BY WILL MAGEE
When a group of Victorian gentlemen came together to form Notts County in 1862, they could not have known that just over a century and a half later their football club would be the oldest such professional entity in the world. Though non-league Sheffield FC are the oldest association football club still going, County’s foundation predates the standardisation of the rules of the game, the existence of the Football Association and the formation of the first national league by some considerable way. Despite their early glories and incredible historical pedigree, County’s efforts over the past century or so have belied their venerable status. They have essentially spent the last 100 years lurching up and down the divisions, occasionally grabbing headlines owing to shaky finances but generally being paid little attention by the majority of fans elsewhere.
That changed in the summer of 2009, when it was announced that the club was subject to a takeover bid by an enigmatic Middle Eastern consortium with apparent links to the Qatari royal family. In what seemed like an entirely surreal turn of events to many, it was suggested in the press that County, then in League Two, could be given massive financial backing in a bid to propel them towards the Premier League. The BBC reported at the time that “a multi-million pound deal” could be in the offing, which seemed quite incredible for a club owned by a Supporters’ Trust after a decade of debt management and struggles with liquidity. In the words of Sam Brodbeck, a Notts County fan and financial journalist who spoke to VICE Sports about his memories of the Munto Finance era, there were many supporters who thought that the club was going to be “the new Chelsea” so sensational were some of the reports surrounding the takeover. The reality turned out to be quite different, and that sense of excitement was sadly short-lived.
With Sven-Goran Eriksson soon pitching up at the club as the new director of football and Sol Campbell arriving from Portsmouth – dropping four divisions in the process and signing a hefty five-year contract despite being 34 years of age – it appeared as if something genuinely groundbreaking was happening at Meadow Lane. The club also signed a young Kasper Schmeichel, future Charlton stalwart Johnnie Jackson and Matt Ritchie, also from Portsmouth, who came in on loan. While the Football League admitted that their ownership structure was complex and involved various offshore entities, the club’s new proprietors nonetheless passed their ‘fit and proper persons’ test. It should perhaps have rung alarm bells that the people supposedly behind Munto Finance were reluctant to identify themselves to the Football League, and that there were ongoing questions about their labyrinthine financial framework behind the scenes. Soon enough, with legal questions being raised about a cash guarantee Munto had provided to convince the Supporters’ Trust to hand over the club, a fresh investigation into their ownership was launched which would bring the whole house of cards tumbling down.
Ultimately, it turned out that Munto had neither royal connections nor mega millions. The company behind the consortium, Qadback Investments, claimed to have links to various wealthy Middle Eastern families, but those families denied that they were investors or that they had anything to do with the takeover at Meadow Lane. The purchase of the club had been facilitated by convicted fraudster Russell King, a man who had created an elaborate web of lies and fake contacts to secure the deal as part of a large-scale, ambitious ‘con‘ ranging from Bahrain to North Korea. While the details of his deception are both incredibly convoluted and murky in the extreme, the simple upshot for the club was that after several months of association with Munto Finance they were saddled with debts of around £7m.
Talking to Sam about what it was like supporting the club through this time, he paints a picture of general bemusement. “We suddenly seemed to have loads of money, spent loads and had a huge squad. With Notts County, like a lot of clubs outside the Premier League, it’s usually a case of perennial suffering, and so we felt like we’d been given a little bit of hope only to see it taken away again almost straight away.” While it seems there were many supporters who wanted to believe that Munto represented a bright new future, this was anything but the general consensus. “There were fans who were sceptical the entire time, asking how anyone really knew that Munto had the money,” Sam adds. Once the tangled and opaque structure of the new ownership came to light, the reality started to dawn on people. “It all started to feel a bit inevitable, to be honest,” he says.
Sol Campbell only ever played one game for Notts County, leaving when the truth became known and claiming he had been taken for a ride. Schmeichel left after a single season, released in order to get his considerable wages off the books. Sven-Goran Eriksson resigned once local businessman Ray Trew took over, with Trew buying the club for the sum total of £1 at a time when County had been served with multiple winding up petitions. Eriksson is now something of a cult hero at the club, having waived his right to a several million pound pay off in order to help move County’s recovery along.
