A review of yesterday’s NTST public meeting discussing community ownership in English football and a potential future viable model for Northampton Town FC…
NTFC Trust: Andy Roberts (chairman), Kevin Simons (board member leading on community ownership)
Guest speakers: Nick Hawker (chairman) and Elaine Davis (board member) from Exeter City Supporters Trust, Ashley Brown from Supporters Direct/Portsmouth FC and Roy Crutchley from Phipps Brewery, Northampton.
Opened the meeting saying that NTFC should have aspirations and requires a long-term plan. Under community ownership, there is potential around the town for direct investment, business sponsorship and shares scheme investment.
Andy Holt, chairman of Accrington Stanley, sent the meeting the following message:-
‘It is possible to run sustainable clubs without outside backers and with the right handling of cash flow. The hybrid model the Supporters Trust is looking at is worth exploring. Running a football club is hard, there’s no way I’d advise anyone getting into a club without the full participation of supporters groups. Good local links between supporters’ bodies and business is the way forward.’
Described the Championship as a ‘basket case league’, Leagues 1 and 2 are much more sensible. He advised taking good care in choosing partners and not to accept money from just anyone.
He detailed the Portsmouth FC community ownership journey until it was sold, with Supporters Trust agreement, to billionaire Michael Eisner - the supporters chose their new owner.
Portsmouth Supporters Trust had 4000 members and with a share issue raised £6 million.
Thanked NTFC Supporters Trust for their help in the late 1990s. He said it was worth pointing out that at one time Exeter City had the likes of David Blaine, Uri Geller and Michael Jackson as directors! Now Exeter’s board has two teachers, a technologist and accountants among its number.
Exeter’s supporters own their club – they have a youth council, do regular surveys, sponsor the Women’s Team, have a matchday stall and one of the best things is being part of the team picture at the start of the season!
Exeter has 3,500 members each paying a minimum of £2 per month membership. Anything more is a tax-free donation.
The Trust donates £100,000 a year to the club and has lent the club £850k, a loan they will never call back in.
The club has made £7.5 million in academy player sales. The Trust has a board of 15 members, 12 are elected and three co-opted.
The chairman of the Trust has a seat on the football club board. Between the two parties is a Club Trust Agreement meaning that the club colours, badge etc will always be protected.
Exeter’s Trust holds two fans forums a season and different ‘Grecian Groups’ feed into the Trust. Always be prepared as the ‘crisis arrives when you least expect it’.
Told the meeting about the early connections between Phipps and the formation of Northampton Town FC. He said that business wants to invest in Northampton and make it a special place again.
Dave Compton to Ashley Brown - what safeguards did you put in place at Portsmouth?
Ashley said that at the time the club was sold by the Trust, 80% of supporters voted to do so. Vetoes were in place to protect the club as much as possible.
James O’Brien asked how a community-owned club would look at youth investment?
Andy Roberts said that there would be investment in local youth team players. Helen Hickman added that in recent years youth investment by the Trust had tailed off and Andy said that link would be restored.
Dave Rawlings said ‘let’s cut to the chase’! He asked directly if any parties are interested in funding any model for the club? He felt the club would struggle to gain funding, given the ongoing issues surrounding the £10 million loan.
Kevin Simons said the missing millions had soured the name of the club and the general consensus is for business not to be involved as the view is they’d get fingers burned. However, he added that people would be surprised how many out there aim to make this work, recalling that in 2015 there was a local consortium considering a takeover. Different investors have different motivations and the Trust knows it would need to be cautious. There are people that are financially very well placed but are not necessarily right for the club. We do have people interested in this. It was only last year that Kelvin Thomas said he was selling the club. If as a group of supporters we don’t want to take this forward, or it doesn’t feel right, then it won’t happen. There a number of different models and that’s the purpose of today, to make supporters aware of that.
Martin Maloney asked what can be done to prevent ‘dodgy owners’ and what percentage of supporters would be needed to make this viable?
Ashley Brown replied that Portsmouth had 48% in support. He continued that it is fairly easy to suss people out under the hybrid model process. It is essential to have legal buffers in place.
Nick Hawker said that being community owned is not all about football. If the Trust fund a local community project then the community become more confident in ‘the business’. It’s about building bonds with the community. The Exeter grandstand cost nothing through exchanging some car park land for student accommodation. While the league position is important, so is the position in the community.
