Rays of light in Croydon's black cloud
Money-laundering, suicide and an owner implicated in spot-fixing. But the fans can ensure the Rams survive.
Sunday 17 October 2010
Mick Lloyd, secretary of Croydon Athletic's supporters club, could not have put it better. "It just seems we've got a black cloud over the club and it's refusing to go away," he said. "And it's affecting the ordinary people like us who go every week."
The cloud began to form in July when the Ryman Premier League club's former chairman, Dean Fisher, was jailed for three years for embezzling money from his day job to help fund The Rams. It grew darker as Mazhar Majeed, the co-owner since 2008, was implicated in the Pakistan cricket "spot-fixing" scandal. It blackened when David Le Cluse, Fisher's successor, died of an apparently self-inflicted bullet wound a fortnight ago.
Croydon were directly affected by the cricket scandal when Majeed, who is on police bail, claimed to the News of the World that he had bought the club in order to launder money. That not only tainted the achievement of the team in winning promotion to the Premier League last season but caused HMRC to freeze his assets, cutting off the club's funds. The result was the manager and players, alarmed at going unpaid, left en masse.
Matches were postponed and the club forfeited its FA Cup place before Majeed was allowed to post a £10,000 bond to guarantee that the club would fulfil this season's fixtures. Former managers Dave Garland and Bob Langford offered to return on an unpaid basis, and put together a scratch squad of volunteers, academy graduates and loanees.
"We took the job on a Wednesday," Garland said. "On the Thursday we had a signing-on session, not a training session – for everyone we knew who wanted to play. On the Friday we had to put a team out away to Aveley – and it was nil-nil until the last 10 minutes."
Croydon lost that match 3-0, and the next 4-0, but a couple of draws since then give cause for hope. The players are in the shop window, and their careers at the KT Stadium will last until they impress another club enough to be signed for money. Such has been the turnover of players since the beginning of the season that Ken Fisher, the long-serving president and academy director, standing at the players' and press turnstile at a recent match, did not recognise most of the youngsters coming in.
The main ray of light peering from behind that cloud is the spirit of the supporters, without whom clubs such as Croydon would have no reason to exist. They have sought to pick up the pieces and carry on as best they can, in the hope that the club, in whatever division, will survive. The minute's silence at the home match following Le Cluse's suicide – widely assumed to have been caused by the club's association with money laundering – could not be allowed to foreshadow the club's death as well.
"All of us knew Dave and were really good friends with him and he was a lovely bloke," Lloyd said. "Nobody knows what really happened, but it's almost just another sideshow in what is happening to the club at the moment. Our job is to carry on and raise the money to keep the club alive. That is our priority."
Belts are being tightened. There was a semi-serious discussion before the recent midweek 2-2 draw at home to Wealdstone about how long to leave it before turning the floodlights on – electricity costs money, after all. Is it all worth it to play in front of crowds of 150 or so? The loyalty of Croydon's diehard fans suggest that it is.
"It's a nice little club, which has come out of nowhere," Ken Fisher said. "Sutton, Dulwich have great histories, but 26 years ago this was just a field. A lot of people put in a lot of work to get the club here and they don't want to see it die.
"Dave and Bob are experienced managers, but as local lads they didn't want to see the club go under. They were the first people on the phone. If I had said, 'We've already got a manager, come and work the turnstile', they would be here doing that. I was washing the kit yesterday because we couldn't afford petrol money for the bloke who usually does it. Probably tomorrow I'll be cleaning the toilets.
"We have taken a serious knock, but we can either run away or stand and fight. If we didn't have volunteers, we would have shut. But people have rallied round. These are difficult times, and it's just a matter of giving it a go and seeing if we can survive. We need support."
The one accusation that rankles is that the club overpaid money to players who it could not have afforded legitimately. "The previous management got good players through their contacts," Fisher said. "When any club is successful you hear all sorts of things. One chairman said, 'You were paying £10,000 a week to players'. He was living in a dream world. There were some good players here, but they could have got more money somewhere else."
Lloyd adds: "The stuff Majeer told the papers about money-laundering was just big-bollocks talk, I think. The figures in the papers of the money that was supposed to be going through the club are absolutely ridiculous.
"Ask anyone on the committee. £20 million? One paper made a big thing about the scoreboard we've got. Have you seen it? Thank you, I rest my case. It cost five grand. Just walk round the ground, it's not a League club. The finances have been checked twice in the last few months and we've had a clean bill of health both times, from the Ryman and the FA.
"The success was nice, but all of us were going before [Majeer] came in and we'll be here long after he has gone. This is a good club – we've got massive junior programmes, a ladies' team, thriving supporters clubs. It's a shame that the press we have got recently makes us out as some seedy backwater. The main priority is to see the season out.
"We must be odds-on to go down, which we accept, but we're just happy we've still got a club. The only way is up. It surely can't get any worse."
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