End of an era at Crewe Alexandra?

After a few uncertain years on the pitch, a sexual abuse scandal off the pitch, and prolonged uncertainty about the club’s financial future, we seem to be at a turning point in the fortunes of Crewe Alexandra football club.

Long-standing Alex supporters may tell you 2016 was Crewe’s “annus horribilis”. The club was relegated from League One with five games to spare after defeat at arch-rivals Port Vale in April, and in November, the club became immersed in the UK football sexual abuse scandal (Wikipedia article) after new allegations about paedophile Barry Bennell emerged. Allegations soon extended to other clubs, and Crewe’s former manager and now director of football Dario Gradi was suspended for his part in an apparent cover-up of sexual abuse at Chelsea in the 1980s. Meanwhile, in the midst of a crisis, Crewe’s board did the club’s reputation no good by, first, refusing to comment, then grudgingly accepting it needed to investigate its past conduct, before finally discontinuing its own inquiry – a step that received almost universal condemnation, alienating some fans from the club.

Turning a corner?

Artell applauds Crewe's travelling supporters at the end of an away win at Crawley Town.

Artell applauds Crewe’s travelling supporters at the end of an away win at Crawley Town.
(By Paul WOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link)

However, the past few weeks have seen a series of changes.

First, under manager David Artell (right – appointed in early 2017), the gradually improving performance of a largely home-grown squad of players has seen the club winning games, topping League Two and winning plaudits for their style of football.

Second, in late September long-standing board director David Rowlinson died … and soon after …

Third, on 7 October 2019, fellow board director Dario Gradi, 78, announced he was resigning from all Crewe Alexandra roles. His considerable achievements as a manager and coach will assure him a place as one of Crewe’s all-time greats, but the sexual abuse scandal and his suspension tainted his final years. The FA’s own enquiry has yet to be published, and it may well criticise Gradi and Crewe for its past actions, but the successful prosecutions of Bennell and other offenders has at least started to draw a line under this affair.

Finally, and most recently, Crewe announced (see also Cheshire Live news report) that it had reached an agreement with its majority shareholder and former director Norman Hassall for him to relinquish his shareholding in favour of local shareholders. The finances of the club will be restructured with the aim of no single shareholder having more than 12.5% of the club, with ownership to be extended to supporters. In light of recent financial troubles at other northwest England clubs (Bury – expelled from the Football League; Bolton – put into administration; Macclesfield – unable to pay its players), this must be seen as a positive step. And, following two recent board departures, it will also likely mark the end of John Bowler’s long tenure as chairman.

The beginning of the end of an era?

However, this important announcement is just the beginning – much will need to be done to resolve the details of Crewe’s new balance sheet, and to raise the investments needed to buy out Norman Hassall. I understand that Crewe’s independent supporters’ group, The Railwaymen,* has been involved in the discussions about the club’s financial future, with advice provided by the Football Supporters’ Association on how fans’ shareholdings might be achieved (a Railwaymen Supporters’ Society is being launched).

Lessons will be learned from other clubs. At the moment 17 clubs in the English pyramid are wholly owned by supporters, including League One side Wycombe Wanderers; five clubs are majority owned by supporters, including AFC Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Exeter City; and 16 clubs are partially owned by supporters, including Swansea City, Grimsby Town and Carlisle United. So there are numerous precedents. Experience suggests supporters invest in order to give their clubs longer-term financial security – their financial contribution is more of a donation or long-term loan, as there is little prospect of getting their money back (though some clubs have offered promotion dividends, actioned if a club is promoted as a result of fans’ investment). I will be awaiting further announcements with interest to see how Crewe builds its relationship with its fan/investor base.

[* Disclosure: I have talked to The Railwaymen about helping improve its connections with Crewe supporters based outside south Cheshire – in the 1990s, I co-founded The Alex Exiles – now mainly a Facebook group – and was secretary and fanzine editor into the early 2000s.]

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