Still, despite the turmoil off the pitch, County still finished top of League Two that term, ten points ahead of second-placed Bournemouth. While their squad was unusually well equipped owing to the incautious splurge under the departing ownership, it was nonetheless an amazing achievement for a team plagued by the looming spectre of financial uncertainty. In that sense, the Munto Finance debacle was easily forgotten at first, eclipsed by the jubilant celebrations at the end of a truly unbelievable season. That said, there were fans who lost out personally because of Munto’s illusory ownership, with the Supporters’ Trust having gifted hard-earned shares to the consortium as part of their takeover deal.
This is where most outside observers stopped paying attention to Notts County, their prurient interest having abated. It seemed that the club had stabilised and, despite their hefty debts and the shares the fans had lost to Munto, that a tempestuous chapter in their history had come to a welcome close. In fact, as County fans well know, the turbulent times were set to continue, albeit with a brief period of respite in the meantime. Now in League One, the club was always going to struggle to keep up financially, facing as they were the dual pressures of competing in the third tier and tackling the significant deficit that Munto Finance had left behind.
Though fans were generally grateful to Ray Trew for having marshalled the club in its time of need, his ownership gradually became problematic. Though County narrowly survived their first season in League One and actually excelled in their second, finishing just outside the play-offs, things started to go downhill from there. Howard Wilkinson, who managed County back in the eighties, apparently said of Trew that his ownership was “not so much low-profile as subterranean.” This was meant to be a compliment of sorts, but it also presaged much of what went wrong towards the end of his time in charge of the club.
Speaking via email to Joe Jones, admin and head of content on the popular Pride of Nottingham fan site, the difficulties of Trew’s ownership become obvious. He sums up the Trew era thus: “It started off well enough, but then he decided that he wasn’t going to be putting any more money into the club and criticised the fans for not giving enough support. Things slowly turned into a nightmare – there was one great escape from relegation, which couldn’t be repeated the following season, then one-and-a-half diabolical seasons in League Two, which have led to us fighting relegation from the Football League this season. That’s not to mention the animosity between the owner and the fans, the barrage of worrying news such as winding up petitions and so on. It’s no wonder fans have stayed away – the atmosphere was toxic, bleak and hopeless at times.”
Having finished on the edge of the League One play-offs at the end of the 2011/12 campaign, County’s subsequent league finishes under Trew’s ownership read: 12th in League One, 20th in League One, 21st in League One and 17th in League Two. The situation became nasty at times, with Trew complaining towards the end of his tenure of trolling on social media and his family being subjected to “foul and mindless abuse.” County have flirted with relegation for much of this season, threatening to fall out of the Football League for the first time since the league system began. While their plight might not have been quite as eye catching as that of fellow strugglers Leyton Orient, it has on occasion over the past few months looked as if it could be similarly disastrous. Thankfully, now, it appears that County might have a chance to stabilise in the long term.
Back in January, Trew managed to finalise a deal to sell the club to local businessman Alan Hardy. The process was somewhat fraught with County once again the subject of a winding up petition, though the fans are at least used to threats and missives from HMRC. Hardy took charge with the club 22nd in the League Two table, and soon appointed Kevin Nolan as manager. The team have received an immediate boost from the changes, putting together a decent run of results and creating a points cushion between themselves and the dreaded bottom two.
While there are still considerable financial hurdles for the club to face in the near future, fans seem confident that things are on the up at Meadow Lane. Joe says of the new owner: “Under Hardy, the mood has improved in the blink of an eye. He seems like a heart-on-his-sleeve individual who has a desire to communicate openly and transparently, and the fact he’s a fan is also a plus – he has an emotional investment in the club as well as a financial one.” Sam seems to agree that fans can be cautiously positive about the club’s outlook, saying: “There’s a definite sense that things are changing for the better, even just the simple things.” So, for instance, the club have offered discounted tickets for several matches, not to mention giving away 2,000 pies to mark the start of Hardy’s time in charge.
Considering everything that’s happened since the fiasco with Munto Finance, it feels as if there are few stories in English football more gripping than that of Notts County over the past few years. Still the club flies well under the radar, avoiding – perhaps mercifully – the commentary and column inches that clubs in similar positions tend to inspire. County fans will doubtlessly continue to soldier on, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst in the way that circumstances dictate they must. If there is any fanbase which ought to stay sceptical and circumspect it is that which resides at Meadow Lane, and yet with the arrival of new ownership they once again have reason for hope.
Fan quotes sent via email have been lightly edited for sake of clarity.