Friday, March 28, 2008

An Early April Fool's Joke

Take a close look at the picture on the left. That man is John Batchelor, and you might just be hearing quite a lot about him over the next few weeks or months. The reason for this is fairly simple - John Batchelor has launched a take-over scheme for League Two club which might even replace the likes of the Thames Valley Royals, Fulham Park Rangers and Manstock County as the maddest ever dreamt up by a football club owner. John Batchelor hopes to buy League Two club Mansfield Town, and rename it "Harchester United", after the fictional club featured in the Sky TV drama show, "Dream Team". I have, on your behalf, checked, double-checked and triple-checked to ensure that this isn't all an elaborate April Fool's Day joke, but it would seem that it isn't, and it raises serious issues over who exactly is there to look after prone football clubs, who are stony broke but in possession of something that is very valuable indeed - a place relatively near the top of the tree in English senior football.

So, first of all, a brief history lesson. York City were, by the start of 2002, in a poor state. Their former chairman, the wretched Douglas Craig had been turned upon by a small minority of supporters at Bootham Crescent, and decided on a revenge that would almost bring about the club's closure. He transferred ownership of their stadium from the club to a holding company and announced that if no-one stepped in and paid him £4.5m for it, he would wind the club up at the end of the 2002/03 season. The decision to transfer the ownership of the stadium was an explicit circumvention of an FA rule designed to stop this sort of asset-stripping from happening, and Craig was very open about it. With the club seemingly being deliberately run into the ground (by 2001/02, the previously prudently run club's wage bill alone was 151% of the club's annual turn-over), it seemed certain that Craig, who had paid just £123,000 for the club, would reap his £4.5m windfall.

Enter stage left John Batchelor. Batchelor had made his money in British Touring Car Racing, and as the only person genuinely interested in buying the practically bankrupt York City, he took over, paying £1 for the pleasure in March 2002. He made numerous promises, including buying the ground for the club and having supporters involved at boardroom level, but it was little more than a pack of lies, and eight months later he was gone, with the club in a state of ruin. He'd changed the name to "York City Soccer Club" to try and make it more popular in America and disfigured the club's kit by putting a chequered flag design on one of the shirt sleeves. The club, under the ownership of the Supporters Trust, eventually managed to get Craig his blood money and now own Bootham Crescent. Although it remains likely that they will leave for a new stadium in the near future, they will at least be able to pay at least a decent chunk of the profits from it from the sale of the prime city centre land that Bootham Crescent sits upon.

After his departure, the Supporters Trust established that Batchelor had been party to a tripartite agreement with Douglas Craig and Persimmon Homes, who wanted the land on which the stadium was built. Money that should have been paid to York City went to a non-existent organisation called "York Sporting Club" - of £400,000 in sponsorship money, the club didn't see a penny. Batchelor put in approximately £100,000 in loans, but soon claimed the money back and was unrepentant about it, stating, "Look, I'm a businessman. That means I have to make a profit from what I do, and that includes football", seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had made himself over £300,000 in eight months while the company that he owned had been forced into administration. The Trust were unable to prevent York City from falling out of the League in 2004, but they remain a strong presence in the Conference, and may well return to the Football League one day.

We know, from his involvement with Douglas Craig at York, that Batchelor is unconcerned about moral issues in choosing his working partners. It should, therefore, come as little surprise to see his oily marketing talk resurface at Mansfield Town. This, after all, is the club that has "lent" its chairman, Keith Haslam, £1m - an amount of money that Haslam hasn't shown much interest in paying back. This is illegal, by the way (it's Section 330 of the Companies Act of 1985, in case you were wondering), but no-one seems terribly interested in prosecuting Keith Haslam, quite possibly because, in purely business terms, £1m isn't a lot of money - even if it is an enormous amount for a club like Mansfield Town. Batchelor is openly contemptuous of football supporters, and very open about the fact that he wants to asset-strip a club if he can't make any money out of it. He is, in fact, rather too honest about the fact that he clearly doesn't give a toss about football. Consider, if you will, these two articles, one of which is about the proposed takeover, and the other of which is a Q&A from fans. For those of you that want to keep your blood pressure, I'll pull out some of the highlights, with brief results:

- "I will budget for no fans turning up at the ground, which really every club should do.": The only response that I can give to this is that anybody reading it should be able to see that a lower division club owner trying to develop as a club and depending on sponsorship money and TV money alone is basically incompetent. Batchelor is playing a "you'll blink before I do" game, here. He's saying to potentially trouble-making supporters, that 'I neither care about or need you'. It's a thinly-veiled threat.

