October 15 1994 and a fresh direction for Northampton Town FC as the Cobblers kicked-off at newly built Sixfields stadium versus Barnet. The claret seats shined and the place was packed, it was a time of hope, writes Tom Reed.
The late Martin Aldridge, a local lad, scored for Northampton while the talented Dougie Freedman notched for the Bees. The stadium was built in a groundbreaking deal between Northampton Borough Council and the NTFC Supporters’ Trust via the sale of the town’s municipal bus company.
The Trust was formed two years earlier by Brian Lomax, Deborah Marshall and friends who stepped in to correct Michael McRitchie’s ruinous running of NTFC by introducing a new fangled system of community ownership. The move from rattling buckets in Abington Avenue to standing in a proud new stadium was rapid and truly inspiring.
Sixfields replaced the much loved but ramshackle, underinvested and 3 sided County Ground. It was built for simple expansion for an upwardly mobile club. Average attendances in 1994-95 jumped to 5086 with the club at Sixfields. They rose steadily, culminating in 1997-98 at their highest of 6389 at the time of the club’s famous back-to back trips to Wembley. The Cobblers, with an 8% Trust shareholding and a coalition of local businessmen, none of whom owned more than 20% of the Cobblers were fearless, with a real, sometimes brutal identity under Ian Atkins. The stands bounced, away followings were huge and the Cobblers were undoubtedly the county club. Northampton Town was renowned for its innovative approach to fan involvement, for its disability provision and its overall progressive outlook.
Fast forward 24 years via the ITV Digital crash, a long period of private ownership and Northampton Town are back to a 3 sided ground, the average attendance is 5156, an increase of just 70 fans despite an era of unbridled wealth for the game and the population of the town increasing exponentially in the Sixfields era.
The Cobblers remain in the bottom 4 in League 2 for attendance as a percentage of the parent town’s population. As a percentage of the County’s population it doesn’t even register.
The club’s once proud reputation for progressiveness, transparency and modernity has been tarnished by the Cardoza era, by housing the SISU regime of Coventry City and by the absolute scandal of the “missing millions” which deprived the club and town of upwards of £13.5 million pounds. They take less in Hollywood bank heists.
Some of the Northampton fans are understandably embattled, cynical and wary of anything that might touch the fragile period of calm that has come at the club since the Kelvin Thomas and David Bower takeover of 2015, before which, fans rattled buckets and sold off precious heirlooms to pay the Cardozas’ unpaid tax bill.
But there is hope. Kelvin Thomas’ first job was to drag the club into the 21st century and start doing what most other non-league and league clubs did as standard.
That has been achieved and the Cobblers are now a functional League 2 outfit that no longer sticks out like a sore thumb of mediocrity. Thomas and Bower should be wholeheartedly credited for that. They have built a solid base from which to work, a clean slate for whoever takes the club on for the long-term. The youth team, in particular, is something the town can be proud of.
Mistakes have been made, the Chinese 5USports takeover up there with the worse and still being felt now. Denying the supporters’ trust a place on the club board was also a duff move. The club, ultimately operating out of a British Virgin Islands (BVI) company Belle Du Jour simply goes against the principles of transparency advocated by the late, great Lomax.
Meanwhile, the most important thing, the football has been poor in the main but it is difficult for players to play with any consistency or identity when the club itself has struggled with those things.
Now, the supporters’ trust plans to return to its progressive roots with a serious investigation of community ownership and it is not difficult to see why. As Andy Holt, the highly regarded owner of Accrington Stanley has said, private club owners are really just temporary guardians and it is the fans who are the ever presents that will oversee long lasting progression. At some stage, the overseas based Thomas and Bower will inevitably move on, hopefully with the supporters toasting a job well done but what then?
With the club on the market and Thomas insisting that talks with the council on the redevelopment of the stadium are going well it is the perfect time for a conversation on the medium to long-term future of the club.
The landscape of football is changing with the signs that although the Premier League bubble is not about to pop, there is a deflation happening. The chances of a mysterious Arab Sheikh taking over the club and leading us to the Premier League is slim to none. In the Championship, clubs are being offloaded by foreign investors with the queue of gamblers trying to get hold of the Premier League riches just too long to navigate. Meanwhile, across the EFL there are clubs in crisis looking for new owners and a large number of teams are up for sale.
