David Conn: Reynolds reprimand asks testing questions of League's progress

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The Independent Football

Not more than a couple of years ago, when the Football League was still laughing off the idea of banning criminals, fraudsters and bankrupts from taking over its historic football clubs, the League's executive would offer - to prove that such a "Fit and Proper Person Test" is unworkable - the example of George Reynolds, the larger than life comb-over king who owned Darlington.

George had done plenty of porridge in his youth, following an appalling childhood in which he was effectively sold by Sunderland's education authority to an approved school, where he was abused and forced into punishing work, which only prepared him for a young life of crime and intimidation, safecracking and prison.

Since then, however, the League would say, George became a solid, respectable businessman, having in 1998 sold part of his business, George Reynolds UK (Gruk), for £32.2m, placing him squarely on the Sunday Times' Rich List.

With Darlington wrecked and broke in the clapped-out gentility of their Feethams ground, who better than George to arrive in May 1999, chase away the bailiffs, pump millions in, build a lavish, 27,000 seater stadium he would name after himself, and promise to take little old Darlo into the Premier League in five years? There was, then, some poetic symbolism this week in the announcement from the League, now so keen to be seen as reformist, that its Fit and Proper Person Test is actually to be toughened - the day after Reynolds was disqualified from being the director of any company for eight years, following serious irregularities in his running of the very company which made his fortune.

The League is raising its bar on football club directors to include individuals on the sex offenders' register, those who have been given a custodial sentence of 12 months or more, and people disqualified by a professional body - adding to bankrupts, disqualified directors and those who have run two companies into insolvency, which formed the basis of the rule when it was finally introduced last year.

The League's chairman, Sir Brian Mawhinney, said: "Football League clubs continue to set the pace in delivering higher standards of governance", which is now admirably true, but the George Reynolds case asks questions which, if the League is serious, demand a still more sophisticated approach to protecting clubs.

Reynolds's disqualification is the latest landmark in a hubristic downfall Dickens would have been hard-pressed to conceive. In 1999, Gruk put £3m into Darlington to pay off debts, then a further £1.2m to drag it up. While the club was making headlines for slapstick, like the abortive signing of Faustino Asprilla and George's wife, Susan's, public outburst alleging games were "thrown", George pressed ahead with building his George Reynolds Arena, which was to cost him £18m. He lost most Darlington fans when he talked about confronting his growing band of critics "at the ground or at home", but less well-known was that while the stadium was going up, Reynolds's fortune was slipping away. Even in 1999-2000, Gruk lost £2.5m. The following year the company lost £9m but still paid a further £1.9m to Darlington.

In 2003, Gruk finally went into liquidation, owing £3.4m to creditors, and the Official Receiver launched an investigation. That resulted in Wednesday's announcement that Reynolds will not hold any directorships or take part in the management of any company for eight years. The prime reason for his disqualification should give the League food for serious thought. The conduct which made him "unfit" to be a director was, it turns out, the original investment into Darlington Football Club. Even while Gruk was making "gross losses", the Insolvency Service said, Reynolds had his company put nearly £7m into Darlington. That, and a £1.5m payment to another Reynolds' company, were: "To the detriment of Gruk's creditors and made imprudently, or irresponsibly."

Put simply, when Reynolds arrived at Darlington in May 1999, his criminal convictions were indeed long since served, and he did have a fortune behind him. However, the very money he put in was improper, because it came from his business which was going bust, so leaving its creditors high and dry.

The League should be applauded for getting its club chairmen to agree to introduce the Fit and Proper Person Test, but, even with this week's additions, it still represents quite minimal protection. Anybody outside those categories can still become a director, and the test does not apply at all to shareholders, the people who actually own clubs. Such people, when taking over a club, are not asked about their plans, or required to show where their money comes from. If the League had had such a system in place, there might have been an opportunity to inquire into the source of Reynolds's cash and the stability of his companies. They might also have been able to help him, to explain that Darlo's hard-core 3,000 fans did not need a 27,000 seat arena, and that the Premiership might have been considered an unrealisable dream for a club which has only ever reached the second flight for two seasons, 1925-27, in its whole history.

Instead, he ploughed on. He ran out of money to complete the stadium and borrowed £4m from the moneylenders Stewart Davies, Sean Verity and Melvyn Laughton, who traded as the Sterling Consortium, but Darlington still collapsed into administration at Christmas, 2003. Of all the miserable episodes following ITV Digital's collapse, the chairman of Darlington handing his club to moneylenders to stave them off making him bankrupt was probably the most visceral.

The Football Association and Premier League also crow about having now introduced a Fit and Proper Person Test but, as managers are fond of saying at this time of the season, it still has a long way to go.

Reynolds is also awaiting trial on money laundering charges, which he denies - but you can't keep a good man down. He cannot now be a director, but has started a new business, Enigma Products, whose wares can be viewed on www.enigmaproducts.co.uk - if you are over 18. His "adult bedroom furniture" is designed to be innocent enough for when the in-laws come to visit, but at "playtime", can be turned into an array of S & M equipment including a "slave cage", "pillory" and "door hanger set."

"Your home may well be your castle," goes his priceless catchphrase, "but where do you put the dungeon?" As one Darlo wag said, it is a range which Ikea have strangely not cottoned on to, as yet.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

Conn wins Sports News Reporter of the Year award

David Conn of The Independent was named Sports News Reporter of the Year at the prestigious British Sports Journalism Awards.

The judges' citation read: "The judges chose this journalist, not only for the sheer volume of work and research that he has undertaken, but also the fascinating and emotive nature of his work. The agent piece in particular [about Paul Stretford's payments in Wayne Rooney's transfer from Everton to Manchester United] evoked amazement."

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