How were they bought for £1? Why did Sol Campbell and Sven Goran-Eriksson join them? Why would a Middle Eastern group of billionaire investors take them over only to leave within a matter of months? Perhaps the real question to ask is; what on earth is going at Notts County?
A seemingly normal League Two club, fighting relegation on a seasonal basis, there was nothing out of the ordinary about Notts County. That was until this summer. Although they are the team to have moved between the divisions the most in history, with 12 promotions and 15 relegations, no fan could have been prepared for what was to happen. After avoiding relegation in the penultimate match of the 2008-09 season, new changes were needed in order to prevent going one step worse and leaving the Football League. In June, the fan’s prayers were answered as talks of a takeover by a middle eastern consortium known as Munto Finance took place. In July, the takeover was confirmed with Sven-Goran Eriksson brought in days later as the Director of Football. Surely something dodgy must be going on when Arab billionaires, rather than look to one of the Premier League clubs, are attracted by a relegation-threatened League Two club?
This mysterious group of investors, represented by Nathan and Peter Willett, promised £25m to propel County to the top flight within 5 years but in reality, they were taken to the brink of oblivion within 5 months. Luxury players like Sol Campbell and Kasper Schmeichel were brought in on lucrative wages as they looked to turn things around at Meadow Lane. Sven even made enquiries into bringing Beckham into the team. This luxury wasn’t even merely confined to wages. Eriksson travelled the country in a chauffeur-driven car, while his right-hand man Tord Grip flew around Europe scouting players. The expenditure soared in all areas of the club; fine if you have a hugely wealthy benefactor, but it turned out County didn’t.
Notts County were clearly living beyond their means, and although their league position looked hopeful, within 6 months they began to face serious problems. Sol had already walked on his 5 year 40,000 a week contract whilst Schmeichel was their top earner on £1m a year for 5 years(1/3rd of the club’s annual revenue). County soon found themselves in £6.9m worth of debt as the Arab investors made a quick getaway in December. To make matters worse they were hit with a transfer ban in November-Football League rules state that clubs can only spend 70% of their turnover on wages but County had, according to the Jim Rodwell, the current chief exectuve, ‘blown the wage cap out of the water’. Questions were also raised about the ownership structure of the club as their future was in the balance.
This was the situation that new owner Ray Trew and Rodwell found themselves in when the former bought the club for a measly £1 in February 2010 and Sven stepped down. Together with a group of directors, they formed the company -Notts County Football Club 1862-a reference to the date that the world’s oldest professional club was founded and they outlined two main priorities: avoid administration and achieve promotion. They were issued a winding-up petition because of an unpaid tax bill of more than £600,000. A one-off payment of £321,000 and £50,000 per month avoided that threat. A huge reshuffling and rethinking of the finances behind the club took place as Trew and Rodwell had to deal with the repayment schedules of the club’s other creditors. Costs were cut wherever possible, particularly in terms of the wage bill and backroom staff. Yet amazingly, beyond this backroom nightmare, Notts County were still performing on the pitch. Consistently in and around the play-off positions, at the time of writing they are now comfortably 3rd, 3 points behind second-placed Bournemouth with 3 games in hand. In the FA Cup, they beat Wigan in the fourth round at the JJB stadium before losing to Fulham. On Feb 23, they were given a huge boost by announcing the arrival of Steve Cotterill as manager and confirming that they would avoid going into administration this season.
Yet the mess still continues; the lucrative contracts have to be honoured, the debts are still astronomical and the situation in the boardroom is a nightmare. Perhaps they should look back to 2003 when the club was facing bankruptcy and close after the chairmanship of Alberto Scardino but the club rallied £170,000 through donations and managed to keep County alive. Ultimately, unless somebody close to this myriad of confusion decides to tell all, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly who exactly owned Notts County, how much money they had, if any, and where that money came from. All we know is that Trew and Rodwell have a huge job on their hands if they are to save the club, let alone get promoted.