Thursday, 27 February 2014

Q+A with Wrexham Supporters Trust

Next in our series of Q+A's we spoke to Wrexham Supporters Trust (WST) that not only represents Wrexham FC supporters but also owns the club itself! A truelly fascinating read, taking our questions was Peter Jones who is the Chairman of WST.

A huge thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer our questions.

Feel free to leave your thoughts and any follow up questions in the comments section below.

When forming your Trust did you receive any negative comments or was there a groundswell of support amongst Wrexham fans?

Wrexham Supporters Trust were formed in 2002 as ‘Wrexham INdependent Supporters’ – WINS. They began with an initiative called the ‘Beer-A-Week’ fund. The idea was for fans to give up one beer a week and put the money saved into the ‘pot’ to help the then manager Denis Smith to strengthen his squad.

I personally was against that at the time, as the club as usual were short of finances, and utility bills were not being paid. Phones were being cut off and so was the electricity, so buying players to strengthen the squad was not so important in my eyes. 

But the other aim was of interest - to buy a share in Wrexham Football Club. At that time the club had just been sold to the former Chester City Chairman Mark Guterman – a property developer. He’d bought the 78% of the shares from the previous Chairman Pryce Griffiths in February 2002. It was not a popular purchase, but the majority of fans were willing to give Guterman the benefit of the doubt.

That seemed to be working fine when Wrexham won promotion to League One in 2002/03, but the following season the troubles began.

It was discovered that a company named Broadhall Properties – a company owned by an Alex Hamilton, now owned the Racecourse Ground – the home of Wrexham Football Club. Until then it had been owned by Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery, with Wrexham FC having a 125-year lease on the property at a peppercorn rent of just £1 a year. We were only about five years into the lease.

However, there had been absolutely no mention of the sale of the Racecourse by the new club owner. That itself raised suspicion, and it was further discovered that the ground had initially been sold to Wrexham Football Club, but immediately sold on to Broadhall Properties for £300,000. These transactions were later proved in the High Court to have been done without the consent of the Board of Directors of the football club making it illegal.

With this discovery, and the already known fact that the Club Chairman Mark Guterman was a property developer, it was now known that he was also a front for Alex Hamilton.

Following a red card protest at our last home game of the 2003/04 season against Brighton, where Brighton fans, who had lost the Goldstone Ground, in similar circumstances, held the red cards up to a man (and woman!), whilst only about 25% of Wrexham fans did so. This was because at the time, the local newspapers failed to highlight fans concerns, and only those with internet access were aware of the facts.

Guterman soon left, leaving Alex Hamilton to become Chairman and he didn’t mince his words, stating that he would “Bulldoze the Racecourse”. Fans began protests to highlight the dire situation as talk of the Racecourse becoming a site for a B and Q warehouse was rife.

Hamilton called a board meeting with the remaining two directors, Wrexham businessmen Dave Bennett and Dave Griffiths. He attempted to appoint his son and his secretary to the board, but the ‘Two Dave’s’ voted against it. This led to Hamilton’s immediate resignation as Chairman and director. As the major shareholder, he called a shareholders meeting with the intention of removing the ‘Two Dave’s’ from the board, but before this meeting was held the club was put into administration in December 2005, becoming the first ever Football League club to lose ten points for this action.

The Administrators then took Hamilton to the High Court where following a long process, and an appeal, it was decided that the original purchase of the ground by Wrexham Football Club was legal, but the sale to Broadhall Properties was deemed illegal, and the ground was returned into the hands of Wrexham Football Club.

The club eventually came out of administration in August 2006 when local businessmen Nev Dickens and Geoff Moss took over. It was thought our troubles were over……

Your successful bid and takeover of Wrexham Football Club received national coverage. Can you tell us how and why you came to be owners?

When Dickens and Moss took over they promised fan involvement, with a share issue being made, but these not only didn’t materialised, but we lost our Football League status!

Dickens stepped down, and a property developer, Ian Roberts came on board along with a local accountant Paul Retout, who had brought Roberts and Moss together, setting up a company named Wrexham Village Ltd. Retout became the Club’s Chief Executive, and the deal saw them announce plans for student accommodation to be built on land at the back of the Racecourse.

    (The Racecourse Ground - home of Wrexham FC)

It was said that this development would clear the club’s debts, and as Paul Retout was recorded as saying: “for the avoidance of doubt every penny made would go back into the Football Club.” - Paul Retout is now serving a prison sentence for deception (For a crime not connected to the Football Club).

So well did the threesome get on, they actually bought a Rugby League club, Crusaders, bringing them to play their home games on the Racecourse from South Wales. Being in the Super League, they soon found the Football Club (now non-league) to be a poisoned chalice, and began to build up the Rugby League club.

However, Crusaders crowds began to drop, and the debts that the club had from their time in South Wales began to surface, and it all began to turn sour for the owners. Eventually they put the Crusaders into administration, but amazingly they took them back on! They’d put them into administration to clear those inherited debts.

