Cod Almighty | Article
by Mark Stilton
9 June 2021
The crashing end to a bromance with Mike Newell as Town descend to non-League. Mark looks at 2008-2010 under John Fenty
The crashing end to a bromance with Mike Newell as Town descend to non-League. Mark looks at 2008-2010 under John Fenty
The club started 2008-09 by renewing their deal with Compass FM for a further year. Fenty acknowledged "comments that we have received from our supporters" and promised "an improved service for the forthcoming season." A partnership with Lincs FM at least extended the coverage across a wider radio network, but some fans still weren't happy with the quality of the broadcast.
Over the summer there had been a few fans questioning the work the Mariners Trust were doing, suggesting that they were ineffectual. Fenty was quick to support them, criticising "a minority" who used internet message boards to discredit "the excellent work [the trust] have done for the club." In yet another veiled threat, he mentioned that other clubs had closed websites because of "malicious writing" and that while he had considered the option, he "would prefer to avoid" it. Marrying the plight of the trust with his own personal battles he added: "These people who bad-mouth the club and bad-mouth the trust are few and far between but, unfortunately, they get a large voice and people who do show an interest in the club see their comments and could potentially believe the foundations of what is being said."
The team started poorly in pre-season losing to Corby Town and Farsley Celtic, which prompted an early season call for support from Fenty. "Naturally there is and will be a disappointment of Grimsby not beating opposition from divisions below", he argued, telling fans to put things into perspective: "the question is how will we perform when the competition starts on August 9, that's what counts."
Pre-season results didn't pick up but Fenty was still feeling optimistic about the new season. With Bournemouth, Luton and Rotherham already on points deductions he felt "if ever there was a season where we have a good opportunity to succeed, it's this season." He said the board had provided "phenomenal financial support" to bring in some "expensive" players, as well as budgeting for the final payments of the tax debt. "Nobody wants to be in this division... it's too close to that trap door and it's not comfortable."
There was a minor set-back for the new ground development when council planners signed-off on retail development plans for the Garth Lane area in the Town centre. Fenty felt that the development created competition for the out-of-town enabling retail development needed to support the "ConocoPhillips" stadium: "All at the club are disappointed that the Garth Lane scheme has been approved by the council", he said, adding that the club would now need to reappraise plans.
Town started the season with a draw in the League and a win over Tranmere in the first round of the League Cup, setting up an away tie with Blackburn in the next round. This little bit of 'football fortune' pleased Fenty, who was "absolutely delighted" as a "decent crowd will obviously be a boost to our coffers."
Despite progressing in the League Cup and League Trophy, the team had only managed two draws in the first six League games. Fenty felt this start, alongside the finish to last season, wasn't acceptable and took the decision to sack Buckley. The club thanked him for "his wonderful achievements which transpired in the club enjoying an extended stay in the Championship together with three wonderful trips to Wembley" and placed Watkiss in temporary charge.
Fenty took the opportunity for more self-pitying posturing: "There is only so much you can take... I am in a lonely place in terms of funding and the ultimate decision-making which costs money." He at least admitted that some decisions he’d taken were wrong, but only "with the benefit of hindsight", and argued that "reasonable" people would agree with the "logic for them at the time"
Although Watkiss had originally been in contention to take over as manager permanently, a defeat and a drab performance at home to Barnet led to a change of heart by Fenty: "We have drawn up a shortlist of eight names and that includes some additional candidates who have not applied... In the interests of the club, and in order to unite the club, players and fans, it will be an external appointment." However, the club were in no rush to appoint a replacement, despite other managerial vacancies arising, with Fenty claiming that "the managerial merry-go-round is such that I'm sure many out-of-work managers will be interested in any clubs that have a vacancy."
While interviews were progressing, Fenty took the opportunity for more self-pitying posturing on the club website: "There is only so much you can take... I am in a lonely place in terms of funding and the ultimate decision-making which costs money." He at least admitted that some decisions he’d taken were wrong, but only "with the benefit of hindsight", and argued that "reasonable" people would agree with the "logic for them at the time", if only they understood.
He again complained of the lack of support from fans and the hurdles placed in the way of the stadium project by the council. "Blundell Park is not acceptable in modern-day terms and to that extent the club is uneconomic... we need a council that speaks with one voice to tell us... if they really want a professional football club locally or not." Fenty also hit back at claims that he was only interested in the stadium project for personal gain and that recent managerial appointments had been done on the cheap: "To say we are looking to take the cheap option is grossly unfair... to get this football club out of this current mess will cost a fortune, whoever is appointed."
