Football: New Cambridge diet: lose ground, income, League place, and club

THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE has been breathing calmer, warmer air following the typhoon of ITV Digital's collapse, but mini-storm clouds are gathering again. Cambridge United, rock bottom of the League after their 3-1 defeat at home to Kidderminster last Saturday, are the latest club peering haplessly at oblivion: having sold their ground and run out of money, they now face administration and the drop to the Conference.

Cambridge only delayed this inevitable reckoning with two years of large, high-interest loans, then last November the board announced they had no option but to sell their ground, the Abbey Stadium, to one of the directors, John Howard, for pounds 1.9m, which some at the club argued was cheap to him.

Barely two months on, that money has nearly gone; at this week's Annual General Meeting, the chairman, Gary Harwood, said it all poured out to pay off the previous loans and ongoing losses, which will wipe it out at the end of this month. At the time of the sale, Harwood said it was done to avoid going into administration which, with the loss of 10 points under the League's rules, would have made relegation to the Conference a certainty. That, he said, would result in Cambridge losing another pounds 500,000 a year:

"In my honest opinion," he said then, "that would have killed the club."

However, with Cambridge now seven points adrift of the third from bottom club, Shrewsbury, Conference football is an odds-on bet anyway - if the club makes it into next season - yet now they will drop shorn of their ground.

One recently appointed director, Johnny Hon, a 33-year-old businessman from Hong Kong who did his Ph.D. at Cambridge University, has offered to put money in, in return for ownership of the club. His plan to boost Cambridge's fortunes appears to be built less on tapping into the wealth and leisure time of a prosperous university city, and more on expanding its "brand" into China, where he sees great potential. He has, he said, been talking to Stockport County, a club which made great play of its links with China but which is currently bottom of League Two and also in serious financial difficulty after its new owner, Brian Kennedy, who owns Sale Sharks Rugby Club, said he was no longer prepared to support the club's losses.

A well-organised and ever more exasperated supporters' trust, Cambridge Fans United, has reacted by launching a "100 Days to Save United" campaign, through which they are hoping to raise pounds 2m, enough to buy back the Abbey Stadium, and build Cambridge into a sporting focal point for the community. They met Hon this week to discuss a way to work together.

"Cambridge United was built up by the passion and effort of the fans," said the CFU spokesman, Justyn Medd. "Half the Abbey Stadium was built with volunteer efforts or donations. We have to regain ownership of the ground, guarantee it's always there for Cambridge United and put it at the heart of the community."

The club has been through some dramas since being elected to the Football League as recently as 1970. Managed for four years in the 1970s by a certain Ron Atkinson, they won consecutive promotions to the Second Division, then hurtled to their heyday under the infamous cold-shower, salt-in-the- opposition's-tea regime of John Beck, whose route one methods, helped significantly by having Dion Dublin as a target man, saw them into the play-offs for the top flight in 1991-92.

So, United could have joined the likes of Manchester United as founder members of the Premier League, but since then, like many lower division clubs, they have paddled frantically to finance a wage bill to keep the club afloat. After Carlton and Granada's withdrawal of ITV Digital in April 2002, Cambridge borrowed pounds 500,000 from Stewart Davies, Melvyn Laughton and Sean Verity, moneylenders trading as the Sterling Consortium, who lent to several desperate clubs at that time, charging high rates of interest, secured on their grounds. Sterling now owns Darlington Football Club, after the previous owner, George Reynolds, was unable to repay a pounds 4m loan taken out to finish his folly, the 27,000-seat George Reynolds Arena.

In December 2003, following a desperate appeal, Cambridge managed to pay off that loan, plus pounds 85,000 in interest, just before a penalty interest rate of 30 per cent to Sterling was to become payable. CFU raised pounds 100,000 of that and obtained a seat on the board for an elected director, Brian Attmore. The rest was borrowed from another short-term source, Grovefield Finance.

Late last year, that, too, had to be repaid. This time, with no other loans in sight, and with Cambridge's chairman, Gary Harwood, warning that administration would be a potentially fatal calamity, Cambridge fell back on the final resort for clubs in trouble -the ground on which they stood. The board proposed, and the majority of shareholders agreed at an EGM last November, to get cash in by selling the Abbey Stadium to John Howard, an Ipswich-based property developer who had been on the board for 17 years. The company he formed to make the pounds 1.9m purchase was, interestingly, called Bideawhile.

Cambridge are paying Howard's company pounds 200,000 a year in rent, and they have an option to buy the ground back; the Trust, and former chairman, Reg Smart, criticised the deal because the stadium has planning permission for development and was valued in the most recent accounts at pounds 3.4m. Howard, however, has defended what he paid for it and the club said no other solid offers were made.

Depressingly, the cash from that sale has almost all gone already. Grovefield's loan, up to pounds 660,000 with interest, had to be repaid, Barclays Bank also had a pounds 420,000 mortgage, plus a loan and an overdraft which had to be reduced, with the bank refusing any more credit to the club. Other debts and ongoing losses have swallowed up the rest, so that Harwood told this week's AGM that the club will have no money by the end of this month. He also conjured up again the prospect of doom if the club survives long enough to be relegated, saying they will lose another pounds 500,000 and effectively have to become part-time. It is no consolation to proud United fans that they may have a local derby next season against their non-League neighbours Cambridge City, who are currently sitting second in Conference South.

Medd sounds the desperate note of a drowning fan: "It's like we're being swept down a river towards a waterfall. We find ourselves with no stadium, still racking up debts on a daily basis, staring at oblivion. Every time the board has grabbed for safety at a log, it has turned out to be an alligator."

They do not have long to find a lifeline.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

GROUNDS FOR CONCERN CLUBS WHO NO LONGER OWN HOMES

Leeds United Sold Elland Road in November 2004 for pounds 8m to Manchester businessman Jacob Adler to pay off debt. Renting now for pounds 1.2m a year.

Burnley Turf Moor and the Gawthorpe training ground sold for pounds 3m to company owned by chairman Barry Kilby in November 2004. Club has 99- year lease, paying pounds 250,000 yearly rent.

Brighton Owner and DIY tycoon Bill Archer sold the Goldstone Ground for pounds 7m in 1995. Club now paying pounds 600,000 rent at the Withdean Stadium, awaiting public inquiry on proposed new stadium at Falmer.

Crystal Palace Ron Noades sold club in June 1998 to Mark Goldberg, but kept Selhurst Park. Palace, owned by Simon Jordan, still pay undisclosed rent to Noades' company, Altonwood.

Southend Roots Hall, famously built by fans and one heroic groundsman, Sid Broomfield, was bought for pounds 4m by property company Delancey in 1998. Southend rent it back for pounds 400,000 a year.

Rotherham Former chairman Ken Booth took ownership of Millmoor in exchange for his pounds 3m loans when selling the club to a supporter-led group on 1 January, 2005. Undisclosed rental.

Watford Sold Vicarage Road for pounds 6m to property investor Mark Steinberg, October 2002. Succeeded in raising pounds 7.5m to buy ground back last year.

Wrexham Issued with notice to quit last summer by club's owner, Alex Hamilton, who is negotiating to sell Racecourse Ground.

York Supporters' Trust will next week buy back Bootham Crescent for pounds 2.1m - with pounds 2m loan from Football Foundation - from former chairman Douglas Craig.

Wimbledon Serial renters MK Dons now at National Hockey Stadium in Milton Keynes after former chairman Sam Hammam sold Plough Lane for pounds 7m.

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