STOCKPORT County now know that, whatever else may befall them, at least they won’t have to start with an outfield player in goal at Bristol Rovers tomorrow. The signing of Conrad Logan on a seven-day emergency loan from Leicester has solved a short-term problem.
But there are still an awful lot of medium and long-term troubles to sort out – such as steering clear of administration.
It’s easier to explain how County almost ended up travelling to Bristol without a goalkeeper than to go through their financial woes, so I’ll start there.
First-choice keeper Owain fon Williams is away with the Wales squad, which faces Finland in a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff tomorrow. Back-up Lloyd Rigby is unavailable due to a shoulder injury.
County tried to recall fon Williams, and the Welsh FA agreed, but then he picked up an injury in training. Until today, Stockport were unable to sign a replacement keeper because of a transfer embargo placed upon them by the FA. The embargo came into force because County owe money to the players’ union, the PFA.
When a club is under a transfer embargo, it’s rarely a sign of good financial health. And County’s financial health is not good. The club have debts of £500,000, with payment deadlines looming, and very little cash to settle them.
There are at least two groups interested in buying into the club. Understandably, they are not particularly keen to take on all that debt. As a result, the word ‘administration’ was mentioned in this week’s Stockport Express, although chairman Martin Reid told the paper that it was not a route he was considering.
County are one of six Football League clubs owned by their fans, in the form of a Supporters’ Trust. When the Trust bought the club in 2005 from Brian Kennedy, the owner of Guinness Premiership rugby union side Sale Sharks, County had just been relegated to League Two. They now sit 10th in League One. On the surface, then, a great deal of progress has been made.
But the Trust had long-term financial problems to sort out. Kennedy took on County’s £4.5million debt, but also retained ownership of Edgeley Park. He agreed to sell the ground back to the football club if they paid off the debt, which they have been trying to do ever since.
Amid all of this, former County player Jim Gannon returned to the club as manager in January 2006, saved them from relegation to the Conference, then guided them to promotion via the play-offs last season.
He also became the first Stockport manager ever to get a mention on Have I Got News For You, thanks to his refusal to speak to Sky Sports because of a dispute with their customer services department over a malfunctioning Sky box at home.
(By the way, while I’m on the point, the next time some Hovis-advert-sepia-tinted-things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be-young-people-today-have-no-respect-it-was-all-better-when-I-were-a-lad-nostalgia-soaked-Michael-Parkinsonalike rounds off an article on Brian Clough by insisting that there are no characters in management today, try pointing them in Gannon’s direction. A qualified accountant with a UEFA pro licence, Gannon speaks his mind, he gets his sides to play football in the right way AND he builds winning teams.)
Gannon has worked wonders, particularly through canny use of the loan market, to take County from the depths of League Two to relative comfort in League One. Unfortunately, the club’s financial troubles are casting a huge shadow over Edgeley Park.
The problem County have is that much of the money they owe is to HM Revenue and Customs. Failure to reach an agreement with the taxman over the repayment of that debt would threaten the club’s future.
The size of County’s overall debt may seem like a pittance compared to those of some Premier League clubs. But the size of the debt is never the issue – what matters is whether you can agree the terms to pay it off.
Stockport’s Trust-run board have faced plenty of challenges over the last four years, and come through the lot. But their biggest test may yet lie ahead. If the club’s directors do keep the club afloat in such testing times, they would prove themselves better at saving things than any goalkeeper. Not that I’m suggesting any of them challenge Conrad Logan for the gloves at Bristol Rovers tomorrow, you understand…