A few days later, the club appointed Mike Newell to the vacant manager's job. Fenty was "delighted with this appointment of this forward-thinking manager" saying that he had "listened to the fans" and in return expected everyone to be supportive and get behind the new manager. Fenty added "we picked Mike out of 50 candidates. We see massive integrity, considerable ability and an excellent track record."
Martin Butler was the first out of the door on Newell’s arrival. The player had frequently complained that the three-hour drives to training were causing him issues and clearly wanted out of the club. Despite Fenty previously stating the club would do all they can to get the best out of Butler before his contract expired at the end of the season, it only took one meeting with Newell for Fenty to pay up his contract.
In November, Fenty performed another volte-face, this time on the outstanding tax debt. Having said that the debt would be cleared by the end of this season - in line with the original four-year repayment schedule - he now looked to extend. "With gate receipts falling due to a combination of the credit crunch and the team's poor results... we are now looking to try and reduce the repayments" said Fenty, adding that they were going to approach the Inland Revenue with the hope of deferring the debt to the following season.
The next month reports came out linking the club with notorious landlord Robbie Fowler. Fenty responded to this to confirm that Newell (who was a close friend of Fowler) had spoken to him about the potential of joining the club in "some sort of playing-coaching capacity." Fenty added, gleefully: "In truth, we were trying to avoid this becoming a public issue but I think I needed to clarify the situation". Fowler declined the offer, saying he wanted to try and extend his contract at Blackburn, before joining Australian side North Queensland Fury the following month.
A proper bromance was starting to forge between Fenty and Newell, conveyed on the pages of the Telegraph. First Newell gushed that Fenty was a "good man to work with", adding: "I've heard other managers say they have a good relationship with their chairman but I've never experienced that before ever." Newell had finally found true love, declaring to the world "I think I could have a good relationship with John Fenty." Newell was particularly happy that Fenty trusted him to get on with the job: "He doesn't ask why I do certain things with the team or anything like that." Fenty reciprocated a few weeks later, talking about Newell's "prolific" energy levels and saying that he had a "cracking relationship with the board." As ever, he couldn't resist ending with a little praise for himself: "The facts are, historically, the board has supported every manager under my tenure. That will continue, provided the requests are sensible."
News on the new stadium was less positive though, with Fenty reporting that the credit crunch had affected the chances of securing the necessary anchor tenants to take the development forward. However, he hadn't given up hope and stated that the project was now more likely to be realised in the "medium-term rather than the short-term", adding that "there is still a way forward at Great Coates."
Performances started to improve in the new year with the arrival of a number of new players, and by the beginning of February Town had started to reel in Barnet and Chester above them. Luton and Bournemouth, both with heavy points deductions, still remained in the relegation places. Fenty was upbeat and felt that fans could see that the improvements Newell had made were “starting to show in results at last”. Fenty put that improvement down to the players brought in. He defended bringing in a number of players on loan, stating that it's much better to assess a player on loan and then make them permanent if they are successful, as "has been proven in the cases of Adam Proudlock and Rob Atkinson". It was clear where Fenty placed the real credit for improvement though: "As a board we have tried to help the manager as much as possible with bringing players he wants to the club."
The club agreed a deferment of the outstanding tax debt, but only after dodging a seven-day winding-up order. The club missed their scheduled December repayment. This forced the Inland Revenue to serve notice on the club and it was only local councillors and MPs stepping in that stopped the order from progressing. "I even went as far as sending 12 post-dated cheques for 2009-10 for repayments we are committed to"
By the end of February, the club had agreed a deferment of the outstanding tax debt with the Inland Revenue, but only after dodging a seven-day winding-up order. The club had approached the Inland Revenue before Christmas to defer the repayment, but having had no response subsequently missed their scheduled December repayment. This forced the Inland Revenue to serve notice on the club and it was only local councillors and MPs stepping in that stopped the order from progressing. "I even went as far as sending 12 post-dated cheques for 2009-10 for repayments we are committed to", said Fenty, adding tearfully, "I wrote explaining everything we do in the local community." He complained at the "deplorable" treatment of the club by the Inland Revenue and warned fans that despite the deferment, there were no quick fixes for the club's current predicament. However, hope was just around the corner: "Our finances aren't brilliant but we are managing them and success on the pitch will bring fans back and raise income."
