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Notts County On the Brink – The Cost of Broken Promises

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In July on this site I waxed lyrical about how the oldest league club in world languishing in the bottom division of the football league had been taken over by a foreign consortium in a fairytale the audacity of which bewildered the football community.

However less than a season later the Nott’s County bubble has well and truly burst, despite a promising start the consortium never made good on its promises, the club has changed hands 3 times and it’s current more modestly funded owners have inherited £2.5m of debt and  a club and teetering on the brink of existence.

Sadly Nott’s County are now the perfect case study for the proponents of the evils of foreign ownership. The Munto Finance ownership of the club offers a perfect example of the perils of allowing the arrival of uncommitted foreign ownership into a football club.

The Munto Finance consortium arrived triumphantly during July promising to pump long-term investment into the club, launching a five year plan to get the club back into the top flight of English football for the first time since 1992.

The club brought in star players such as Lee Hughes, Ben Davies and Kasper Schmeichel on contracts that blew the rest of the league away. During a prestige friendly against neighbour Nottingham Forest the club unveiled the kingpin to all future plans; former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson who was introduced as the new director of football.

However even as the club rode this wave of excitement the first seeds of doubt began to develop speculation grew about the limited tangible accountability to the club that the new owners had displayed. Even the FA struggled to confirm the identity of the investors involved and perform the fit and proper persons test.

The clubs league form however did satiate the fans in the short term as the clubs unsubstantiated spending put the club in the upper echelons of the league. Nott’s County were riding high even if not quite matching the insurmountable expectations that had been built.

September saw the swift arrival and departure of Sol Campbell a player still regarded as having both Premier League and international pedigree. His debut defeat at Morecambe was the defender’s only appearance for the club and along with accusations of broken promises triggered his prompt exit. A move that heralded the first tangible warning sign that all was not rosy in the Nott’s County garden.

Whilst many scoffed and criticised the naivety of Campbell’s fly by night appearance and subsequent disappearance it now seems likely that his complaints of broken promises were well founded.

Off the field the club’s disintegration was rapid by December those inside the club began to realise that the promised finance from the Middle Eastern investors was not going to materialise. Munto Finance had by all accounts withdrawn its investment.

In the wake of this realisation embattled chairman Peter Trembling was forced to enact a management buy-out in the face of huge debts including tax debts which leave the club on the verge of a winding up order and administration.

This was the end of the Munto Finance chapter of the clubs history; the ambition displayed in the early months had led to improved on-field performance however without sufficient finance such investments continue to be unsustainable. Nott’s’ County is living beyond its means, in a worse position than before the takeover with more big name departures likely as quality players jump from the sinking ship.

Ray Trew is the latest to attempt to tackle the management of Nott’s County taking over with the less audacious aim of saving and stabilising the club. Crippled by inflated contracts and swimming in debt the stars that remain are naturally uneasy and the rays of hope that illuminated Meadow Lane in late summer have been replaced by storm clouds that sit not so far on the horizon.

Having been supporter owned, foreign investor owned, management owned and local consortium owned Nott’s County has gone through the entire ownership spectrum in the space of a season.

This should be a stark warning to clubs considering being taken over by unknown quantities wherever their origin, new ownership is often feted as the answer to many problems, but at whatever level a club plays its football it must be remembered that the grass is not always greener, and the only good promise is a kept promise.

Ultimately the club may yet pay the ultimate price for its dalliances in ownership this season, the taxman and creditors hound the club and administration remains a very real threat.

The club currently sits in the play-off places chasing automatic promotion 8 points adrift of automatic promotion places with 4 games in hand, administration would make even the play-offs a struggle for a club for which promotion or further takeover may be the only salvation.

As the oldest football league club battles for survival it would in some way be comforting to know that those partially responsible for the club’s woes are being held to account for their broken promises.

However there is nothing that can be done and I doubt the mysterious constituents of Munto Finance will lose any sleep over the plight of the Magpies tonight.

Can the Premier and Football League administrations really continue to allow their clubs to be owned/managed by parties with limited tangible personal or financial investment?

Is now the time to make owners show proper commitment?

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