David Conn: Popularity and receivership make strange bedfellows

The Nationwide League kicks off today, with some supporters wondering whether their teams will last out the season
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The Independent Football

The Football League's clubs may huddle in the shadow of the media monster known as the Premiership, but the League nevertheless starts the season today increasingly and extraordinarily popular; its matches having been watched last season by a staggering 14,871,981 people, the highest aggregate attendance since 1965. The League is sufficiently chuffed with this to talk, shyly, of a "rebranding" exercise, yet its officials have spent most of the summer worrying about which of the 72 clubs would fail to start the season at all.

Oldham was the biggest worry; Luton flared into farce then administrative receivership in July, the wreckage of Wimbledon finally plopped into administration in June, Notts County are guaranteed to remain the world's oldest League club only until 1 September when they could be expelled, while Barnsley, a Premier League member as recently as 1998, were barred from playing pre-season friendlies and have made it to today's away match at Colchester only on a match-to-match agreement with their own administrator.

John Gurney, the front man for an unidentified consortium which took Luton over from the former chairman Mike Watson-Challis, gave football its own silly season by unveiling his plans for a Formula One track in the middle of a 90,000-seat stadium which would make the Hatters financially Europe's largest football club (sic). It would, he went on - and here's a warning for the League's shiny-eyed branding team - be renamed London Luton Football Club, proposals which, along with the instant sacking of the manager, Joe Kinnear, and the coach, Mick Harford, drew incensed protests from the Luton hardcore. Yvonne Fletcher, the then supporter-director, resigned, and a supporters trust, Trust in Luton, formed, going on to perform one of the canniest sleights of hand yet seen during the League's financial implosion.

Watson-Challis, who took Luton out of a previous financial crisis in 1999, had propped up the club's ongoing losses with £12m via his company, Hatters Holdings. Trust in Luton approached Watson-Challis to discuss the club's plight and on 30 July, he agreed to sell Hatters Holdings to the trust for £1, complete with the £12m in outstanding loans. That made the trust the club's major creditor, and they immediately appointed an administrative receiver, Barry Ward, who now controls the club in place of Gurney. He is pondering what to do next; the club owes around £3m on top of the Hatters Holdings loans, and still has the possibility of building a new stadium on land near junction 10 of the M1.

Gurney is furious and promising court action, claiming the scuppered takeover cost him over £500,000 and that he has grounds for contesting the supporters trust's takeover of the debt. "Luton's narrow-minded and parochial, like a Lancashire mill town in the South," he said. "The only future I can see for the club is extinction." But a Trust in Luton spokeswoman said: "Many loyal supporters are still devoted to this club and will do all we can to ensure it does not die but succeeds."

There is no similar fans' campaign to revive the battered shell of Wimbledon, once the romantic model for all small clubs, now in administration and being kept alive only to facilitate a property development which will bring Asda Walmart to Milton Keynes. In June the Norwegian shipping magnates Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten finally cut their losses at £51m, forcing the club into administration.

The plan to move Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, seemingly opposed by everybody in football except the club's owners and two members of the Football Association's arbitration panel which allowed it, led to the fans forming their own club, AFC Wimbledon, which raised over £1m in a share issue over the summer, has bought Kingsmeadow Stadium from Kingstonian, and is starting its second season in the Combined Counties League hoping for promotion.

The old Wimbledon is being funded by the Milton Keynes Consortium, including Asda Walmart, which is looking for planning permission for a new superstore in the city. The council is insisting that a new stadium be built as a condition of granting permission, and only if a senior football club can be introduced to play in it. The 3,500 Milton Keynes-based fans who bought season tickets expecting to watch Wimbledon in the city's National Hockey Stadium this season will be refunded for every game the club plays at Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park, until improvements to the hockey stadium are completed.

The MK Consortium, fronted by the music producer Pete Winkelman, have provided the administrators with assurances, including one from Asda, that they can pay for the work, and fund the club through the season. Wimbledon's administrators have released their five highest-earning players, including Michael Hughes, Neil Shipperley and David Connolly, and their crowds are not expected to contribute substantially to another attendance record-breaking season for the League.

Barnsley is a mess. The administrator, Matthew Dunham of Robson Rhodes, sold the ground, surrounding land and club last December to the town's mayor, Peter Doyle, who borrowed £2m from The Sterling Consortium. Yet the League and FA both say that Doyle has never satisfied their criteria for membership, including the need to provide financial documentation.

They have refused to transfer Barnsley's League membership to Doyle's company, insisting that officially the club must play under the auspices of the old one. Dunham, however, has no money or authority to continue and take on more debts, such as players' wages. Doyle has now sold the club to a local businessman, Sean Lewis, who has some respected football administrators involved, but the club's future is still far from certain.

Dunham, previously Bury's administrator, gave evidence in June to the All-Party Parliamentary Football Group's inquiry into football's financial crisis. "I hate to be a harbinger of doom," he began, going on to describe clubs as increasingly reliant on a stock of local businessmen which is fast depleting. "It will not be long before a club fails completely, and ceases partway through a season. I think that will bring some sanity back into the game."

Not much sign of it at Meadow Lane, where Notts County have been in administration since June 2002, and have been given three extensions by the League to the original ultimatum that if they did come out by 27 May they, the League's oldest club, would be expelled.

The administrator, Paul Finnity, identified as the preferred bidders Frank Strang, a businessman based in Grantown-on-Spey in the Scottish Highlands, and the Essex-based Raj Bhatia, but, last Friday, Finnity announced the pair had not come through with the promised funding and the deal collapsed. The League has now given Notts only until 1 September to find a new investor, and, introduced by the club's former chairman, Derek Pavis, Finnity is believed to be talking to the former Leicester City director Roy Parker and David Wilson, a housebuilder.

Oldham have parted company with Chris Moore, the owner of the Oxfordshire technology company Torex, who took the club over in 2001 with a plan for promotion to the Premiership within five years. In June he announced he would no longer put up the £50,000 required every week, although he would not seek repayment of the £4m he had already sunk in. Moore has now transferred his shares to the club's marketing and finance directors Sean Jarvis and Neil Joy, who are working with insolvency practitioners PKF to find a way out of the £2m the club also owes. "There will inevitably be some insolvency procedure," said PKF's Philip Long, "and we are advising on the options."

On 12 July, Oldham hosted a fund-raising match between an allstar side and the "Wembley Wizards", manager Joe Royle's class of 1990 - Andy Ritchie, Earl Barrett and the rest, who reached the Littlewoods Cup final and, even more memorably, took Manchester United to an FA Cup semi-final replay before they finally lost to a late Mark Robins goal in the replay. That was before Oldham themselves became one of the First Division clubs forming the Premier League in 1992, breaking away from sharing money with the three divisions below them.

Just 11 years on, English football is polarising; while United were off this summer promoting their "brand" to the US market, Oldham's old pros were at Boundary Park, playing to keep their former club alive. Such is the Nationwide League. And millions of people have woken up all a flutter today, hardly able to wait for it all to start again.

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