came to be seen as more of a coach than a tactician. A lower league equivalent of Arsene Wenger.

Club legend Dario Gradi. Courtesy of Jonesy702

A previous attempt to step upstairs, vacating the manager’s chair for Steve Holland, didn’t work out but that looks to be different this time. With Crewe’s legendary academy still working to Gradi’s model, and Steve Davis moulding the first team into a cohesive unit, (and making brave tactical decisions like withdrawing star man Nick Powell at 1-0) the future looks bright for Crewe.

Interestingly, when Davis was Powell’s age, Gradi had just signed him for Crewe and he was a year away from being named captain. People talk about the importance of continuity in football – Crewe are the embodiment of that ideal.

Barnet Chairman Campaigns For Rule Change That Would Have Sent His Side Down

The gap between the Football Conference isn’t as big as it once was, with Stevenage and Crawley recently winning the Conference then going up again the next season. Carlisle and Doncaster have both achieved the same this century, proving that there is little logic to the Conference having only two promotion places, less than any of the professional leagues.

The number of promotion places available from the Conference are so limited that Wrexham finished second with 98 points this season, and still weren’t rewarded with promotion.
However, Tony Kleanthous, chairman of Barnet and League Two representative on the FA Board, has spoken in favour of increasing the number of teams moving between the divisions, arguing that

“It’s the dynamic movement between leagues-promotion and relegation-that makes football so great in this country.”

The problem has been that league clubs in the fourth tier often haven’t wanted to endanger their own league status, making attempts to change the rules more difficult. And it makes it all the more admirable that the chairman of the team who have finished third bottom this season and last, is willing to do the right thing.

 

What do you think about what we have to say about your club? Are those mentioned under-appreciated or overrated? Did we miss someone or something that should be covered? Join in by commenting below, or find me on Twitter @Joe_Bloghead