Portsmouth Supporters Trust Spokesman Colin Farmery yesterday moved quickly to deny any involvement of funding from businessmen Colin Hill or Keith Cousins as their bid to take over the ailing League One football club Portsmouth nears its conclusion. The denial will come as a relief to the clubs supporters who’ve seen a long list of undesirables attached to their club in what has been a turbulent period in their history on and off the field.
Calls have been made by fans for more transparency in all areas and the latest rumours follow on the back of moves by rival bidder Keith Harris to try and destabilise the supporters trust bid. The linking of the names Hill and Cousins could be considered to be another desperate attempt to derail the bid as it reaches its last hurdle although there are no direct suggestions that they have come from the Harris camp.
Given the importance of Property Developer Stuart Robinson to the supporters trusts bid the tale of fellow property developer Colin Hill and his involvement in football should serve as a warning to football clubs.
Championship side Peterborough United was sold in 2003 to Wetmore Foundation, a company registered in Liechtenstein. Much was made that the sale had meant the club had been saved from the hands of property developers but it soon transpired that the club had been sold to Colin Hill. Within a few months the club and the ground had been separated with Barry Fry taking over the club and the Wetmore Foundation retaining the London Road ground before transferring it to another company Peterborough United Holdings Ltd for a stated price of £3.5 million. Fry defended the decision saying "Colin Hill is a shrewd businessman and he didn't want the football club because he said it would always lose money. I'm a football person, so I took it on."
In 2006 the holding company owned by Wetmore submitted a planning application to build 96 two-bedroom and 39 one-bedroom flats on land behind the away end which had been owned by the club. Estimations at that time put the potential value of the deal at a potential £18 million with all profit going to Wetmore except for the cost of a 2,000 seat stand which was promised in the planning application. Whilst those types of numbers would have been good for the developers, the finances of the club had continued to suffer as they posted losses of £4.8 million with almost £1 million being loaned to the club by its Directors.
In 2010 a deal was signed to buy the London Road ground and surrounding land by Peterborough City Council. The total cost of acquiring the site including legal fees and stamp duty stood at £8.65 million. Whilst the numbers weren’t as high as the estimates of 2006, the deal will still have represented good business to Peterborough United Holdings Ltd and to Colin Hill on the original sum paid for the land.
At the time of writing Peterborough United lay second bottom in the Championship.
In 2006 Rushden and Diamonds avoided going into administration after being brought by the former Peterborough United vice-chairman Keith Cousins. At that point they had been facing relegation from the Conference. Formed by merging Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds the club funded by previous owner Max Griggs had won promotion to the football league and had risen as high as League One. Alongside winning promotions Griggs had provided the club with a modern stadium and excellent supporting facilities alongside the River Nene in Irthlingborough.
The problems for Rushden and Diamonds began when Griggs’ Doc Martens business ran into increasing trouble. He tried to sell the club for eighteen months but couldn’t find a bidder. Eventually Griggs handed over the club and most of its accompanying facilities to a community trust. Furthermore his generosity continued as he provided the trust with £750,000 over two years to help them get started although this in fact only managed to keep the club going for a further six months.
The trust successfully reduced the inherited annual operating losses of £1.5 million but was still losing in the region of £600,000 a year. Had they not have taken over when they did the club would have folded at the end of the 2004 / 05 season. The chair of the Rushden and Diamonds Society, Paul Hadjuk, admitted, 'I think everyone is aware that running a football club requires more financial backing than the Trust could afford to commit.'
Facing certain closure the Trust looked for potential investors, which is where Keith Cousins came into the equation with funding coming from Colin Hill. Eventually Cousins would resign from the club and in June 2011 Rushden and Diamonds were expelled from the Conference with debts of round £750,000 and faced a winding up hearing. In July 2011 the club entered administration with the administrator citing they were no longer “in a position to continue trading.” An appeal against Conference expulsion was withdrawn and the club had been refused entry to the Southern League.
Ex Rushden and Diamonds player Leon Knight used his Twitter account to let his feelings known about the club and its owners at the time;
Im gonna be going wild on twitter all day FUCK RUSHDEN & DIAMONDS the crooks
For those who don't know Colin Hill he's the funder of Rushden and Diamonds he's the biggest crook EVER!!!!!!!
Colin Hill turned up in the changing room and gave a team talk hahahahah what has he got anything to do with Rushden?
Knight also alleged that Cousins and Hill threatened him with physical violence as the relationship between club and player broke down spectacularly during his turbulent time with the club which saw him being sacked just four months into his deal due to alleged continual breaches of the agreement. Rushden retained the player’s rights meaning Knight was unable to register with another FA Club and he was forced to play abroad for the next two seasons.
Rushden and Diamonds were formally dissolved in 2011 but Cousins and Hills story continued with Nene Park as the ground became the home of Kettering Town, although that deal came to an end when Kettering were forced to switch their games to Corby Towns Steel Park because Nene Park has no electricity. Whilst Corby Town are charging £1,000 per game for the privilege of ground sharing Steel Park, it was confirmed in the CVA document filed during Kettering Town's administration last summer that they were paying an annual rent of £150,000 for the use of Nene Park. Latterly it has been suggested that the ground could be used to host Coventry City’s home games as they struggle with finances and the rent demands placed upon them from the owners of the Ricoh Arena.
The debenture over Nene Park is held by Conalgen Enterprises SA, incorporated in Panama. In 2009 applications were made to the Council of the District of East Northamptonshire and Northamptonshire County Council to erect a hotel and associated parking. Previous owner Max Griggs had included certain stipulations in the sale contract about anyone looking to take over Rushden and Diamonds at the time of the transfer to the Trust to try and safeguard the future of the club. These stipulations are believed to run out in 2015 and whilst the exact details aren’t known of the deal they are said to be centered round a covenant running with the land. Such a deal can impose duties or restrictions upon the use of that land regardless of the owner.
To complete the story of caution in regards to Colin Hill, Sheffield based newspaper The Star ran a story in November 2010 in which the Multi-millionaire property developer was labelled a fraud by a judge in 2009 after an old woman was nearly cheated out of her home. At the time Hill was said to backing Rotherham businessman Spencer Fearn’s bid to buy Sheffield Wednesday.
So from being labelled a fraud by a judge to a crook by an ex-employee the name of Colin Hill isn’t one that the Portsmouth Supporters Trust will have welcomed in association with their bid. Together Hill’s and Cousin’s records of involvement directly in football clubs or via business dealings through property haven’t turned out well for the clubs involved, although the businessmen don’t seem to have done too badly from the deals in comparison. From debentures to city councils the lessons are there to all to be learned from. I’m sure the Portsmouth Supporters Trust will be looking to avoid any such mistakes moving forward.
Portsmouth fans and football fans alike can donate money to help the Portsmouth Supporters Trust at http://www.pompeys12thman.co.uk