Sean O’Donovan said that the Northampton population is 10,000 more than that of Portsmouth. Northampton Town Supporters Trust’s membership is more than Spurs! Years ago Brian Lomax agreed with the club to have two Trust members on the Club Board. These days, Kelvin Thomas’s relationship with the Trust appears informal, how can the Trust make this more formal?
Kevin Simons said that the Trust has looked at leases and articles of association and it’s all silent. Since Kelvin took over it is clear that he does not see a Trust Board member on the club board. We cannot force this but we can keep up dialogue with Kelvin and James Whiting.
Andy Roberts added that there may be questions raised around why community ownership is being talked about now, particularly as the club appears stable. The discussion is no reflection on the current owners at NTFC. We are looking at the future of the club because of the frustrations surrounding the east stand and surrounding land development - it’s our own version of Brexit, it is dragging on, there is no resolution in sight and we are all fed up with it! We want the deadlock broken as it’s holding the club back.
John Morgan stated that Kelvin Thomas is being very deliberately obscure about development matters and is treating supporters, who put the money in every week, with contempt.
Martin Sawyer said that the identity of the Trust is important and there’s an opportunity on 29 March to attend a meeting about ‘Social Enterprise Places’.
Kevin Simons stated that the Trust had worked on the Asset of Community Value for Sixfields for three years and has secured the athletics track area as part of the application.
He said that one backer wants to turn the track area into a 4G floodlit pitch. There is no security of tenure for the club at Moulton College.
James Averill asked about losses when the clubs can’t use the players because of injury.
Nick Hawker said to remember it’s not all about the football. Exeter sold David Wheeler to QPR for £500k having brought him in for free. Yet there are lean periods when the purse strings need tightening. Exeter has a ‘no debt’ policy. It’s about sustainability of the club and not about success on the pitch next year.
Andy Clarke repeated the earlier comment that the club were seen as a bad odour. Yet with unitary authorities coming next year it’s a chance for new opportunities, new relationships. So, having spoken to some interested businesses, what would they own as an asset if they invested?
Kevin Simons said that the backers are primarily property developers. The CDNL land has risk. Taking a lead from Don Woodward (Wycombe Wanderers) he said that investors should come in knowing that they won’t walk away with anything. Being a backer is about the fun of being involved with a football club and seeing where it takes you.
Roy Crutchley said that business interest can manifest itself in many ways and it’s about being prominent in the town.
John Morgan said that in 2013 the development land was owned by the Cardozas and Grossman. The football club lost that land and now CDNL, through Kelvin Thomas and David Bower, own it. Is that why they are here and, if so, can we stop them? The issue of conflict was addressed in the Birmingham courts as the Cardozas then owned the land - so, if that was the case, just exchange the name Thomas for Cardoza! Kelvin Thomas and David Bower need to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Tom Reed said he was interested in Exeter City’s profit and loss account. Seeing the fiascos with 5U Sports, Cardoza and McRitchie, how much longer can we be at the whim of an owner? I think we’ve lost our respect. Is there a real need for a remote, old-fashioned backer? Is there a need for a land deal to fund simple infrastructure improvements?
Nick Hawker said that in order to have onfield success, a three year playing budget is needed. You have to have patience without a backer. You can still get there but need to keep pushing for a seat on the club board or at least influence. The good thing about ownership is that we control the cash flow. We don’t need to keep our fingers crossed that someone else is doing so.
Kevin Simons said that you can get very wealthy backers but the minute those backers walk away you’re in trouble.
Wendy Lambell, who works at the football club, asked if the Trust had backers now and who are they? She said Kelvin Thomas is a decent man and was aware that we needed to move forward. A supplementary question was that the Trust were not transparent when it came to talking about their own backers.
Kevin Simons repeated that the Trust did have backers but said revealing more information would be commercially sensitive. The Trust had conversations with Kelvin last year and the club valuations were wide apart. The Trust would be naïve by believing we could now buy the club. We are acutely aware that the backers’ integrity must be protected. It’s not going to happen overnight. There’s the legal advice, financial advice and share schemes to consider, which all take time. But he insisted the backers do have the finances available. But, he added, the Trust had never even met David Bower! Negotiations obviously need a buyer and a seller to reach agreement.
Anthony Collett asked that as we have a fractious fanbase how can multiple supporters groups be brought together?
Elaine Davis said that it would be ideal if supporter groups could all be brought together but it wasn’t always straightforward and it was probably best not to run before being able to walk.
Andy Roberts closed the meeting thanking all the speakers and those attending. He said the next step is to bring together a proposal fit for Northampton Town Football Club but stressed that if this was to go forward it would need ratification from the Supporters Trust membership.