Chesterfield fans' revolution in balance

Former chairman attempts to regain control of troubled Second Division club saved from insolvency by democratically elected board of supporters
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The Independent Online

The future of Chesterfield Football Club hangs in the balance again as administrators delay deciding who will take the ravaged club out of insolvency. Rival bids are known to have been tabled by the Chesterfield Football Club Supporters Society – a 3,000-strong fans' trust – and by Norton Lea, the 76-year-old former chairman who sold the club for £1.2m last year to Darren Brown, a 29-year-old former photocopier salesman. Within months, Chesterfield had collapsed in a welter of scandal and debt.

The administrators, Kidsons, set last Friday as a deadline for final bids to be received. The Supporters Society is understood to have offered to pay the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and football debts in full, and around 25p in the pound to ordinary creditors – a figure which depends partly on the final bill for the administrators, who charge £225 per hour of their partners' time. Creditors are believed to have regarded the supporters' offer favourably, but it is understood there is a rival bid from Lea, whose original decision to sell the club to Brown precipitated the club's collapse.

The administrators refused to comment yesterday on the reasons for the delay and said only that they were hoping the case will be heard in court next week.

A Supporters Society spokesman, Phil Tooley, said: "We have worked desperately, without being paid a penny, to keep this club alive since we took it over in crisis last May. We have delivered the best offer we can and we sincerely hope we will be allowed to take it forward as a supporter-owned community club."

Lea, a local businessman, formerly a director at Mansfield Town, bought 78 per cent of Chesterfield in 1987 for around £400,000. He was a well-respected figure at the Football League, regarded as someone who ran his club sensibly. But after the near glory of 1997, when Chesterfield reached the FA Cup semi-final, only to lose to Middlesbrough in a replay, Lea became deeply unpopular with the fans.

The income from the Cup run, and the subsequent sale of the striker Kevin Davies to Southampton for nearly £1m, did not appear to be invested either in the team, who were heading for relegation to the Third Division in 2000, or in the ground. After years spent discussing a move to a new ground, Saltergate – believed to be the Football League's oldest ground – was utterly neglected, the country's only league ground not to have been improved since the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. Saltergate was only kept open due to a special dispensation of the Football Licensing Authority, and last season the Kop terrace was closed altogether for safety reasons.

Towards the end of 1999, Lea announced he was prepared to sell his interest in Chesterfield. Two businessmen-supporters approached him about buying the shares. One, Mike Hyman, was prepared to offer £400,000.

"He showed me the door," Hyman recalled. "He said he would never sell to anybody who was not a millionaire, and that he would thoroughly vet anybody taking over to make sure they had the interests of the football club at heart."

In March 2000, Lea agreed to sell Chesterfield to Darren Brown. He had a background in printing, and had recently bought the insolvent Sheffield Steelers and Hull Thunder ice hockey clubs and the Sheffield Sharks basketball club, under the umbrella of his would-be conglomerate: UK Sports Group. He did not profess to be a Chesterfield fan, but claimed the know-how to take the club forward.

The overall price agreed was £1.27m, a profit to Lea of over £800,000. The payments were structured in an unusual way: Brown was to pay Lea £384,000 cash, up front. Brown borrowed a further £500,000 – from Lea's own branch of Barclays Bank, which Lea himself guaranteed. Brown was to pay interest on the loan, then repay it in full the following April 2001, together with a final payment of a £384,000.

A cursory look at the publicly available accounts of the two printing companies which Brown owned would have shown no evidence that his companies gave him access to money on anything like this scale. One company, Forms Direct, turned over about £30,000 in 1998, nearly £19,000 in 1999 and made small losses in both years. The other, Uni-Form (Chesterfield) Ltd, turned over £52,177 in 1998, losing £6,000; £11,447 the following year, losing £19,800.

Lea maintains he relied on assurances from Brown's advisors that he was good for the money. In May 2000, Brown paid Lea the first downpayment and became chairman of Chesterfield Football Club.

Under their manager, Nicky Law, and with quality lower-division players secured on wages of up to £3,000 per week, Chesterfield topped the Third Division. Off the field, Brown presented an enthusiastic vision for the club, cheering supporters after the dour years under Lea.

Lea almost immediately made inquiries about buying a controlling interest in at least two other troubled lower division clubs, Bury and Lincoln City. At Chesterfield, scandal was lurking. In April this year the Football League docked the club nine points and fined them £20,000 for failing to declare cash paid into three turnstiles and deceiving a transfer tribunal by presenting a false contract for the striker Luke Beckett, signed from Chester. Far more serious, though, was a question which has still not been resolved: where did all the money go?

Having apparently spent little on the ground or on players, Lea left Chesterfield with cash in the bank. They were also due over £400,000 from the Football League's new television and internet deals. Yet by December they could not pay routine bills and the tax and VAT bills were out of control.

The September 2000 management accounts showed that over £399,000 had been paid out of Chesterfield to Brown's company, UK Sports. In subsequent months, Brown did not deny the suggestion that he effectively used the club's money to meet the first downpayment to buy Lea's shares. Derbyshire Fraud Squad, together with the Serious Fraud Office, are investigating events at Saltergate and are known to be looking into that £399,000.

Brown and Lea fell out after Brown failed to meet the interest payments on the £500,000 loan. Brown has even suggested that it was Lea's idea that Brown should use Chesterfield's money to meet the first downpayment. Lea vehemently denies this, as does his legal advisor, Neil Hook.

"It's absolute rubbish," Hook said this week. "I attended all the meetings and that was never said. The money was said to be coming from Brown's investments, PEPs and Tessas."

Last April, with creditors pressing and an action by Lea pending to reclaim the club, Brown passed UK Sports to another local man, Andy Cooke. Cooke sold it to the Supporters Society, which had formed only 11 days previously to save a club heading for oblivion. They almost immediately put it into administration, with debts, run up in less than a year, close to £2m.

Since then the supporters have survived a motion that the club be expelled from the League, brought by Douglas Craig, York City's chairman. They have sold the winger Ryan Williams and the goalkeeper Mike Pollitt, and, after a losing start, clambered into the middle of the Second Division table. This summer they spent over £300,000 bringing the Kop and Cross Street terraces back into use.

"We have to manage expectations," said Howard Borrell, a society and club director. "Fans have to realise it isn't sexy to pay big transfer fees and wages. We have to nurture our own talent, manage the club sensibly, so it has a future."

Last month Borrell, along with eight other directors, was elected to the society's board after a vote of 1,600 society members, a turn-out of over half the membership. It was the first-ever election of an English football club board by an electorate of supporters. The odd carping about personalities on the message board of the excellent unofficial website, www.cfcaspire.com can, unlike under the previous regime or that of any other club, now be tested annually in elections.

Why Lea has bid to buy the club back after he disposed of it last year is unknown. This week he refused to comment or explain it. The administrators will make their recommendation next week, for a future either with Lea or a democratically elected body of committed supporters. Only then will we see how this neat, deep, small-town football morality tale is scripted to end.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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