The Thundercliffe interviews: John Fenty

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Thundercliffe

17 February 2005

Blundell Park at 5pm on a Saturday has recently been a depressing place to be. Blundell Park at 5pm on a freezing Wednesday in February is almost suicidal. But here I was for my interview with the chairman. With plastic bags tumbling against the Findus Stand, and stray dogs not even wanting to piss anywhere close, I made my way to the main entrance.

John Fenty has been a Town fan for as long as he can remember. At the same time as building up a frozen fish company (a long process which involved mechanics, haulage and, er, fish) Fenty has become more involved with the club and now chairs the operations. "We are here to make a difference," says John, Five Star Fish tie resplendent.

So how did he come to be in a position to make the difference? "In 1999 I was approached by Tony Richardson after Bill Carr had asked him to contact me. We had been sponsors as part of Europe's Food Town - we were the only company who stayed in it for three years. I had an interview with the board, and clearly took a liking to Bill Carr. Within no time at all I was involved on the board."

But not everything was plain sailing, and as Fenty himself puts it, "there was a clash of personalities". These were not resolved, with disastrous consequences for the club. "If it wasn't for the fact that the board was overturned I think we would be in a new stadium today," reveals John, adding: "The board needed to stay together to get the support of the local council and we needed to get B&Q on board. Since then B&Q have found a place elsewhere and the board that took over from Bill Carr's regime, if you recall, they were fairly negative about the new stadium, saying that it will bring the club down.

"Well, you can imagine immediately that the council were feeling 'why should we carry on supporting this when Great Coates don't want it and even the board don't want it?' The new board quickly realised that [the new stadium] was the right thing to support but by then it was all too late. B&Q became a lost opportunity."

But why was B&Q so important? "For a new stadium to happen you need an anchor tenant who will bring other tenants on board. B&Q expressed interest. In effect this triggers a cross-subsidy for the football club to build the ground, an enabling development. That is necessary. We are still looking for an anchor tenant, which is the only thing stopping the development of a new ground today."

The New Ground has been overtaken as the stick with which to beat the club by the Tax Debt. This £720,000 burden is very real and, according to Fenty, is the final legacy of the great ITV Digital overspend.

"The tax bill is a debt - when ITV Digital failed we were £2.5 million short. We were contracted to players who didn't have a relegation clause. We couldn't offload players so we carried them for a season. They were contracted for the next two years in deals done by our predecessors. All contracts now have a relegation clause put in them, and they are obviously constructed on the basis of affordability.

"We also lost ITV income for the next two seasons," continues John. "Effectively we were £5 million short to honour these contracts. We were short of cash, we had to make cutbacks, and at the same time the board committed quite a lot of funding to stay in the first division." How much funding? "A seven-figure bridge from the board to cover these costs."

Eventually, though, Fenty and the board said enough was enough. "There gets to be a time when you have tried to buck the trend, when you have tried to stay in a higher division, you have tried to see a way though and you have to have a reality check and you have to stop going on.

"We got to the end of last season and we had by then accrued a debt with the tax people. We had an agreement with the tax people that they would wait and see if we could have some 'football fortune' [this is how Fenty refers to a cup run or some other lucky break]. They allowed us to start the season with a full squad, as long as any overspend was made up by ourselves."

John Fenty

So why not pay it off? Why start a campaign? "One might argue that we might throw another million pounds at the playing side and still not win promotion. You have to draw a line somewhere. With this current debt we would ask 'when all is said and done we are a community product or asset' and we decided that it would be right, because of the support we have given, that the public would help with this problem."

The £420,000 to be raised by the public is split into increased match day revenue (£100k); increased use of the facilities (120k); and the buying of shares. The results so far are disappointing.

"The supporters' trust has done phenomenally well to raise over £7k. We have sold £7k worth of shares." This doesn't sound a lot. "We are quite pleased, as the football has let us down. [The campaign] is over 24 months; don't expect it to happen overnight. It is vital that the campaign is successful."

The club has opened an account asking for secure loans to be used to gain interest. This in turn will pay off the interest accrued from the tax debt. Good management - except Fenty is looking for a million pounds of investment in this "capital-protected account". Amount so far? "Not doing very well," admits John. "It's early days and we are talking to quite a few people but we have £30,000 pledged. I am fairly optimistic that it will be solved."

John points out a couple of times that without the campaign, administration is the only viable way forward. Is this not trying to blackmail fans into supporting the campaign? "Expendable funding locally is difficult and I accept that," says Fenty. "This isn't an overnight requirement. But I would say to people that this football club has been here for 127 years. It is an institution in itself. It is absolutely vital that we preserve the club's future. It is not the first time it has been in this position. I am sure that we can get people to understand that supporting the football club is right for the future."

Isn't it a little unfair to ask those diehards to stump up some more of their hard-earned cash, especially when the fare on offer is hardly Tesco Finest? "When it comes to the very survival of your home football club, think past the football of today. Additional bums on seats mean everything when it comes to survival. It's not just about football at the moment. I know it's not been particularly good these past few games. We need to pull it around. I would hope that people would not just put it down to football for their support they are going to give."

