North Ferriby United: Sad, but a warning to others

I’m not one to ever take pleasure in the suffering of another club. Hearing that North Ferriby Utd have been wound up this week didn’t bring a tear to my eye, but I feel for their supporters and the current staff.

Fans of the Imps will recall going to North Ferriby the week after we beat Burnley in the FA Cup, taking 2,000 fans to a village with a population of 3,000 for the game. Luke Waterfall gave us a 1-0 win in an edgy game, ensuring we’d completed the double over them having won 6-1 at the Bank (pictured top).

Prior to that, our only tussle with the club from the banks of the Humber had been in the FA Trophy of 2014, when a Danny Hone inspired side won 4-0 at the Bank. Incidentally, we dropped Danny Rowe (Fylde scoring machine) that day for Bohan Dixon…

Anyway, that’s irrelevant. A year later North Ferriby were winning the competition at Wembley and a year later they were promoted to stand toe to toe with us. Prior to 2013 they’d never been higher than the Northern Premier League, but all that changed when the Allam family got involved.

Here’s where the heart breaking story of the past week really starts; with a rogue owner ploughing money into a club that can ill afford to survive without it. When the family decided to pull the money out of the club, their average attendance was little over 350. They took 3,000 to Wembley and yet they were spending money and hitting big.

As they earned promotion to the National League, the owners put the club up for sale. They walked away leaving them hopelessly out of their depth with no means of survival. It’s been a slow descent, painful for the hardcore fans who watch every week, but inevitable.

There’s been an outpouring of grief this week, news programmes highlighting how they were wound up over a ‘trifling’ sum of £7,600. In all of the reports there’s the contrast between the ecstasy of being FA Trophy winners and the agony of being wound up over such a small amount compared to the Premier League wages.

The problem here isn’t those earning big at the top, although it always makes a good story to suggest it is. Of course Alexis Sanchez could have given an hour of his time to save the club, that’s probably his hourly rate, but why is it his fault? Why are the FA blameless in all of this?

There’s another North Ferriby waiting to happen somewhere. They’re probably being bankrolled now by an owner who knows that if he left, his club would go broke. Billericay are a classic example, as are Forest Green Rovers.

I know you all think I have an axe to grind with FGR, but it is the unsustainable business model that I loathe, the same model that has led to North Ferriby’s collapse. Before they were taken over they were in Step 7 and surviving, but a rich benefactor came, conquered and went and now they dead, burned out and bust. 

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Dale Vince is a rich benefactor and without his money artificially propping up Forest Green, they’d collapse too. To a certain degree Mansfield are no different either, although I will conceded they’re a Football League club who have not got to where they are on over-inflated sponsorship deals and misleading investment.

I’ve got a real problem with the fact there’s no Financial Fair Play in the lower divisions as such. I know there’s some regulations that can easily be worked around, but there’s nothing stringent to stop a club from living beyond their means. The loss of North Ferriby is sad, the fact there’s nothing in place to stop it happening again is even worse.

There are supposedly ‘fit and proper’ tests for owners, but is that really applicable at Step 7? Is Glenn Tamplin a ‘fit and proper’ person to run Billericay? When running a football club, should the owners be forced to show that they’re running it, to the best of their ability, as a sustainable business? If not, then North Ferriby certainly won’t be the last to go bust. Soon them and Rushden, another team who went to the wall once the money was withdrawn, will be joined by more clubs. 

The FA don’t have a good track record in dealing with rogue owners, do they? SISU, Duchatelet (Charlton), Ken Anderson (Bolton) and of course the Oystons. When it goes wrong, where are the governing body? Where’s the help or guidance for the clubs? Nowhere to be found. Basically, they;’re on their own. 

What happens if Dale Vince gets bored and moves on at Forest Green? What happens if John Radford’s company goes bust, or if Alan Hardy can’t find a buyer for Notts County? Do we all pour onto social media saying how sorry we are to see it and offer our heartfelt comments about how football clubs are part of the community?

What part of the community will Forest Green be if they’re moved out of Nailsworth and to that new stadium by the M5 Vince wants? 

It makes me angry that the comments and vitriol are aimed at the higher levels of the game, but few seem too bothered by the framework that allows these things to happen. It seems a football club has to be self-controlled if they want to live by their means, they must have an owner who doesn’t believe in jeopardising the future for a short-term gain.

That pulls the piece around to my final point, a rather twee and perhaps inappropriate slap on the back for our own owners. We’ve had investment from multiple people, all buying into the club but without becoming a sole owner. I’ve listened to Clive in meetings where every answer about expansion, players signings or whatever has been met with a very firm ‘we will do nothing to risk the long-term future of this football club’. 

