Time was that English football clubs were local things owned by local folk, stout yeomen, pillars of the community who had made their money in some tangible commodity like steel or meat or, if they were particularly highfalutin, property. A fistful of that hard-earned would be invested in the club on whose terraces the owner had stood as a kid, and then he would disappear from view, keeping his head down and his team ticking over.
Then came the Premier League and the Champions League, and all sorts of things that were sufficiently important in this new world order as to have capital letters assigned to them, and where we are now is that the domestic boardroom is basically heading in two directions.
In the lower leagues, a swelling rank of supporters’ trusts keeps tradition alive, relationships close and overheads low. Meanwhile, among the big boys, the aspirational upstarts or the once-great clubs now fallen on hard times, mysterious consortia comprised of faceless thirty-somethings who have carved billions upon billions out of oil or software or simply money itself endlessly shovel exponentially-increasing amounts of the stuff into the coffers in the hope of one day becoming the nearest thing the modern world has to an empire.
All of which is, of course, something of an oversimplification. It is, nevertheless, a little sad to see the news that Ray Trew, the owner of the world’s oldest football club – a club which more recently helped get the whole supporter-owned movement started – is in the process of selling that club to American (or possibly Chinese) investors. But at least if that deal does go through, things should probably go a little better than last time.
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Before 2009 most people outside of Nottingham could have told you one thing about the history of Notts County Football Club, two at a push. Its venerability is reasonably common knowledge among football cognoscenti, while the particularly well-informed would have added that, since a bit of a to-do about some pink shirts fading too much a century or so back, Juventus have played in their kit; and that would have been the sum total of it.
Because Notts have never been a club to thrust themselves into the limelight with anything so prosaic as on-pitch performance. In the inaugural 12-team Football League in 1888–89, they finished above only Stoke City. In their first FA Cup final appearance two years later, against a Blackburn team that they had beaten 7-1 only a week before, they contrived to slump to a 3-1 defeat. They made up for that quickly enough, beating Bolton Wanderers 4-1 to win the cup four years later, but have never made it back to a major domestic final since.
A lower-league championship or two and the 1994–95 Anglo-Italian Cup aside (in which they won two out of seven matches, including a ripsnorter of a semi-final against Stoke that saw three and a half goalless hours across two legs before Notts won 3-2 on penalties), there has been not so much as a silvery sausage in the 122 years thereafter.
Inevitably, in this long and undistinguished history that has taken Notts up and down the professional divisions without making much of an impact on any of them, with a small fan base and limited commercial viability, they have sailed close to the wind financially on occasion. The autumn of 1986 saw them come particularly close to liquidation, with debts of close to £2 million, and it was only the launch of a prize draw – the Notts County Lifeline, which still supports the club – and a friendly match with Nottingham Forest that kept them afloat.
Four years later, back-to-back promotions under Neil Warnock left them a season’s top-flight survival away from the inaugural Premiership – whereupon, in something of a nod to history, they finished second from bottom again, got relegated, and slid back down into the doldrums. Sam Allardyce came in as manager and back up they came, winning the Division Three championship by 19 points in 1998; Allardyce was poached by Bolton and down they went. Two failed takeovers and eight years later, it took a comeback from 2-0 down to salvage a final-day draw against Bury to keep them in the Football League.
After all of which, when in the early summer of 2009, someone posted on the forum of the Notts County Mad website that “tomorrow will be the best day of your lives”, and then the day after, a Middle Eastern consortium calling itself Munto Finance turned up at the gates promising untold riches, many might have felt that the good times had been a long time coming.
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Six years earlier, Notts’ latest dalliance with financial oblivion had wound up with its supporters’ trust taking control of the club. If such is increasingly the way of things in the lower reaches these days, back in 2003 it was about as common as a Middle Eastern windfall. AFC Wimbledon had been scraped from the ashes of Wimbledon FC a year earlier, and just a few months before, four Exeter City fans had taken a £20,000 cheque to the previous owner’s jewellers’ shop to buy their club during a lunch break, but that was about it.
What’s more, fan ownership was not perceived as the panacea that it is now. Previous experiments at clubs including Brentford and Chesterfield had been seen, rightly or wrongly, as failures, and sure enough by 2009, the people who owned Notts were far from universally popular with those whom they purported to represe