The Fenty Years: Part One

Cod Almighty | Article

by Mark Stilton

18 May 2021

In the first part of a retrospective on his involvement with Grimsby Town, Mark records how John Fenty spent six years positioning himself to become majority shareholder, while all the time claiming he didn't want control of the club

The early years: March 1999 - December 1999

Despite being a "lifelong supporter" John Fenty's first involvement with the running of the club was not until he joined Bill Carr's board on 9 March 1999 - signing-on to the tune of £2,500 worth of shares. At this time Alan Buckley was manager and the club sat 11th in the second tier, a position they'd finish the season in.

On his appointment, Fenty was clear in his ambitions for the club: "To me, it is essential that the dream of a new stadium stops becoming a dream but becomes reality... I hope to devote my energies to achieving this goal." Rather strangely, the Telegraph ended it's reporting on this event by stating that Fenty "enjoys squash and is a keen water-skier" as if this was some sort of dating column.

Fenty was clearly keen to increase his shareholding as soon as possible as he was reported to be sending letters to existing shareholders requesting purchase of shares at up to 2-3 times their value. At the time the club was unable to generate new shares and so this was the only route to increasing his shareholding. Where people were not prepared to sell he requested the proxy voting rights of those shares be passed over to him.

While this met with scepticism from some shareholders (who felt the motivation was that any shares would be worth more if a new ground was built) Fenty ultimately had some success as he was able to purchase a further £2,295 worth of shares.

Fenty stepped down telling shareholders that it was not healthy to have control of the club in such few hands

Things turned sour pretty quickly though as Bryan Huxford forced a takeover of the club, ousting Bill Carr from the board in the process. Fenty was up for re-election but chose to stand down amid claims he'd been told he could stay on the board if he "behaved himself" and that he was initially voted off "to teach him a lesson".

Asked at the club's AGM in December if he could work with the new board, Fenty simply replied "Yes, but with caution". Ultimately though, Fenty stepped down telling shareholders that he was "not a yes man" and that he felt it was not healthy to have control of the club in such few hands: "Democracy will not prevail until that matter has been addressed". Other independent reports from the event suggest it was Fenty’s "ambiguous" response to the question posed that caused shareholders to vote him off the board.

The club's finances were in a relatively decent position at this time - although it reported a loss of around £1m for 1999, this had followed a profit of £1.3m in the previous year. The club's overdraft was about £300,000, and there were no directors' loans.

Back on board: July 2001 - July 2004

Infighting between past and present board members in May 2001 led to the resignation of both the chairman, Doug Everitt and vice-chair, Bryan Huxford, with Peter Furneaux stepping back into the role of chairman. With some concern over the finances of the club, Director Dudley Ramsden stepped in with an interest-free loan to the club of about £100,000.

Within two months Fenty had re-joined the board, with his shareholding still standing at £4,795. However, he soon increased that shareholding with the purchase of a further £40,000 shares via the Five Star Fish Employee Benefit Trust (these shares having previously been owned by Huxford and sold to a third party).

Town had just finished in 18th position in the second tier having spent most of the season in the bottom quarter of the division. Lennie Lawrence was manager and about to start his second season in charge of the Mariners.

It was the 2001-02 season when the ITV Digital deal started. Worth £3m a year over three years for second-tier clubs it led to an immediate inflation in player wages and most clubs spent in anticipation of receiving their share of money from the deal. Town were no exception to this, and having received £3m for the first year had budgeted a release of the funds over three years into the profit and loss account. The wage bill rose from £3m to £4.3m with Town tied into multiple-year contracts on the basis that they would receive more money over the next two years.

The season appeared to start well with Town top of the division at the beginning of September. Results started to falter not long afterwards and the club began it's slide down the table. An historic win at Anfield in the League Cup perhaps stalled any moves to remove Lawrence from his position as manager, but by the end of December Town were out of the League Cup and sitting second from bottom of the division. Lennie Lawrence was relieved of his position and Paul Groves installed as player-manager.

Fenty along with fellow director Michael Rouse were accused of being there "to do a job". It was claimed that Fenty's statement was almost identical to Rouse's. Fenty denied this but Rouse admitted that the written words were not his own and did not tally with a previous statement

Initially John Cockerill was asked to continue as assistant manager. However, unhappy at not being offered the management position he resigned, or so it was reported by the board. Cockerill felt that he'd actually been sacked and proceeded to take legal action against the club.

Cockerill was ultimately unsuccessful in his tribunal, but during court proceedings in July 2002 Fenty along with fellow director Michael Rouse were accused of being there "to do a job" by Cockerill's barrister. It was claimed that Fenty's statement was almost identical to Rouse's and that they were "in effect a committee document". Fenty denied this, saying he had written the statement "in his own words on his personal computer at home". Rouse however admitted that the written words were not his own and in fact did not quite tally with the written statement he'd previously submitted to the club.

Town finished the season strongly, including a 3-1 win over Burnley in the final home game to stay up. The game was more notable though as it was the match when the club launched a ten-year deal with Conoco on naming rights for the new stadium. To celebrate, Conoco caps were handed out to fans as they entered Blundell Park.

