Sheffield Wednesday

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Sir Dave Richards and the ailing fortunes of Sheffield Wednesday
David Conn - 3 years ago

For the ragged Owls of Sheffield Wednesday, limping in League One between winding-up petitions, today's life-threatening crisis is the culmination of 10 troubled years beneath the Premier League bounty which the club's former chairman, Sir Dave Richards, so richly enjoys.

Richards left Wednesday in February 2000, when the club he ran were bottom of the Premier League, heading for certain relegation, making losses, owing £16m to the Co-operative Bank, and weighed down by a swollen wage bill for poor signings which would deepen the overdraft and debts in the Football League. Richards, whose own business, Three Star Engineering, was heading for insolvency, was personally championed within the Premier League by Ken Bates, then Chelsea's chairman, and approved by the clubs as their first paid chairman – his salary £176,667 for the part-time role. Over the decade, that salary package has risen 77%, to £314,000 last year.

Wednesday, now owing £23m to the bank and £1m in unpaid tax, were last week given a 28-day stay of execution in the winding-up court, but face another petition, for £400,000 outstanding VAT, next Wednesday, 1 December, the real deadline. The directors of the venerable club – one of the world's oldest, having been formed in 1867 – took their place, during this football boom-time, among the bust victims of recession, to be rebuked in court 55.

"You are clearly trading insolvently," Mr Registrar Jacques warned them. "And you are very probably doing so using HMRC money."

While Wednesday have declined to such ignominy, the Premier League has flourished and Richards has risen unstoppably to heady influence. He is deputy chair of the Football Association, chair of the FA's Club England, which runs the national team, and represents the Premier League abroad as chair of the European Professional Leagues. Throughout this rise, to borrow a literary classic, Sheffield Wednesday have been the picture of Dorian Gray in Sir Dave Richards's attic.

Chaired since the summer by their former manager Howard Wilkinson, Wednesday have been given until Friday by the Co-op to present firm offers of new investment, because the bank wants no repeat of last week's 11th-hour courtroom chaos. "We are doing everything possible to avoid administration," Wilkinson said this week.

The terms look generous for a takeover of what should still be one of England's bigger clubs. The bank, its loans unpaid for so long, is prepared to write off £16m and roll on with only £7m owed, if an acceptable new owner comes forward guaranteeing enough money, understood to be as little as £4m, to pay the club's tax and ongoing losses at least until the end of next season.

Several directors and former directors are also owed a total of £4m, loaned to the club in its years of penury. Bob Grierson, 67, owed £150,000, an accountant with formal responsibility for the club's financial management, has been on the club's board for 21 years, having been appointed on 5 October 1989, the same day as Richards. Another, Geoff Hulley, 80, owed £300,000, was one of the club's directors on 15 April 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans died at the Hillsborough ground which, as Lord Justice Taylor reported, was unsafe in crucial respects.

Keith Addy, 76, a builder and also a Wednesday director at the time of the disaster, resigned from the board in January 2008, but remains a loan note holder. Two others are another current director, Ken Cooke, 60, and a former director, Mick Wright, 63, who continues to attend board meetings as an observer.

Those five are said by Wednesday sources to have agreed to take "a huge hit" on what they are owed if necessary for a takeover. The largest loan note holder, reported to be owed £2.4m, is the former chairman who picked the club up after the Richards era, now Chesterfield FC's majority shareholder – the Sheffield casino owner Dave Allen.

Last week Allen rejected as "derisory" an offer from Milan Mandaric, who is flush from selling Leicester City to the owners of the Thai duty free company King Power. Mandaric's offer, to pay £7m and thereby wipe out the bank debt, is thought to remain a possibility as Wilkinson works to find another solution.

The inner politics have become tortured; before last week's court hearing Wright and Cooke, with the local car dealership entrepreneur Garry Scotting, presented plans for a takeover. Wednesday fans have argued that Cooke's role as a director and Wright's as a board observer create a conflict of interest when the board considers other bids, prompting a protest before last night's home game against Walsall.

Wilkinson, though, insisted it is not so, saying: "I firmly believe that none of the board members or loan note holders will be the barrier to saving this club."

Yesterday the supporters' groups, under the banner of One Wednesday, united to call for fans to contribute to a "community investment scheme", designed to incorporate supporter ownership alongside individual wealthy fans. Scotting is now part of it, one of 12 wealthy fans who have promised £2m, and he argues Cooke and Wright should be "accepted with open arms", if they can make the difference.

The One Wednesday statement accepted the timing for raising enough money is desperately tight. "Though it is our intention to do everything in our power to try," it said.

All of which is a nightmare barely contemplated in Richards' early years, when Wednesday finished third in the top flight in 1992, before blowing the subsequent Sky TV bonanza on a clutch of overpriced signings. When Wednesday went down in 2000 – Richards, by then Premier League chairman, was elsewhere, handing the trophy to Manchester United – contracts he had agreed guaranteed Premier League-sized wages for three further years to Gerald Sibon, Gilles de Bilde, Simon Donnelly and Phil O'Donnell, who became landmarks to unaffordable extravagance in the Football League. Through Allen's time, and despite his loans, Wednesday have never shaken off that indebtedness, and the slump finally deepened to a full financial crisis when they were relegated again to League One, on the final day of last season.

The Co-op, whose attitude has finally hardened from the sometimes baffling patience shown over a decade, retains the option of putting Wednesday into administration if no realistic offers are received by Friday. However, the bank is reluctant to do so given the uncertainty of how much it would recover from £23m of its members' money, the 10-point penalty the club would incur, and the hideous consequences for creditors, who would receive next to nothing after the ethical bank has spent so long propping up the fallen club.

"We are doing what we can to support a solvent deal," a bank spokesman said. "We have tried to support the club but we have made it clear to the directors that there does have to be new investment."

Meanwhile, the man who was chairman when this spiral of decline began, keeps busy as Premier League chairman and deputy chair of the FA, where he is known for the firmness of his views on how football should be run.

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.

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