Published: When Saturday Comes

“This Is Pop! – They’re not a big footballing site…” – Umbro.com

That’s because we’re not. It was lovely that the England Shirt manufacturer chose to link to this wee blog, but I can imagine they were slightly bemused by the collection of cute photos, travel writing and the odd interview with A.N. Other band that they found on here.

But every so often there has to be the odd post on obscure football teams and financial mismanagement. So, for archiving purposes only, here’s a few bits and pieces I’ve written for the  When Saturday Comes website – something that’s still a great honour. They variously cover: bad shirts, fraudsters, toilet roll salesman, underdogs (always the underdogs), crooks, mismanagement, death and the occasional mention of football itself.

The Curious Case of John Batchelor – 18 April 2010

“How can you be sure?”, was a standard reaction to Friday morning’s news that John Batchelor – former York City chairman, racing driver and sometime toilet roll salesman – had left this mortal coil. Tradition has it that death is a simple fact, one that’s not up for debate – but nothing was simple with Batchelor. His reputation for deceit, publicity stunts and financial mismanagement was so pervasive that the first reaction of many York fans was pure cynicism. Perhaps this was just another attempt to grab column inches for yet another scam? He certainly had form.

But if this is a stunt then it is a very convincing one. Hospital sources say he died on Sunday night in a Stockport hospital aged 51, reportedly of multiple organ failure. His death ends an unhappy life that left a trail of debtors, job losses and personal failures. He openly asset-stripped companies, struggled with alcoholism and almost destroyed the already crippled York City through rank mismanagement and siphoning off club funds to his own account.

He started out in door-to-door sales in Lancashire, becoming the sort of local businessman that is described as having unspecified “interests” and is always willing to give a good quote to the press. In reality he was sliding from crisis to crisis, taking over companies with the aim of making a quick buck. Sometimes this was by reviving their fortunes but often it involved the use of pre-pack administrations, laying off staff and selling the assets. Former friends and business partners describe how he was happy to walk away from bad deals and leave them with mountains of debt.

When Batchelor arrived at York City the club was in a crisis that he quickly set about turning into a full-blown disaster. His actions seemed unbelievable at the time and are simply bizarre in retrospect. The club became a “Soccer Club” and was cross–branded with his racing car team, supposedly to attract American interest. Luther Blissett turned up and quickly left. A Brazilian player was signed on account of being Brazilian. Promises of a club radio station, city centre sports bar and even a breakaway league featuring Scottish teams spouted forth from his mouth.

That much could be excused as the naïve actions of a misguided dreamer. But off the pitch he was systematically extracting cash from a loss-making football club. The club’s lease on the ground was forfeited as part of a sponsorship deal with Persimmon Homes who coughed up £400,000 – payment made via personal cheque to J Batchelor. The end of his rule had a certain black humour about it. He went on the pitch at half-time, a little tired and emotional, and pledged to hand over control of the club to the Supporters’ Trust – before recanting the following morning. Instead he sold season tickets six months in advance, bought himself a new house with the proceeds and left supporters to pick up the mess.

Having found a taste for football, Batchelor set about preying on other lower league clubs. His silver tongue would promise the world to desperate fans – big ideas, big finance and a complete absence of detail – but he would usually vanish a few weeks later, usually after a local journalist looked past his press release and did even the gentlest questioning of his credentials.

In 2008 he proposed buying Mansfield Town and renaming them “Harchester United”. Calling a traditional community football club after a team on a defunct satellite television series was bonkers but it made a great story on a slow news day – and Batchelor could not resist the media. Within hours the story was all over the national media – even though his only contact with the producers of Dream Teamhad been a brief email asking for a meeting. Still, he thrived on confrontation, turning up to stand with Mansfield fans at their next away game before being led away by police for his own safety.