It has been said in some quarters that with the money Fenty has earned from his business dealings he should stump up the cash himself. He is quite indignant when this is suggested. "The fact that I sold my company has given me a degree of wealth. It is not necessarily available and I don't want to go into detail about the position of my wealth. If Bob Geldof was doing a campaign for Band Aid do you think people would say 'we have got a multi-millionaire Bob Geldof here who's asking you to support Band Aid when he could actually pay it himself'?"

The 'multi-millionaire' comments have obviously riled him, not least when they were aired on BBC Radio Humberside. This has resulted in players and management being banned from talking to the station, and the two sides are currently at loggerheads.

"I have been very, very disappointed with some of the coverage, particularly towards the campaign, from Radio Humberside," states an impassioned Fenty. "I particularly find it extremely disappointing when a reporter can turn round after the launch of the campaign, prompted by another's 'I understand tax demands are falling through people's letterboxes', the other reporter said 'yes, and the football club have got one and the chairman is talking about a campaign and you will be lucky to raise a ball of wool and piece of chewed chewing gum'. Effectively that is belittling the fans. I found that tortuous. I heard it myself."

But doesn't Radio Humberside have to reflect the mood of the fans? "The way the media comes across can affect the way people support this football club. If you're going to abuse the people who use this charity, are they going to put themselves forward? They are here to give a balanced view, to be responsible, and if they are going to be destructive we are going to take exception. If that style of theirs is going to damage this campaign I don't see any alternative. They are telling us they won't change; we are going to close the curtains."

So it may be a while before we hear Stacy Coldicott's dulcet tones at 5:20 on a Saturday. John thinks so. "They have continued to belittle the football club and the situation we have here. They played 'Happy Talk' by Captain Sensible and the next comment was something in the order of 'there's no happy talk coming from the football club and I hope somebody gets Captain Sensible'. Now that's meaning me. That's belittling the situation."

The situation is made more difficult by the contract that the club has with the station. "We have a contract; we have followed it implicitly. We have told them which parts of the contract they have breached, and we are fully satisfied that we can support our arguments and that we haven't done anything out of order."

In the meantime, should the fans miss out? "You can still listen to the game. Humberside have a contract for which they pay to behave in a certain way - which they haven't. They are obviously saying that we are in breach. Until we find an amicable way forward, things are going to stay as they are."

Fenty is unrelenting in his stance against Radio Humberside. It's this steely side that has made him such a successful businessman, but he is frustrated at not having full control at BP. "The thing about Five Star Fish is you can make an individual difference anywhere in the business. When it's not going right on the pitch I can't put the boots on and go and assist in that capacity.

"All we can do is make the preparation and do the best we can, and we have made good preparation. It's a bit of a lottery. Have you got the right players? Can you remain injury-free? Have you picked the right manager?" Which Fenty obviously thinks is the case. "Russell will build a stronger squad for next season; I am pretty certain of that. Things will click and turn around for him and the rest of us. It's not time to give up on Russell. I think he's done some good things and it's a matter of time before it comes through for him."

As if to prove the point, John lets me into a bit of GTFC official business. "Tonight I am taking the chief executive, the manager, and Peter Furneaux out at my expense, and we are going to look at the cash flow forecast for next season and what players are within our budget. I am only looking forward with the board."

With all of this planning, has John given up on this season? "Stability has always been the key target for this season. Our shots on goal are good but we need a bit more luck. We are nine points from the play-offs. It's not impossible, but it gets more difficult.

"Before the last three or four games there was real hope we were going to make the play-offs. Our home form has suffered and I would hope that the fans would get behind the players - booing can affect performances. I wonder if we should have a reality check; we are where we are because this is how good we are. This won't change unless we all pull together."

But the team is not performing. Surely we have every right to boo? "On paper we are better than our position. To some extent Russell has bought very well. I think he's done a good job. I don't think he's found the right formula to get what look like good players playing in the right way."

Fenty is very loyal to the club - "very committed, certainly not going to walk away. I haven't supported the club to walk away" - and spends huge amounts of a working week down Grimsby Road. "I daren't think about the amount of time," says John. "I am on the telephone to my colleague Peter Furneaux on a daily basis. Pete does a great job, and if only people recognised and understood what he does do, but we don't go round crowing."

This hasn't felt like a normal 'Tea with Thundercliffe', more a 'Small Cognac with Thundercliffe' but I asked the question in time-honoured tradition. "Tea bag, water. No sugar, bit of milk, whip the tea bag out, job done."

Except, of course, that Fenty does not see his job as being done at all. He is in it for the duration and is determined to succeed, no matter who gets in his way. He sees the role as a service to the community and is keen for the community to embrace him back.

"I am very, very grateful for the opportunity Grimsby gave to me and I feel honour-bound to give something back to the community."