Six weeks ago in the Headitorial I wrote “so another mixed month for the Gills, still managerless, still getting results at home and nothing away. Hopefully by the end of November two of those things will have changed”. Well remarkably all three have changed! We won away (hurrah!), lost at home (boo!), acquired a shiny new manager (hurrah!) but perhaps most significantly of all were informed of Scally’s plans to rearrange the £13 million a debt by bafflingly selling Priestfield to himself and leasing it back to GFC (gulp!).
First things first though, the arrival of Mark Stimson – not since the summer of 1995 when Tony Pulis rode into town on his white charger and assembled the biggest, meanest, spikiest team in the history of the Gills and then rumbled towards promotion leaving a bloody trail of disembowelled opposition players in its wake has the playing side received such a (long overdue) shake-up. It is “Year Zero” once more, and publicly Stimson is saying all the right things. He inherited an almighty mess and has a negligible budget to work with but the influx of a host of non-League players, the promotion of youth and an almighty rocket up the backside for some rather complacent senior professionals has had predictably mixed results but has gladdened the hearts of most Gills fans.
We all appreciate this is a work in progress, things will go wrong (Barnet in the Cup, Port Vale in the wind and rain) and that not all the new players will make the grade (Griffiths?). We are also aware that our main source of goals is only borrowed from Charlton (D.I.C.K.O) and that “big clubs” are already sniffing round our fifteen year old record-breaking wunderkid Luke Freeman. Nevertheless some of the general gloom had begun to dissipate from shrouding Priestfield for the first time since, well actually since Ternent nearly kept us up in the spring of 2005. Aside from the six straight wins 2006 (not even a false dawn, just a blip) it has been pretty miserable being a Gills fan recently, but for the first time since perhaps Pulis fans appear to have genuine faith in the manager from the off.
Perhaps it is the eloquence, honesty and track record at Grays and Stevenage, perhaps it is the willingness to publicly criticise the fitness of the squad he inherited, or maybe the introduction of a proper fitness coach, perhaps the willingness to blood youngsters or drop senior professionals, but whatever the charismatic Stimson has, it has finally given us all something intangible, something all managers strive for, hope.
Now Scally can start boasting of making a bid for the play-offs (not mathematically impossible but Saturday confirmed such ambitions to be just balti pie in the sky), but more realistically the club do find themselves in the last eight of the JP Trophy. Not something we have excelled in before, the southern semi-final equals our previous best (twice in the 80’s plus the golden-goal experience at the New Den in 98-99) and for the first time a home tie at that stage against lower division (albeit table-topping) opposition MK Dons means that the Gills do have a realistic chance of finding themselves battling it out with Swansea or Brighton for the right to get to Wembley. Such an achievement would potentially be a huge shot in the arm to the club both financially and in terms of reinvigorating the fanbase but should not be taken for granted.
The win at Crewe (a tenth win in 97 away from home in all competitions in a shade under four years) certainly got a bit of a monkey off our back mentally and Dickson’s winning goal was a sublime contender for goal of the season but we then went and let ourselves down on Saturday, for whatever the reason, the urgency, ambition and tempo was lacking until the final twenty minutes. It was a cold wet and windy reminder that Stimson’s task is a difficult one, it is unrealistic for Oli, Griffiths, Bygrave, Thurgood, Nutter, Miller and Baidoo to all gel immediately with the existing squad, likewise the raw talent of Freeman, Howard and Hamilton is just that, raw. Hopefully some of the established players will get another chance, (Graham being a personal favourite) provided they tow the line and fans are already warming to Miller and Thurgood in particular. The positive tactics (leaving two up at corners) and desire to play from the back and on the ground bode well, but just as we were all beginning to feel less sorry for ourselves a big ugly bombshell landed in our laps.
Now we’ve all been aware of the club’s financial plight for several years, from sarcastic chants of “ITV Digital” to outlandish, improbable but entertaining conspiracy theories regarding Scally, money, property and whether he really was an alien from another dimension. The club are now officially £13 million in debt and to ease the pressure on the day to day running of the club Scally has spent months coming up with a cunning plan in conjunction with the bank which appears to involve Priestfield stadium being sold to another company wholly owned and controlled by Scally called Priestfield Developments Limited (PDL) for £9.8 million.
