FANS fear crisis-hit Hucknall Town Football Club are heading for oblivion after their summer of discontent took a dramatic twist this week.
Just when Town thought they were close to solving their perilous financial problems, they have been hit by three fresh bodyblows.
The taxman has REJECTED their offer of a ‘discount deal’ to wipe out a shock VAT debt that emerged at the end of last season. Instead HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) have ordered The Yellows to pay the full amount, which has now risen to more than £84,000.
As a result, Town have decided to DOWNGRADE the club and return to amateur status. They will remain in the Evo-Stik League but players and managers will no longer be paid. Now those managers, Tommy Brookbanks and Gary Stones, are on the verge of RESIGNING, exasperated at the “mess” the club have plunged into.
Chief executive Liz Morley remains the only paid employee — to steer the club through the troubled times. She insists Town can survive by “rebuilding and starting from scratch”. But she accepts the position is “not good” and that “it will be a very different-looking club” from next season.
However Brookbanks reckons The Yellows face “a massive struggle” and could find it difficult to attract players and compete at Evo-Stik level.
“My gut feeling is that I will leave the club,” he said. “But I will make my decision when my head is 100% clear.”
The mood in the Watnall Road camp is very different to that of just four weeks ago when Town were confident HMRC would accept their offer of £50,000 towards the VAT bill, which accrued between 2008 and 2010.
The Yellows had raised the money through a loan from their ground-owners Welbeck Estates, which would be paid back via a shares scheme into which officials and supporters had invested.
More than £57,000 was pledged in shares. But now Town have been told that a further £27,500 must be found because HMRC have demanded the entire sum.
“The VAT office did open negotiations but then when it was made public that we might do a deal, they backed down,” explained Morley.
“I can understand their point of view because if they gave in to a deal, then all other businesses in the land would want one.
“However, we were caught between a rock and a hard place because we had to go public to get people to come forward to invest.”
News of the rejection was announced to investors at a meeting at Watnall Road on Tuesday night.
“It was a sombre meeting but there were no fireworks,” said Morley. “None of the investors withdrew their pledges.
“Everyone accepted that the only way we can proceed is to cut the club to the bone even further. We will go to amateur status, which means there will be no football budget for the manager for players.”
Town have now agreed to make an immediate downpayment to HMRC of £50,000, leaving a £34,500 deficit that will be found from money normally used for the football budget, plus takings from the Talk Of The Town social club, other fundraising events and gate receipts.
They have enlisted the help of Hucknall’s Conservative MP, Mark Spencer, to negotiate with HMRC the amount of time Town can be allowed to cough up.
They are hoping for two or three years’ grace. But supporters fear that, by then, Town will have tumbled down the leagues and their profile will have suffered irreparable damage, making a recovery almost impossible.
“I feel for the supporters more than anything,” said Brookbanks.
“Only last week, it seemed like the beginning of a new era. We had put together a good squad and there was a lot of positive energy at the club.
“Now this has knocked us back completely. To end up in a mess like this is a real shame.
“We have gone from agreeing a small playing budget of about £700 a week (providing the tax bill was cleared) to nothing at all.
“I can see the principle of it. The big picture is Hucknall Town, which we want to save. But I have a problem with the way it has been handled after I was given a three-year contract as manager.”
Brookbanks has verbally agreed to withdraw from the remaining two years of his lucrative contract (believed to be worth £300 a week) , thus saving the club even more money. But now he must decide whether it is worth carrying on at all.
“I have said I will come off my contract because I don’t want to be seen as the man who put the final nail in the coffin,” said the 44-year-old milkman.
“I have tried so hard to keep this club alive. But I am pretty down at the moment. Gutted and angry. I believe things could have been done a lot better.
“The only thing that could happen now is for a rich, new investor to come forward.”
Morley says such a benefactor would be welcomed with open arms. The club also need to appoint a fresh chairman after the resignation last month of Dave Gamble, who succeeded Brian Holmes.
But she points out that Town “cannot afford” to leave the Evo-Stik League because they would incur a fine (believed to be in the region of £3,000).
And the option of disbanding and starting again, a la Ilkeston Town, was a non-starter too because they would be ejected from Watnall Road, having broken the terms of the lease of the ground.
Morley continued: “We are in an incredibly precarious position but we have put together a robust business-plan and I am extremely confident we can make the payments and move forward, providing HMRC give us time.
“We will take immediate steps to try and restore the playing budget but the priority at the moment has to be our creditors and until they are paid, we will remain amateur.
“I don’t think it’s impossible to be competitive on the field. Fans’ expectations will certainly be reduced but attendances have been in decline for several years.
“Who knows? We might produce a giantklling team on a shoestring. But sometimes, you have to think of the long-term goal.
“It is not all doom and gloom. We have a healthy social club, where revenue is up 20%, and there is great work going on with our reserve sides.
“I think the diehard core of fans will continue to support us. We certainly face a tough year or so ahead. But better that than shutting the gates altogether.
“While ever the gates remain open, we have something to rebuild. I am optimistic there is a great future ahead for the club.
“The pain we suffer next season will be worth it in the long run.
“We will do what we have to do to keep the football club open because once Hucknall loses it, it loses it forever.”