What’s happening at Rochdale is a failure of football governance

Date published: Saturday 9th October 2021 8:14 - Ian King

SPotland, home of Rochdale AFC

Rochdale overcame a hostile takeover bid during the summer, but now some of those shares have been sold to a man with quite a chequered history.

Football in Manchester isn’t all about the glitz and glamour of Old Trafford and The Etihad Stadium. On its outer peripheries, many of Manchester’s other professional football clubs have been suffering in recent years, each of them emblematic of the failure of football governance in this country.

Bury FC, formed in 1885 and still joint-holders of the record winning margin in an FA Cup final, collapsed in 2019 and were expelled from the EFL and now exist as two separate entities, a fan-owned club starting again near the bottom of the football pyramid, and a paper entity in administration with a crumbling stadium but, significantly, no team.

Bury were the worst affected, but they were by no means the only Manchester club to have found themselves in crisis over the last decade. Bolton Wanderers were stalwarts of the Premier League, but falling from the top flight resulted in the club’s financial house of cards falling in on itself and the team itself dropping all the way to League Two and insolvency before being rescued.

Oldham Athletic’s supporters are currently locked in a battle with the club’s owners after years of neglect which have seen the club drop to its current position at the very bottom of the EFL. At present, they’re on course to become the first club to have played in the Premier League and be relegated into non-league football.

Rochdale AFC had previously avoided the worst of it. To support this club was to embrace a degree of modesty in your life. Rochdale are, after all, a football club that had a period of 36 consecutive years in the basement division of the Football League without promotion or relegation, who finally ended that spell in 2014 with promotion into League One, going on to defy expectations by staying at the higher level for a further seven years.

Rochdale’s other claim to fame apart from its football club (Googling the town name brings up the club as the first search return) is that it was the birthplace of the Co-Operative movement, and this has been reflected in the ownership of the club, which has more than 300 shareholders with varying sizes of shareholdings. This arrangement had served the club well until this summer, when two businessmen from the other end of the country with no apparent previous allegiance to or interest in Rochdale AFC – Andy Curran and Darrell Rose – started contacting shareholders and offering them multiple times the paper value to sell.

It looked for all the world like a hostile takeover, but there didn’t seem to be a particularly obvious reason for it. At a club like Rochdale, new owners with no previous connection to the club were always going to be treated with considerable scepticism, and this seemed justified after the first meeting between Curran and a small number of fans at a Rochdale hotel at the start of July.

The club’s supporters trust, The Dale Trust, subsequently released a statement to say that they had met with an investor who had told them that they had already purchased 42% of shares in the club and had provided proof of funds to the governing bodies. The EFL, via the club, contacted the Trust days later to outline neither statement was true. ‘The EFL is still to receive any evidence of the source and sufficiency of funding on behalf of any potential purchaser.’ The Trust, in turn, had to issue their own clarification on the matter.

Further alarm bells went off in August when it was reported that insulting comments had been made by Curran during a Zoom meeting between Curran and advisor Alexander Jarvis, the current board of the club, and the EFL. It was alleged that Curran called the people of the town ‘small minded’ and the club’s current board ‘nancy boys’, and suggested that any future disputes could be settled in ‘a fight in a boxing ring’. This led to the local MP writing to the EFL to express his concerns over goings-on at the club over the summer, and the EFL in turn confirmed that they had opened disciplinary investigations in respect to the acquisition of these shares without their prior permission. The takeover collapsed a few days later.

But the story didn’t quite end there. The takeover might have been dead in the water, but confirmation eventually followed that 25% of the shares in the club had been sold to Matt Southall, a name that automatically rang alarm bells with supporters of another club, Charlton Athletic.

Charlton’s previous owner, Roland Duchatelet, had been among the most unpopular in the entire EFL, but in November 2019 he sold the club to East Street Investments (ESI), a group fronted by Matt Southall, for £1. Approval was reportedly granted in January 2020, but a couple of months later a public disagreement between the new owners erupted along with reports that the main investor, Tahnoon Nimer, was pulling out.

An almighty legal row led to dirty washing being hung out in public, and Southall attempted to regain control of the club through the courts, but failed and was subsequently fined and dismissed for challenging the club’s directors. In August 2020 the EFL confirmed that three individuals, including ESI owner Elliott and lawyer Chris Farnell had failed its Owners & Directors Test, leaving the club’s ownership unclear.

In the middle of all of this, Charlton were relegated from the Championship, but early hopes that Southall’s group might have been better for the club than Duchatelet had already dissipated. While no money had been coming into the club, plenty was still flowing out. Southall was on £200,000 a year as chairman, and on top of this there were consultancy fees at £90,000 each and a fleet of £100,000 Range Rovers, while Nimer also claimed that Southall had been using club funds to pay for an apartment overlooking the River Thames at a cost of more than £12,000 per month. Thomas Sandgaard, a Danish businessman based in Colorado, eventually bought Charlton in September 2020.

Southall is part of a group of men who walk in similar circles. A former football agent, he is understood to be friendly with Erik Alonso, a former advisor to Dejphon Chansiri at Sheffield Wednesday (who made an offer to buy them which was rejected) and whose abortive attempt to buy Derby County is a whole other can of worms, and Laurence Bassini, the twice-bankrupt former Watford owner, who became yet another interested party when Charlton looked as though they might be unravelling and who made an unsuccessful half-attempt to buy Bolton Wanderers. Andy Curran, who sold the shares to Southall, is a former associate of Lee Power, who mismanaged Swindon Town for a while.

Those who are hoping that the EFL will step in again as they did in August may end up disappointed. The Owners & Directors Test (OADT) only applies to those with a shareholding of 30% or greater. Considering that the previous owners had a 42% shareholding in the club, the cynical response would be to wonder at the convenience, considering that he has already failed the OADT once. The club’s response to all of this has been to issue new shares to fans and new investors in an attempt to protect the club from falling prey to any new takeover bids, while diluting the shareholding still in the hands of the previous would-be owners.

Who could ever say what the real motives of these serial ‘investors’ are? They’re certainly not fans of the game. A fan of the game would not act in the way that those seeking to buy Rochdale did; they wouldn’t do that to a club. None of these clubs are particularly wealthy, and not all of them even own their own grounds, so it’s difficult to see how they could legitimately make a lot of money from them.

What’s happening at Rochdale isn’t a result of the overbearing influence of Manchester City or Manchester United, but this story does demonstrate the gulf between the means of the biggest professional clubs and the rest. The EFL still doesn’t really have the teeth to deal with this sort of thing, and the FA abdicated responsibility for anything much to do with the club game (outside of the FA Cup) years ago.

As such, supporters have to take it upon themselves to do this research, learn the rules and understand who they’re dealing with, because there isn’t anyone specifically charged with the task of ensuring the health of our football clubs and you can guarantee that, even if Southall and his ilk did walk away from football tomorrow, another lot would be along soon enough. And at Rochdale, as has happened at so many other small clubs over the years, those fans are doing the legwork because they care, and because Rochdale means so much to its community. This is a co-operative movement in action.

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