Finances weren’t so great for Castlemore Securities - the developers appointed to work on the planning application for the new stadium - who were placed into administration in March. Fenty was adamant it would not affect the stadium project: "There is a raft of interested developers, that regularly contact us, who would be more than happy to take this project forward." He felt it was just a matter of waiting for the right time, stating nonchalantly that "it is the last of the club's worries at the moment - it is not a worry at all."
Results on the pitch had not carried on from January, and by March the club found themselves in the relegation places, having now been passed by Bournemouth who had started the season with a 17-point deduction. Only Luton (minus 30 points) kept the team off the bottom. There was a brief respite with a 5-1 home victory over Lincoln which led to Fenty issuing a rallying cry in the Telegraph: "We have to stick together through thick or thin. We may still have bad games between now and the end of the season - we know we may not win them all... we will avoid the drop with the raft of support behind the football club."
Free buses were put on to away games to drum up away support, and a series of ticket reductions and offers were put in place to try to improve home crowds. This wasn't all for the club though, as while Fenty felt that the "club needs the support of the fans" he also felt that the fans "need the club". Suddenly, in its hour of need, Fenty was saying it was our club again. A debt-riddled husk of a club, but our responsibility to save it from non-League.
Three people not included in the message of togetherness were goalkeepers Phil Barnes and Gary Montgomery and left-back Tom Newey. Initially the club released a statement just before an away game with Luton to say the three players had been released. The wording of the statement was later edited to state instead that their "services were no longer required". However, both Barnes and Montgomery had their contracts paid up, while Newey went out on loan for the remainder of the season.
The club still had "one of the biggest [squads] in the division", according to Fenty, and although the focus was on avoiding relegation, he was adamant that they would hang onto these "very good" players into the next season regardless of what division the club was in. He assured fans that the club were "still signing players - and on a permanent basis - in preparation for next season... adding more quality can see us improve."
Town's results picked up slightly, but Fenty wasn't happy with what he felt was an unfair advantage gained by clubs going into administration who were not able to pay their players. His issue seemed to be with the PFA who had loaned money to those clubs in order that players' wages could be paid: he said it was "immoral" as it could have a "detrimental impact on clubs who do pay their bills." He'd clearly forgotten about the tax debt at this point, or the mounting directors' loans as a result of the failed ground relocation project. Fenty was so angry with the PFA that he "brought this to the attention of senior officers within the Football League." He felt the PFA only loaned this money because they were preferential creditors and would get their loans back. The PFA were clear on their real motivation: "We are not talking about millionaire players here. Some of the younger players might only be on £250 a week. They need the money to pay their rent or their mortgage."
Despite losing away at Bournemouth Town survived. Fenty took the opportunity to go over to the supporters in the away end at Bournemouth and bask in the glory of the great escape he had masterminded. Rather than, perhaps, making a sharp exit and reflecting on what had been a poor season for the club, he instead rode high on the shoulders of supporters - a king among men
Results improved slightly towards the end of the season and despite losing away at Bournemouth in the penultimate game, Chester only drew so they were relegated with Luton and Town survived. Fenty took the opportunity to go over to the supporters in the away end at Bournemouth and bask in the glory of the great escape he had masterminded. Rather than, perhaps, making a sharp exit and reflecting on what had ultimately been a poor season for the club, he instead rode high on the shoulders of supporters - a king among men. Speaking to the Telegraph following the game Fenty said he was looking forward to the next season already, and the club "producing something that can bring a smile to people's faces."
Not long after the season ended Stuart Watkiss was told that his contract would not be renewed, and Brian Stein was made assistant manager. In a statement reminiscent of Wilkinson's departure several seasons before, Fenty felt it was "unsustainable" to keep Watkiss as well as Stein.
Fenty himself featured in another Telegraph article espousing the benefit of buying the local newspaper: "It is important for people to stay in touch of what's going on locally and there's no better medium for that than the Telegraph.” Fenty had certainly seen the benefit of that: he'd featured in the local paper on an almost daily basis at points over the season. He had a further seven articles written about him over the next 10 days.
