The Northwich Victoria controversy

Northwich Victoria’s historic Drill Field, one of the oldest football grounds in the world, is about to be demolished. The club, founded in 1874, is making plans to build a replacement stadium on a nine-acre site in the village of Wincham, just over two miles from the town centre.

Following a planning inquiry, over 100 houses are to be built on the Drill Field, netting the club about £2.25 million.
The board of directors and the majority of supporters are in favour of the move to Wincham, but others have bitterly opposed the plan, believing that the club is heading for disaster and with over £1 million in debts they claim that the dream will turn into a nightmare.

The controversy has been well aired in the letters’ columns of the local press during the past two years, but the protestors’ case has never been truly clarified.

Here we put a series of Questions and Answers to those who oppose the sale of the Drill Field:

Q Why do Northwich Vics have to sell the Drill Field?
A It really goes back to 1992 – the directors had got the club into such a mess by
signing over the Drill Field to developers who had loaned the club £150,000. Originally there had been a legally binding convenant to maintain the ground as open space for recreation. The directors, without a mandate from shareholders, had quietly removed this convenant.

Q The agreement with the developers at that time was eventually settled, the ground was saved and the £150,000 paid back – how did that come about?
A With interest, £167,000 had to be paid back. A group of supporters and local benefactors subsequently settled the debt. Fund-raising brought in £42,000 in a year and £85,000 was put in by 18 individuals. We were one week away from losing the Drill Field.

Q Were the 18 individuals eventually repaid?
A Yes, or at least those who were not directors – their loans remain on the books. A Drill Field Trust was set up and supporters paid in £10 a month and by 1999 all the individuals, other than directors, had got their money back.

Q So the Drill Field was saved, but was the convenant put back on the ground?
A That was the intention and that was what we were promised by the directors but it never happened, despite an agreement signed by the chairman, Mr David Stone. In 1993.

Q Things seem to be going in the right direction in 1999. The club built new terracing,, the Danebank Stand. It was a major undertaking – how was it financed?
A Through a grant from the Football Foundation/Trust but mainly through the auspices of the then chairman Mr John Stitch who was a great benefactor. He loaned the club around £300,000 towards the scheme.

Q That was a lot of money – is the club still paying it back?
A It is complicated but the agreement through the Drill Field Trust was to pay back Mr Stitch at £1550 per month, with interest, over a set period. Sadly Mr Stitch died and though a life insurance settled part of the debt, the club was left owing Mr Stitch’s family around £135,000.

Q Surely this is now due - how does the club intend to repay this amount?
A It is the catalyst as to why the directors set off on a course to sell the Drill Field, to repay the debt to the Stitch family and to ensure, at the same time, that they can individually claw back any money personally owed to themselves, a figure of around £40,000. All this will come out the sale of the Drill Field once the developers hand over their cheque.

Q Mr Stitch’s son, Rod, became chairman of the club, but then resigned from the board. Why?
A It has never been explained but one assumes that he could hardly sit in the chair and deliberate on the club having to pay back such a large debt to his family who remain as the major shareholder.

Q Is the club badly in debt?
A Yes, critically. Between 1993 and 1998 the club made small profits year on year, but from 1999-2002, four financial years, losses amounted to £485,000. The business has been badly managed and lives beyond its means.

Q Didn’t shareholders vote in favour of selling the Drill Field?
A Yes, about 80% were in favour at the meeting, but the mandate was for a sale figure of £2.4 million, or greater. The club is not going to get £2.4 million and the directors refuse to publicise the precise figure. They won’t even tell shareholders.

Q Do you think the local authority, Vale Royal Borough Council, should have done more to help the club remain at the Drill Field?
A The council loaned the club £50,000 some time ago and this is still to be repaid. Perhaps that is why the council put forward such a weak case to oppose the development. The bottom line is that the council have long wanted to rid the town centre of the Drill Field. It is part of their much-vaunted Vision for Northwich. Every piece of land is disappearing under bricks and mortar and not a single councillor ever lifts a finger, or raises an objection. The Drill Field is part of footballing history, but they just turn a blind eye. Councils in other towns and cities have been extremely pro-active in helping their football clubs. There is not the will at either office or councillor level in Vale Royal – they are just not interested.

Q The club now intends to build a new 6,500 capacity stadium, the Victoria Stadium, at Wincham. How much has the land cost?
A It is approximately 9 acres and it is costing about £500,000.

Q When will the new stadium be ready?
A The club has been given a deadline by the Conference League of May 2004 which seems untenable even if they had sufficient funds to build it.

Q The club is currently playing at neighbours’ Witton Albion. Isn’t that expensive?
A It is said to be costing about £750 a match, so the debts they accumulated over their last four years at the Drill Field will be even greater. There will be little money left to build a new stadium.

Q What is the current average attendance?
A About half of the 1300 which the then club chairman said, three or four years ago, was needed to break even at the Drill Field. He made an appeal in the local press for additional support because the situation was so desperate. If it was desperate then, what is it now they are having to pay rent to Witton Albion?

Q Has the board presented a business plan to shareholders to show the full building costs and income/expenditure forecasts for the first few years of trading at the new stadium?
A No – nothing. One might think that the commercial planning is shambolic – it isn’t because there is no commercial planning. The shareholders are as much in the dark as everyone else.

Q The club is intending to apply for a grant from the Football Foundation towards the new stadium. Will this materialise?
A It is very unlikely that they will get anywhere near what they are requesting. They received a big grant to build the Danebank Terrace at the Drill Field and the national press is currently awash with the financial problems of the FA which is the main financier of the Football Foundation. There couldn’t be a worse time to apply for funds.

Q Opponents of the Drill Field sale have been accused of being dinosaurs, standing in the way of progress. Is that fair?
A It is ridiculous. In principle we have never been against selling the Drill Field if the price was right. If the club was getting £5-£6 million for the ground it would make sense, but this current deal is crazy.

Q Surely £2.25 million plus a possible grant from the Football Foundation will enable the club to build their new stadium?
A Of course it won’t….it is simple arithmetic. They have audited debts of over £1 million, plus they have to cover losses during the current season and next season playing at Witton Albion. The chairman has stated they can build a new stadium for as little as £1.8 million, but even that would leave them between £750,000 and £1M short. It is interesting to note that Macclesfield Town F.C. recently managed to build just a stand, not a new stadium, for £1.8 million

Q Can Northwich Victoria survive?
A On this hare-brained course, No.