The Future of Northampton Town Hangs in the Balance
If ever any of us were naïve enough to think that football had gotten its financial house in order, the current predicament of Northampton Town FC is a salutary reminder of how bad things can get. Here, a supporter of the club who has asked to remain anonymous, expresses his feeling at the club’s current situation.
On the 16th November Northampton Town Football Club, established in 1897 and currently residing, as they have for the majority of recent history, in the fourth tier of English Football, face a winding-up order from HMRC regarding an unpaid tax bill. The truths and obfuscations from the parties who have contributed to the club being in this situation are difficult to unpick. The local and some national newspapers have been doing a good job of relaying the facts, but the overall sense from the most vociferous supporters is that the club Chairman, David Cardoza, is unfavourably positioned in the centre of the controversy. The details of the case have been extensively written about elsewhere, but the un-nuanced information to be released to date are: the club have drawn down £10.25m of loan from the Northampton Borough Council for the redevelopment of the Sixfields stadium East Stand, which for the foreseeable future is little more than a skeleton; the company employed to build it is owed £3m having received less than £0.5m, and successfully wound-up Northampton County Developers Limited (NCDL), the company with development rights to the land surrounding Sixfields and owned by Cardoza and his father.
So, of the £10.25m drawn down, less than £0.5m has visibly been spent so far, and with missed repayment deadlines, winding-up orders and out-of-pocket contractors, all eyes are on Cardoza to explain where the rest of the money has gone. The majority of the loan was given to 1st Land, the company charged with completing the project, which has subsequently gone out of business and whose accounts, as David Conn in Guardian has revealed, raise some troubling questions over their relationship with the Cardozas.
These are the apparent facts, but I am not naïve enough to believe that there is not a lot more going on behind the scenes that could explain at least some of it. I’m not prepared to condemn until all the information is public, and it should be noted that Cardoza has put in significant amounts of money since he took over as the majority stakeholder. However, over the last few months all the bad news surrounding the club – from the collapsed takeover from an Indian consortium, to the winding-up order via the demand for the loan repayment – has come from third parties, with Cardoza responding only when he has to with the air of a politician who knows he’s behind in the polls but is hoping that positivity alone will help turn the momentum his way. Trust has seemingly been completely eroded with many, if not most of sections of the support. Cardoza has in recent weeks retreated further and further from the public spotlight as the allegations have grown. As the fans have been met with silence, perception becomes the accepted wisdom.
It has taken more than 400 words to even attempt to summarise the situation to date, and as I’ve said I’m not 100% confident what is truth, obfuscation or lies. It is unbearably frustrating, because I shouldn’t have to care about this. No supporter of a football club should have to. My first Northampton game was in 1991, when I was seven and almost a quarter of a century ago. The Cobblers were still playing at the old County Ground. I remember first hand very little of the experience: I remember we were at pitch level, and my dad telling me that if the ball came our way I should duck rather than try to head it back; I think a friend from school came with us; I remember Northampton won; I remember there were red cards, one after the final whistle; I remember we played Maidstone United. A quick Google search tells me that it was on the 12th January (I remember cloud, but not cold) and the score was 2-0. That was my first of many football matches, which took in promotions, relegations, Wembley victories and defeats, good natured pitch-invasions and a fair share of appalling, tedious football. I remember a 1-1 draw with Bury in the early 2000s where I honestly questioned whether my time would not be better spent waiting in the car with the heater on.
But, for those first 15 years or so, my interest was only about what happened within the white lines on the grass and the rungs of the league ladder. I was aware that other clubs had gone out of ‘business’, the aforementioned Maidstone included, but it wasn’t my concern: the claret shirts turned out every week, as did their opponents, and me and my dad would get in the car, walk from the car park, buy a programme, take our seats and try to keep warm. I had no reason to assume it would ever be any different. Even high profile catastrophes, such as the Leeds United problems that originated in the 2000s could be chalked up to a reckless transfer policy, something that surely would never happen at Northampton. The idea that a club could struggle because of redevelopment loans, the land lease agreements or the taxman were completely foreign to me. Football was about the players, the manager and the fans.
No longer, I’m afraid.
The current crisis the club finds itself in – the latest in a long line it should be noted for balance, lest we believe that the current problems have somehow sullied an unblemished record – has had some unintended consequences for me personally as it has made me confront the nature of my relationship with the club.
