The NTFC Supporters’ Trust laid bare their hopes for the future for the Cobblers when they staged a public open meeting at a Northampton town centre hotel on Sunday afternoon.
The Trust officially launched their Project: Proud To Be plan at the Park Inn by Radisson hotel, with a crowd of around 100 supporters turning out to hear what Trust chairman Andy Roberts, fellow Trust director Kevin Simons, and the invited guest speakers had to say.
The Cobblers are currently owned and ran by chairman Kelvin Thomas and board members David Bower and Mike Wailing, with the trio rescuing the club from the brink of extinction back in November, 2015.
The Trust though say they have become particularly frustrated with the lack of progress on the development of the east stand and the land around the PTS Academy Stadium, and are keen for the club to look into a community ownership model.
Exeter City are one such club that is owned and run by the club’s supporters, and their chairman Nick Hawker was at the Park Inn to explain how that works on Sunday, as was Ashley Brown of Supporters Direct, who also played a key role in the Portsmouth Supporters Trust taking control of Pompey back in 2013.
Town chairman Thomas has made no secret of the fact that he would be willing to sell the Cobblers if the right buyer and deal comes along, and has consistently said he will only sell to somebody he believes can take the club forward.
The purpose of this meeting wasn’t to say ‘we are going to launch a bid for the Cobblers’. I think we would be naive in the extreme to think thatSupporters’ Trust board member Kevin Simons
The Trust, which was the first such organisation to be formed back in 1992 when the Cobblers were in the midst of another financial crisis, are keen for the club’s supporters to take more of an active role in the running of their club.
But one of the key questions is how could they afford to do it?
Sunday’s meeting lasted for three hours, but it was right at the end, indeed the final answer to the final question from the floor, that was perhaps the most revealing.
When asked initially if the Trust felt it had sufficient financial backing to seriously puchase and run the football club, Simons simply offered up the answer: ‘Yes.”
He was pressed on the matter though, and said: “I am going to be quite open and say we had conversations with Kelvin last year, about a potential takeover, that would be Trust led, with a backer.
“When it came to valuation, we were a long way apart, and that is what it boils down to.
“It is like buying a house. You can put your house up for sale for £200,000 and it’s the same price as every other house in the street, you are going to have a good chance of selling it.
“Put it up for £500,000 and you are probably not going to have any willing buyers, you are not even going to get any interest or viewings.
“So we are acutely aware of the commercial sensitivity surrounding the backer at that time.
“There have been other backers emerge since, and I have said previously that they have potentially different motivations (Simons had spoken earlier of investors being interested in the land surrounding the stadium), but the purpose of this meeting wasn’t to say ‘we are going to launch a bid for the Cobblers’.
“I think we would be naive in the extreme to think that.
“What this meeting was about is exploring the opportunity, exploring the options, listening to what other clubs have done, and just take that away and think about things.
“This is not about launching a bid, I don’t even think the time is right for a bid, because if you look at what Portsmouth had to do in an emergency situation, you are talking about 18 months of planning.
“We have to go through all of the legal hoops of constructing a share issue, we don’t do that overnight. You need legal advice, you need advice from accountants.
“But the backers we have spoken to, have the financial wherewithal to support the club, be it for five years or whatever.”
And he added: “We don’t know what Kelvin’s longer-term ambitions might be, and we certainly don’t know what David Bower’s ambitions might be because we have never met him.
“He has been here for four years and we have never met our owner.
“All I can say is that we wouldn’t take forward a proposal that wasn’t viable, but it has to be on the right terms.
“You have to have a buyer and a seller come together at an agreed valuation. If you can’t then it is going to go nowhere.”
Aside from finances, there were plenty of other avenues explored during the meeting.
The most relevant speaker was Exeter chairman Hawker, as the project he and his fellow supporters have undertaken at the Grecians is similar in scale to what might happen with the Cobblers.
There was plenty to be impressed about on that front, and they clearly have done some great things at St James Park, but there were also warnings over financial constraints that have to come into play.
Andy Roberts also pointed out that, with the the new unitary council replacing the Borough and County councils and to be launched in 2020, it was a great chance for the club to build a strong relationship there.
There was also discussions about how the town’s three major sporting clubs, the Cobblers, Saints and Northamptonshire CCC can work closer together, but the key theme throughout was the football club becoming more community based.
Roberts did congratulate the Cobblers on the work they currently do in the community and commercial side of things, and also admitted the work that is being done by Thomas and the board has on the whole been good.
There was dissent on that from the floor, with one supporter saying the fans are being ‘treated with contempt’ by Thomas and the Town board.
But Roberts’ point is that he wants the Trust to be prepared for that rainy day that could be on the horizon, and says he believes the biggest frustration is the lack of movement, and information, on that east stand development.
“People have asked me in the run-up to this meeting, why are we looking at doing this now?,” Roberts told the meeting.
“There are no buckets rattling on the horizen, things seem to be pretty stable in terms of investment in players and the like.
“There is a perception that the Trust is sort of making a hostile move against the football club, and I would just like to say now, that isn’t the case at all.
“It has nothing to do with the present stewardship of the football club, I believe that certain aspects of what they do they do very well, in terms of commercial activity and the community side at the club, and that is to be applauded.
“I think we are where we are today in terms of looking at the future of the football club is much more borne out of frustration by the continuing saga of the land developments and negotiations, which are deadlocked from a public perspective.
“There is no information out there that we can share, and it is very frustrating.
“We all turn up at the football ground to watch the team and look at the east stand and see that thing staring back at us.
“It is a bit like our version of Brexit in that this situation has gone on and on and on, and there seems to be no resolution at the moment.
“We are working hard to try and find a way through getting more information out publicly, but it is unacceptable and I think everybody has had enough of it.
“I think we need to try and break the deadlock, and as a supporters’ trust that is another front we are fighting hard on, to try and bring you more information about the infrastructure of the land issues around the club.
“Because of where they are at the moment, it is holding the club back.
“It is not a progressive club at the moment, and it is unacceptable, but we are trying hard to remedy that.”
As well as the speakers and Q&A, copies of the Trust’s 13-page ‘Project: Proud To Be - No Finer Town. No Finer Club’ document were distributed at the meeting.
It is a 10-point plan covering Identity and Direction; Philosophy & Vision; Structure; Benchmarking Progress; The Brian Lomax Foundation; Team Northampton - A Sporting Club for Northampton; From BTFC Trust to Community Ownership Trust; Branding & Club Image; Fan Culture and County Town Team.