That was a belter of a line from Lieven De Turck, representing the always bewildering Roland Duchâtelet at a forum of Charlton Athletic supporters a few nights ago, when the man reputedly in charge of trying to sell the club floated what viewers of Blackadder might recognise as the “cunning plan” option.
He didn’t put it in those terms, of course, but equally I’m not even sure Baldrick would have come up with something quite so brilliantly harebrained as standing up in front of a room of already exasperated football fans and proposing, in one of those lightbulb moments that probably encapsulate Duchâtelet’s five years as Charlton’s owner, that the Football League should get them out of a hole by buying the club.
All of which might have come across as some kind of misunderstanding, a wind-up even, were it not for the statement that appeared on Charlton’s website the next morning to clarify that, yes, he was deadly serious. It noted that Duchâtelet’s property had been vandalised and complained of intrusion into his personal life. There was the now‑obligatory mention of “fake news”, referring to one of the stories about the owner’s alleged penny-pinching (namely the rationing of bottled water for players in training sessions), and the killer line was saved for last, having claimed that no foreign investor would possibly want to buy the club and endure the same indignities. “Therefore,” this 668-word piece of tragicomedy concluded, “the owner demands that the EFL acquires his football club.”
Well, it’s an idea, I suppose. I particularly like the way he “demands”, rather than simply “requests” or “proposes”, and I hope it is not too impertinent to point out that it is not exactly common practice for a football club to be bought by the league in which it plays. Or, indeed, that he appears to be making an impressive challenge for the 2018-19 trophy as the most preposterous football-club owner in the business.
Not that he can be considered the overwhelming favourite just yet when there is so much consistently strong competition elsewhere. Nobody, for starters, could persuade me that any club has had it worse than Coventry City under the hard‑faced ownership of the London-based hedge-fund Sisu and there are plenty of other contenders. At least the supporters of Blackpool are now in a position, finally, to fumigate the corridors of Bloomfield Road and talk of the wretched Owen Oyston in the past tense. Yet it is still very evident that football is awash with clubs where, if you remember the old Monty Python sketch, the people in charge are here on behalf of the Silly party or the Slightly Silly party.
Bolton, under the chairmanship of Ken Anderson, have been added to the list this season, especially after the latest reports of staff and players not receiving their wages for February, and Notts County, increasingly, are another one, given the strange set of events that has seen their narcissistic owner, Alan Hardy, take the oldest club in the Football League to 92nd position, accidentally reveal a photograph of his manhood on Twitter, place the club up for sale and invoke the kind of financial chaos that risks them being sent to the knackers’ yard.
Hardy made his money at an interiors company called Paragon and, knowing what we do now, that was a curious tweet it put out on 19 January to boast that “we’ve started 2019 on fire” (flame emoji) with £11.7m of new deals in just one week. Back in the real world, Paragon has just gone into administration, putting Notts at significant risk of the same because one appears to be reliant on the other. HMRC, meanwhile, has issued a winding-up petition against the club, to be heard on 10 April. Hardy, to recap, regards Peter Ridsdale, the chairman whose over-spending once prompted the News of the World headline “Post-war Iraq is being better run than Leeds”, as some kind of mentor. Perhaps you can see now why they get on so well.
Mostly, I wonder when, or if, the long-suffering fans of Coventry will experience the mix of relief and joy that Blackpool’s supporters will encounter this week now the thousands of boycotters who have stayed away from Bloomfield Road these past few seasons, including distinguished former players such as Tony Green and Eamonn O’Keefe, as well as relatives of the great Stan Mortensen, can look forward to going back, at last.
Oyston did not just bring the town’s football club to its knees, he seemed to take a sinister pleasure from his unpopularity, driving around the old seaside resort with an OY51 OUT private registration plate. And now, after all the mutiny and boycotts and perhaps the most brilliantly orchestrated and devoted fan protest there has been in English football, his time is up. Blackpool’s game against Southend next Saturday will be their first at Bloomfield Road since the fans got their way. Supporters are planning a party, starting with a celebration march from the promenade, and perhaps in some small way it can be a reminder for every other club that has inadequate or reviled owners, that things can change for the better, that it won’t always be one crisis after another, and that one of the reasons why this sport pulls us in, why it is so damn addictive, is that the bad times always make the good ones seem so much better.
For now, I imagine that will be only small comfort for the supporters of Coventry when it is apparent now that the nadir of Sisu’s reign might not be, as previously assumed, the year-long exile of “home” games being staged in Northampton, six motorway junctions south.
