David Conn: County leave world of deals and leases to breathe again

New start for oldest professional League club after relinquishing ways of 'old style' chairmen and business arrangements
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The Independent Football

As we now know, Notts County narrowly escaped on Wednesday from a threat of expulsion by the Football League, a deadline so final, final, final that people had even begun to believe it might be real. This was a genuinely gladdening headline, the world's oldest professional League club preserved for a new future, but beneath it lies the small print of an extraordinary history of deals and sub-deals, a dog-eared portrait of our footballing times.

The setting is appropriately cockeyed; Notts County's West Stand - which faces south. A feature of the club's record-breakingly long, 18-month administration was that a solution had to be found for the strange fact that its West Stand "belonged" to Derek Pavis, the local plumbing magnate and Notts' chairman from June 1987. The arrangements announced on Wednesday - which take the club out of administration following outstanding work by the Supporters Trust, three local businessmen and an anonymous supporter who paid £3m to buy Meadow Lane - include £500,000 paid to Pavis for the West Stand. It would, however, be a mistake to think Pavis owned the stand because he built it. In fact, quite unknown to most fans, he benefited from an unusual arrangement, which enabled him, and before him the previous chairman and local MP Jack Dunnett, to take a hefty annual income from the club.

Back in May 1987, when Dunnett was still the chairman, he arranged for the club to rent the West Stand to his company, Park Street Securities for nothing, a peppercorn. He then rented the use of the stand's executive boxes back to the club for a handsome fee, and rooms inside the stand to a social and sports club, for a further generous helping of cash.

That lease arrangement, done possibly because Dunnett had originally financed the building of the stand, lasted from when Dunnett first sorted it out, right through to last Wednesday. Pavis bought the lease in 1999, for £500,000. His rent last year was £90,000 to the club for use of the executive boxes and the Pavilion Lodge Hotel - which houses the club's young players - and £45,000 to the Meadow Club and Sport Nottingham, a total of £135,000 - although the Meadow Club was empty last year. Throughout even the last 18 months, while the club has been in administration and facing extinction, it has been paying £90,000 to Pavis - £7,500 per month. Pavis, who is credited with running Notts steadily in his time and redeveloping Meadow Lane, told me this week of the West Stand lease: "I made an investment and I expected a return on it."

There is nothing illegal in the arrangement, but when the local council was asked to help save the club by renegotiating the Meadow Lane lease to allow development, therefore making it commercially attractive, councillors insisted that the West Stand leases be surrendered.

John Taylor, the councillor responsible for working with County and Forest, would not be drawn on his view of the leases, but simply said: "The council believed this was the fit and proper way to go forward, to clean up the ownership." Pavis insisted throughout that he be paid a decent price, settling eventually for £500,000, the price he paid for it four years ago.

The revelation about the method by which the former chairmen earned handsomely from the club for years opens a fascinating door into the inner workings of the club under their "old style" chairmen. Jack Dunnett was a notable figure, a long-serving MP, and the Football League's president from 1981 to 1986. Elected MP for Nottingham Central in 1964, he took over the world's oldest league club four years later, when it was seriously on its uppers - how things change.

Described in Simon Inglis's Football Grounds of Britain (Collins Willow) as a man of "demonic energy", Dunnett worked with the iconic, gnarled manager Jimmy Sirrel to drag Notts County from the old Fourth Division up to the First from 1981 to 1984. Inglis writes that the West Stand was built in 1978, costing £800,000, comprising no seats, just the executive boxes and the Meadow Club. Pitchside, the stand was that lower division symbol of football's decline, a blank brick wall, topped by the executive boxes.

Dunnett appears to have arranged the sub-leases, by which the club rented the stand to his company, Park Street Securities, and he rented it back at a profit, nine years later, in May 1987. Two weeks later, he sold the club, then back in the Third Division, to Pavis, for an undisclosed amount. Pavis told me he continued to pay Park Street Securities their hefty rent on the West Stand every quarter.

Dunnett had retired from Parliament in 1983, and continued to be involved in property and other businesses, but in October 1994 he was made bankrupt - and he is still, aged 81, bankrupt. He retired as a director of Park Street Securities in 1993 and is not named more recently as a shareholder, the shares mostly being held by an Eric Brown, the address a PO Box in the Bahamas.

Park Street had, though, mortgaged the lease and in 1998, receivers were appointed. Pavis told me Dunnett had been offering him the lease for years but was asking too much money, and eventually Pavis bought it from the receiver in 1999, for £500,000. From then, Notts County, the social and sports club, paid rent to Pavis' company, DCP Holdings.

Shortly afterwards, he decided he wanted to sell up and retire. As the chairman, with Neil Warnock as the manager, they had assembled a side, including the centre-half Craig Short and the striker Tommy Johnson, which made it to the old First Division in 1991-92, a year before the Premier League breakaway.

With £2m available from the Football Trust to First Division clubs for ground redevelopment, Pavis figured he should do up Meadow Lane before the inevitable drop, so, financed mostly by the grants and the sales of Short and Johnson for £3.5m and £1.5m respectively, he had three sides rebuilt, including seats installed in the West Stand, in just 17 weeks in 1992, a remarkable achievement. Pavis ran the club as many directors do, lending money to cover shortfalls, then paying himself back when the club sold a player.

By 2000, Pavis' loan account was up to £2m, he was 70, and wanted to retire. He told me he had many offers but eventually agreed to sell to the American businessman and journalist, Albert Scardino. Scardino was to raise enough money for the club to repay Pavis' loans in three instalments, and having had positive discussions with the city and county councils, Scardino was confident they had agreed to provide £3.4m in loan guarantees, although he had no formal contract. He was able to pay the first instalment of around £560,000, but the councils delayed, Scardino missed the second instalment, which meant he seriously fell out with Pavis.

In the meantime, Peter Storrie had arrived as the chief executive and in the expectation of cash arriving, begun to pay big money to attract players like Darren Caskey - believed to be on around £130,000 per year - for a push for promotion to the First Division. An uneasy peace prevailed after Scardino paid Pavis a further £250,000, but on 6 June 2002, the councils said they could not provide the loan guarantees, and days later, Notts County were in administration.

For months, the administrator, Paul Finnity, waited for Scardino to do a deal, then two businessmen and former RAF colleagues, Frank Strang and Raj Bhatia, tried to close in. The Bhatia-Strang deal finally collapsed acrimoniously on 1 August, the weekend before this season started; Bhatia maintains it was unfair because he did have the money, Finnity disputes that.

The League then rallied seriously about calling time on the game's longest-ever administration, setting this coming Tuesday, 9 December, as Notts County's real, genuine, absolute, final deadline. This time the fans and local businessmen reacted. The "Blenheim Consortium" includes local men Peter Joyce and John Mountney, and the former Leicester City director Roy Parker, but most importantly a supporter-businessman, who has asked to remain anonymous, came forward with around £3m to buy the new, cleaned-up lease from the council. He is renting it back to the club, lock, stock and executive boxes, for a peppercorn.

The Supporters Trust met its fundraising target of £250,000, earning a seat on the board. "We will be dedicated to helping to run our club professionally and transparently," said the Trust's chairman, Dr David Hindley, a lecturer in business and sport at Nottingham Trent University. "Our future is as a community club and we will be working very supportively with Notts' outstanding community programme." Pavis has, as he acknowledged with a chuckle, been "kicked upstairs", to become life President of the club, with its attendant privileges. "I'm delighted the club survived," he said. Of the fan-director, he said: "They used to ask for a supporter on the board, and I used to say: 'Don't you think I'm a supporter? I've invested millions in this club.' It's foreign to me... But good luck to them."