Some news from Woking that made even a jaded old observer such as myself sit up in his chair. It wasn’t the fact that Chairman Shahid Azeem had quit (1) among concerns over the Cards’ losses (reported as £200,000 for last season), or that ‘benefactor’ Chris Ingram had stepped in again (2) to save the club. These, after all, are not entirely unfamiliar stories at far too many clubs. But first, a little background.
Woking joined the Conference in 1992, after a little floating around the divisions of the Isthmian League. This led to a fine series of seasons on the Nineties, with regular appearances in the FA Trophy, which they won three times.
Their first appearance on my radar screen came in February 2002, when they faced a serious financial crisis (3). Debts were reported thus “Woking’s trading company showed a deficit of £230,000 up to July 31 last year, added to a £325,000 loss already visible on the balance sheet. More crippling losses totalling £204,00 are understood to have been made so far in the current financial year.“ The club issued 1,000 shares for £255,000, Ingram acquiring 510 of them. Ingram, a life-long fan, had recently sold his company Tempus for more than £400million. He commented at the time “As I got closer I realised the club needed more business nous. There is a shortage of that at this level, not just here. I’m going to try to make it a sustainable business so if I’m not here it can still work as that and resist pressure that supporters sometimes put on you to just spend, spend. There will be much tighter purse strings. The authority to spend money will be narrowed down hugely.“ Again, not a particularly uncommon state of affairs, except perhaps the scale of his personal fortune.
In November that year the club went full-time, the ninth Conference club to do so (4).
In September 2007 the club got the go-ahead for the redevelopment of their stadium. Ingram promised he would “provide a stadium worthy of our fans, community and town” (5). In November the same year there was a structural re-organisation – Ingram stepped back a bit, becoming Chairman of Woking Football Club (Holdings) Limited, while David Taylor became Chairman of the club (6).
Taylor adopted a hard line, sacking manager Frank Gray and his assistant Gerry Murphy (7), and announcing that “nothing will stop me being the chairman that takes this club into the football league” (8). Furthermore he declared “I place on record, if the next man doesn’t deliver I will go as well” (9).
The following month Kim Grant was appointed manager (10), with Taylor upping the ante thus: “I will go if we do not get promoted in three seasons”. Grant found himself sacked in September after seven games of the new season (11) after a disappointing start. Taylor at this point offered to resign, a move rejected by the board (12).
Shortly afterwards Ingram really started to try and distance himself. He was reported to be underwriting the club to the tune of £350,000 per season, but said that he intended to stop carrying on with his support from May 2009 (13). Property developers, banks and the recession were to blame for the lack of progress with the stadium redevelopment.
In November, new Commercial Manager Geoff Chapple ‘rubbished plans’ for the club to revert to a part-time employment basis (14). A share offer was placed via the Supporters Trust (15). The following month spoke out in favour of regionalisation at the Conference level, commenting that (16).
January saw a slight change in financial strategy. In an interview Taylor said “The decision we’ve taken is not to go fully part-time but, instead, to focus on getting the best set of players we can within the playing budget, regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time” (17).
By March last year there was talk of local businessman Shahid Azeem becoming involved in the club in some as yet unspecified way (18), although it would probably be at board level. Shortly afterwards Taylor turned his attention back to the footballing side, sacking the latest manager, Phil Gilchrist (19). He explained “The team weren’t even sweating [at half time]. That’s not what I want from a club, players who play for Woking will play with pride and give everything. I got my fellow directors together and asked them their opinion, and as a board we made the decision at the end of the game”. Ah, the old sweat factor as the determinant of whether to sack someone else.
Less than a fortnight later Taylor announced his intention of sacking himself, as soon as the club’s long-term future was clarified at the end of the season: “It was always my intention at some stage to stand down once the Kim decision happened. I’ll stay on until something firm is place for this club.” (20). It had always been his intention to resign after sacking Kim Grant apparently. He offered three reasons for his decision: “One is that I made a mistake, I have to pay for that mistake and I have paid for that mistake every moment of every day for the whole of the season if anyone is in any doubt about that. Secondly I can sit and complain or I can actually get up and do something and I am now making sure the future of this club is a lot brighter than it has been for the last 12 years. I’ve been involved overseas and in this country speaking to potential purchasers and other shareholders. The third reason is I do have to have some sanity back. I cannot wait to be either just a director or just going back on the terraces.” The club meantime was moving towards relegation.
Ingram then announced that he was ‘giving the club back to the fans’ (21), a simple matter of him relinquishing his shares and fans buying them. A current major shareholder, Peter Jordan, who had also helped bankroll the club in the past, offered an interesting insight into how ‘benefactors’ see themselves – “I do it as a hobby. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, this is how I spend my money. There are lots of people out there who want to put money into the club”.
In June 2009, Taylor finally did stand down, and Shahid Azeem was appointed Chairman (22).
Ingram appears to have carried out his threat of withdrawing funding, as in August it was reported that striker Craig Watkins had to pay his own transfer fee when joining the club (23).
A year on, and once again the club is in deep financial difficulty. This year’s loss is reported to be around £200,000, which Ingram has had to step in and underwrite (24). Azeem, who had put his own money into the club during the past season, had however lost the faith of the board and has gone (25). He defends himself nonetheless, saying the club is now in a better financial position than when he came in (26).
Perhaps Woking is in no particular way untypical of football clubs. It certainly shows characteristics that are far from unknown:
- a ‘sugar-daddy’ whose commitment varies over time;
- a Chairman who prevaricates over the right choice of manager, but seemingly does know eventually who doesn’t want;
What then prompted me to sit in my chair. Well, it was a matter-of-fact statement by Azeem in defending himself. Tucked way in his comments was the following “The club has not made a profit since 1991”. Let me just run that past you again, with some melodramatic emphasis: “The club has not made a profit since 1991”, 1991 being a year before promotion to the Conference.
My access to football clubs at Woking’s level is patchy, and certainly doesn’t go back twenty years. Is Woking, I wonder, unique in its inability to break even, or is it some kind of unfortunate record breaker? It certainly is addicted to financial doping. Not in a Pete Docherty wild excess kind of way; more in the way of someone who has become addicted to soft drugs over time and just can’t stop.
Is there any vestige of ‘financial fair play’ when a situation like this just rolls on and on and on? How can the decision to remain full-time be reasonable if any sense of fair competitive balance is to be maintained? How much longer can we hear that mantra that ambition leads to promotion, which in turn leads to prosperity? Why does nobody seem to be too bothered with this situation?