That said, currently, funding to clubs from central payments from the Premier League and EFL have never been higher, FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy prize pools have never been higher, the opportunity for clubs to be self-sustainable and kick on have never been greater. That’s why the club needs a plan and the Trust have a plan to get ahead of the game.
It’s clear that the Supporters’ Trust are only interested in strengthening the club and not weakening it. Protecting league football is literally in its mission statement. The Trust is chaired by Andy Roberts, former Chronicle and Echo Cobblers writer, while Barry Collins, Brian Lomax’s trusted friend and ex-employee of the club is just one of the dedicated Trust board who have dedicated their lives to helping the Cobblers.
Indeed, Community Ownership has come a long way since the early Brian Lomax days, with his next project after the Cobblers, Supporters Direct going on to institute the community ownership ethos at clubs globally. World famous clubs such as the Green Bay Packers in the NFL and Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga operate with modern member ownership schemes.
Now, the Cobblers stand at the cusp of the opportunity to revisit their innovative 90’s roots in one fell swoop. There is the potential for a unique system that mixes the best of private and public ownership and one that is actually stronger than an isolated set-up of either ilk. Indeed, the Trust are open to exploring another tie-in with local business and the supporters as partners. Likewise, the Trust are also open to looking at a joint venture partnership with Kelvin Thomas and David Bower, nothing has apparently been ruled in or out before the public meeting on March 10th.
Any move to community ownership would mean the trust ceasing to exist in its current guise, instead morphing into an expert, community owned-body with free elections to board positions and tapping in to the skill-set of the fan base. Have better ideas than the current Trust board? Stand against them.
It’s in this light that the club board and staff might think about embracing the Trust’s community ownership drive and Project:Proud To be, shrug off the embedded insularity decades in the making, and to instigate a positive plan that has the club reach its true potential. It’s natural for the Cobblers hierarchy to feel bruised by the changes the Trust are looking at but there is no need.
Kelvin Thomas, the club CEO James Whiting and other staff such as the longstanding Head of Media Gareth Wilsher have nothing to prove, they have done a good job in righting a ship that was headed for the rocks under the Cardozas. The day to day operations of a community run club would be very similar, with professionals doing professional jobs, however the vision and community energy can be amplified greatly as those involved with community owned clubs will sing from the rooftops.
Without the massive funds of a John Henry at Liverpool or the sheer dynamism and business genius of an Andy Holt or a Ben Robinson at Burton, the top down private model of club ownership might have had its day. It will, 9 times out of 10 be restricted within the skills, remit and outlook of a limited number of staff, sometimes with disastrous consequences in the case of the Cardozas.
Community ownership brings in the expertise, investment and energy of the fan-base and the Northamptonshire community and places a “skies the limit” emphasis on the highest standards for the Cobblers. At present, there is little to differentiate the experience of going to the cinema at Sixfields and being a match attending Cobblers fan in being treated as customers that pay and then leave after an hour and a half. That can change, pretty simply. A sports club is the sum total of its members and Northampton Town should absolutely be the pinnacle of football in the region.
In many ways, what is happening off the field is a necessary and natural process after the heart-ache of what happened before the Cardozas were driven out of the club. It should have happened sooner probably but at the time, everything seemed so sudden for any clear thinking. Now there is that space for everyone to breath and say “where do we go next?”
The past few years have been difficult for Northampton Town FC but when this great club starts to roll it will take some stopping. The potential is massive.
The Trust’s community ownership drive may seem scary but, already there are healthy discussions happening around all aspects of the club that have never happened before. No system is perfect but community ownership has the potential to be better and the Trust’s public meeting might well prove to be the best thing that has happened to the Cobblers.
Northampton Town Supporters Trust’s Community Ownership public meeting will take place at the Park Inn Northampton on Sunday 10th March starting at 1pm. Free membership of the Trust till the end of the season will be available to attendees.
For more details see www.twitter.com/ntfc_trust or www.facebook.com/ntfcsupporterstrust