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Gripped by the Cobblers: NTFC needs proper investment

Poor financial report, drab football and an East Stand shell but there is light at the end of the tunnel

Northampton Town’s financial statements for the year ending June 2018 were depressing if not unexpected. A club cannot go through the upheaval of the ill-fated Chinese takeover by 5U Sports and expect to come out unscathed, writes Tom Reed.

The books got a national airing via football finance expert Kieran Maguire who tweeted “Northampton Town owed companies related to owners about £3.8 million at 30 June 2018. It’s not clear if interest is charged on these loans. Auditors say there is ‘significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern’ although directors relaxed about this”.

On the pitch, the football is drab with Cobblers boss Keith Curle unleashing a vitriolic attack on his players claiming Cobblers have to “play ugly” because he “doesn’t trust them to get on the ball and play pass and move”. You’d say it was unprecedented but his predecessor Dean Austin said pretty much the same thing.

Town play short-cut football with an emphasis on killing the opposition and set-pieces rather than controlling the ball.

If there’s not a financial crisis there’s the beginnings of an existential one. 

It’s 2019 and Cobblers are playing with personnel that can’t be trusted to do the basics, in a three sided stadium in front of crowds roughly similar to what they were in the first year of Sixfields construction. The Cobblers have barely come on at all in the Premier League era, a time of massive wealth for the game, despite some latter day cosmetic improvements.

There are few other industries, except perhaps teaching, where you are rated on your performance in league tables. Town are literally 83rd out of 92 clubs in terms of overall performance, despite losing decent sums. It remains a club for the hardcore with a large, untouched catchment area. Club performance is almost always reflective of management on the pitch and in the boardroom.

The saga of the redevelopment of Sixfields stadium goes on. It was first announced in 2013 and had taken around 7 years of prior negotiations between the NTFC and Northampton Borough Council.

In total, nearly 12 years has been spent on discussing and executing a plan for a relatively small increase in the capacity of Sixfields stadium, a football ground built to be expanded in a simple manner. Both the First and Second World Wars were fought and settled in a shorter combined time. 

There have been murmurings of disillusioned fans not renewing season tickets.

Last week, the NTFC supporters’ trust released a statement saying it was becoming “increasingly concerned at the lack of progress on the east stand development”. The statement claims that Northampton Borough Council moved to regularise leases in June of last years and sent legal papers to the club to sign. The Trust maintain that the papers have not been signed and that Thomas “has been seeking to tie in wider negotiation over development land at Sixfields, unconnected with the boundary issue affecting the east stand development”. 

I asked Cobblers supporters at the match on Saturday of what they make of the club’s owners and one that he was “no fan of them (Bower and Thomas) but they represent the best chance to get the East Stand sorted and are good people trying their best”.

Both Kelvin Thomas and the club’s CEO James Whiting will look you in the eyes in private and have it out on anything to do with the club. They both work bloody hard to improve the Cobblers. They have made some very good progress in certain areas, particularly the academy. Less so in others.

On taking over the Cobblers in 2015, Thomas completed a BBC interview where he mentioned £4 million, “finishing the stand” and that Bower had “come to the end of his property redevelopment cycle.”

The BBC reported at the time that “a memorandum of understanding has been signed between the council and Mr Thomas that will see the club’s debt wiped out, with the council acquiring land near Sixfields for development in return”.

You’d have every right to imagine that to still be the case.

Some concerns still remain however, based on information in the public domain. Completing the current East Stand structure could cement in what is a less than ideal Cardoza design and fail to future proof it a single day. The East Stand was meant to be expanded to mirror the West when it was built.

Any discussion of the East Stand should be done openly with costings for a partial or complete rebuild befitting a decent class stadium for a club looking to the future. Exeter City, Heart Of Midlothian and Stevenage FC have shown that there are various funding options for improving stadia. The full cost should not necessarily fall to Thomas and Bower. 

The current shell of an East Stand, a partial rebuild of the pre-existing stand has increased the stadium capacity by around 145 seats (7653 in 1994 V 7798 in 2019). Seats in the wings on the back two rows are recessed behind a concrete extension and some could potentially suffer from partially restricted views.

Exeter City Trust have just completed their new stand, funded by a small block of student flats and corporate sponsorship from Stagecoach. They have far less land to play with and have done more with it. The idea that stadium improvements have to be funded by huge Cardoza-esque land deals is just plain wrong.

Secondly, what is the potential impact for Northampton Town FC should the Borough Council fail to approve Thomas’ and Bower’s redevelopment plans, as is not beyond the realms of possibility, particularly in relation to their expenditure to date? 

Have both NTFC and NBC kept to the Memorandum Of Understanding signed on Bower/Thomas taking over the club?

Are the current board gifting the club expenditure or do they aim to make a partial or full recovery on their outlay? Will the debts noted in the financial statement be reflected in the asking price for any interested parties in the club? 

What precisely now is stopping the redevelopment being concluded?

This concept becomes even more crucial with the likelihood of a squad rebuild by Keith Curle and the associated costs of continued League 2 stagnation.

That said, both Thomas’ plans for the stadium and the Trust’s community ownership plans deserve a rational airing free from the hearsay and hysteria of social media if and when they are actually released. There might be the potential for both to be mutually beneficial. That has to come soon though. Another summer beckons with no building work at Sixfields.

Those wishing to nail Thomas and Bower may well harm the implementation of what could be functional plans for the future of the club. Likewise, people attempting to dismiss the Trust’s community ownership drive before it has even started risk dismissing the discussion of a model that the club may rely upon at any point in the future. The number of good private owners is dwindling as in evidenced all over the EFL.

Thomas himself said in March 2018, on reacquiring 5USports shares, that “we are still of the mindset that for the club to fully prosper on the pitch especially at higher levels of play, it will need a long-term and more sustainable model and inevitably further outside investment”.

Any model the Trust or anyone else produces will have to be a significant improvement on the current setup, that is clear. What the club needs is real investment. Not expenditure loaded back on to the club in the form of loans or other such short term schemes but a real, planned financial injection to tackle the realities of climbing the league ladder. 

Anything else is a waste of time. A thriving League One club will cost x, a stable Championship Club will cost x. Show us the money.

There has to be a point when something different is tried to piddling around in League 2 and hoping something better is coming round the corner. If a split comes with the Premier League or solidarity payments are significantly cut, it’ll be clubs like the Cobblers with limited capacities and gates that will be at risk. 

Northampton Town isn’t going to reach its potential on its own and there has been too much focus on the East Stand completion representing a miracle turning point from a fanbase that is as tired of the saga as the wider populace is of Brexit.

The club aren’t the only ones that can attract investment or backers and, in actual fact, the flexibility of the community ownership model may present various options for money to be pumped in locally. 

Hopefully we can see some movement on the Trust and the club working together and the beginnings of more open discussion of the future of Sixfields in the coming months. Nothing will happen without cooperation and some actual workable plans for this club to hit the next level.

For what it’s worth, football facilities by way of two hybrid pitches running horizontally could be a good fit for the athletics track site if development there is possible. Ideally you’d want facilities such as a hotel or conference centre which could bring in revenues for the club but the athletics track was built as a community asset via the sale of the town’s municipal bus company so there is some responsibility to reflect that.

Yet, a strong football club can benefit the community in many ways, not least economically, rather than a token effort swimming pool or velodrome.

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