Around 3,000 Notts County supporters will travel to the Capital One Cup second-round match at Liverpool on Tuesday night hoping to see a proud display at a floodlit Anfield – and giving thanks, too, that their old, weathered club is still around to play in such a game.
Now battling in League One under their manager, Chris Kiwomya, Notts were plunged three years ago into one of the most extraordinary crises among many that the world's oldest professional club have faced since their foundation in 1864.
The saga, barely believable now that normality has been restored to Meadow Lane, featured new owners, Munto Finance, who claimed to be backed by Middle East multi-millions, and that they were negotiating for North Korean mineral rights and the BMW Sauber Formula One team. They hired Sven-Goran Eriksson as director of football and signed high-profile players such as Kasper Schmeichel and Sol Campbell for a "project" to launch Notts County into a Premier League "brand".
But County's brand mostly stands for doughty survival, not global glamour, and the visions of glory with backing from an investment fund, Qadbak, unravelled into a morality tale frighteningly quickly. The money promised when the supporters' trust, which owned the club, signed it over, never materialised, and an apparent bank guarantee for £5m proved worthless. The involvement in the Notts venture of Russell King, who was linked to the collapse of a company, Belgravia, under investigation for alleged fraud in Jersey, dispelled the mystique around the deal.
Campbell, the former Tottenham, Arsenal and England stalwart, walked away after one game at Morecambe, complaining that promises of improvements to the facilities had not been fulfilled. Eriksson, who had actually gone to North Korea with King and been promised huge earnings from Swiss Commodity Holdings, a company linked to the new owners, later told the Guardian he had been duped.
Peter Trembling, who took the job of executive chairman on similar assurances of mega-money, has since revealed that in fact he had to pay the newly inflated wages himself and now says he lost about £630,000. Within a few months the dream of mingling with football's elite had crumpled into county court judgments for petty debts and a winding-up petition brought by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
The club was facing a serious threat to its existence six years after it had been saved from administration and the supporters had come to own it themselves. Trembling took a traumatised club, with contracts it could not pay, off Munto for £1, then in February 2010 passed it on to a Lincoln businessman, Ray Trew, who has since wrestled with stabilising it.
County's accounts to 30 June 2010, covering the period Munto were in charge, show that the club's debts increased by £6.2m to £8m. Eriksson, his status as a football man shaken by the episode, accepted two months' money and walked away, rather than hold out for a huge contractual payout. Schmeichel agreed a settlement of the huge five-year contract he had signed and left for Leeds in May 2010. Other players signed for the Munto journey, including Ade Akinbyi, were also offloaded.
County did, though, win promotion, 10 points clear, going up with "unsustainable" contracts and a dire financial situation, according to the club's current chief executive, the former Rushden and Diamonds defender Jim Rodwell.
"The wage commitments were completely unaffordable," says Rodwell, who also sits on the Football League board. "It was a firefight from the beginning, there was a shortfall of cash every month and there has pretty much been a shortfall ever since. Now, after a lot of hard work by many people including some long-serving staff at the club, the position has stabilised and it is probably not very different from other League One clubs – difficult."
The club's latest accounts, in fact, show debts have risen again, to £5.5m, which Rodwell says is mostly owed to Trew, the cost of financially salvaging the old club and continuing to fund it.
Trew announced that he had asked Nottinghamshire police to investigate what happened at the club; investigations are said to be continuing in Jersey while King is in Bahrain, but so far nobody has been charged with any offences. Kiwomya, the sixth manager appointed by Trew in three and a half years, will take his squad of mostly free signings and young players to Anfield following Saturday's 1-0 home defeat by Stevenage Borough, which was watched by 3,925 fans. Most of those people will be at Liverpool, watching their side play Brendan Rodgers' stars, grateful that their club is there at all, in its famous black and white, and hoping some far-fetched dreams can come true.