David Conn: Wrexham fight to play another day

Fans and council rally to save Racecourse Ground as winding up petition puts club on brink of closure
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The Independent Football

To think of Wrexham Football Club is to conjure some misty-eyed memories: Joey Jones's fist-clenched performances in the eye-pleasing side which competed in Europe in the 1970s; more recently the 2-1 humbling of League champions Arsenal in the FA Cup third round in January 1992, courtesy of ageing Mickey Thomas's wicked free-kick. Wrexham fans can now but cling to such moments for comfort, as their supporting lives turn into the stuff of lower division nightmare: a chairman who has transferred their ground into his own company and talks of "obtaining a significant return on my risk investment", mounting losses, boardroom rancour and, most seriously now, a winding up petition from the Inland Revenue.

To think of Wrexham Football Club is to conjure some misty-eyed memories: Joey Jones's fist-clenched performances in the eye-pleasing side which competed in Europe in the 1970s; more recently the 2-1 humbling of League champions Arsenal in the FA Cup third round in January 1992, courtesy of ageing Mickey Thomas's wicked free-kick. Wrexham fans can now but cling to such moments for comfort, as their supporting lives turn into the stuff of lower division nightmare: a chairman who has transferred their ground into his own company and talks of "obtaining a significant return on my risk investment", mounting losses, boardroom rancour and, most seriously now, a winding up petition from the Inland Revenue.

With a tax bill said to be £900,000, Wrexham have until 17 November to pay, or one of Wales' three professional clubs, formed 132 years ago, will close. That would leave Wrexham's chairman, Alex Hamilton, a former solicitor based in Cheshire, owning the Racecourse Ground via his company, Damens Ltd, with no football club impeding a sale for lucrative development.

Hamilton, who took over the club two years ago but whose involvement was only revealed in May, says he does not want that to happen. He has floated various ideas, including selling the ground and moving the club elsewhere, but has also said he supports Wrexham staying at the Racecourse Ground - if he is paid enough to meet debts of £2.6m and make a profit himself.

For 20 years, Wrexham were negotiated through the lower divisions' rocky terrain by Pryce Griffiths, an archetypal old-style chairman; a lifelong fan born half a mile from the ground, who ran a newspaper wholesaling business. The glory of 1992 was followed the year after by promotion to the Second Division, where Wrexham stayed throughout Brian Flynn's 12-year tenure as manager until he was sacked in 2001.

In 1998, Griffiths negotiated long-term security for the club, Wrexham paying £750,000 to the brewery which owned the Racecourse Ground for a 125-year lease at a peppercorn rent. The following year, with a grant from the Welsh Sports Council, the club built a smart new stand, making the modern Racecourse fit for regular rugby and football friendly internationals, christening it The Pryce Griffiths Stand after the long-serving chairman. Griffiths, now 80, suffered a serious angina attack at the away match at Wycombe Wanderers in August 2001; after which he cast about for somebody to take the club on.

The man to emerge was Mark Guterman, a Cheshire-based property developer, formerly the owner of Chester City until he took them into administration in October 1998. Guterman succeeded Griffiths as Wrexham's chairman on 10 June 2002, his plan to turn the Racecourse pitch round and develop land beside it to generate cash for the club.

Then in May this year, Hamilton, previously unknown to Wrexham fans, announced himself as the man and money behind Guterman. Hamilton said the club had run up severe losses and he would not put more money in while Guterman was chairman; Guterman stepped down and the pair fell out. Hamilton was clear that he had become involved purely as a "business project", and his money, now up to £625,500, had gone in, to "prop up the club".

Hamilton, it turned out, owned the club, having bought Griffiths' 78 per cent shareholding with Guterman via a company, Memorvale, which is wholly owned by one of Hamilton's companies, Broadhill Properties. On 25 June 2002, just two weeks after the takeover, Wrexham bought the Racecourse Ground freehold from the owner, Wolverhampton and Dudley Brewery, for £300,000. On the same day, the ground was transferred from the club to another of Hamilton's companies, Damens Ltd, apparently for the same figure, £300,000.

Shocked Wrexham fans dug into Hamilton's background; he is a former solicitor, and a director of several small property companies. Broadhill, through which he holds the Wrexham shares and appears to own various properties in the Manchester area. Its accounts for last year have not been filed; they were due on 30 July 2004.

