Notts County – perhaps the second most famous team from either side of the River Trent, the Magpies were one of the Football Leagues’ founder members way back in 1888. A historic club with various levels of success, currently the club is preparing for play-off duty in an attempt to make their way back to the Football League from the National League.
Now fighting a battle to regain their league status, it was a mere 11 years ago that Notts County fans began to dream of a Premier League-bound future. In what was a chaotic sequence of events that began with fans dreaming of a multi-million pound Middle Eastern wealth lead revival for the Football League’s oldest club, only to end with it on the brink of financial ruin.
Alongside being one of the founder members of the Football League and being recognised as the oldest professional football organisation in the world, the club is also recognised as being the inspiration behind Italian alumni Juventus home kit design.
On the field, however, the club has struggled to be mentioned in the same sentence as Juventus. Besides an FA Cup victory in 1894, a tournament they were runners-up in three years earlier, the on-field successes for Notts County have been few and far between. Neighbours and nearest rivals Nottingham Forest have enjoyed a more lucrative history, including Champions League glory under Brian Clough.
Under the stewardship of manager Neal Ardley the club are once again on a stable footing, although recently the club’s finances, like all clubs down the football pyramid, were brought into question when during the coronavirus pandemic.
Having previously been fan-owned in order to simply survive, a Middle-Eastern consortium looking to takeover the club excited fans beyond belief. By now we had seen money from far-flung reaches of the world coming into football, granted primarily at a higher level than League Two County, but if it was good enough for Chelsea and Man City – who were the Magpies to turn it down.
After much talk and litigation, the Munto Finance group took control at Meadow Lane in July 2009. Russell King and Nathan Willett, two former Jersey-based financiers who at the time claimed to be representing a wealthy consortium of investors from the Middle East and Europe took control of Notts County – a club then at the basement of the football league pyramid.
What did we know about the group?
Munto Finance was a subsidiary of Qadback Investments. A Swiss investment company based in the British Virgin Islands and had connections with yet another third company by the name of Swiss Commodity Holding. Confusing beginnings enough but no sign of what was to come.
The group was headed by then businessman Russell King, who is now bracketed as (fraudster) on Wikipedia. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment in 2019, after being extradited from Bahrain to Jersey.
On completion of the takeover, the group who claimed to have wealth of unprecedented proportions behind them in the shape of those Middle Eastern investors installed Peter Trembling as chairman of the football club. Trembling had been approached by Nathan Willett of Munto to become Chief Executive of Notts County and fronted their takeover of the club.
At the time of the takeover, Peter Trembling was excited. “The club was at the foot of League Two,” he said, “but it has a Championship-quality ground, a very loyal if dormant fan base, and is the world’s oldest professional club. That is a wonderful strapline, which we can market to football’s global audience. What excites me is the commerciality of football” words that were sure to excite even the most battle-hardened County fan.
Seven days after the takeover had been completed, the group made their first waves in Nottingham when they employed former England Manager Sven-Göran Eriksson was appointed as Director of Football. A sign of things to come.
Shortly after the club signed lucrative deals with Nike and Medoc Computers, both of whom became shirt sponsors for the forthcoming season. The new owners were making big decisions and promising even bigger. Notts were being linked with such stars as – Italian legend Christian Vieri, Patrick Vieira, Dietmar Hamann, David Beckham amongst a host of names. As if they weren’t outrageous enough, Brazilian World Cup winner Roberto Carlos was linked to a move to the picturesque Meadow Lane.
Jorge Andrade, a European Championship runner-up with Portugal at Euro 2004, actually trained with the club as he looked to bounce back from an injury tainted a couple of years at fellow black and white striped kit holders Juventus. Future Premier League winning goalkeeper with Leicester, Kasper Schmeichel, signed from Manchester City and striker Karl Hawley joined from Championship side Preston North End. Some remarkable names arriving and linked with a club who had recently failed to make an impression on League Two – big things were happening and Notts County was the talk of the town and further afield once more.
League Two 2009/10
As the season got underway the dreams looked like they may become a reality. Nine unanswered goals against Bradford City and Macclesfield Town took Notts top early on. Just when you thought it might have calmed down and on-field action may take the limelight – it was only just beginning.
