Missing millions, a Jewish cemetery and an MP’s fighting fund – Opposition Profile
Monday, 7th Aug 2017 18:05 by Clive Whittingham
Northampton Town’s promotion to and consolidation in League One has been conducted in spite of a scandalous off-field situation surrounding a former chairman and redevelopment of their stadium.
For Northampton Town, 2016/17 was something of a struggle on their return to League One. There were long stints of bad results – including 11 defeats in 13 games through Christmas which bottomed out in an FA Cup defeat to mighty Stourbridge. They changed managers as that run culminated in a 5-0 tonking at Bristol Rovers swiftly followed by a 5-3 loss at MK Dons with Robert Page making way for Justin Edinburgh, who collects clubs like Rory McIllroy but tends to win more than he loses. Their final eight games brought four defeats and four draws. They scored once in their final four matches. They escaped relegation by four points.
For football reasons, none of that is really a surprise. Chris Wilder, who’d been promoted previously as boss of Alfreton and Oxford, was rewarded for a third elevation of his managerial career by being offered the chance to take charge of his boyhood club Sheffield United before a ball had been kicked. Northampton had won League One with 99 points and didn’t lose any of their last 24 games in the league – a record breaking sequence which continued with a run of six draws at the start of last season – but they’d lost the talismanic manager who took them there. Wilder, of course, has since been promoted again, from League One this time, with the Blades.
Wilder’s achievements at Northampton were all the more remarkable – and last season’s struggle all the more understandable –when you consider what was going on off the field. A scandal involving a £10m loan from the local council to build a new stand which subsequently disappeared with the structure left half-finished is still the subject of a criminal investigation. A bizarre story made all the stranger by the chairman David Cardoza’s previously decent record and popularity at the club he’d saved from a previous financial meltdown in 2003. Wilder’s team went unpaid on several occasions during their title-winning season.
Lend us a tenner
Few who’d watched Northampton Town play at their old County Ground, where one side was actually a cricket pitch, could deny they needed a new facility. But, similarly, few who’ve ever been to the unlovely and unloved Sixfields Stadium, which opened on the edge of the town in 1994, would have too many fond words to say about the alternative. It is best known for a large hill behind one goal which affords a reasonable view of the match for free, and a loathsome car park behind the other which – with only one exit measuring about six foot in width – will entomb you until well after the second reading of the classified football results. It’s one of those functional, soulless, instantly forgettable, built-on-a-budget, Glanford Park-type places that lower league clubs find themselves imprisoned in through necessity.
In 2012 a plan was hatched to liven it up a little. Northampton were only pulling 4,000-odd for League Two matches but a new, larger, side stand was planned to lift capacity beyond 7,798 and provide extra revenue from executive boxes. Behind it, the standard collection of shops, hotels and retail space was to be added to pay for the work and help the club become financially sustainable. A £10.25m loan from Northamptonshire Borough Council was agreed and planning permission received by 2014. Work began as the 2014/15 season commenced. So far, so page 15 of the local paper.
But by October 2014 the work had stopped, with the new stand little more than a metal and concrete shell stretching down the side of the pitch. A contract dispute was blamed but work never recommenced and nearly a year later things started to escalate. In September 2015, with work at a standstill, and protests against Cardoza rolling down from the stands, the council demanded its money back and gave the club three weeks to comply. A winding up petition from HM Revenue and Customs for £160,000 in unpaid tax soon followed and the players went unpaid in October. The police were called in November and the club was offloaded by Cardoza to former Oxford United owner Kelvin Thomas for a quid later that month.
Things have settled down under Thomas, who paid the players, and the taxman, and helped see the promotion through, but what has transpired about the stand, and the money which was supposed to pay for it, has been staggering. Cardoza was arrested and bailed by police for his part in it in January last year.
The development of the new stand had been handed over to a developer called the Buckingham Group which had previously worked on Brighton’s new ground at Falmer. But almost immediately the plan for an £8m+ stand was cut back to one costing half that, and in the end only £442,000 was ever paid to Buckingham. Coincidentally the company was also working on a stadium development at Northampton Saints Rugby Club across the town – again paid for with a council loan, but finished on time and on budget.
Another company, 1st Land Ltd, owned by a London-based property developer called Howard Grossman was also involved, overseeing the development. The majority of the £10.25m council loan (£8.75m) was transferred to 1st Land which was subsequently put into administration by Buckingham as it pursued £1.9m in unpaid bills. According to The Guardian the administrators found no money in 1st Land’s bank account. So where had it gone?
Well, an investigation by the BBC found, among other things, that 1st Land had paid £30,000 through three subsidiaries into the fighting fund of the Conservative candidate for Northampton South in the 2015 general election David Mackintosh. Mackintosh had been the head of Northamptonshire Borough Council when the loan to Northampton Town was signed off in the first place. It later transpired that a similar proposal in 2009 had been rejected by the council over concerns about the club’s financial position, only to then be greenlit on Mackintosh’s watch four years later immediately after the chief finance officer who’d raised the concerns left the council. Mackintosh welcomed a police probe into the affair saying he was as keen to find out as anybody else but he stood down when questions over the original loan and the subsequent donations left him facing de-selection ahead of this year’s general election.
The BBC also obtained court documents from a 2014 legal action by Cardoza against Grossman designed to discover where the loan money for the new stand had gone. Cardoza is now the subject of criminal charges and both men cite a confidentiality clause signed at the conclusion of the 2014 hearing and refuse to comment but the documents suggest that among other payments, £2.05m of the money went to Cardoza’s father Anthony, £600,000 was spent renovating Cardoza’s house, £314,000 of it went to Grossman in fees, and £233,000 went to a company called County Cemetery Services – another Grossman firm attempting to get a Jewish cemetery approved and built near Barnet.
Ongoing legal attempts by the council to get their £10.25m back from Cardoza and Grossman have so far failed. A £900,000 fighting fund created to chase the money is all but spent. The authority agreed with new chairman Thomas not to hold the debt over the club in return for some land around the stadium. Cardoza denies wrongdoing and says suggestions he misappropriated the money are “outrageous and deeply offensive”. Grossman, who also paid £1.09m of the money to his associates Marcus Grossman, Simon Patnick and Stephen Hewitt in “consultancy fees”, denies wrongdoing. Criminal investigations are ongoing. The Buckingham Group and Thomas, meanwhile, have got the stand into some sort of working order – well, people can sit in it now. Plans for the hotel and conference centre remain on the table but unfulfilled.
On the pitch Edinburgh has overseen a Barry Fry-style summer of ten ins and eight outs headlined by Matt Crooks from Glasgow Rangers, Dean Bowditch from MK Dons and Leon Barnett (ex West Brom) from Bury. They began with a last minute 1-0 loss at Shrewsbury on day one.
Another happy tale from modern day British football.
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