Unconfirmed reports suggest we were in for both Jorge Grant and Tyler Walker, but when the money involved went over and above budget, we walked away. Sure, some might see that as a lack of ambition, but North Ferriby are a warning as to what can happen when ambition takes precedent over common sense and financial realism.

When the Allams took over at North Ferriby, they didn’t look to the future, they looked to the here and now. Vince, I don’t know where he looks and maybe I’ve got him wrong, but if he passed away tomorrow, Forest Green would be in the same boat as Rushden and Diamonds were. If Clive chose to leave us tomorrow, we’d be alright. We’d lack the creative management he brings to the board and we’d be infinitely worse off as a club, but financially we wouldn’t die. Our crowds would sustain the club and we’d be fighting fit and moving forward.

That’s a great position to be in and the fact we’re top and hunting promotion under such conditions is a real testament to the wonderful stewardship we’re currently operating under. I know there’s talk of £1.2m losses, but that’s spending offset by FA Cup runs and the EFL Trophy win. We’re earning our corn and where we have investment coming in, it’s being used across the club, not just on players.

Of course, there’s a need to keep this revenue flowing, hence the so-called commercialisation of the club, but that’s inevitable again. we’re not going to be reliant on one person or business, instead we have to run ourselves as a business. If we find the balance between that and being a football club, which I believe we do, then we’re going to be in a strong position going forward into the brave new era we’re on the cusp of.

I do feel sorry for North Ferriby and if Forest Green went to the wall tomorrow, I’d feel sorry for their fans and staff too. However, I won’t start pointing the finger at the vast amounts of money at the top end of football, instead choosing to believe the real issue is in the lack of control at the clubs and by the FA.

3 Comments

  1. Of course it would be ideal if professional football clubs were all majority owned by the community which ‘supports them’. In reality many depend on single investors, their wealth and interest in having some control of the club. This all brings massive benefits to the game. Sometimes these investors turn out to act against the interest of the supporters but the net result of this system is hugely beneficial to supporters because football club companies rarely make regular profits.
    Any you suggest some control on who gains control of football club companies – this is not practical. Anyone who buys a majority of shares in a company controls it. It could only be the seller who could decide and this can never be obvious at the outset.
    By definition some football clubs will get into financial difficulties because like all business successes brings financial reward and with football there are bound to be some that are not successful.
    Gary, you are less than fair to FGR and their owner. You should look at the company accounts which are in the public domain. On the Companies House website. They are more comprehensive and detailed than they are required to be and show a profitable, financially stable and well operated company. The good intent and intentions of the owner shine through. I think FGR supporters are very fortunate.

  2. Gary,
    agree with your comments,but…..
    as a someone who is not a financial wizard,it does worry me that we can be happy that we have losses of 1.2 million in a season where we almost doubled our attendances and had the Checkatrade Trophy money.
    what will the financial situation be going forward,it is impossible to increase attendances,we may have zero success in cups…..what then?
    As a fan from the 1960’s.I have lived through several Imps financial meltdowns,please reassure me how this debt is sustainable,as it does seem to be a bit of “been there,done that”…..I sincerely hope not and that it is my poor grasp of accountancy….
    would appreciate any comments to help me sleep easy.

  3. Don’t worry too much, Michael, but be aware that investing in a football club is very high risk and not something for your pension scheme! Whilst the Imps investors are taking a big risk, I believe they have fully assessed the ability of the Cowleys and know their own business and man management skills.

    Be assured that the club/company has no significant ‘debt’ – there is cash at the bank. The investors money that has come in, and is still coming into the company, is used to buy new shares, which the company continues to issue, so the cash becomes part of the LCFC company. The only way the investors can get this cash back is by selling their shares to someone else – the club does not have to pay it back. (I guess with LCFC there may be some restrictions on who shareholders can sell shares to.) Its just like you buying shares in British Telecom as an investment and then selling them again to someone else – BT does not have to find the cash.

    The main reason, but not only one,for the £1.2m loss was the increase in wages: £1.2m on wages in 2016, £2.6m in 2017 and £4.4m in 2018 (Note that no Directors receive any remuneration. I guess this will be mainly players, management but also the big increase in support staff. Success (AND WE SURE ARE GETTING THAT) does come at a cost but you do need to ‘speculate to accumulate’

    The challenge for LCFC is now to increase takings to cover the £1m extra costs. This extra cash is going to have to come from sponsorship, hospitality and commercial activities (notice that you can hire SB for a private match for £1,000) and maybe from increased admission charges (If everyone pays £4.30 more per home match this will be £1m – are home matches worth £4.30 more than 3 years ago? – it costs me £25 more per match to watch Leicester City)or possibly the odd player sale (god forbid)

    So, exiting times in more ways than one. I think Clive Nates and his colleagues will make a go of it and Danny and Nicky will have us in the Championship by 2022!

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