Accrington, Chester and Southampton were among the other clubs that had a lucky escape from his advances. At Chester he achieved the astonishing feat of causing supporters to back Stephen Vaughan’s regime as the lesser of two evils. At the end of 2009 he was disqualified from acting as a company director and vanished from view. His illness remains unknown, his personal life was a mess and he left a trail of destruction that is still causing repercussions in both business and football. In a 2008 interview he defend his tactics: “I have always worked, brutal though it sounds, within the boundaries of what is legal.” He was unrepentant to the end.

Scarborough Unfair – 29 July 2009

In recent years, several non-League clubs have been liquidated and reborn with the support of fans. Often the new team enjoys a new-found vigour and increased support that goes with progress up the pyramid. But such revivals rely on a united fan base rallying together in the face of adversity; without that unity there is the potential for real damage, as shown by events in Scarborough.

The collapse of Scarborough FC was a depressingly familiar story. Mismanagement had left the club with debts of several million pounds and only one asset: their ground, the McCain Stadium. Financial irregularities had dogged the club ever since their relegation to the Conference in 1999 and the turnover in the boardroom was as regular as that of the playing squad: future Gretna owner Brooks Mileson and John Russell, later jailed for fraud while in charge of Exeter City, passed through in the early part of this decade.

Faced with declining support, chairman Ian Scobie declared in 2006 that the only way to ensure the geographically isolated club’s survival was to sell the ground off for development, pay off a proportion of the debt and hope that enough money was left over to develop a new stadium on the edge of town in conjunction with a local college. But the deal hinged on Scarborough Borough Council lifting a sporting use covenant on the McCain Stadium. They were unconvinced by Scobie’s business case, declined to do so and the club was liquidated in June 2007.

With only a matter of weeks to go until the new season a new fan-owned club Scarborough Athletic was formed by members of the Seadog Trust and entered the bottom of the pyramid in the Northern Counties East League. The group had been planning for this worst case scenario since the start of the year and had been broadly opposed to Scobie’s proposals – there had just been too many failed rescue plans. With the McCain Stadium in the hands of liquidators Athletic were forced to groundshare 17 miles away in Bridlington but they promised a new era of transparency, set about rebuilding community links and began to attract healthy crowds of over 500.

But despite their success it was clear that a substantial minority of the old club’s fans wasn’t interested in the new venture and some were actively opposed. The latter group was centred on the old supporters club and the Centre of Excellence for young players that had continued, self-funded, since the collapse of its parent club. In summer 2008 this group announced the formation of another club, Scarborough Town. The team would compete in the amateur Teesside League and function as the senior side of the Centre of Excellence. Despite Town’s protestations that they had no ambition to progress further and did not wish to impinge on Athletic’s status as the senior team there was little love lost between the two sets of supporters, a situation exacerbated by posts on various message boards.

Town began playing on a roped-off playing field and cheekily declared that football was back in the town while ignoring the fact that there was no ground capable of hosting even semi-professional football in the borough. Some Athletic fans responded by starting an internet spat over the veracity of Town’s attendance figures. Accusations were thrown back and forth before an official truce was called but the mistrust remains.

Meanwhile a protracted legal battle for the McCain Stadium eventually saw the council buy the site from liquidators Begbies Traynor for £1.3 million. But the effects of arson and vandalism have left the stadium beyond repair and both teams are now searching for a new ground. In an ironic twist the most likely outcome in the short-term is a groundshare on land near George Pindar Community College, the same plan that Scobie failed to push through more two years beforehand and the root cause of the split between the clubs.

Athletic and Town are now free of the financial woes that affected the original Scarborough FC But in a relatively poor town that has already seen one team fail and where Premier League football is widely followed, they need to be working together to attract new fans, not competing for the few that are left. Both teams enjoyed championship-winning seasons in 2008-09 but with news that Town are now considering moving up the semi-professional pyramid, they are risking further conflict and limiting the chance of success for either team. Supporters who used to support the old club together from the same terraces need to put their differences aside and come together behind a single team. But in the short term Scarborough United remains a very distant prospect.

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