In the latter half of the season ITV Digital went into administration leaving clubs across the leagues in dire financial straits, having committed to contracts on the basis of receiving additional monies. Fourteen clubs would go into administration over the next four years as a direct or indirect result of the ITV Digital collapse. Town made moves to reduce it's wage burden on the back of this and although a further TV deal with Sky alleviated the impact there were still projected losses of between £800,000 and £1m.


The close season was quite eventful - the club had narrowly avoided relegation under Paul Groves and preparations for the new season began to create rifts between directors. Fenty sold his combined shareholding (less £500) of £44,295 to fellow director Michael Rouse and put around £200,000 back into the club to raise funds for a "war chest" for Paul Groves. At the same time Fenty accused fellow director Ramsden of stopping the club from moving forward by insisting Groves sold players before bringing any new faces in.

Within days of a public argument between Ramsden and Fenty, Alec King stepped down from the board. He said that the new stadium project was a "pipedream" and questioned the morality of the board who were slashing the wages of low-paid office staff

Ramsden hit back at Fenty, questioning "how the club is going to benefit from the private transaction of shares between two directors" and asking whether Fenty proposed to put the money into the club as a further director's loan. The accounts suggest as much: there was an increase in loans from directors from £100,000 to £650,000 at the end of 2001-02, of which £350,000 was from Ramsden himself. Ramsden also claimed in his statement that "John Fenty has made no secret of the fact that he wants to own the football club."

Within days of this, Alec King stepped down from the board, rather acrimoniously. Originally bought in to help with plans for a move to a new stadium (having previously helped Newcastle and Sunderland) he now said the project was a "pipedream", and questioned the morality of slashing the wages of low-paid office staff while still paying high wages for players. He put his support behind Ramsden.

The tit-for-tat continued. Fenty issued a statement saying that the claim he wanted to own the football club was "rubbish", and that the disagreement arose because Ramsden wished to withdraw £50,000 of loans from the club. The pair had a written agreement that they would fund the club equally to a "maximum total of £350,000" and would not use their shareholding to vote either off the board.

The club had started to dither on contract negotiations for players as they dealt with the repercussions of the ITV Digital collapse. No contract offer was made to Danny Butterfield before the allotted deadline, which meant that he was able to join Crystal Palace for free when normally the club would have expected to have received a level of funds due to his age.

Fenty's "war chest" allowed Groves to remove Phil Jevons from the transfer list after he had been put up for sale to try to reduce the financial problems the club was facing. However, by September the board had taken the decision to send him on a season-long loan to Hull, who were prepared to pay a significant part of his wages. Speaking in defence of the decision, chairman Peter Furneaux stated he knew "nothing about" an outstanding £500,000 tax bill it was claimed the club owed. The following month the club also started to put pressure on Danny Coyne, who was still transfer listed, to accept offers they had received for him.

By November, Fenty was ready to make his move. Having "sold" his shares to Rouse, the gentlemen's agreement on not voting off Ramsden no longer stood. Rouse - now the second highest shareholder - immediately requested that Ramsden (and Graves, who was seen as a "Ramsden man") left the board.

Fenty followed this up by giving Ramsden two options: hand over his shares for free to Fenty who would pay him back his £350,000 director's loan and £100,000 guarantee, or Fenty himself would walk and demand his own £300,000 loan back immediately. Ramsden relented and passed over his shareholding to Fenty. This gave Fenty 62,289 shares which along with those now owned by Rouse, put the two in a controlling position, with around 47 per cent of the shareholding. The club's loans from directors were reduced from £650,000 to £100,000 via the cash injection as promised by Fenty, which came in the form of sponsorships.

At the AGM in December Fenty reported that the plans for a move to a new stadium were "still on", altough the whole development was in limbo with no enabling retail development in place. The appointed developers, Chiltern Investments, assured shareholders that the new ground development would "happen in three years" even though it was not "currently viable". It was also revealed that the club was not currently compliant with its articles of association and its remaining shares would need to be sold to bring it back in line.

Fenty issued a veiled threat: "If there is no director support going forward, if we go down, the club is finished. The share issue is extremely important. Without the board I don't think the club would be here so be mindful of that when you vote"

In January 2003, further funds were made available to Paul Groves to secure the signing of Michael Boulding, with Furneaux stating that the funds would ultimately come from the proposed sale of additional shares in the near future. Following this, an EGM was called in April to get 75 per cent shareholder approval to release 363,000 additional shares. Ultimately the release of additional shares was agreed but old animosities between current and previous board members continued to be aired. Fenty issued a veiled threat for those thinking of voting against: "If there is no director support going forward, if we go down, the club is finished. The share issue is extremely important. Without the board I don't think the club would be here so be mindful of that when you vote."

In a busy month there were yet more issues around the stadium plans as the land owners, Sutton Estates, refused to sign-off on the agreement, citing the developer's comments that the stadium wasn't viable.