Now the sale of any football stadium automatically sets alarm bells ringing in the heads of football fans; the history of separating the ownership of ground (usually the only significant asset) from the football club has a long and not so illustrious history of disaster and recrimination. Closest to home the Maidstone United debacle, selling their old ground before they had secured another proved to be their downfall (and Dartford’s), Brighton are still to end their saga of finding a permanent, suitable home for the club a decade on from the Goldstone Ground being sold from under them by asset-strippers. Wimbledon were royally shafted several times before their demise and the scandal of their “relocation” to Milton Keynes, and from York to Wrexham, Brentford to Palace, Leeds to Coventry, Chester to Bristol Rovers the moral of the story has always not to lose ownership or control of your own stadium.
Watford managed to buy back their ground with the help of an Elton John concert; Gillingham might not be so lucky. Now as ever the devil will be in the detail. The EGM should be lively if nothing else, but given Scally’s shareholding of just over 75% the 3,300 minor shareholders might be able to kick up a fuss and ask some awkward questions but unless Scally has done anything illegal he will be able to vote through the sale with impunity.
So what should Gills supporters be keeping an eye out for? Well basically it leaves the club in what appears to be a significantly more precarious position, dependent upon the continuing presence and goodwill of Scally due to his control of PDL. The information handed out against Port Vale is too vague to be reassuring, from where PDL got £9.8 million from (we assume just shifting 75% of the existing debt from one place to another) and why it won’t be asking for rent for the first three years of the ten year lease, or how much the rent will be thereafter, to security of tenure for the club to how it might deal with the remaining £3m debt without any tangible assets aside from the nominal “golden share” entitling the club to membership of the Football League, the squad value and the good name/ongoing customer fanbase???.
What happens if the club continue to fail on the pitch and the debt repayments get too big to deal with? What happens in ten years time re the lease and the football club’s right to remaining at Priestfield? What happens if Scally gets hit by a bus tomorrow? If the club does get to move to a new stadium in ten years time how will the new ground be financed, who will own it and if land and property prices rise who will pocket the profit on the current £9.8 million valuation of Priestfield?
The best case scenario in ten years time will see the Gills playing at a new ground somewhere within Medway, they will have cleared a large proportion of their debts, Stimson will have engineered a return to the Championship, Scally will have managed a minor economic miracle and we will all be looking back on the sale as a clever way of digging the club out of a very deep hole. Unfortunately, given Scally’s previous (getting us in the £13m debt in the first place, we won’t even bother arguing with him again re blaming ITV Digital, we’ve explained it all before in detail, it is complete bullshit, a maximum of £4.5m lost) we don’t exactly feel very confident that the outcome will be a happy one for us.
If it is all too depressing to contemplate I suggest you cling to the idea that really it is just a case of shifting the debt around on paper (sale and leaseback) to ease our day to day running for a while, but the accounts for 2006 and 2007 do not make for encouraging reading. Up shit creak without a paddle. Scally is trying to borrow a paddle from the bank but we remain deeply in the shit, only now, come the end of the year potentially separated from the only asset preventing us from being wound up.
We will all have to keep our wits about us in the coming months and years, to be vigilant and act as the protectors of Gillingham Football Club. We are not alone, with Leeds and Brighton in administration and Coventry, Cardiff, Bournemouth and Swindon teetering on the edge of financial oblivion, some not for the first time, it is as ever the fans that will have to fight the good fight to maintain the integrity of our national sport. The powers that be are too weak or too tied up with the vested interests of the high and mighty to act. The situation at the Gills is potentially so serious we would be way beyond any bucket shaking and straight to oblivion. Hopefully Scally’s plan will work, we can’t prevent it, but we can ensure he never forgets his responsibilities to the long-term well being of GFC. Would he really be happy to sail off into the Dubai sunset having killed the club? He might not have a heart but he does have an ego, which is where our pressure should be applied.