I am a person who yearns for control of his environment and decisions. I suffer anxiety in work and personal situations I cannot control. And yet, in apparent masochist fashion, I’m a Northampton Town Football Club devotee. I follow the fortunes of the team despite exercising absolutely no control over the actions on the pitch or in the board room. I allow myself to have my emotions dictated by the narrative of the league table, the 90 minutes, individual battles within the game. I experience the sublime, the elation and the despair not through my personal actions or endeavours but through the process of sitting static on a plastic seat or updating the BBC Sport smartphone app. It is the only area of my life where I willing submerge myself emotionally without even the possibility of being able to significantly influence the course of events; I allow myself to be held hostage to fortune and fate, knowing the pain it may bring for the possibility of a brief experience of joy.
I have struggled to reconcile this irrational attachment with the logical part of my brain. When Northampton was figuratively dismantled by Bradford in the League 2 play-off final in May 2013, it was an emotionally jarring moment that still stings now. But no player in the Northampton squad that day remains employed by the club, and even the manager has moved on. Lower league footballers are transient as dictated by the nature of the game. You hear stories of idols influencing lifelong loyalty to a club, from Finney through Best to Gerrard, but this is not the case with most teams, so the question becomes what is it I am loyal to if not the personnel, the heroes? What makes me invest time, money and emotional capital so readily? I only lived in Northampton for one year in 2009, so I don’t feel the local pride and community that others feel. With the latest catastrophe enveloping the club any love for the chairman, directors or owners would have evaporated by now, but any such loyalty for businessmen would for me be as ridiculous as declaring fealty to the local high street solicitor firm. Sixfields Stadium is clean and functional but I think most Northampton fans would agree it would be best described as ‘average’ and not a theatre of legend. Do I objectively feel Northampton fans are nicer, more honest, more passionate, more deserving than fans of other lower league clubs? No, probably not. The kit design changes every year, and even the badge has changed more than once since I’ve followed the club. I’m not on the board, I don’t play for the team, and aside from a unique ID reference on the ticketing database the club itself does not know who I am or that I even exist. There is no physical, tangible or consistent reason why I should be devoting so much emotional energy to the plight of this organisation.
But of course, this is football. It isn’t logical. For some loyalty and devotion are forged in the fire of a single moment, and I will confess that witnessing the 90th minute John Frain free kick fly into the net in the 1997 playoff final was a seminal moment in my life from which forever linked the Cobblers to feelings of euphoria and unrestrained, primitive emotional outpouring, the likes of which I worry my adult self no longer has the capacity for. I remember vividly being grabbed by someone – my dad, my friend, a stranger? – in the seconds after the ball crossed the line and having my head forcibly pulled into his chest. The sound I heard, generated by my own guttural, uncontrolled screams reverberating off his torso and shaking my own eardrums was a sound that I have never forgotten: I didn’t know it was possible for a person, much less a child, to make such a noise or to lose control so completely. It could be argued that the following 18 years have been a persistent, addictive quest to recapture that moment.
The club, therefore, has transformed into something much more iconic. For everything I have done and achieved in my life since that moment, Northampton Town Football Club has never been far away: the representation of hope and optimism. Whatever I believed would happen in life, however terrifying the responsibility of growing into adulthood may have seemed at times, the Cobblers offered the promise of potential, the chance to feel unleashed, euphoric again. But ultimately, the reverse has been the story of my life: landmark moments inevitably have a claret hue not because Northampton was providing them, but because it was simply there, in background, a part of my daily experience. This club represents my past, my history up to this point.
In a real sense, the 16th November 2015 marks a day when a significant part of myself is being threatened with extinction, as a consequence of actions I shouldn’t have to know about, it’s fate decided by a group of individuals who don’t know my name. I am aware of the perspective; throughout history the actions of some leaders have held those under their command hostage to a fate much worse that the liquidation of a football club. I am aware that lives are not being threatened here, that my concerns and fears are petty by comparison. But the elimination of an organisation that means so much to my past, present and future is personally draining because it seems so, completely unnecessary. This is a small football club, and in truth I have never longed for the days when we would reach the Champions League and compete as equals: all I have ever wanted for it was to survive, to continue to be stable and to allow me to indulge my hopes, my pursuit, for the sublime. It appears that individual decisions have unilaterally threatened this, for no virtuous purpose that I can see. This is the sickening aspect of this whole sorry affair.
Until this point, I have looked upon the tribulations of fans of clubs such as Luton, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Hereford, Coventry and thought ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. I sympathised with those fans, and hoped that I wouldn’t have to go through the same: to those fans, I apologise for not doing more to help in your times of need. Now it’s my turn – our turn – and there but for the grace of God goes the rest of you.
You can donate to the NTFC Supporter’s Trust by hitting this link. Essential further reading on the subject can be found at Two Hundred Percent and at Danny Brothers’ blog, A Load of Cobblers while those looking for some light relief can turn to David Cox’s classic post for us, A Hundred Cobblers.