Crowds didn’t improve, and debts began to build up again, and in December 2010 they liquidated the Crusaders Rugby League Club on the eve of not knowing the decision if Crusaders would be in the Super League for the forthcoming season.

It soon became apparent that they wanted out, and would sell both the Racecourse and Wrexham Football Club, but with this came the vultures. First they agreed a deal to sell to a consortium named Van Morton Investments Ltd, who were fronted by former Shrewsbury Town Chief Exec Rob Bickerton. However, following the Leader newspaper’s exclusive interview with former Chester owner Stephen Vaughan as being part of the consortium, fans revolted at the next home game with Gateshead, following which the consortium backed away.

Next was Hotelier Stephanie Booth, a local businesswoman who had had much media coverage with her TV series ‘Hotel Stephanie’, and she announced at the Forest Green home game that she was the ‘preferred bidder’. It then became a bit of a circus, before it was found out that she didn’t meet the ‘Fit and proper persons’ criteria set by the Football Association. She then slid away without trace! 

Further bids came in from Stephen Cleeve, yet another banned company director who sold above the odds for sites that have little or no development potential. Another bid came from former Wrexham player Ashley Ward, who fronted a deal for Colin Poole, who was a disqualified director and former head of the insurance firm Claims Direct who had been struck off the solicitor's roll by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

With all this, the board of Wrexham Supporters Trust eventually took it upon themselves to launch a bid to take over the football club itself. Glyndwr University had already taken it upon them to purchase the stadium and the Colliers Park training ground, which they completed in July 2011.

It was at this time that Moss and Roberts announced the club’s new owner was to be Jon Harris, another former Chief Exec of Shrewsbury Town. It was well known that he didn’t have the financial clout to purchase the club, and it was soon discovered that he was yet another person to be fronting a takeover of the club for Colin Poole. Within days of this announcement, Poole withdrew his financial backing, blaming "the actions of a few misguided individuals”. With this Geoff Moss agreed to sell the Football Club to Wrexham Supporters’ Trust.

However, the takeover was not without its hitches, as the Conference board demanded that Wrexham FC paid a bond or bank guarantee of £250,000 to satisfy the board that the club can meet its legal and financial obligations for the coming season. The club is given just over 48 hours to find the money. 

Wrexham fans rallied round to raise over £150,000 in less than a day, and       the club is granted a 24-hour extension; prove that it is solvent and sign a lease for a home ground for the 2011/12 season.

The board of Wrexham Supporters' Trust, called the deal “one of the important steps to football continuing at the Racecourse”.

Despite a rigorous takeover - it took over three months for the Conference to sanction the deal – Wrexham Supporters’ Trust became proud owners of Wrexham Football Club on 30th November 2011.

Do you feel it is important that the owners of a football club are open, transparent and communicate with supporters regularly?

One of the main attributes of Wrexham Supporters Trust becoming the owners of Wrexham Football Club has been the transparency and openness.

Some fans may disagree, but they are the ones who would want to know the wages of every player. In America, the MSL have a policy where every club knows each other’s budgets, but over here it is a no, no. This means club’s play cloak and dagger with each other to avoid others from finding out how much they have to spend on wages and possible transfer fees – at Conference level, transfer fees are hardly heard of!

Having said that, Wrexham Football Club hadn’t had a shareholders meeting for over ten years before the Trust took over. Now they have two a year! There is the Football Club AGM and the Supporters’ Trust AGM, and all owners, there’s now over 3,000 of us, all have the opportunity to vote on decisions and the people we want to run the club.

Every other month a Trust Meeting is held for members where they can voice their opinions and ask questions of the Trust Board. The month in-between will see a news briefing sent out by email to members with the latest news.

These people who run the club, both the Football Club and Trust Board’s are all volunteers, who give hours of their time up for free. There are many more volunteers who also give up there time for free, whether it be working in the Club Shop, distributing leaflets to helping with Community projects. They are all part of OUR club, and have a say in OUR future.  

And finally, what are the aims of Wrexham Football Club over the next 10 years on and off the field?

The primary aim of Wrexham Football Club is to get back into the Football League at the earliest opportunity. It seems to be harder by the year, as the Conference has a strong former Football League club’s membership, all wanting to return to there heyday’s.

We are no different, but we’ll do it our way. That mean’s we won’t be putting our football club at risk. We will only spend within our means. A lot of fans still can’t get there heads around that, especially when you have the Premier League football syndrome thrown at you every where you look on the TV, newspapers and social media.

Every football fan dreams of a Roman Abramovich taking over their club. But people like him are few and far between. Make no mistake people with money have had every opportunity to purchase Wrexham Football Club since the turn of the Millennium, but no one with true intent has been near us, just chancer’s who have faded away when they were put to the test of ‘what was in it for them’.

Wrexham Supporters’ Trust is the fans. Every fan has an opinion, but any debate is done in a democratic manner. A decision is made, and we move on. Over the next ten years we hope that we have claimed our Football League place back, and are pushing for the verdict least Championship football, and maybe playing on a level field again with Blackpool! 

For more information on Wrexham Supporters Trust Click Here

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