When Oldham Athletic moved to the top of the list of English football clubs most likely to fold, supporters flailing around locally to save it would have dismissed as fantasy the idea that a couple of guys with a business in Long Island and Los Angeles would land on shabby old Boundary Park as the next field for their dreams.
However, with names and a plot surely borrowed from an old Marvel comics yarn, Danny Gazal, Simon Blitz and Simon Corney duly materialised bearing £7m to, they hope, blast the club into a new future.
This week they announced that a supporters' trust, with around 400 members concerned for their previously bust, unhappy club, will have an elected director, Barry Owen, on the board, after the trust bought three per cent of Oldham for the startlingly high price of £200,000.
Such is the cost of saving and buying into a club even as ailing as Oldham. Premier League founder members in 1992 with manager Joe Royle's splendid young side, and in the Premiership until 1994, Oldham were in trouble and had already sold their ground to a company jointly owned by the local council when, three years ago, they were bought by a software entrepreneur based in Oxfordshire, Chris Moore, who announced a plan to take them back to the Premiership in five years.
Last March, however, after two expensive years seeing Oldham fail to make it out of the Second Division, Moore announced he was getting out and taking his funding with him, which left Oldham shipping out the promising young players Clint Hill, Fitz Hall, Chris Armstrong and Josh Low, with debts approaching £2m and ongoing losses of around £50,000 a week.
Moore himself wrote off £4,428,615, but because he had left the club in peril, that personal sacrifice did not sweeten the bitterness many Oldham fans felt. As the dire parade of clubs continued into administration, Oldham finally calling in the accountants on 1 August last year after the Inland Revenue issued a winding up petition, the Football League became increasingly convinced that it would be lucky to get through the post-ITV Digital meltdown with all 72 clubs intact. Oldham looked set for liquidation; its financial needs went way beyond Supporters' Trust fundraising, and no local consortiums were willing to flutter.
Then in bounced Gazal, Blitz and Corney from their base in Flushing, New York, bright-eyed, enthusiastic, apparently rich. Gazal is American; Blitz, a Londoner, Chelsea fan and childhood friend, went over to stay with him in New York for a couple of months in 1990, to find Gazal setting up a mobile phone business at the dawn of the industry. "Fourteen years later I'm still there," Blitz told me this week, and the pair have done well, becoming distributors for T-Mobile and AT&T from premises in Long Island and LA, available to view on their company's website, www.cncg.com.
Corney, 10 years younger, an Arsenal fan who now, three days a week, does the well known commute from North London to Oldham, will be more involved day-to-day. Blitz, on his way to West Ham on Thursday to look at their conferencing operation, told me that as an expat he missed his football, and always kept his season ticket at Stamford Bridge. He and Gazal had watched English clubs flopping into administration and decided they would like to buy one, looked at Hull first, then landed on Oldham. Corney said: "It's very expensive to get involved in American football, but it's a childhood dream to run an English club."
As Oldham are losing money and struggling for crowds in the lee of the Manchester clubs, there has to be an angle, and there is: 22 acres of land around Boundary Park. "The first day we went to Oldham, we were shown the land," Blitz said, "and we decided right then we would do the deal."
Their idea is that the club will usually need money to keep going, rather than make a profit, so they will develop the land for offices, a hotel, conferencing and banqueting, although their plans are not yet concrete. "We're researching it, visiting other clubs to see what they do, then we will decide," Blitz added.
He said that Oldham, a large enough town, has too few such facilities, or places even to hold a wedding, and loses business to Manchester. They want the development to make money for the club and, in the end, be worth something, which will make money for them.
Blitz said they had been involved in real estate in the United States, building the warehousing for their own business: "We're not novices."
To finance this dream, they funded the club for three months in administration, which cost them £522,500. The preferential creditors, the Inland Revenue and VAT, were owed £715,000 and were paid 32p in the pound: £237,000. "Football Creditors" - other clubs, players and the League's pension deficit - are to be paid £428,000, while Blitz and Gazal paid £120,000 for Oldham's office equipment and other assets. Unsecured creditors, the usual victims including a £30,000 policing bill, local family firms and £1,856.50 unpaid to St John Ambulance, got nothing. The club's ongoing losses are estimated at £1m, and their shoring-up of the club adds up to £2.4m. They are paying £4.6m more for the ground and land, while guaranteeing that Boundary Park will still be a football ground in 10 years' time.
"Obviously we want it to be there a lot longer than that," Corney said. "We believe we can make this work. We want, within a short time, to be a strong First Division club with good facilities."
They expect the property developments to cost between £7m and £12m; Corney said Gazal and Blitz are partly using their own money, partly borrowing. Certainly, they are not splashing the cash Abramovich-style on the team: the manager, Iain Dowie, who left for Crystal Palace last December having seen his best players sold from underneath him, has not so far been replaced; John Sheridan is the caretaker manager.
The new owners managed Latics fans' expectations this week with a new signing: Wes Wilkinson from Nantwich Town, from the base of the semi-professional pyramid, the North West Counties League. Oldham are paying Nantwich a nominal fee, but 20 per cent of any sell-on if Wilkinson makes his name. Fans reared on Andy Ritchie and Roger Palmer in their heyday, then a post-Everton Graeme Sharp, are just glad they still have a club.
Peter Heginbotham, the elected chairman of the Supporters' Trust, said he was "delighted" that the Trust has established a good relationship with the new owners. "They have impressed me," he said. "I was pleased the other day they were off to watch one of the junior teams play Worksop Town. If they were in it for the ego or just the money, with the greatest of respect, they wouldn't be finding it at Worksop."
The Trust's £200,000 has been paid to the club to fund it, and three per cent of shares made over to the Trust. Since the establishment of the Government-backed initiative Supporters Direct, currently battling to secure funding for its next three years, Oldham are the 38th supporters' trust to have elected directors at clubs in England, Scotland and Wales, following Cambridge and Dundee United at the end of February. There are now trusts at 107 clubs, 57 of them with shareholdings.
Heginbotham, a Manchester solicitor, was for five years until 1996 the chairman of another North West Counties League club, historic Glossop North End. It cost him £3,000 a season, plus sponsorship from his firm. "But I enjoyed it very much, and hope I made a contribution. The important thing was, when I couldn't go on, I gave notice and made arrangements for the club not to suffer. You shouldn't leave a club with commitments it can't honour."
While the cost to him did not approach the millions written off by Chris Moore, Oldham were plunged into crisis when Moore, for all his financial support, left while contracts signed with his backing still had two years or more to run. The new US-based investors have arrived with big money and ambitious plans, but Heginbotham, a lifelong Latics fan, is more phlegmatic.
"Most benefactors usually want out in the end," he said. "We very much hope it will end well, but there is always an end. This time we have an excellent dialogue, and can advise the new owners. We'll also know what is going on. If the club is ever in trouble again, we can be more prepared to get involved to make sure it survives."Reuse content