The times they are a-changin’ 1
Posted by John Beech on March 19, 2010
Those expecting the usual dose of ‘Beech’s Bile’ are in for a disappointment with this posting, I’m afraid. While my overall perception of the English football management scene will no doubt trigger many more postings coloured with cynicism and sarcasm, I do sense a more positive zeitgeist beginning to emerge. It’s early days yet, but let’s hope the positive signs of change grow from the current acorns. In this, the first of a few semi-regular postings, I pick on a single news story that is, in my opinion, symptomatic of the beginning of significant change. There’s a long way to go yet, but this story is one it would have been hard to imagine even a year ago.
Cambridge United has had a colourful history. Back in 1970 they were new kids on the Football League block, but, having made the breakthrough to senior football, they have found it difficult to find a natural level (see here for a fine graphic). They have enjoyed six promotions since then, but suffered seven relegations, and now find themselves back in the Conference. The highest they reached was 5th in the old Division 2.
The lack of stability in the pyramid took its toll off the pitch, with the inevitable difficulty it created in financial planning. Plans for a new stadium were approved ten years ago (1) and shortly afterwards a grant from the Football Foundation was approved (2). This was not to be as the club slipped into debt (3), needing to take out a loan of £585,000 in 2003. Just over a year later a sell-and-lease-back plan reared its ugly head (4). Not surprisingly perhaps a Supporters Trust emerged, and by May 2003 were the club’s third largest shareholder (5).
Without this Trust, the club would have been in dire straits. In January 2004 a record annual loss of £704,000 was reported (6), and by the end of the year selling the family silver became the only way forward (7) – the Abbey was sold to Cambridge United director John Howard’s company Bideawhile for just over £1.9m, and a minimum 50-year-leaseback at the Abbey at an annual rent of £200,000 agreed. You can do the maths yourself.
The following month Cambridge Fans United announced plans to buy the stadium back (8).
In April 2005 Bideawhile refused an offer of £2.2 million from the club (9), with the funding to have come through a loan from club director Johnny Hon. By the end of that month, the club was set to drop to the Conference and had filed for Administration (10) with debts of £900,000. A CVA was agreed in June, with creditors receiving 19p in the pound (11).
By the end of the year, there was talk of ground-sharing with local rivals City, and even merger (12).
In August 2006 new Chairman Lee Power again raised the subject of buying their stadium back (13). By January 2007 the spectre of loan guarantors having to step in was on the agenda (14). By March, new investors had appeared (15).
Since then, to cut a long story short, there have been frequent changes in the composition of the Board, and little movement on resolving the stadium situation. More recently George Rolls became Chairman (16), only to depart and reappear at Weymouth. There has also been a high turnover in club Managers, joining, leaving, and even rejoining.
This almost Maoist state of perpetual cultural revolution at Board level recently took a back seat for Cambridge United watchers, when Bideawhile announced that they were considering selling the Abbey to property group Grosvenor Estates (17), triggering a race against time for Cambridge Fans United to raise £350,000 and show proof of access to the remaining £3.15m needed to buy the stadium themselves.
What might at the outset have looked a hopeless cause has proved very much the opposite. Within four days, pledges of £750,000 had been made (18), and that figure has now passed the million mark (19). The race is now on to raise the £350,000 (20). More details are available on the Supporters Direct website, and watch the CFU website for the latest news.
Whether they succeed or not is, of course, a matter that only time will shortly tell. But what to me is significant is the sheer speed and scale of gathering pledges – this is at a Conference club in a city with effectively two other clubs, City and Histon, remember. With supporters like United’s, the future of English football begins to look just a tad more rosy.