It’s been another extraordinary week in the life of Clapton FC.
After Wednesday’s High Court date – read our report here – chief executive Vincent McBean took everyone by surprise the next day by finally revealing his plans for the Old Spotted Dog ground.
Having previously insisted London’s oldest senior football ground was safe in his hands, and he would never try to sell it, Mr McBean now admits he wants to sell off a sizeable chunk of it to pay off £200,000-plus debts he has racked up to mystery creditors.
The area Mr McBean wants to sell is behind the current clubhouse, currently in use as a car breakers’ yard. This was bought by Newham Community Leisure Ltd, the charity set up to administer the Spotted Dog, prior to Mr McBean’s takeover.
The intention was to use it to expand the sports facilities at Clapton, with planning permission submitted in 1996 and resubmitted 1997 for a two-storey sports centre, including an indoor cricket school, with parking spaces.
However, the sports facility development idea wasn’t pursued by Mr McBean when he took over the club and the council formally closed the file in 2001. Since then the site has been rented out to various non-footballing businesses.
This prize asset could be easier to sell than the rest of the Old Spotted Dog should any proposed liquidation of the charity go through as it exists on a separate lease to the rest of the Spotted Dog.
However, supporters managed to make this sale harder last summer, firstly by winning a High Court injunction after Mr McBean filed for Members Voluntary Liquidation. and then securing an Asset of Community Value listing for the whole of the Old Spotted Dog, including the warehouse area.
It’s difficult to comprehend how the ground stands on the brink of insolvency, and being partially sold off, after a period of unprecedented growth for the club that plays there.
On 1st March 2017, NCL appointed a liquidator, Stewart Bennett of Buckhurst Hill. The documents showed the trust owing £203,478 in long-term loans, £2,001 in accountancy fees, with the cost of voluntary liquidation estimated at £19,095.
Mr McBean’s admission in his Tons Make Clear blog of mystery ‘individuals (who are) owed money’ has left supporters perplexed. (Since writing this article, it has been revealed that the mystery creditors are… himself and his associates).
How has the Clapton chief executive managed to rack up so much debt at a time when the club was enjoying the highest gate receipts in the modern era?
To be clear, this is not historic debt, from when the club was existing hand to mouth on small attendances. The vast majority has been racked up in recent seasons.
Between 2000 and 2011, Mr McBean managed to keep the club and ground afloat despite the relatively tiny amount coming in through spectator revenue, as his predecessors had done for decades. The December 2013 accounts lists just a five-figure amount owed to creditors.
The rise of the Friends of Clapton and the Clapton Ultras, and articles about Clapton supporters, featured in The Guardian, The Mirror and The Independent, among many other publications, helped make the Old Spotted Dog a football destination again.
The huge surge in numbers through the gate from double figures to the high hundreds in just a few years should have been a gift and a transformational opportunity.
Based on average attendances and ticket prices at Tons home matches during this period, the club is estimated to have collected between £30,000 and £50,000 per season in gate receipts alone.
Sizeable fees have also been claimed from ground-sharers, London Apsa, London Bari, and Hackney Wick during this period. The going rate to rent other senior football grounds in East London is between £7,000 and £12,000 per season.
The Spotted Dog’s earning potential goes way beyond football-related income, however.
According to Companies House, three separate motor-servicing businesses have rented the warehouse area from NCL: Vodafone pay the charity an annual subscription to host their phone mast within the ground: the clubhouse, available to hire, hosts regular events, religious services and late night parties.
These are just some examples of the income generated at 212 Upton Lane, although the opaque nature of the NCL and Tons Members Club make it difficult to speculate how this income is used to offset against the ground’s general running costs.
So after a few years of Clapton playing in front of large crowds, with all these revenue streams, the unnamed creditors are now apparently owed over £200,000.
So could it be that Mr McBean spent the windfall of cash on ground improvements? In his blog post, he claimed the ground had required ‘major refurbishment’ since his arrival.
However, the vast majority of the Old Spotted Dog’s modernisation came before his tenure, which began in 2000.
Following the release of the Taylor Report, the-then Clapton administration were forced to demolish the two traditional wooden stands in 1994. These were replaced by the 100-seater main stand and the now famous ‘Scaffold’ Stand, both of which are still in use.
The current pitch-side fencing, still just about standing over two decades later, was also installed during this period of works.
So too was the clubhouse and the concrete laid for existing pathways and small terrace behind the goal, now rather overgrown.
The only significant infrastructure works completed at the Spotted Dog since 2000 appear to be the turnstiles, outdoor toilet block, a new gate and the extension to the Scaffold. (It has since emerged that the toilets were donated to the club free of charge).
We also know that some ground works have been funded by donations and outside grants, such as £3,000 ‘Emergency Flood Relief’ funding received from Sport England to re-seed the pitch in 2014.
Totalling up these modest renovations it’s difficult to see how Mr McBean could have spent anywhere near close to £200,000 on ground improvements. In fact, looking online for prices, it’s hard to see how it could have cost more than £25,000 in total.
Having finally come clean on his plans to sell off part of the ground, supporters will be keen to see if the next ‘Tons Make Clear’ blog will reveal the identities of the mysterious creditors (it did: largely Mr McBean himself) and what services they provided (still unknown).
Meanwhile the court case over the liquidation rumbles on with all parties next due in the High Court in August.
A petition to return the Old Spotted Dog ground to the community can be signed here