What would possess a football club chairman to consider bringing Ched Evans into his squad? That was the question doing the rounds yesterday but the answer is not so complicated and it is written across the threadbare exterior of Oldham Athletic. Desperation.
Hiring convicted rapists was not what the League One side’s chairman, Simon Corney, foresaw when he and two friends with whom he’d made it big in New York became the most improbable custodians of Boundary Park, 10 years ago. The club looked certain to fold when Corney breezed in with Danny Gazal and Simon Blitz, bearing gifts of £7m which they declared would propel Oldham to a bright new future. The three, based at Flushing, in New York’s Queens district, had been successful in telecoms as distributors for T-Mobile and AT&T.
Corney said back then it had been “a childhood dream to run an English club” but it was 22 acres of land around Boundary Park, not altruism, that were actually the prime attraction for Gazal, a Tottenham-supporting American, and his two British associates – Chelsea-supporting Blitz and Corney, a Mancunian Arsenal fan. The three, whose business beginnings are thought to have been in the markets of London’s East End, had already diversified into property when the telecoms bubble began to tail off.
Their property portfolio is expansive, so they did not anticipate a football ground in Oldham being so impossibly difficult to develop, as they drew up plans for a 120-room hotel, a gym, 60,000 square feet of office space and 553 flats. One of the ground’s neighbours is the Royal Oldham Hospital, and there were ideas about selling properties to its employees. There was talk of an £80m development – which rather puts the £7m outlay into perspective.
It didn’t happen. The property bubble burst at the critical moment, though the real disaster for the three came when Oldham Council rejected their redevelopment plans. Corney, Gazal and Blitz were said to be “very, very despondent and disillusioned” in the local authority. “The possibility of recouping their investment is dwindling and so is their interest,” a club spokesman said at the time.
Gazal and Blitz announced they were leaving the club – and they did, though less fully appreciated was the fact that they have retained ownership of the land. That means Corney, who works out of New York for three weeks in four, has seemingly been left with the football side of the business. He has made no secret of his desire to be out of the place, too, but with Gazal and Blitz seemingly holding the land he does not have the prime asset to sell. Takeover stories surface periodically and always fizzle out.
Attempting to staunch the losses has become a pretty dismal business, especially with a £6m new stand to make Boundary Park a four-side ground. A small plot of land behind one stand has been sold to a local developer for 12 houses, another plot leased for a hospital extension, yet more of the tarmac leased to the hospital for a car parking operation that generates £500,000 a year. A little more cash was raised when a kidney dialysis centre was built on another small segment.
Into this grim hand-to-mouth financial existence emerged the prospect of signing Ched Evans, six weeks ago. It was pressed by Corney’s co-director Barry Owen, a retired Greater Manchester police superintendent and representative of the club’s supporters’ trust, which was allocated a seat on the Oldham board and a 3 per cent stake after raising £100,000 to help the club out of administration. Owen has become something of an enforcer for Corney – the one who deals with disciplinary issues when players step out of line and who tends to be called on to sack people. He was behind the club employing Lee Hughes in 2007, after he had served half of a six-year prison term for causing death by dangerous driving, and has a fervent belief in offenders’ right to rehabilitation.
Corney is understood to have studied the details of the Evans court case. But as an entrepreneur down to his bootstraps and one of life’s risk-takers, he has simply seen the potential to acquire a player recently valued at £3m, rebuild and sell him. For Oldham, £3m is a fortune. Corney has often shown a gambler’s instinct at Oldham. It has led him to pay more wages than other clubs at times. Retaining a squad of 30 to 35 players – as he has done – is ambitious for a club which attracts 4,000 for home games, though the Football League’s new financial fair play regime has affected that. “He is not averse to gambles,” says one who has worked with him. “He likes to think outside the box. He will think of signing Evans in those terms.” Corney’s location outside of the UK might have contributed to a less acute awareness of the toxicity attached to the Welsh player.
When the idea was first floated by Owen last month, Oldham observed the backlash and quickly issued a press release stating it would not happen. The club had just won 3-0 at Rochdale at the time, and gone sixth in League One, with one defeat in 18. But the idea has resurfaced in a different football landscape: a run of four straight defeats, including 7-0 at MK Dons and 4-0 at home to bottom-placed Yeovil. They are 14th and at risk of another of the relegation fights that have become so familiar. The dip in form is understood to be a significant part of the change in choreography.
Owning Oldham certainly seems to have become a joyless task for Corney, with the chance to step into the Liverpool dressing room – which he did, after the FA Cup third-round tie last year – a rare pleasure. He may conclude that desperate times demand desperate measures. But a move like this will send him a more torrid environment than any he has known. Such are the predicaments at the bottom of football’s food chain.Reuse content