Hamilton ran a law firm with a number of branches, but was struck off by the Law Society on 24 September 2002, then reinstated in June last year after his appeal, when allegations of dishonesty were withdrawn. Hamilton did admit improper conduct, mostly failing to reply to clients' letters, but the disciplinary tribunal accepted he had been deeply distressed at the time, because he was caring for a terminally ill friend and employee who subsequently died aged just 42.

Now, Hamilton describes himself as "partially retired", making it clear he saw Wrexham purely as a "business challenge" - he is not a fan and has been to only a couple of matches. Fans have been alarmed by the revelations, some announced by Hamilton himself in long, colourful letters posted on the official website. In May this year, a new lease was implemented between Damens Ltd and Wrexham, removing the club's long-term security. Wrexham now have to pay £30,000 annual rent, and can be served with 12 months' notice to quit the ground. Club sources say that notice has now been served.

Hamilton has not made his intentions clear; although he said he does want Wrexham to continue to "provide footballing services to its customer base", either at the Racecourse or elsewhere. In his second internet letter, headed "Reasons to be Jubilant", on 27 August this year, Hamilton said he wanted £9m from the local council; £3m to pay off the club's debts, £3m to build a new all-seater Kop, £3m to buy his shares and the freehold. More recently he has said £3m would pay off the club's creditors and give him a modest profit to walk away with.

Wrexham's stubborn band of diehard supporters have risen to the challenge, holding protest marches and starting a vocal "Save the Racecourse" campaign, while a supporters trust has gathered 500 members and presented proposals for redevelopment of land at the Racecourse which they believe could raise enough money to pay Hamilton.

There is more at stake here than another lower division club going through familiar sickbed agonies. Wales' two other professional football clubs, Swansea and Cardiff, are both in the south, leaving the Racecourse Ground as North Wales' premier sporting venue. On Tuesday, Wrexham County Borough decided to negotiate to buy the ground. "It isn't time to jump for joy," the council leader, Neil Rogers, warned, "but public money has gone into the ground, it has great importance for North Wales and we have resolved to do what we can to safeguard it."

Rob Griffiths, the Supporters Trust chairman, told me: "Wrexham is a proud club and the ground is of international significance. We could not watch the club die or the ground be sold. We hope supporters will have a major part to play in the future."

Whether there will be a future at all remains in the balance. On Thursday Hamilton announced on the website that he had been harassed by some fans, saying that if he suffers further "threats or vandalism", he will pull his £235,000 loans out. He will not plough more money in to fend off the Inland Revenue's winding up petition: "It may be impossible for the club to avoid administration and or liquidation in the short term," he wrote.

Denis Smith, Wrexham's battle-hardened manager, is somehow keeping his team focussed - they earned a deserved 2-1 victory at Colchester in midweek, taking them to mid-table, 13th in League One. The days of Mickey Thomas's free-kicks, however, seem a long time ago.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

The racecourse ground runners and riders

Horse races were held at the ground from 1807, stopped in 1858 after complaints about racegoers' behaviour, revived, then ended in 1912.

Wrexham Football Club formed at the Turf Hotel in September 1872 and, with breaks in the 1880s and 1950s, have played at the Racecourse ever since.

Wales' first home international, against Scotland, was played at the Racecourse in March 1877; the ground has continued to host football, rugby union and league internationals.

The local brewery, Borders, owned the ground, and the Turf Hotel.

Supporters raised money for ground improvements, including floodlights, in 1959.

Pryce Griffiths, the former chairman, negotiated a £750,000 deal with the brewery in 1998, giving Wrexham 125 years at the Racecourse for a peppercorn rent.

The Pryce Griffiths Stand was built in 1999 for £3.7m, with a £1m grant from the Welsh Sports Council.

Capacity of 15,500, with seating on three sides.

Griffiths sold the club to Mark Guterman and Alex Hamilton in June 2002.

Wrexham bought the freehold, from the brewery, for £300,000 on 25 June 2002.

Freehold transferred to Alex Hamilton's company, Damens Ltd, on the same day, for £300,000.

Hamilton quotes £3m for the local council to buy the Racecourse Ground and club from him, 27 August 2004.

Council agrees to negotiate to buy the ground, 19 October 2004, "to safeguard the Racecourse Ground as a sporting venue for North Wales".

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