Firstly he told the Telegraph that he could see it was going to be a difficult season before it had even started. "The writing was on the wall that the new additions weren't going to fit in as Alan Buckley had hoped... it was clear we wouldn't survive if we didn't make a managerial change" adding that those players also didn't perform under Newell, necessitating a squad clearout. The additional players had come at great cost with some paid "Championship wages" as well as the cost of putting them "in a class hotel", while at the same time the club had to be "mindful of budgets and the size of [the] squad."
Next, he insisted that despite interest from Peterborough, the club would not be looking to sell Ryan Bennett. The club wanted to keep the squad together and "go in the right direction" and would be extending Bennett's contract with higher wages. However, Fenty added that he "won’t say never" and was wary of agents influencing Bennet’s decision to leave.
The following day, Fenty featured again, this time lamenting the signing of Martin Butler on an 18-month contract that "ultimately cost the football club a lot of money." This was followed the day after with an article where he shared his anguish at the sacking of Alan Buckley. Stating that Buckley was "the greatest ever manager... certainly in my life-time" he felt that the issue had been Buckley's failure to "acquire the type of players we needed to take us forward" and not an issue with Buckley's coaching. Fenty felt that Buckley would have addressed this given more time, but the club's perilous status forced his hand: "When all is said and done, it scares you stiff and it plays on your mind, and there's no question we had to act... [it] was a very sorry day for me and a hugely difficult task."
A few days later and Fenty was telling the Telegraph that the permanent signing of Barry Conlon was a sign of the club's intentions for the coming season: "He's aware of his value after what he achieved for us at the end of last season", adding that the club had to "push the boat out to acquire his services" but that Conlon would be a "significant player in the coming season."
The end of year account showed an increase in wages by £200,000 to £1.8m, probably as a result of the large squad size. TV revenue remained fairly static at £500,000 but match receipts had dropped back to the 2006-07 level of £820,000 without the Wembley visit to boost income. The club overdraft had remained the same but a further £660,000 in director's loans had been added to the account, lifting the total by about 55 per cent to £1.8m.
The end of year accounts also show a pension payment of £162,500 to John Fenty. This amount is a quarter of a sponsorship payment that had to be returned to Five Star Fish. In 2002 Fenty had provided £666,000 to Town in the form of a long-term sponsorship from Five Star Fish Limited, which was used to leverage Ramsden from the board. When Fenty sold Five Star Fish, the new owners asked for the money back and Fenty repaid it himself. However, he then set up pension payments from the club over four years to claim the money back.
The details of this financial arrangement alongside other movement of monies into the directors’ loan account is covered in more detail in The Fenty Years Part Three: Financial Supplement, pieced together by Tony Butcher.
In the close season Peterborough restated their interest in Ryan Bennett, but after claims by Fenty that he wouldn't sell him even for a million pounds their interest cooled. However, over the next few weeks "things changed" according to Barry Fry, and Peterborough tabled an official offer for the player. Fenty described it as "derisory", it didn't "do due justice to Ryan's talents... it will be rejected forthwith." The following week Fry spoke to Fenty directly at the Football League AGM in Portugal and offered another "big bid" for Bennett. Fenty, however, didn't want to respond at that point and chose to wait until he had returned from Portugal and "evaluated further interest being shown by other clubs."
After he was back and had discussed the matter with Newell, he said that the club "probably won't be accepting" the offer, thought to have been in the region of £500,000. Fenty had his reservations - "It is difficult for a club like ours to refuse such a substantial amount that would probably break records at this level" - but Newell was adamant that Bennett would not be sold. A few days later the bid was officially turned down, with Fenty stating that "it's now all hands to the pump, preparing our squad for next season." Peterborough refrained from making a further offer. They said their last offer "would have earned Grimsby up to a million over time" and that Town "think they can get a couple of million for the boy so good luck to them."
Fenty also returned back from his Portugal jolly feeling "disillusioned" that the Football League's discussions on clubs' financial management didn't go far enough: "It's fair to say that we made a little progress... [but] by day two all was forgotten". Among the discussions was a proposal that clubs falling behind with employee-related payments to HMRC would be subject to a transfer embargo until the debt was paid off. Ahem.