May brought better news though as the club signed the biggest shirt sponsorship agreement in its history with Jarvis: a three-year deal with a £500,000 up-front payment. However, news was soon released that the person at Jarvis who had signed the deal with Town was a middle manager from the area with a previous conviction for fraud. Although he suddenly disappeared (tendering his resignation by post), Jarvis honoured the agreement.

The money went some way to offset the expected loss of around £700,000 of TV income as a result of relegation from the second tier at the end of the season. In further cost-cutting (and still referring back to ITV Digital) the club released reserve team coach Paul Wilkinson as well as making several other club and ground officials redundant. However, Fenty claimed that the decision wasn't purely financial stating "we don't know of a club that uses three managers to do what we are trying to achieve. Paul Wilkinson was not sacked; he was released because the strategy last season didn't work." Wilkinson immediately moved to Cardiff to join Lennie Lawrence.

The end-of-year accounts show the club had managed to reduce its wage bill by a quarter from £3.6m to £2.7m - a result of some of the ITV Digital-era wage deals coming to a close. Directors' loans stood at £100,000 with a slight decrease in the club's overdraft by £70,000 to £420,000. TV money received for the year was £1.1m - a £2.7m decrease from the previous year.


Town started the following season in indifferent form and were sitting in mid-table when Stuart Rowson, a journalist for the Grimsby Telegraph, wrote an article on the lack of an ambulance at Blundell Park on match days. The article stated that the club would save £360 per match by not having an ambulance present, and was only required to do so by law if gates were above 5,000.

The club reacted angrily to this by immediately revoking Rowson's press pass and stopping him from conducting interviews with club staff and players citing "continued misleading coverage of the club." The Telegraph responded, stating it was happy to correct any inaccuracies if the club contacted them. Eventually the club responded stating that the claim that Lincoln and Scunthorpe always had an ambulance was false and that it had been standard practice for 15 years. The Telegraph published a correction to those facts, but the club still refused to reinstate Rowson’s press pass.

The Jevons situation had not been fully resolved - an appearance-based fee agreed with Everton when he had first signed meant he was initially kept out of the side so that the club didn't have to stump up the money. This followed negotiations with the player to reduce his ITV Digital-era wage. Jevons himself claimed that he had agreed to a 30 per cent pay cut but that the club had reneged on it and demanded a 50 per cent cut. He further claimed that he was being victimised by the board, including being belittled in front of other staff, being told he wouldn't be able to train with the team and that the club would refuse to treat him if he was injured. By the time this was all resolved and Jevons was fit to play, it was November.

The club's AGM in December lasted only 13 minutes, but Fenty and Rouse were re-elected onto the board. Nothing much of note was reported except a complaint from the club that a bridging loan that was due from the Football Foundation to help with the fall-out from ITV Digital had not been forthcoming. The club also stated that it was willing for volunteers to help with maintaining Blundell Park in order to keep the ground functional.

At this point Town were still around mid-table although there had been a high turnover of players, including a number of loans and trialists. They began to slide in late December and Groves was given a vote of confidence by the board after a heavy defeat to Wycombe. Things didn't improve and after heavy losses to Port Vale (5-1) and Oldham (6-0), Paul Groves was relieved of his duties. Town sat 20th in the third flight.

Graham Rodger was given caretaker duties, the board stating it would take it's time choosing a suitable replacement. During that time the club went on a mini-revival winning three out of the six games, including a 6-1 tonking of Barnsley. It left Town in 17th place with 12 games remaining, and fans felt there had been a turnaround in performances.

It was a surprise then that the board chose to appoint Nicky Law for the remainder of the season. Law brought in a number of short-term journeymen that disrupted the team that Rodger had got playing well and results tailed off.

During this period Fenty underlined his "budget" approach to maintaining the club by climbing up some ladders before a match in gale force winds and re-attaching a speaker that had come loose in the main stand. Radio Humberside described the incident at the time as "either very brave or very idiotic."

Town finished the season needing to match Chesterfield's result to stay up. They failed and were relegated at Tranmere, amid claims that some players were on the phone to their agents at half-time.

The end-of-year accounts showed that the club had yet again managed to reduce it's wage bill by 25 per cent from £2.7m down to £2m. However, the drop to the third tier had led to a reduced income from TV by about £1m. The club had signed a new shirt sponsorship deal with Youngs, and about £70,000 had been raised through the share sale (although this had largely been used to pay for Jason Crowe). The board estimated the cost of this further relegation to be around £500,000.

The club moved quickly to appoint a new manager ready for 2004-05, interviewing a "cocktail of managers" according to Fenty. After failing to negotiate terms with their initial target they moved on to Russell Slade, then manager of Scarborough in the Conference.

On his appointment Fenty stated that "It's been a very difficult season and we are pleased to see the back of it. There have been players who have not shown the true Grimsby grit. We have to have sweeping changes." He then went on to compare Russell Slade to Alan Buckley.

In part 2 we look at the years from 2004, when Fenty first became Town chairman: years of fish factory ice and feuds with BBC Humberside