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Old 7th November 2004, 12:45   #1
TanyaT
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Default Down among the debt men

Down among the debt men

The game that ate itself: The gap between premiership elite and the rest is such that more than a dozen clubs relegated from the top flight have collapsed into fiscal ruin. Few have suffered as big a fall as once mighty Sheffield Wednesday

Amy Lawrence
Sunday November 7, 2004
The Observer

Under a charcoal sky, in slitty rain, the message on a hoarding outside the Leppings Lane end hits you like a sharp slap in the face: 'SWFC NEXT HOME GAME vs HARTLEPOOL UNITED'. There, in wet capital letters, is an emphatic symbol of the Premiership dream turned nightmare.
The mind instinctively whirs back to the halcyon days of not so very long ago. To 1992-93, the first season of the Premiership. Sheffield Wednesday are having, arguably, the most successful campaign of their history. They reach both domestic cup finals, play in Europe, and finish a creditable seventh, immediately above Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Their best players are admired throughout the land. They have never felt so glamorous in their 137-year history.
Next game Hartlepool United. Like all the most shocking declines, Wednesday did not see it coming. Why should they have, when they were at the heart of the football boom? No warning signs flashed when they raised money by selling shares to a firm of venture capitalists and spent their freshly minted millions on prestigious foreign players. Like everyone else who was 'living the dream' - as Leeds United's failed impresario Peter Ridsdale so famously put it - they were enraptured when Paolo di Canio and Benito Carbone came to Hillsborough. The Premiership was all about broadening horizons, and, crass though the expression sounds now, going for broke.
When a few big signings flopped, Wednesday began to wobble. After relegation in 2000, they were confronted with the mathematical impossibility of paying Premiership wages in the Football League. Saddled with players such as Gerald Sibon, Gilles de Bilde and Simon Donnelly, who were not justifying their hefty contracts, their downward plunge began in earnest.
Wednesday were the seventh highest payers in the Premiership the year they went down with Wimbledon and Watford. The list of those who have tumbled out of the top flight and into hard times reads like a litany of dashed dreams: Oldham, QPR, Barnsley, Nottingham Forest, Wimbledon, Sheffield Wednesday, Watford, Coventry, Bradford City, Ipswich, Derby, West Ham, Sunderland, Leicester, Leeds. Of the 26 clubs relegated since the Premiership began in 1992, all but five - Blackburn, Middlesbrough, West Brom, Wolves and Charlton - have hit the financial skids.
'It is ritual suicide when you fall out of the Premiership,' says Wednesday's captain, Chris Marsden. 'Obviously Wednesday have learned the hard way, and they are still paying for it.' The club's debt has tripled, to 27 million, since they dropped out of the Premiership.
Marsden is one of football's most decent and down-to-earth men. The familiar bald head and friendly grin appear round the training ground's front door, and it is soon apparent that not even his club's predicament can contaminate his huge well of optimism. Marsden does well to stay upbeat, as he is a Wednesday fan from boyhood. He is impressed with the new manager, Paul Sturrock, likes the look of some of the youngsters coming through and looks me straight in the eye when he says - with complete conviction - that the aim this season is promotion. Wednesday, fifteenth in the table, should be very thankful to have this guy around the place.
But it is a wearing week at the training ground. Sturrock looks harassed as he heads up the stairs for one of many meetings. Private one-to-ones with his players and discussions with the directors are on the agenda to thrash out who stays, who goes and who remains on trial. Nobody's future is guaranteed beyond this season.
Sturrock, like the many managers who have preceded him in recent years, must make do with the squad assembled by somebody else, as there are no funds for repairs. Sturrock's appointment was the tenth managerial change in nine years.
'I must apologise to fans now that I'm not going to turn this around overnight,' says the Scot.
Sturrock's predecessor, Chris Turner, lasted only nine games into this season, having joined the club in November 2002. Chairman Dave Allen made big claims about what was expected: Turner would have to be in the top three by this Christmas - if not he would sack the manager and stand down himself. 'If I had to sack Chris Turner, I'd think I'd failed and I would resign as chairman.' But Allen, whose casino business adorns the club's shirts, has gone nowhere. His reason? 'I've got too much money tied up in this club.'
Allen, chairman for nearly 18 months, bailed out the club and funded signings with his own money in the form of loans. He feels, rightly, that he is not accountable for Sheffield Wednesday being in this mess in the first place. It was Dave Richards who encouraged the club to gamble under his stewardship, enjoyed the triumphs, then left them to fend for themselves in their Premiership relegation season to become chairman of the Premier League. But the pressure on Allen is growing. The Owls Trust, a group of fans who hold a 9.4-per-cent shareholding, have called for an EGM and sent a letter to all shareholders explaining why they want Allen to 'go now for the sake of the club'.