The club requested the final be moved to a 3pm kick-off. They denied they simply wanted to travel home in time for their next two fixtures, suggesting that there were safety fears for Mike Newell from angry Luton fans, and the earlier kick off would enable police to attend, although there were no reports of Luton fans acting aggressively. The organisers refused to change the kick-off time and Town travelled home without playing the final match
In July the team travelled to Devon to take part in the Errea South West Challenge Cup as part of their pre-season preparations. The cup, in its second year, featured 12 teams in four groups with Town drawn in a group with Yeovil and Belgian side RRFC Montenegee. Town won both their group matches and progressed to the semi-finals where they beat Rushden 4-1 to book a place in the final against Luton: a fixture already arranged for 6pm on Sunday 19 July. Perhaps Town simply didn't expect to get to the final, or else they had messed up their pre-season fixture schedule, but they were due to play Scunthorpe in the Lincolnshire Cup semi-final the next day, and had a friendly fixture at home to Leeds on Tuesday.
The club requested the final be moved to a 3pm kick-off. They denied they simply wanted to travel home in time for their next two fixtures, suggesting that there were safety fears for Mike Newell from angry Luton fans, and the earlier kick off would enable police to attend. Although there were no reports of Luton fans acting aggressively, the club claimed some had turned up to the semi-final game against Rushden and caused Newell bother. The organisers refused to change the kick-off time and Town travelled home without playing the final match, leaving Luton to play the final against RRFC Montenegee, the only other team that had remained in Devon.
A young Nathan Arnold scored a couple of goals for Town while on trial during the tournament. Reports from some quarters suggest that he was so put off by the drink and banter culture surrounding the club that he chose to leave before any contract offer was made.
Back home and there was some confusion for fans over the pre-season schedule at Blundell Park. Leaflets sent out with season tickets suggested that all season ticket holders would get free entry to the pre-season games at Blundell Park. However, days before the games took place the club issued a retraction on its website stating that the offer had simply been a "misprint."
On the eve of the new season, the club finally agreed a deal with BBC Radio Humberside for match commentaries and other coverage. Ending the two-year failed Compass FM experiment, Fenty declared himself "delighted" with the new agreement.
He was less delighted with misleading reports by the Football League that suggested payments to agents were on the decline, including details that the club hadn't spent a penny on agents' fees the previous season. "Fees are still there, but are now grossed into players' wages and they pay the agents... it happens at Grimsby Town and widely in the game" said Fenty, adding that the club "would rather not use agents but we often have to." Fenty didn't quantify how much the club had actually spent on agents' fees over the season, but it's easy to imagine it was quite a lot from the sheer turnover of players.
Finally, after six years the final instalment of the HMRC tax debt was due to be paid, with just £85,000 outstanding. Referring back to ITV Digital again, Fenty said the club had been "hemorrhaging a fortune and that's where the tax debt in part came from." As we have seen though, although the club had to adjust to a sudden drop in TV revenue while still paying high wages for some players, this was largely resolved by the time Slade was appointed: the double relegation helping to reduce the wage bill. The tax debt could have been cleared years earlier after revenues from cup games and visits to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and Wembley, but Fenty chose to continue to gamble on football fortune. "When we've made those last payments we can turn over a new leaf and it will be a sigh of relief... we can then start a new chapter", said Fenty, ominously.
The new season got off to a bad start with six defeats in the opening seven games, leading Fenty to release yet another early vote of confidence in the manager. Fenty called for patience from the fans, stating that the board felt they had "the right management team" and wouldn't be making any "drastic decisions." Fenty felt comparisons to the season before were wide of the mark as the club had "brought a lot of good quality players in this summer" and it was just injuries and bad luck that had led to the slow start. Fenty then referred to "comments on the internet" which he could accept after the poor start, but he didn't like it "when people don't put their names on their comments and use pseudonyms." Especially when people didn't get their facts right...
Fenty said changes were needed in the squad because "you can't continue to change the manager year on year and get on that merry-go-round... the board supports the manager fully." Five days later Mike Newell was sacked
A month later, and although there had been a mild improvement in form, Fenty released an invective aimed at the players following a home defeat to Burton and an "embarrassing" display against Barnet. He felt there were "common-denominators" in a number of performances, but despite claiming that he wasn’t going to point fingers or blame the poor start entirely on a "small group of players", he appeared to suggest it was players who had graduated from the youth team who were to blame: "The facts are, successive managers have seen positive signs in our young players to go on and request them to be given new contracts time after time. Yet some fail to deliver in the first team and that's what it's all about." He went on that some players "don't have a long term future at this football club", adding that new players would be brought in and players who were "weak minded" or "lack a constant work ethic" would be weeded out. "Players who think another two games and we will have a new manager and a new opportunity to hang on must think again... we have to support the manager and show the manager that we are supporting him".
