Peace at Saltergate as fans assume control

Months of hard work by Chesterfield supporters bear fruit as they rescue club from administration to beat threat of closure
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The Independent Online

Chesterfield FC made the headlines last April when a Football League tribunal found them guilty of dishonesty while Darren Brown was the chairman. But few who covered those grisly details were around this week to celebrate the remarkable achievement of Chesterfield supporters, who took over their club then on the brink of ruin, overcame a series of trials which would have broken Job, and emerged on Tuesday with a court order taking the club, wholly owned by the fans, out of administration.

Creditors owed £1.65m after Brown's calamitous year in charge rejected a late offer backed by Norton Lea, the chairman who had sold the club to Brown, even though it proposed paying them 20p in the pound, twice as much as the offer made by the supporters' trust, the Chesterfield Football Supporters Society.

The administrators had warned that if 75 per cent of creditors did not approve the CFSS proposal, the Court would wind up the club, yet still Neal Hook, Lea's representative, voted against it. Ian Yeowart, the CFSS' elected chairman, was furious. "It was nothing other than a last-minute attempt to destroy the club," he said. "Thankfully, it failed. We have now secured our club for the fans and town after 10 months of hell. It is up to us to safeguard it for future generations."

The CFSS' 16 elected directors, celebrating in the Derby Tup pub last night, reflected on an extraordinary saga in the life of their club. It began in May 2000 when Lea finally agreed, after refusing to meet other bidders, to sell the club for £1.2m to Brown, a 29-year-old with no apparent commercial credentials except two failing print companies and a "portfolio" of near-insolvent basketball and ice hockey clubs, including the Sheffield Steelers.

The deal, which emerged later, was that Brown would pay Lea £384,000 immediately, then Lea effectively lent Brown a further £500,000 to pay to him. This was repayable the following April, when another £384,000 was to be paid. Immediately Brown took over, he transferred £399,000 of the club's money to his company, UK Sports. He has suggested he used it to meet the first payment – and even that Lea had encouraged him to do so, an allegation which Lea has vehemently denied.

Chesterfield assembled a squad which was too good for the Third Division – and too expensive for the club. Within weeks two directors, Richard Wilczynski and his partner Nick Bartholomew, resigned, citing personal reasons but letting it be known that irregularities were taking place. In November, two replacement directors, Dean Newman and David Wood, also resigned. They said publicly that money was pouring out of the club, including the £399,000, and that Chesterfield were going bust.

In February last year, the Football Association's compliance officer, Graham Bean, turned up unannounced at Saltergate to investigate. This led to a League Tribunal in which Newman, Wood, Wilczynski and Bartholomew gave evidence of alleged wrong-doing.

The League found the club guilty of two offences: first, that they misled a tribunal assessing the proper fee due to Chester City for the striker Luke Beckett by presenting a false contract which understated what Chesterfield were paying him. Secondly, Chesterfield failed to declare cash through three turnstiles. Individuals were not charged, however; instead the club was fined £20,000 and docked nine points, a penalty widely seen as inadequate but which the panel later reaffirmed.

Creditors were gathering, and Lea had emerged to claim that Brown was in breach of their agreement and moved to take the club back. Brown sold it on to an associate, Andy Cooke, who first intended to offload it to Lea, but instead offered it to the CFSS, which had formed only six days before at an emotional meeting attended by 1,000 desperately concerned fans.

Once inside, they discovered chaos. Internal accounts showed the club running at a £500,000 loss, but a further £1m further was missing. Within 16 days, they put the club into administration, giving it breathing space.

Lea, a former stalwart of the League, was still asserting a legal claim on the club. The supporters refused to go to him, cap in hand. On buying the club, they had been given a letter from a house-builder, Bryant Homes, which apparently set out a deal with Brown to sell Saltergatefor £1.375m. Bryant were to pay £659,000 up front, of which only £150,000 was to be paid to Chesterfield. The remaining £509,000 was to go to Woodbury Construction, a company owned by Dave Wood. Of that, the former directors, including Lea, were to share £125,000. This left £384,000, the amount Brown would owe Lea as the final instalment. Brown told me this week that this deal was done by Lea, not him, as a means of Lea extracting his final payment on the shares, and that he had refused to go through with Lea's deal. I faxed Lea asking him if that was correct but he did not reply. Wood denied any knowledge of the deal.

The Derbyshire Police Fraud Squad is investigating the Chesterfield black hole, including the £399,000 and the proposals to sell the ground. This week they said investigations were "ongoing", but nobody at Chesterfield is accusing them of undue haste. The administrators stated last week that they were continuing to investigate Brown, and had sued for £55,000 of club money which Brown had allegedly used as a deposit on a new house. Brown has not replied to the writ and solicitors have applied for judgment.

The CFSS then survived a motion brought by Douglas Craig, York City's chairman, with whom Lea had worked closely on League matters, that Chesterfield should be expelled from the League for breaking the rules.

The CFSS had kept Law as manager. He had signed a contract with Brown which was due to increase to £83,200 this June. When the club was promoted, Law was entitled to a £25,000 bonus and a new contract at least 25 per cent improved.

Patronised and underestimated, the 16-man board brought to the job varied expertise and commercial nous. Alan Walters, an accountant, worked unpaid for three to four days a week to help rescue the club. A group of fans, they were far from starstruck. They sold Beckett to Stockport for £100,000, which balanced the books. David Reeves, a Saltergate hero but expensive, left gracefully for Oldham.

The supporters hoped the local council would lend them £1m but late last year the council said it could not provide public money for the purpose. Then Nicky Law left to become manager of Bradford, taking his two assistants with him. Yeowart said: "We won't stand in his way." Law paid tribute to the CFSS and said he hoped they would succeed.

The CFSS raised £100,000 via a share issue and a further £250,000 in loans including one from the Duke of Devonshire, the club's president. The administration dragged on – costing £383,000 to the accountants, Kidsons – but the CFSS produced a credible offer: football creditors, tax and VAT bills paid in full, and around £50,000, 10p in the pound, to unsecured creditors. They have pledged to pay £360,000 now, and £183,000 in three instalments to September 2004. All the television money has gone to creditors.

This left only the last-minute bid fronted by Wilczynski but known to be backed by Lea. The votes of Newman, owed money for printing the programme, and the former manager, John Duncan, and his assistant, Kevin Randall, were crucial to give the CFSS the required 75 per cent.

Yeowart was delighted: "We have worked incredibly hard and overcome every conceivable obstacle. We will continue to run this club sensibly, to safeguard it for the future people of Chesterfield." Phil Tooley, another fan now a director, said: "The point is, we are transparent, and accountable. We're subject to elections every three years. If people want to sack the board, the beauty is: they can."

This result will gladden hearts at York, where 1,500 people are expected at a meeting tonight to launch a Supporters Trust. They have been roused by the actions of Craig, and three fellow directors who paid around £200,000 for the club, then in 1999 hived off the assets to a holding company for which they now want £4.5m.

Yeowart is defiant: "You don't need a rich man, where do they get you? We will pledge our best efforts never again to let this club fall to an unscrupulous owner; it belongs to the fans." Little attention has been paid to Chesterfield this week. But what the fans have achieved, a profound blow to the idea that football clubs are rightfully pawns in rich men's games, is one of the great football stories of our time.

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