- "I do not buy into the club being a community resource":
There are many ways that one could interpret this. I would interpret it as saying that Batchelor doesn't give a damn about Mansfield, Mansfield Town, the townspeople or the football club's supporters. He will do what he has to do in order to make as much money as he can.

- "I own nothing, because I choose to own nothing, if I make a mistake, nobody can chase me for anything, it is a standard practice in my world.":
Another curious admission to make. It is a pretty common practice (and I do, in my job, enough work relating to insolvency to know about this) for shady businessmen to rent their houses, hire their cars and keep as few assets as possible in their own names so that their liabilities are limited when their companies go bust. It is - and it is only thinly veiled - an extraordinary admission about his self image.

-"Harchester is more promotable than Mansfield. That's not any form of insult to Mansfield at all because it's a club with a long tradition but it's just a fact. One club has been on the television for 10 years and the other one hasn't.":
Well, this is the quote that the papers will focus on, because it is the maddest. Firstly, there is the small matter of the fact that Harchester have been on the television for ten years because they are a fictional football club in a soap opera rather than an actual football club. Secondly, there is a clear admission of Batchelor's own ignorance here - Mansfield Town have been live on "Match Of The Day" twice this season, in the Second & Third Rounds of the FA Cup, against Harrogate Railway and Middlesbrough, as well as, of course, being on ITV1's "Championship Goals" every Sunday morning since August.

- "
It would be great to have an Anglo-European Cup in pre-season and Chesterfield would be my first choice as the other English team involved. There could be two semi-finals and then a final played at Mansfield. Why can't we bring Europe to Field Mill. It would fill the ground": In case you were wondering, he plans a pre-season tournament between Mansfield Town, Chesterfield, Partisan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade. I'd estimate a television audience of at least 20m.

Let's finish with this little gem - "Let's be clear, I want a football club, preferably one in the league. The ONLY reason that I want it is to make money, the only reason that I want to do that is to look after my immediate family. I can only do that by making it work on the pitch and as a result making it work commercially. This would be MY club, if you like what you see come and watch, if you don't, then stay away. I am not even interested in discussing it with "fans", however, I will talk to customers any time": His candour should, at least, be refreshing. He is admitting that he doesn't give a tu'penny damn about football, and he is being explicit about his intention to strip Mansfield Town like a chicken's carcass, right down to the bones and abandon it as soon as he has had as much out of it as he can get. Given the direction that Mansfield are currently heading in, if he does take over, the end would appear to be nigh at Field Mill.

One would expect the game's regulators, the FA and the Football League to have something to say about this. All we have had so far, though, is a statement from the Football League stating that they would block any proposed name change, and in six weeks Mansfield Town might not even be a Football League club. You would think that this could be blocked more or less immediately. After all, here is a man that expressly is going to do what he has to do to profit from a club, and if that means fucking them over, then so be it. But they won't. They won't do anything. Batchelor has to pass a "fit & proper" test, which basically means that he has to have not been bankrupted or disqualified as a company director. Even the brazenness of his behaviour at York doesn't matter. Under current rules, you're only barred if you've taken two clubs into administration. So Batchelor is covered, in that respect.

There is a small chink of light at the end of the tunnel, though, and that is us. The supporters. It is simply not good enough for any single individual fan of any single individual club to not protest against this, and to do it by any means necessary. The battle has been on for the heart & soul of the game for a long time, and if Batchelor gets away with it again, the precedent will be further set for more and more slimy, shady toilet roll salesmen to come into our game, strip our clubs bare, and make off with tidy profits, leaving us to pick up the pieces. John Batchelor doesn't give a shit about us. It is our responsibility as football supporters to make his life as difficult as possible while he is sniffing around our game.


Just-Football: said...

I read about this the other day. Frankly ridiculous, I'm hoping its a story so ridiculous it'll never happen.


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