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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Board games:
Fans Forum, 3/10/99
 
Unofficial minutes
By Doug Lawson

Present:
Jon/John (Chair)
Padraig McKenna (Forest Fan)
Simon Banks (Soccer Investors)
Hazel O'Callaghan (WISA)

Meeting started 11:10am

Padraig was first to speak. He gave described the involvement of Nigel Wray (NW) at Nottingham Forest:

Forest were on the verge of bankruptcy and there was an acrimonious takeover. Two groups were initially involved - one group of "fans", the other headed by Irving Scholar. NW was asked to provide short term financing for the second group.

From NW's point of view he was to be merely a stopgap. The club was to be floated within six months and NW would get his money back (presumably with "interest"). The flotation did not materialise within the six months, and at the same time, Forest were relegated. Throughout this period, the fans were unaware of any of the dealings in the background. Season ticket prices went up by thirty percent and there appeared to be no appreciation of the fan base. The club was being run as a business with no care for its customers.

Flotation finally happened, but with the increase of STs, the club was valued at 70p a share. Few points regarding the sale:

  • The shares were overpriced (30p was believed to be more fair)
  • Advice was given that it was a bad time to float the club, as the market was depressed as far as Football Clubs were concerned
  • The flotation was to raise 20million, but actually raised only 7 million. After costs, this left only 1.2 million. Effectively this meant that NW was "stuck" with Forest as they could not pay him back

From this point onward, NW was a "PR Nightmare" who tried to "say the right thing" in the press, but didn't attend games, and gave nothing. A quote from an unknown source was "Forest is run from a fax machine in an office in London". Additionally, whilst saying nothing to the fan base, the club started selling players (Cambell, who scored 25 goals in the previous season is a prime example).

A protest meeting was eventually held, and a vote of no confidence carried for the Board of Directors, of whom NW was the Chair. He then became the subject of a Football League inquiry as a result of his interest in Watford, through his cousin, and sold enough Forest shares to bring him within the legal limit. The case collapsed.

In summary, no specific allegations can be made against NW, but it is obvious from sales of season tickets, that his influence on the club was catastrophic (pre-NW, sales were c.18,500, they are now c.9,000).

Questions from the floor:

Q. Did NW make a profit from Forest?
A. He sold his shares at an unknown price, a loss of £1-1.5 million was "reported".

Q. Was the "NW Effect" deliberate or a result of naivety on his part?
A. Forest looked like a good business venture, but NW ran it as a business, not a club. It is not certain what the rationale behind this was.

Q. What (if anything) was/will be the results of the Football League enquiry?
A. Unlikely to be action, others are currently in breach of the rules (including BSkyB) and nothing as yet has been done.

Q. NW has been quoted as wanting an "amalgamation of Saracens and WFC", and a ground move. What would this entail?
A. No idea, there is a need to talk to NW about these issues.

Q Why is GT in favour of the ground move etc, if it is bad, surely he would not sign his contract?
A1. Most in favour of move, provided that the club retain the lease. Otherwise Saracens would potentially be able to "take over". As NW is a Rugby man, this would be quite likely, and probably detremental to the club's future.
A2. GT signed/will sign because he is obliged to do so under the Premiership rules. He has said that he requires answers to three issues, but will not leave if he doesn't like the answers. He did say he will not sign if the issues are not cleared up. What that means is anyone's guess! Saracens and WFC are supposed to "share" the ground, with WFC as the leaseholders and Saracens as tenants. However NW has allegedly been illegally attending WFC board meetings, and pulling strings through his cousin's involvement. Thus effectively putting him in charge of both. He is more interested in rugby than football, has shown his contempt for the Forest fan base and looks in an ideal position to do the same at Watford.

Q. What has happened to the plans to develop the Vic?
A. (From a local councillor) - 7 Day sports/other usage of the Vic is allowed under current regulations. What NW is thought to want, though, is a "village" like the Chelsea model, with a hotel, supermarket etc. This is to add "value" to his investment. Leavesden was mentioned as a possible site (apparently there IS still room here).

Other points made included:

The "moving of goalposts" by the fans who two years ago thought flotation was a good idea, but are now against it.

No-one has actually spoken to NW and asked him what his plans are. (Apparently he can't shut up once you get him talking!)

Saracens made a 2 million loss and NW has promised them 10 million. Will he put money into WFC?

Next to speak was Simon Banks from "Soccer Investors".