He returned to the theme next day, telling the Telegraph that the club had "been extremely patient with grooming players and trying to give them every chance to improve" before singling out Peter Bore and Danny North as two players who weren't pulling their weight. Fenty went on to reiterate that changes were needed in the squad because "you can't continue to change the manager year on year and get on that merry-go-round... the board supports the manager fully."
Five days later Mike Newell was sacked after a home defeat to Rochdale, amid allegations of an altercation between Fenty and Newell after the game. The love affair was over. Neil Woods was placed in temporary charge of the team, with Stein continuing as assistant. Fenty was adamant that the sacking wasn't influenced by results or "disquiet of some sections of the support" but was rather cagey about the real reasons, stating only that "the relationship broke down." With Newell only halfway through a three-year contract, there was an element of severance due but Fenty stated that the "club has been adequately protected to the point where it's not going to break the bank." But presumably add to the benign debt instead.
Within days of Newell's departure, the sale of Ryan Bennett was agreed with Peterborough. Fenty hit back at claims suggesting the club were to blame for the player's exit, claiming it was Bennett or his agent that had initiated new talks with Peterborough and led Barry Fry to contact Fenty. It was the same offer that Peterborough had made in the close season according to Fenty, "a deal that the football club thought was very good." Money wasn't the motivator here though; Fenty felt the poor form of the team was holding Ryan back so it was important for him to move on to further his career: "The whole team has had a dip in form, I think it is fair to say that the decision not to let Ryan go could have impacted on his personal performances and, to some extent, there has been a dip in form." Fenty felt that Bennett had not managed to get the summer offer "out of his mind".
Bennett himself had a different view of events however. He said he had been more keen on the move in the summer but once he'd signed a new deal with the club he was happy to stay: "I think the chairman decided that he didn't want me here and he wanted to cash in." He claimed the first he'd heard about the move was via "someone in the educational department" on the Thursday morning following the sacking of Newell. He added that he didn't want to stay once he'd been told that the club had accepted a bid and wanted him to go, and that the manner in how it had been handled by Fenty was "upsetting".
The following week more than 60 applications had been received for the manager's position, with Fenty stating that the club would also "approach one or two potential candidates" who hadn't applied. He added that they wanted to avoid appointing "an old-school manager" and were looking for a manager with a more "modern approach" to the game. Woods had already started to make changes to the players' fitness regimes and Fenty was keen that any new manager would continue this approach or "bring in a regime we are content with." He was frustrated at his own failure to appoint a successful manager and couldn't fathom "why it hasn't worked" so far, with no sense of self-reflection: "If it was that simple, we'd have put it right", he said, adding that the new manager "could still be someone from within the building who could take the club forward."
As the search for a replacement went on, the club's accounts for the previous season were released ready for the forthcoming AGM. Fenty made reference to the "thumping loss", putting this down in part to the combination of the free buses put on for away games, and the discount ticket prices: both measures taken to drum up support as the club aimed to avoid relegation. Fenty felt it was justified though, arguing that "it helped to keep us in the division" and that without the campaign and ticket offers "we would probably have been down and out by now."
On the pitch, the run of defeats in the League came to an end but despite Fenty's claim that Woods would be "preparing the players, telling them that it is 'our banana' and that we have to be careful" for the cup match against Bath City, the club still lost 2-0 at home to the part-timers.
The following week Mike Parker, who was already a minor shareholder, joined the board of directors. Parker stated that he would support the club financially through directors' loans and a further share purchase, but also through contributing his time and experience: "I think the fans have been very patient, but they are rightly disappointed. This has got to be better, and that's what we believe."
A week later and the applicant pool for the manager's job had been whittled down to seven candidates, although Mark Cooper subsequently took a job at Peterborough leaving six to interview. The candidates were Neil Woods, John McDermott, Gerry Taggart, Gary Brabin, Lee Richardson and Russell Slade.
Fenty felt there had been "substantial progress in the team" during Woods's temporary stewardship, that his relationship with Slade "was a good one" and had only ended because of a "contractual disagreement", and that McDermott was "keen to return to the club in some capacity" and they would listen to what he had to say. McDermott provides a slightly different view on this in his autobiography, suggesting that when he turned up for the interview he was immediately asked if he wanted to be assistant manager rather than manager. Fenty also took the opportunity to claim credit for landing Slade his previous role at Brighton, telling the Telegraph: "I actually played my part in Russell getting that job. I spoke to Dick Knight there and recommended him, which speaks volumes."