The Owls Trust was formed when Allen and a number of fellow directors bought into the club. Because they did not want to go over the 30-per-cent holding that requires a full takeover, they gave a portion over to the fans, providing a solution that was both practical and worthy. Or so it seemed at the time.
Relations have soured badly. It is not unusual for supporters to bully a board in times of trouble, but at Wednesday the board seem to be bullying the fans back. Key members of the Owls Trust, who have been banned from the club, feel victimised. The trust chairman, Jim Harrison, was refused renewal of his executive box this season even though it was still under contract. Harrison had to take the club (who lost 3.4 million last season) to court in order to give them 16,000 for his box. A 20,000 bill the club ran up in costs only makes the matter even more ridiculous.
The Owls Trust staff were evicted from their office inside the stadium; their car-park passes were withdrawn; their page in the programme scrapped. When they tried to donate 2,500 to become an academy patron the cheque was sent back. The Owls Trust chief executive, John Hemmingham, is staggered: 'I've been watching Wednesday for 35 years. It's so galling that people who arrived a few years ago tell you you can't go, and you can't give the club your money. Our only crime is to care about our club. It's frightening what has happened to us.' Allen was not available for comment last week.
In statements made when the financial results were published last week, he reported that the club 'continue to owe a massive debt of gratitude to the vast majority of our outstanding fans who have remained steadfast in their support of the team through these difficult times'. His plans to improve the club's fortunes revolve around the sale of the training ground to a housing developer, subject to planning permission. It is, as Allen explains, 'important to capitalise on our only saleable asset'.
Selling Hillsborough would not help. To tear it down would cost between 2m and 5m and the area is not high up a developer's wish list. The training-ground deal is far from done - planning permission has not been granted and until it is the club cannot make any commitment to a new facility.
The Owls Trust are not convinced that selling the training ground is the most efficient means of restructuring the finances. Battle lines are drawn. The antipathy was stirred up when Ken Bates emerged as a potential investor, armed with 10m from his Chelsea pay day. The board were reluctant to listen. Fans were frustrated, and backed Bates's call for financial transparency so that some kind of deal might be tabled.
The board feel that the Owls Trust, by publicly sitting alongside Bates, showed themselves to be troublemakers. The Owls Trust say they are only interested in seeing the club engage in communication with people prepared to invest serious money in Wednesday. As Daniel Gordon, author of the excellent book A Quarter of Wednesday, reflects: 'People are ultimately so sick of the status quo they will accept almost anything.' It is a sorry saga, and to complicate it further, Bates is suing Allen for libel.
The enigma of Sheffield Wednesday is this: no matter how discordant the atmosphere, how bad the team, how bleak the future looks, supporters come to S6 in their droves. This season they have drawn regular crowds of 20,000. 'Some of it is novelty, some of it is stupidity or addiction - call it what you will - and a little bit of it is showing Sheffield United we're still bigger than them,' muses Gordon.
A season-ticket holder, asked to name the last time he saw a really good game, needed time to think about it, before giving up and cursing: '**** knows.' Hemmingham laments: 'One Wednesdayite called it "Death of a thousand cuts" and it feels like it.'
Last May, Wednesday slumped to sixteenth in English football's third division - the second worst placing in their history. Nearly 30,000 turned out for the last game of the season none the less. One person conspicuous by his absence that day was the chairman. Allen was spotted by a neighbour in his back garden tending to his pigeons instead.
Back outside Leppings Lane, and the sign advertising Saturday's Hartlepool game, a door is open. There is a faint buzz of a radio inside the ground. A handful of men are sweeping up the remnants of the last match day, a few groundsmen fork the pitch. I stop for a moment to take in the view. Hillsborough may look a little worn these days, but the banks of royal-blue seats are still impressive, still bear the hallmarks of a stadium of Premiership quality.
The stadium is there, the fan base is there. But there is still an enormous job at hand to turn back the clock to those days 10 years ago. As Marsden says: 'When you go down to Hillsborough and look at the pictures on the walls, it's packed with internationals, mostly at their peak in their late twenties to early thirties. It just goes to show you can't beat quality and experience. It also shows how far we have fallen as a club in such a short time.
'You can fall quickly but to rise takes for ever, doesn't it?'
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