JOHN Batchelor: Former racing driver, toilet roll salesman, great-grandson of the man who founded Batchelors (the Cup-A-Soup people), one-time owner of York City. Very fond of changing the names of things. Now trying to turn Mansfield Town into Harchester United.
Batchelor hadn’t been heard around the football circuit for a while until he re-emerged recently as part of a consortium bidding to buy out Mansfield Town. He immediately won a lorry load of publicity by stating that if his takeover was successful, he would change the club’s name to Harchester, after the club from Sky One football soap Dream Team.
His logic is that Harchester United is a more marketable brand than Mansfield Town. As someone without Sky, I’m not sure I agree with him.
Batchelor has previous for name-changing. In his days as a driver in the British Touring Car Championships, he changed his name by deed poll to John B&Q, in order to get extra exposure for a sponsorship deal. I interviewed him a few months after he had taken over at York City in 2002. He had just changed their name to York City Soccer Club, citing a desire to cash in on the city’s popularity as a tourist destination with Americans.
There’s no doubt that Batchelor is a man with a lot of ideas: most of them seemingly borrowed from Jimmy Hill circa 1982. (Remember Hill’s bid to change Coventry City’s name to Coventry Talbot in a bid to maximise a shirt sponsorship deal?)
Look through the files of Batchelor interviews, and the same themes crop up over and over again. He admits to great wealth, but never claims he will be a sugar daddy to a club. Instead, he talks about making money through a a series of schemes and publicity ventures that make you rub your eyes in disbelief.
There’s an interview from the Daily Telegraph from May 2002, where he talks about using the York City brand to sell women’s underwear, amid plans to save ITV Digital from collapse. (Neither plan came to anything, which is another theme that runs through Batchelor’s dealings with football.)
Batchelor’s spell at the helm at York did not last long, and did not end well. He left the club in administration, amid allegations of financial mismanagement (which Batchelor has denied). York fans will tell you that the club – who lost their Football League status in 2004 – are only just recovering. What Batchelor has admitted is that he made a £120,000 profit on York over 18 months.
It’s that tale – rather than all the bluster about changing Mansfield’s name – which should give Stags fans cause for concern. Already, the town’s newspaper, the Mansfield Chad, has run an interview in which Batchelor has apparently confessed to asset-stripping companies in the past. (Something which is perfectly legal, but is hardly going to endear him to Mansfield’s supporters.)
Stags supporters must be wondering if they are about to jump from the frying pan into the fire, following Keith Haslam’s controversial chairmanship. Haslam took out (and eventually paid back) around £500,000 in interest-free loans from the club – and this after becoming the first Mansfield chairman ever to take a salary.
Although majority shareholder Haslam now appears to be on the verge of cutting all his ties with the club – having relinquished the chairmanship in June 2006 to become managing director, before giving up that role too three months ago – it does not appear as if there is going to be a simple resolution to matters at Field Mill.
Mansfield are fighting for their Football League lives right now. It looks as if they are also not only fighting for their identity, but for their very future too.