When a football team is on the brink of liquidation all fans are staff that are inextricably linked to the club quietly, or loudly in some cases, pray for a new owner who will bring them back from the brink and then never make the same mistakes that got them in this mess in the first place.
It is an undeniable truth in football that fans are not always good for the club. We are impatient, desperate for success and all too prepared to turn a blind eye when we know the team is over reaching. Earlier this season it led to the first insolvency in the EFL since 1992, as Bury saw their membership revoked due to the ill-advised and, frankly, reckless spending of an owner who harboured ambitions of seeing the side reach the Championship.
Let’s not for a second suggest that there is anything wrong with ambition but it must be tempered by a responsible grounding in the realities of business and finance. In 1999, Stevenage Borough FC found themselves just days away from ruin when enter Phil Wallace.
The CEO of Lamex Foods Group, valued at £1.7bn, took ownership both figuratively and literally, setting about changing the way the club was run as a business and investing in infrastructure upgrades that would see the Hertfordshire outfit become one of the most sustainably run clubs in the EFL.
Those fans who had been praying for an owner with some business acumen and a whole heap of common sense, were not disappointed. Under Wallace’s stewardship Boro began to enjoy huge success on the pitch while building and investing off it.
Success on the pitch
The club reached the FA Trophy final four times over the next decade, winning two of them while achieving promotion to the Football League in 2010 after amassing 99 points in the league and finishing ahead of both Luton Town and Oxford United.
Upon promotion the chairman confirmed the club would revert back to being known as Stevenage FC as a psychological break from their non-league days. They continued their upward trajectory in 2010/11 by gaining a second successive promotion via the play-offs, beating Torquay 1-0 in the final thanks to a John Mousinho strike. They even made it to the play-off semi-finals in League One the following year only to lose to Sheffield United, but the transformation of the club under the stewardship of Wallace was remarkable. It was exciting times for the fans and town alike and despite relegation back to the fourth tier in 2014, the club remained a stable business thanks to some drastic investments off the field.
Investment for the long-term
Phil Wallace has proved to be a chairman that is strict about what is spent on player wages. He can’t be accused of not investing in the playing side of things but has limits which he will not cross, something that has seen other clubs get in financial difficulty.
The money he could spend by splashing on wages has instead been used to build the club an infrastructure to be proud of. An original training facility was developed at Shephalbury Park and opened in 2002 while a new £600,000 stand was built at the stadium.
With the club continuing to find success on the pitch, the club made substantial money from football fortune in the FA Cup when they took Spurs to a replay. The cash earned from the cup run was invested in a brand new, state of the art, training facility at Bragbury End.
The land was purchased from BAE Systems and the 42-acre site was stripped down, only to be built back up into a training base that would grace the Championship let alone League Two. It signalled the club’s intent to keep improving while taking sensible investment decisions.
Although the club have struggled at the start of the current campaign, mainly due to injuries, they have a new manager in Mark Sampson who has lifted the mood in the camp while bringing his own, fresh ideas. The feeling is returning senior pros will have a huge impact on how the current season pans out and the club has such a strong off the field position that they are in a good place to compete higher up the table.
Wallace is well aware of the challenges modern football brings especially to lower league clubs. Even when the business side of things is being run in a meticulous manner, luck is still required to build success.
“In my opinion you can’t run a football league club sustainably without luck,” Wallace told the Guardian. “You’ve got to have good housekeeping, good governance. You need to be smart with your recruitment. You need to be clever and talented with your coaching. But then you also need luck. It’s not a business in the way that my company is.”
Stevenage have an exceptionally talented director of football in Leon Hunter who has overseen some intelligent recruitment during his tenure at the club. Talented defender Ben Wilmott was sold to Watford last season and while the highly talented pair of Luther Wildin and Terence Vancooten will have big futures in the game. Any money from selling players is reinvested and a share issue by the chairman is designed to bring extra funds into the playing budget.
“We would take that money and principally invest in the recruitment of young players and wages, so that we can attract better players,” Wallace says. “The idea would be that, if you are going to attract better players, we are improving our chances of getting promoted from League Two to League One.
“It’s high risk, in terms of [promotion] might not happen. But I don’t think it’s high risk in terms of the club going bankrupt since I’ve been here for 20 years, so there’s a degree of solidarity behind that. It’s all part of the momentum of the club going forward. We’re building a new stand, just about to finish that, finish off the ground development, we’ve got a great training ground, so it’s all about momentum and creating some excitement.”
The short-term focus will be getting Stevenage their first win of the season and then moving up the table but in the long-term, this is a club in very good hands indeed.