Fenty, Shutes and fan ownership

Cod Almighty | Article

by Barry Whittleton

1 October 2019

The plight of Bury does not prove we should be grateful to John Fenty: it shows we need fan ownership.

The collapse of Bury and the troubles facing Bolton have brought home the difficult financial situation of many clubs in the Football League. The lesson some fans have taken from this is that if it weren't for John Fenty, Grimsby Town could face the same peril. The years of underachievement we have endured under our current ownership are justified for them by the fact the club still exists at all.

It is important that any assessment of the Fenty reign is a balanced appraisal based on circumstances and historical context. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that at its outset nobody was beating a path to the door to take on the club in the situation it faced in 2002.

A changing financial backdrop

The club had faced financial difficulties before. When I first began watching Town in the late 1960s, the fans' dissatisfaction with the board, and our position both in the league and financially, was palpable.

But it would be unfair to use for historical context our history prior to the ending of the players' maximum wage in 1961. While tales of brown envelopes, lucrative summer jobs, and free houses, cars and other perks for the family were manifold, clubs by and large competed on a roughly level playing field.

Likewise, until the late 1980s, gate receipts, like TV revenues, were shared. This was altered to appease the big clubs who were threatening a breakaway 'super league'. Less than five years later they formed the Premier League, so the tactic failed. Perhaps it would have been better to allow the breakaway and see how quickly fans and TV audiences got bored of United v Liverpool four times a season, and exclusion from the FA Cup. But that is an argument for another day.

The failure of the Professional Footballers' Association to protect all but the elite within their organisation is also a scandal that needs discussion. It was a failing to be repeated when ITV Digital collapsed – which brings us back to the start of the Fenty era.

Fenty to the rescue?

From 1988-89 to 2003-04, Town's average position in the Football League was 43rd, or second from bottom of the second division. The average position under the tenure of John Fenty has been 88th: fifth from bottom of the fourth division. Along with the loss of status went a loss in revenues, as away gates fell.

While it is important to recognise that Fenty took the reins at a low ebb, it should also be recognised that the season before he took over, Fenty's wikipedia page reports that he had sold all but £500 worth of his personal shares when the ITV Digital deal collapsed. This suggests that it was only when sole ownership beckoned, after the sale of his company Five Star Fish, that Fenty’s interest in Grimsby Town was reignited.

Mike Parker and the Mariners Trust

The episode of Mike Parker's joint ownership of Grimsby Town does not paint Fenty in a good light. Parker had been a Town supporter for decades and in 2009 joined the club board. Some six months later he agreed to match Fenty's shareholding and invested £500,000 into the club. The period of agreement was short-lived. Within 12 months Mike Parker resigned from the board, stating that "there was not the appetite for change he had been led to believe existed".

Parker agreed to continue to fund ongoing losses, an agreement he had previously made. In September 2011 Parker offered to gift his £500,000 shareholding to the Mariners Trust. Fenty’s reaction was to state that as he was no longer the controlling shareholder, he would not continue to fund the club. It was suggested that star striker Liam Hearn would need to be sold to plug any gap in funding.

The trust was faced with having to make an offer for all the shares within the club were they to accept the Parker offer, or to hand over some of the Parker shares to Fenty. Fenty promised he'd invest a matching £200,000 in the club, and also indicated that the trust might in future be given a place on the club board, in return for having diluted their shareholding. Eventually two trust members – Dave Roberts and Jon Wood – were appointed to the club board.

Is Tom Shutes not "fit and proper"?

Today we have a situation where a new would-be investor, Tom Shutes, has a takeover delayed at the behest of our major shareholder. Fenty's claims that Shutes is yet to supply evidence of his ability to fund the club do not hold water for a number of reasons.

First let's take Fenty at his own word. He is on record several times stating that Town’s stay in the Conference had no detrimental effect on the club's finances. He claims that money lost in TV revenues and youth academy funding were more than replaced by better attendances, income from regular Wembley appearances and TV revenues.

Shutes is a member of the board responsible for the regeneration of North East Lincolnshire, a board which has negotiated £60million in funding from central government

Secondly, he claims Shutes has yet to pass the Football League's fit and proper person test. This contradicts James Findlater's report in the Grimsby Telegraph. Anyone who has been following the affairs of Bury and Bolton will find that this strains credibility. The fit and proper person test failed to stop Steve Dale and Ken Anderson taking control of those clubs, despite Dale having a string of insolvencies behind him and Anderson having been barred for eight years from holding a directorship. Has the bar for the fit and proper person test suddenly become so much higher?

Shutes is a member of the board responsible for the regeneration of North East Lincolnshire, a board which has negotiated £60million in funding from central government. He is also behind the schemes to regenerate the Garth Lane area in conjunction with the University of Lincoln and Grimsby Institute and build a new National Centre for Sustainability in the Built Environment. He and his wife are behind a partnership with the Royal College of Art which seeks social entrepreneurs and start-ups to build a better future for Grimsby. Shutes is a property developer with a track record which includes developments such as Eglon House where he based his own business and home.

There can be little doubt that Shutes has the funds and nous to run the club at least as well as, if not better than, Fenty. He probably has the contacts and gravitas to attract investors. It is a role the current club board has failed in spectacularly. Nevertheless, I am not an advocate for Shutes, or any other private individual, taking control of the club.

A track record of success - for fan-owned clubs

The best course of action would be for Town fans to take control of the club themselves. This is partly a matter of principle. The continental model, or that preferred by Supporters Direct, should be the norm rather than the outlier. But there is also plenty of practical evidence of clubs prospering when they are run by the fans.

While the Fenty apologists point to the fall of Bury, along with the recent histories of clubs like Notts County, Blackburn, Oldham and Macclesfield to show how much worse things might have been, there are other examples out there. AFC Wimbledon, Swansea, Portsmouth, Newport, Exeter and Bournemouth are all clubs whose existences were threatened. They are all clubs whose future was secured not by a speculator or a local 'made good' benefactor but by the fans themselves taking control. Though some of them fell further than Town and were sunk in debt, they have now outstripped our own progress.

It may come to be that Shutes takes over and proves to be a good and diligent owner along the lines of Andy Holt at Accrington. That may be the desire of many who seek only to turn up and watch the team they adore. But it need not be the limit of all fans' ambitions.

We can learn from the experiences of fan-owned clubs. We can seek the input of supporters' organisations such as Supporters Direct and the FSA. With those examples to build on, there can be little doubt that among our fanbase there is sufficient expertise to cover all aspects of a community-run and community-focused football club.

The experiences of Bury, Bolton and many others should not be a reason to thank Fenty for his tenure. Neither should they be an excuse for his failures. They point up the danger of having a community asset like a football club controlled by any individual. Grimsby Town FC belongs to the community. It will exist as long as people like you and me will watch. The best chance we have of guaranteeing that it will be as a Football League club is to take control.

In a future article, Baz will explore how a fan-owned club could operate. Write in with your ideas.