Sol Campbell, you know the one. The double Premier League winner, three-time World Cup squad player, former Arsenal man, Sol Campbell – was rushed into the ground with a coat over his head, and signed a five-year deal at Meadow Lane. He took a few weeks to get up to fitness, before making his much-anticipated debut against Morecambe on 19 September. A game County lost 2-1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oreKpLxqp60
Just weeks later Campbell walked out of the club, that Morecambe match was to be his only outing in a County shirt. Later the England legend said, “I was being a mug” in believing the club’s owners were ambitious billionaires who intended to take the club into the Premier League. His contract was terminated by mutual consent amid rumours of broken promises and he returned to Arsenal later that year, quite the U-turn. A sign of things to come?
The Sol Campbell saga was the first indication that things weren’t hunky-dory behind the scenes. A tip of the iceberg type moment perhaps. The circumstances surrounding Campbell’s departure were consistent with the surreal nature of what was happening at Meadow Lane.
The popular Ian McParland, a veteran of eight years and over 200 games for the club as a player, a County legend who was finally enjoying some success after two years in the manager’s job, was sacked and replaced by Swede Hans Backe. Sven’s influence is undoubted in the appointment of Backe who had previously worked with Eriksson at Manchester City and Mexico. Another big football name appointment – clearly McParland didn’t fit the mould.
Rumblings began to emerge of unpaid bills and debts stacking up. It was Lee Hughes on the pitch there that kept the County dream alive, with six draws in seven games over October and November; and then just as things seemed to be stabilising, with consecutive wins over Darlington and Hereford United.
Much of Notts County’s form to this point in the season had been down to the goals of striker Lee Hughes, himself a controversial arrival after serving a prison sentence a few years earlier. The former West Brom man was prolific in League Two and alongside Kasper Schmeichel won numerous accolades throughout the season.
In December of 2009, the club was abruptly put up for sale by the Munto Finance group. Chairman Trembling admitting that the “several million” promised to the club had not materialised. Within days Hans Backe sensed what was around the corner and had resigned as manager, leaving assistant Dave Kevan in temporary charge.
Trembling hung on for a couple of months, desperately scouring the world with Eriksson in search of the huge investments required needed to meet the financial obligations that Munto had lumbered the club with, the wages, the outgoings, the promises were all crashing down around them.
The search was to no avail, and by February both Eriksson and Trembling were gone, the club sold on to local businessman and former Lincoln City chairman Ray Trew. The sale of the club was sanctioned for just £1, taking with it the obligation of paying the lofty bills.
Trew soon found £7 million worth of debt in the books of the club, even with Eriksson writing off much of what he was owed. As well as what was described as “unusual” payments totaling almost £200,000, many of which headed to bank accounts in Bahrain.
Soon after Trew’s takeover, he appointed Steve Cotterill as manager and the club attempted to move on, whilst operating at a major loss of course. Without major investment, the wages of players like Kasper Schmeichel and Lee Hughes, both players playing distinctly below their level, simply don’t get funded by the in-comings.
In truth, Ray Trew could never maintain the previous level of spending or promises made by the Munto Group. He was almost acting as a stop-gap to pay the clubs way whilst attempting to find deep-pocketed investors once more – ones who actually can deliver this time.
Notts County began to pull away from the pack somewhat under Cotterill, with the heavily invested in the assembled squad was proving far too strong for much of its opposition. For now, at least they were taking the league by storm, what happened when the money ran out should they not find another investor was a problem for another day.
After securing promotion a few weeks earlier Notts’ secured the League Two title at the end of April with a 5-0 victory over Darlington. One step towards the Premier League dream they had been sold. Interestingly promoted with them in 2010 was Eddie Howe’s AFC Bournemouth, who actually finished 10 points behind Notts County. How the two teams’ futures have differed since is remarkable, it was Bournemouth who made it all the way to the top flight of course. The stark difference between the two sides during that League Two season wasn’t necessarily the points difference. Moreover the goal difference, the Magpies’ finished the season +65 and Bournemouth were way back on +17, a staggering gap and proof of the dominance County had shown.
After the departure of Munto, it took another year for some of the facts surrounding the failed ownership to come out. BBC Panorama reported on the Notts County saga. Alarmingly entitled The Trillion Dollar Con Man. The whole ordeal, according to the findings in the programme, had centred around Russell King, a now-convicted fraudster who had made numerous less than legal deals around the world based on empty promises vast wealth from Bahrain – exactly as he had done in Nottingham.
The Notts County takeover specifically had gone ahead on the back of a £5 million bank guarantee from First London PLC as well as those empty promises of foreign sovereign state money. Ultimately that bank guarantee was unapproved by the bank’s board and came from a part of the bank which soon after ceased to exist, and as for that foreign wealth, pure lies. First London PLC then went into administration in 2010, shortly after the Notts takeover, with debts in the region of £8 million.