"It isn't going to turn around overnight because this team wasn't good enough when Neil took over", he said in direct repetition of what he'd said when Newell first took over. So, despite the many squad additions over the previous year or so Fenty admitted that money had been squandered on sub-par players
The next week Woods was appointed as manager, with Fenty stating that the board had "dismissed the journeyman and those that are likely to get itchy feet during the contract." In what was an almost carbon copy of his remarks on the appointment of Rodger a few years earlier, Fenty pointed out that the football club was "crying out for stability". Of Woods he said: "[He] certainly has the right qualities. He's a modern, fully-qualified coach with contacts and knowledge to acquire quality players... he will restructure the footballing side from top to bottom." He was aware that the fans were split over the appointment and called for everyone to get behind Woods. "It isn't going to turn around overnight because this team wasn't good enough when Neil took over", he said in direct repetition of what he'd said when Newell first took over. So, despite the many squad additions over the previous year or so, and his many remarks previously that the club was building a "quality" team, this admission suggests that money had actually been squandered on sub-par players.
At the AGM in December an update was provided by Fenty on the doomed stadium project. "The scheme is not deliverable in its current form", he admitted, adding "We are going to have to put it behind us and reinvent the project." He said that they were working with officials at the council to explore "two or three different ways forward" but that these discussions were still in the early stages and ultimately delivery of the stadium project would be delayed. Instead the club would explore potential improvements to the current training facilities including assisting Woods with "additional resources and investment into the sport science technology" and restructuring the scouting system. Fenty mentioned that Woods "insists on a sports fitness programme." How very modern!
Fenty also took the time to dismiss rumours that Newell had introduced a drinking culture into the club during his tenure: "He had been accused of being completely out of his head drunk but, on some of those occasions, he was actually out with me so I know it wasn't the case." He then suggested any fans with knowledge of players drinking excessively should let him know but "it would help if they had some supporting evidence."
Part of the changes initiated by Woods involved replacing Brian Stein with Chris Casper. Stein, brought in by Newell, had his contract paid up and Casper was brought in until the end of the season to assist Woods and take on some duties with the youth team.
With matters at the club temporarily resolved, Fenty put his efforts elsewhere, pushing for the removal of the salt marshes around the leisure centre. He felt they'd been "pussyfooting around too long" and was willing to risk a £40,000 fine for the council to remove this pesky wildlife habitat. Fenty hit out at English Nature, who were trying to safeguard the site due to its ecological importance, complaining that what they were doing was "utterly unbearable."
By the middle of January results had improved with only two defeats in the league since Woods took over, but with no wins the club were still rooted to the relegation zone. Fenty dismissed rumours that Woods had a limited number of games by which he would be measured and stated that he was happy with progress so far: "The players are faster, fitter and more able... we are really pleased with the work he is doing here - he just needs that bit of luck in games to get that first win."
During the transfer window Barry Conlon was loaned to Chesterfield after an attempt to use him as a makeweight in the signing of Aldershot’s Michael Symes fell through. He signed permanently for Chesterfield at the end of the month when the club came to an agreement to pay up the remainder of his contract. Fenty later stated that Conlon had "been disruptive and had failed to turn up for training and had ignored phone calls."
On being handed a piece of paper by Furneaux to list the problems Newell replied "you can xxxx xxx you little xxxx." Fenty claimed he simply tried to diffuse the situation with a little humour by leaning over, wiggling Newell's tie and saying "come on Mike, lighten up. Don't be so xxxxxxx silly." Fenty continued the discussion with Newell in "raised tones."
In February the club found themselves in court following the issue of a writ by Mike Newell who was suing the club for wrongful dismissal and claiming damages of over £50,000. Newell claimed that Fenty had acted aggressively towards him, grabbing his tie and smashing a chair on the floor. However, representatives of the club gave a different interpretation of events. They said former chairman Peter Furneaux had asked Newell following the defeat to Rochdale what could be done to help the situation. Newell pointed out that there were lots of small issues including the state of the pitch, player absence from training, the coach company and driver, the physio, who decided what went in the match programme, the training ground being too hard and directors travelling on the team coach. On being handed a piece of paper by Furneaux to list the problems Newell replied "you can xxxx xxx you little xxxx." Fenty claimed he simply tried to diffuse the situation with a little humour by leaning over, wiggling Newell's tie and saying "come on Mike, lighten up. Don't be so xxxxxxx silly." Furneaux subsequently left the boardroom upset while Fenty continued the discussion with Newell in "raised tones." There was no smashing of chairs, claimed Fenty, although he was standing leaning on a chair when Newell "offered to take him out in the car park for a fight." Newell stormed out of the boardroom shouting "sack me, sack me, sack me if you want."