The latest from Coventry is that the league has set a Tuesday deadline to establish where the team will play next season, amid the long-running dispute over rent and other issues with the Ricoh Stadium’s owners, the Premiership rugby club Wasps, and Coventry city council, the freeholder. If nothing materialises, an EGM will be held on 25 April to consider expelling the club from the league. No more Coventry City? It would be nice to think that is an empty threat and the followers of this beleaguered old club can cling to the hope that they, like Blackpool, will come out the other side one day. Yet it is no use just assuming everything will be sorted out. Nobody knows, is the truth.
The same applies to Notts but if they can bear to look through the gaps in their fingers across the River Trent they might also remember it is only two years since Fawaz al-Hasawi had turned Nottingham Forest into a shell of a club. Forest’s new owners, in the words of the chairman, Nicholas Randall QC, took over a club “in intensive care”. This season they have had their biggest average crowds since the club’s European Cup-winning days. Season‑ticket prices have been slashed and plans have just been announced to turn the City Ground into the biggest stadium in the east Midlands. The moral of the story: things can improve.
As for Charlton, the club’s website contains the minutes of their fans’ forum and – well, everyone loves a trier – De Turck’s attempt to persuade everyone that a takeover by the Football League was the most sensible option. “He said they would pass the Fit and Proper Persons’ test, they understand the monthly losses as they have the financial figures of the club, and they have the football knowhow to run it,” it reports. “The fans’ forum unanimously rejected the proposal saying it was unfeasible.”
The other option, perhaps, is that Duchâtelet, who has been trying to flog the club since 2017, drops his asking price, which is clearly scaring off potential buyers, accepts it is the end of an era/error (delete as applicable) and let’s a proud old club breathe again. Now that would be a cunning plan.
It’s a mystery how ‘starmaker’ Bennell earned Crewe sack
Perhaps in time Dario Gradi and those charming people at Crewe Alexandra would be decent enough to furnish us with more details about the reasons he once supplied, in legal documents, for moving Barry Bennell out of the club.
“I have only ever sacked one person at Crewe and that was Barry Bennell,” Gradi’s evidence from a civil hearing in 2004, never reported until last week, states. “I ultimately sacked him for failing to accept specific instructions regarding a coaching session on the pitch before a game.”
Interesting, that one. Bennell, to recap, was the man they knew at Crewe and, before then, Manchester City as “the starmaker”. He was the talent-spotter who discovered or brought through, among others, David White, Gary Speed, Paul Lake, Andy Hinchcliffe, Ian Brightwell, Steve Redmond, Paul Warhurst, Paul Gerrard, Rob Jones, Danny Murphy and Mark Williams. And those are just the ones who went on to win international caps at the various age-levels, even before we get to David Brightwell, Roger Palmer, Gary Blissett and on and on. Just try to think of another man in the modern game who even comes close to such a prolific record – and how coveted that person would be.
The man now serving 30 years in prison for 50 specimen offences of child sexual abuse was so brilliant at his job there is separate evidence from a key witness, submitted to the Football Association’s continuing inquiry, that Gradi arranged to have his 10% cut from transfer profits, relating to the sales of youth-academy products, reduced to 7% and for Bennell to get the extra 3%. Bennell was that important to Crewe. Just consider the fact Jones went to Liverpool for £300,000 in 1991 and, later, Murphy followed him to Anfield for £1.5m. Bennell, according to Gradi’s evidence, was “almost Brazilian” in terms of his skills range. He had a rare talent, Gradi writes, for discovering youngsters who seemed devoted and loyal to a man with a “lot of charm and a great hold over the boys he had recruited”. Gradi even admits being worried that if Bennell ever left for another club the players at Crewe would follow him.
All of which makes it seem strange that Crewe would sack such a man because of a disagreement over a training session. Not that I would ever doubt Gradi’s evidence, of course, after reading all nine pages of what he had to say. But it certainly must have been serious bearing in mind Bennell was not even sacked after the time he dumped his players in the middle of nowhere to punish them for a poor performance.
The story told to this newspaper is that the players were on their way back from a defeat against Manchester United’s youth team and made to get out of their minibus at Beeston Castle, ordered to run around it several times, then told to find their own way home and left to walk, or hitch, the 15 miles back to Crewe (in the days before mobile phones). According to the documents from 2004, a parent complained. Yet neither Gradi nor the chairman, John Bowler, deemed it a sackable offence.
Instead, Bennell got the bullet for something that seems entirely more innocuous. What did he do in that training session, as the bibs‑and-cones man, that was so outrageous? What coaching instructions did he fail to carry out? Gradi, reflecting on the one sacking of his long career, does not elaborate. He does not even seem certain which game it involved, recalling that it was “against Liverpool, I think”, and there is nothing in all the other pages of evidence from various Crewe officials to explain it either. A genuine mystery.