Cleverly on his behalf – King’s name didn’t actually appear on any documents of the various companies whose names cropped up during the documentary. The BBC however, felt confident enough to say that King was in fact the man “bossing Notts County”, Philip Sinel, a lawyer was quoted on the program “there are strong indications that he’s a serial fraudster.”
King is currently serving six years imprisonment for stealing £67,0000 from the Belgravia Group in 2008, this sentence was handed to him in 2019.
What Happened Next?
Unsurprisingly to many, the end of the 2009/10 season saw some of the big-name players abandon the club. Kasper Schmeichel reached an agreement to leave the club despite having four years left on his contract. Schmeichel was earning a reported £15,000 per week at Notts’, having been signed during the period of high-spending in summer 2009. To secure his departure the goalkeeper agreed to forgo all his future wages.
When the dust had settled Notts County struggled their way to survival in League One during 2010/11, a season which saw five different managers take charge before ultimately ending the season in 19th place. Although in 2011/12 still under the stewardship of Ray Trew and with Martin Allen as manager the club got to the brink of the League One play-offs. Not quite the dizzy heights the fans may have dreamt of during the summer of 2009, but definite progress.
After narrowly avoiding relegation in 2013/14 and with a wholly different squad to the days of Schmeichel, Hawley, Campbell, and Hughes, the club was relegated back to League Two in May of 2015. Yet more ownership drama began on 12 January 2017 with the club in League Two, Trew sold the club to local businessman Alan Hardy, one of Trew’s companies named Pinnacle Advantage was still owed a substantial sum of money by the club. This threatened to force the club into liquidation until an agreement between the parties was reached in May 2017.
In the past two years as opposed to big-name players the club has had some big-name managers at the helm. Former top-level players Kevin Nolan and Harry Kewell have both been in charge, with differing levels of success. In 2019 the club was relegated from the Football League when they finished 23rd in League Two.
Currently, the club are now making preparations to begin the National League play-offs as they attempt to return to the Football League for the first time of asking. Here’s hoping they make it, their fans have been through the mill it’s fair to say over the last 10-15 years. Highs and lows included.
Sven-Göran Eriksson recalls his role in the Munto and Notts County debacle as the strangest time in his career. He speaks of a “very clever, very convincing” pitch he received from Russell King and Nathan Willett in a Dorchester hotel, a pitch which ultimately convinced him to move to Notts County. “I met these two guys and they were very enthusiastic about what they said,” Eriksson said. “They had already bought the club and they wanted to take it to the Premier League. There were a lot of promises about players, about the training ground, the academy; they said they would fix the stadium, that they would buy feeder clubs.”
After initial reservations about joining a struggling club in English football’s fourth tier, Eriksson was persuaded by the prospect of taking the world’s oldest league club to the top of the football pyramid and promptly signed up. “I liked the idea of the project, the challenge to do it. It was like a dream to me. And if all their promises had been true, we would have done it.”
It’s easy to forget the turmoil of 2009 as nothing more than a figment of the imagination. As an outsider watching on with great interest, it was a fascinating case of the possibilities. It seemed as if the football world was about to see what it might be like if someone played real-life Football Manager, with infinite wealth at a lower league club and the ability to sign whoever they liked, unfortunately, what transpired was more like a game of Cops and Robbers.
The Notts County website has consigned Munto Finance to in its history pages, and not in great detail. Fans don’t really talk about those days anymore, perhaps the odd ‘do you remember Sol Campbell’. That season which began with such aspirations ended in promotion under Steve Cotterill, with Lee Hughes scoring a remarkable 30 in the league, however, after a few years of scrabbling around one division higher, the club is now actually one division lower than where they were in the summer of 2009.
What a roller-coaster for the Magpies. From the boom of the influx of seemingly never-ending funds and promises of previously unimaginable heights. To the bust of two quick-fire relegations and a loss of league status for the club widely acclaimed as the countries oldest statesman.
However, if push came to shove, would any Notts fan realistically change what transpired back in 2009. Days of hope, the ability to dream of a brighter future. At the very least, if anyone asks about the history of Notts County now, there are now at least three things to say. Not only are they now the oldest professional club in the world, but Juventus also use their kit, and they were the fourth-tier team for whom former England boss Sven-Göran Eriksson once signed Sol Campbell. Quite the tale for the neighbours of Nottingham Forest to tell.