The club argued that this aggressive behaviour followed a pattern displayed by Newell during his management and that he often needed careful handling. Incidents they listed included his swearing and aggressive behaviour on the touchline towards match officials and other managers; discipline of the players more generally; making negative comments to the media about the club including reference to a "losing mentality" and saying "lots of little things are not right"; complaints that the grass was too long and changing the bus driver; and inappropriate and aggressive behaviour towards fans away from the ground. In contrast to Fenty's statement at the AGM dismissing rumours of a drinking culture at the club, they also raised Newell's "drinking to excess and subsequent unacceptable conduct in public" making reference to an incident after the Chester game as well as the Rochdale game.
The court dismissed Newell’s claim and accepted that the compensation paid by the club (around £22,000) was correct. This compensation included 5 per cent of any player sales made between June 2009 and May 2010; however, the sale of Ryan Bennett was paid in installments meaning that Newell was only due 5 per cent of the first £100,000 installment.
By the end of February the club was still sitting in the relegation zone and despite only losing three games since the turn of the year had failed to notch a win. Fenty restated his support for Woods and felt that "a win is around the corner" and that a few wins would see the club reach safety before the end of the season. Fenty felt it would be "foolish" to make yet another managerial change, and claimed that he constantly agonises over whether he could have done anything different in the six years he’d been chairman. One can only assume he always reached the same conclusion: "no."
Fenty argued that contrary to accusations of "doing things on the cheap" he had actually increased the playing budget at the start of the 2009-10 season to try and avoid another relegation battle. This had ultimately proved futile though, as despite a couple of wins late in the season raising hopes, the club were relegated out of the Football League after a 3-0 defeat away at Burton Albion.
"We choose the manager and the manager chooses the players. In between them, we weren't good enough. But I'm the man at the top, the board makes decisions and I take the responsibility" weaselled Fenty, a mealy-mouthed way of saying that the board (not him) make decisions, and it was a succession of poor managers and players that led to relegation. In the league of responsibility-taking, Fenty was expunged before the season even started
In the days following relegation Fenty talked of how "disappointed" he was and that the board would "put together a budget that will enable the club to continue to be professional". He argued it wasn't a lack of money that had got the club into this position, although throwing the club's money away on a stadium pipedream while racking up debt certainly hadn't helped - even if that debt was ultimately only owed to Fenty himself. "We choose the manager and the manager chooses the players. In between them, we weren't good enough. But I'm the man at the top, the board makes decisions and I take the responsibility" weaselled Fenty, a mealy-mouthed way of saying that the board (not him) make decisions, and it was a succession of poor managers and players that led to relegation. In the league of responsibility-taking, Fenty was expunged before the season even started.
Following a three-hour board meeting the next day, Mike Parker was promoted to vice-chair and Neil Woods had his contract extended for a further year. Fenty estimated that the board would have to fund the club "to the tune of around £6-800,000" in order to be competitive and that both Fenty and Parker had agreed to share that financial burden. "Our plan is to increase our share-holding to half a million pounds each and continue to support the club until that's agreed with loans" said Fenty, going on to praise the "steely" Parker and adding "I'm sure it is going to be a fantastic working relationship going forward." One thing that wouldn't change was Fenty's determination to move grounds, in spite of relegation: "The efforts to relocate will not change. Mike and I are joined at the hip in that objective. We know we might have to reach well into our pockets to achieve that but we are working on that aim."
In spite of relegation, Fenty remained quite upbeat, claiming that the club were going to approach things professionally and prepare "in a very robust way" for life in the Conference: "I think we have an exciting future".
The end of season accounts show that wages had increased by £100,000 to £1.9m, but that TV revenue increased by the same amount to £600,000, while match receipts remained fairly static at £840,000. The club's overdraft was reduced by £80,000 but a further £600,000 had been added to directors' loans, taking the total to almost £2.5m. The club made a further £162,500 pension payment to John Fenty.