Simon explained that "Soccer Investors" put a lot of resource into researching possible deals like this. He has a copy of the flotation prospectus (details for potential share investors). It is confidential, so he could not provide copies, but did say that it was very long, and often impenetrable!

In summary, the most interesting things in this prospectus are those NOT mentioned.

  • No mention of a ground "move"
  • No mention of Saracens being more than tenants

However, the following things, which have also been mentioned by Wray in recent interviews, were outlined:

  • Flotation to raise 5 million, half of which is to go to Petchey
  • Future possibilities may include other sports and training facilities
  • Expected profit this year is to be reinvested in the team
  • Good "husbandry" of the club is important - suggesting a "lesson learnt" at Forest?

Other points that Simon Banks raised were the way the prospectus shows contempt for the twelve thousand small shareholders that make up five percent of the ownership. It was suggested it was unlikely that these shares would be bought back. Simon also pointed to changes in trading rules for said shares, in that it is now possible to sell on, where previously you could only to sell back to WFC or pass on to a relative at your death. This ruling was passed in September without notifying the affected shareholders!

Additionally, Simon pointed out that the current lease runs until 2018, so the club would need a "damn good reason" to move from a "free" location; any other decision would be "financial suicide".

Simon stated that NW would NOT lose money this time (as he did at Forest). The idea of a sporting "centre of excellence" fits with this idea as it could be a big money spinner. He did however point out the problems with investors:

  • Media ownership would preclude investment in more than one club (NW wants to sell thirty percent, the limit for multiple ownership is nine percent)
  • NW has had to "look for" interest, no one is banging on his door to invest. It is doubtful whether investors will be found.

Simon asked us as fans to consider the real "value" of WFC and he advocated supporters buying in so they can have a say in future resolutions.

In short, THE BOARD MUST BE MADE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT WFC MEANS TO THE FANS.

From the floor:

The apathy of current shareholders was highlighted. The lack of argument when the club does not provide "professional" and maybe even legal requirements for board meetings was stated as a real problem - where is SEJ, why is the AGM chaired by Howard Wells (CEO), why is Graham Taylor expected to do the spadework at the meetings, and discuss finances etc.?

It was also pointed out that GT feels deceived as he thought the Petchey money had been paid.

Leeds was stated as a good example of fans "buying into" a club. Only 40% is owned by "the institution". The latest BSKYB buy-in attempt may fail, as the fans have a say in the "worth" of the shares/club.

Flotation of WFC would increase visibility of the accounts and so on.

Someone highlighted the Petchey debt as a stumbling block to investors. It was stated that this had been a debt owed to "The Chairman" (then SEJ), but that he wanted to "write it off". Petchey had other ideas and when he became chairman, he thought he could get the money.

It was also suggested that perhaps NW was a scapegoat for Forest's problems. This was refuted, as all the directors "took some stick", but NW was the chairman and theoretically accountable to his "customers".

Someone from "The East Midlands Hornets" suggested that following a meeting with Howard Wells we should be more afraid of what HW is up to! Apparently he is the drive behind the "we have no alternative but to move" stance.

Hazel from WISA was the last to speak, she started by reading an open letter from Enfield FC. The letter outlined the sale of their ground to Laing Homes. The sale came about because Saracens and Enfield were "sharing" prior to Saracens move to WFC. Saracens (NW) instigated the demolition of the North Terrace to put in seating, but when the council turned down the development, Saracens left without completing the work. All this despite specific assurances that the work WOULD be completed.

Hazel then highlighted the way NW has operated at WFC so far, hiding behind his cousin. Specifically she identified the rise in ticket prices - allegedly decided while the CEO was on holiday, by the marketing director at NW's request.

Hazel voiced fears that these price rises were "fattening the Christmas turkey", perhaps waiting to see whether WFC "stay up". She stated that WFC has for too long been run "in the dark". What we need now is an open, honest, accountable Board. A Board that is answerable to the "real investors", ie. those who put money in week in and week out.

Hazel proposed a "Fans Forum" which NW MUST attend so we as fans can let him know that WFC matters, football matters.

NW must be "made" to attend shareholders meetings, he must be in Watford, not the "office in London".

In conclusion, NW is a property developer. Hazel reminded us that we "COULD wake up and find Sainsburys where the Vic was. If we move we may end up in Slough or Milton Keynes."

"Don't think it can't happen, because it CAN."