David Conn: Exeter face coming storm with faith, hope and charity

Loyal Grecian fans have taken over their club but the bailiffs are at the door and a 12-point deduction hangs over them

At Exeter City's St James' Park last week, days after the Supporters Trust bought out the former chairman, Ivor Doble, and emerged joyfully as the club's major shareholder, two burly blokes arrived in the offices, seeming to show a close interest in the furniture. The supporter-directors have become used to the sight of bailiffs at the club since Doble asked them last May to take charge of the day-to-day running - or, more accurately, battle the chaos - at Exeter.

Last month, a lorry parked at the top of the nearby Telegraph Hill, and an hour or two later drove off with the club's generator. Barry Sansom, an ex-paratrooper and Grecians fan who has worked non-stop for 80 days, unpaid like all the other supporters, forked out personally for a new one. Last month, bailiffs repossessed the club's tractor. The lawnmower was the next to disappear.

Wearily, David Treharne, the Trust's vice-chairman, approached the two big guys and asked them what they wanted. They pointed to the office chairs, and asked if they belonged to the club. He sighed: "I told them the club owned just about nothing anymore. We didn't even have power in the treatment room, except for a 40 watt light bulb, which had blown."

He asked what the debt was for. "It turned out to be a parking ticket, which one of the senior football staff had been given ages ago, but the £45 automatic penalty hadn't been paid. Nobody had answered any of the demands and it turned into a £250 debt with bailiffs arriving to walk off with the office furniture. That pretty much sums up what we've been dealing with."

After just two weeks of feverish work alongside Bishop Fleming, a firm of accountants, the new supporter-run board is about to issue a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) proposal, by which they declare the club insolvent and offer to pay their creditors, owed a hopeless £3m in total, 10p in the pound.

Their major debts are to the builders, Mowlem - owed around £800,000 for building two stands at the ground - £500,000 outstanding in tax and VAT, a £160,000 loan from the Football Foundation, and a mighty £1.1m in loans from former directors including around £700,000 which Doble now stands to lose. If creditors do accept the proposal, Exeter will immediately become the first club to be docked 12 points by the Conference, which introduced the penalty in the summer for clubs which cut their debts in this way. But if creditors reject it, it is difficult to see any future at all for the club.

The supporters hope the CVA will enable them to deal with the debts built up over years, which they inherited, and begin the long clamber back to respectability for the club. Exeter went into administration in 1994 but never really recovered financially, and in the spring of last year the club announced it could no longer pay its players.

Doble, the 63 per cent owner of the club, and other directors, loaned money to support the losses, then in the summer of last year he handed responsibility for running Exeter to two men: John Russell and Mike Lewis. Russell, the former chairman of Scarborough when they went out of the Football League in 1999, and Lewis, the former commercial director at Swansea, forecast towards the end of last season that the club would break even or make just a small loss if they were relegated.

Last May, Exeter did plunge, becoming the first club to be relegated under the Football League's new two-up, two-down relationship with the Conference. Russell became the first chairman to go out of the Football League with two different clubs.

Just days later, both Russell and Lewis, and Russell's wife Gillian, were arrested by the local Devon and Cornwall Police and questioned in connection with a fraud squad investigation into alleged financial irregularities at Exeter City while they were running the club. Search warrants were executed in Exeter and by South Wales Police. The pair resigned from the club shortly afterwards, and have fallen out publicly with Uri Geller, the celebrity spoonbender whom they recruited to be co-chairman with Russell, but who was never actually registered as a director.

Bail for Russell and Lewis was extended earlier this month and they are now due to appear in court on 4 November. Gillian Russell is to answer her bail the following day. Nobody has been charged; a police spokesperson said this week that the inquiries are continuing.

When the pair left, Doble asked the Supporters Trust, which was relatively newly formed, to take over the running of the club, which it agreed to do even though it had no significant shareholding. The Trust's chairman, Ian Huxham, who runs a local hoardings business, and Julian Tagg, a property developer, became club directors along with Terry Pavey, who recently retired from running his own recruitment company. Pavey, a supporter who originally left Devon when he was 16, had become involved with the Trust and was planning to approach the club for use of the car park to raise money via boot sales. Now, three days a week, he is living in the car park himself, in a mobile home, working frantically with the other volunteers.

"We have a major struggle," Pavey said, "but we're committed to putting all the problems behind us and making this club a beacon, deeply involved with the local community and there for its benefit."

In August, Treharne approached Doble to ask about the Trust buying his stake. On Friday 5 September, Treharne received a call to be at Doble's city centre jewellery shop at 9.30am to do the deal. Another Trust member who worked nearby raced round to witness the deal. By 3pm, the signatures were on the contract, and Treharne was emerging blinking into the daylight with a 63 per cent stake in his football club.

"I was absolutely euphoric," Treharne said. "Then I woke up the next morning and thought, 'Oh no, I've just committed the Supporters Trust to £3m of debt'."

Exeter thereby became the sixth English club at different levels, following Lincoln City, Chesterfield, York City, Enfield and AFC Wimbledon, to become majority-owned by supporters via the democratic, mutual model propounded by the Government-backed initiative Supporters Direct. Supporters Direct's development officer, Dave Boyle, paid tribute: "As so often, the supporters stepped in when nobody else would, and with their club in crisis. They have steadied the ship so far and will be doing all they can to ensure the club doesn't die. It proves yet again that the future of clubs lies with their supporters, not sugar daddies."

Before any future can be considered, the CVA must be agreed; creditors have 28 days to deliver their verdicts. Even if they consent, the Trust must find, according to Pavey, around £300,000 to service the CVA. They also face ongoing losses, with at least one player still on a £100,000-a-year contract, alongside some youngsters being paid as little as £250 per week.

Then there is the 12-point deduction to face, another unenviable football first for the Grecians. This week John Moules, the Conference's chief executive, said no exception could be made for Exeter's peculiar circumstances, or the fact that a new board, not responsible for the historic debts, is in charge.

"I do understand the difficulties, and very much welcome the involvement of the Supporters Trust," Moules said. "However, there are no grey areas to this rule, which the clubs voted through in the summer, in order to encourage our clubs to pay their way, not run up debts."

The club will have a right of appeal to the Football Association, which is the final arbiter of football's rules. "We really hope the FA will be able to exercise discretion," Boyle said. "Given the debts they inherited, the Trust have no choice but to ask creditors to accept the CVA. Following relegation and financial chaos, to lose 12 points really would mean being hit with a triple whammy."

Whatever happens, the Trust is optimistic that the club can survive. Treharne said they have met huge goodwill from the city council and suppliers previously reluctant to deal with the club. "We bought an icemaker for the treatment room, for cost price, even though the club still owes the company money for one we had before." The new owners of Exeter have a five-year plan, lifelong loyalty and bags of commitment to draw on - even if there is a chronic shortage of office chairs to sit on.

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