David Conn: White knight Smith prepares to rescue Wrexham from darkest hour

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The Independent Football

Out of the darkness, cometh a little light - at least, possibly, down Wrexham way. One of the bleakest battles yet over the soul and home of a football club could glide to an unexpectedly peaceable conclusion with the emergence of a prospective buyer, Andy Smith, speaking the language, of supporters and community, which has been deafeningly absent throughout Wrexham's recent plunge into the muck and brass of property speculation.

Out of the darkness, cometh a little light - at least, possibly, down Wrexham way. One of the bleakest battles yet over the soul and home of a football club could glide to an unexpectedly peaceable conclusion with the emergence of a prospective buyer, Andy Smith, speaking the language, of supporters and community, which has been deafeningly absent throughout Wrexham's recent plunge into the muck and brass of property speculation.

Smith, 49, a former Liberal Democrat county councillor in Surrey, runs the United Plotowners Association, a property company which, he claims, has ideals: "We provide affordable starter and key worker homes; we build new communities. We want to buy the club and ground, develop housing at one end to make it viable, and give the supporters' trust a major role in running the club."

Wrexham's owner, Alex Hamilton, told me he was "very positive" about Smith's offer and was hoping it would produce a deal: "He has been rigorous so far and conducted himself very well."

Which is more than Wrexham fans have ever said about Hamilton. They hope desperately that a takeover, whether by Smith or one of the other four bidders understood to be circling, will deliver the club from its awful predicament: in administration with £2.5m debts, 10 points deducted pending an appeal to the Football League, and facing eviction from the Racecourse Ground following a notice served by Hamilton himself as the landlord - even though he owns the club too.

Hamilton revealed to me recently full details of the extraordinary saga which has led to this. He says quite openly he will do nothing to rescue the club, maintaining that if nobody comes forward with "a fat cheque" to buy the club and ground from him now, he will allow Wrexham to go bust and enforce the eviction next July. He believes if the ground were demolished, the site, at the "gateway" to Wrexham, could fetch £20m for development into a large B&Q.

That spectacle of doom has led to outraged and well-organised Wrexham supporters castigating Hamilton as an asset-stripper. He, however, insisted that when he took over the club with Mark Guterman in 2002, they planned to build another stadium on the edge of town out of the profits from developing the Racecourse Ground site.

"The club would be left with no debts and a brand new ground, and, yes, I would make money myself," he said.

Guterman, who ran Chester City when they went into administration in 2000, originally took the Wrexham proposal to Hamilton, a solicitor who had moved into property deals. Pryce Griffiths, Wrexham's long-standing chairman, had health problems and was desperate to sell the club, which was losing money. They paid Griffiths £50,000, agreeing that he would be paid a further £500,000 if the site was, indeed, developed

Hamilton's company, Memorvale, took over 78 per cent of Wrexham, but he did not become a director of the club, and stayed wholly in the background while Guterman became the chairman and the takeover's public face. Soon they approached the Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery to buy the freehold. In 1998, Griffiths had paid the brewery £750,000 for total security - a 125-year lease at a peppercorn rent.

Hamilton and Guterman did not tell the brewery they intended to develop - as buyers, Hamilton said, they were not obliged to. The brewery, which was making nothing from the then lease, sold the freehold for just £300,000. Hamilton provided the money via another of his companies, Damens Limited. Guterman, as Wrexham's chairman, signed a document agreeing that the club was buying the freehold only as a trustee for Damens, and it was immediately transferred from the club to Damens for no more money.

In early 2003 the club ran into serious financial problems, Hamilton blaming excessive contracts awarded to players in the fag end of Pryce Griffiths's reign, most eyecatchingly the £200,000 a year paid to the midfielder Darren Ferguson, Sir Alex's son. The Inland Revenue began to threaten to wind-up the club if they weren't paid a spiralling PAYE bill. Guterman and the then director, David Rhodes, looked to borrow from Wrexham County Borough Council, but the council found, as have many others, that it cannot put public money into a loss-making football club. No bank would lend the club money, so they fell on Hamilton.

Hamilton claims he was furious that Guterman needed more money, and in return for £300,000, insisted the lease be changed in his favour. On 26 June 2003, Rhodes and Guterman met Hamilton at his Cheshire home, agreeing to surrender the club's 125-year lease, and enter into a new one. The handwritten, single-page agreement provided that Wrexham must now pay rent, £30,000 a year, to Damens, and, crucially, included a "break clause" by which the landlord, Hamilton, could evict the club. They agreed that if that happened, he would pay the club £1m, or one third of the freehold's value, whichever was greater. Hamilton argues that is a solid benefit for the club, that if the site is worth £20m, the club's third share could be enough to build it a new stadium and clear its debts.

Hamilton provided the £300,000 - he said he had to sell some terraced houses - the Inland Revenue accepted it as part payment, and Wrexham staggered on by the seat of their ragged pants. Then last May, Hamilton and Guterman fell out, a dispute which has spilled into court proceedings, and Hamilton for the first time became a director of Wrexham, determined to drive his plan through.

Wrexham fans were horrified not only by the revelations about the freehold, the surrender of the lease, the debts, but they had not even known of Hamilton's existence before. Hamilton then never made it sufficiently clear that he planned to build a new ground; the fans feared he wanted simply to chase the club out of existence and get his hands on an empty Racecourse Ground.

That, still is where the club is heading, after Hamilton played his hand with brutal force. In July, he approached the council to talk about the commercial development. But the council wants Wrexham to stay at the Racecourse, which has been refurbished with a £1m Welsh Sports Council grant into a tidy ground which hosts rugby and football internationals and the council considers it a more prestigious first impression to visitors than a large B&Q would be.

Hamilton reacted by enforcing the new break clause, issuing 12 months' notice to quit the ground. "If the council wanted to mess with me, I was showing them I was serious." He was, again, on both sides of this action, a landlord evicting a tenant which he owned, and of which he was at the time a director. He is adamant that he has done nothing illegal: "When we negotiated the new lease, it was agreed by the club's then directors, Guterman and Rhodes, even though I owned the club, so there was no conflict there. When, as the landlord, I issued the notice to quit, there was no conflict with me being the tenant too."

The administrator, David Acland, from the firm Begbies Traynor, told me that the issuing of the new lease is a "reviewable transaction", on which he is gathering evidence and plans to take legal advice. However, he is hopeful the club can be sold soon, with Hamilton's agreement, which will mean this history need not be investigated further.

Hamilton does admit, indeed seems to relish, his role as the hard-faced, money-driven property man, immune to the sentiment surrounding a historic football club.

"I'm sympathetic to the 98 per cent of Wrexham supporters who are good people, but to me this was like any other failing company - you look to make money from the premises and relocate the company. I came with a plan, which could have saved the club. Now, unless somebody buys the ground and club from me for a fair price, I'll continue with it."

After all this misery, Andy Smith's arrival could represent a warm, comforting future, but the Supporters' Trust is now understandably cautious.

"We do want Mr Hamilton to sell," said Rob Griffiths, the trust's vice-chairman. "There are other bidders, but if Andy Smith is favoured, we'd like to know more: where his money is coming from, his timescale, and what, in detail, his plans are."

There could, in other words, still be a long way to go.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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