23 July, 2008

The Crooked Spirite

In case you haven’t connected the dots yet, today’s theme is, put simply, bastards. Cristiano Ronaldo is an annoyingly good footballer but at heart you can tell that he’s just a real abnoxious prick; Calum Best, well, I think I’ve said all there is say on that matter already; and we shall finish the day on a relatively tenuous footballing link, but I think when you’ve read that piece there will be no doubt that the man in question is in fact the sport’s biggest bastard. In between then we have quite a long-winded tale of white collar bastardness, but one which is so cynical and exploitative that I think you’ll find it’s worth the read…

This story is a few years old now but since I only actually heard about it today, and let’s face it there’s nothing else to talk about, I thought I’d give you lucky people a bit of a rundown on a man called Darren Brown. No, not the recently-homosexual brain-washer with the goatee, but a businessman who took over the boardroom reigns at sleeping giants Chesterfield in 2000. Promising to make the team part of his so-called “sporting empire,” Brown then proceeded to empty the club almost entirely of cash within a matter of months, and almost force the 134-year-old institution to disband for good through his selfish spider’s web of deceit.

Before Brown's arrival, Chesterfield's history was pretty unspectacular to say the least. Despite being the fourth oldest League club in the country, the only incident really of note was an FA Cup semi-final in 1997 against Middlesbrough, when 23,000 people emptied the town completely and headed over to Old Trafford. I’m not quite sure where Chesterfield actually is, but presumably the four or five inhabitants that didn’t make the trek had the run of the town for the day, comprehensively stealing and fencing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

Anyway, in 2000 the Spirites endured relegation, and chairman Norton Lea started to take quite a lot of stick from the frustrated fans. In May of that year he decided enough was enough and finally sold the club to a sharp young entrepreneur named Darren Brown, who already owned the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey club and the Sheffield Sharks basketball team. Brown inserted Chesterfield into his fancy UK Sports Group conglomerate, and the club suddenly started to spend big, signing goalkeeper Mike Pollitt, striker Luke Beckett, and most importantly, returning the fans’ cult hero from 1997, David Reeves, back where he belonged.

By January 2001 the Spirites were sitting pretty atop the Third Division, and the fans were living the life of riley. There was however a slight hitch when, towards the end of the month, the FA’s compliance officer Graham Bean suddenly burst through Saltergate's front door, and launched an ominous inquiry into “certain incidents regarding Chesterfield's financial arrangements.” A week later, three directors who had resigned revealed some unusual details to a packed fans’ meeting at the County Hotel: Norton Lea had left the club with plenty of money in the bank, but for some reason cheques for players’ December wages had been bouncing and bailiffs were at the door. Most strange…

They continued to tell the fans that Lea had agreed to sell Brown the club for £1.2m, payable in installments. Brown had made a £384,000 down-payment, but bizarrely £399,000 had also gone out of the club’s accounts to Brown’s company, UK Sports Group. Not all of Chesterfield's fans believed this unlikely tale however, and the meeting turned into an ugly witch-hunt, with two of the humble directors eventually bundled into a car by friends and driven off at speed for their own safety. “It was like a bad film,” Dean Newman grimly recalls. “We were life-long fans of the club, wanting only to protect it. Maybe now people can understand that.”

Following an FA investigation, and subsequently a Football League tribunal into contractual irregularities, Chesterfield were fined £20,000 and deducted nine points, which left them still certain to be promoted, but surrounded in suspicion. In March 2001, realising his elaborate rag doll of lies was becoming quickly unraveled, Brown transferred all his Chesterfield shares to an associate, Andrew Cooke, who then offered the now insolvent club to the supporters’ trust. They bought it, only to discover that the ground had been leveraged to guarantee a personal loan and that there were debts of more than £2 million, including £439,000 paid out as a loan to the infamous UK Sports Group.

Police began to investigate following the Football League’s tip-off and discovered the depth of Brown’s shady dealing: Brown pleaded guilty to two charges of fraudulent trading, having taken £800,000 out of Chesterfield for his own purposes (to repay people who had lent him the money for the first instalment to Lea and to pay the Steelers' debts), and also to live in style. He had also used club money to pay a £55,000 deposit on a mansion, ordered a Mercedes, Land Rover and BMW for his personal use, and spent, among other extravagances, £2,500 on a lawnmower. The Serious Fraud Office took over the investigation, leading to nearly twenty charges in total including false accounting, furnishing false information, and theft. Brown pleaded not guilty to three charges, and 14 have been left to remain on file.

To nobody's great surprise now, it turns out that Brown had literally no money when he first talked his way into Chesterfield. He had worked in British Gas showrooms for three years, sold photocopiers, then set up a small print-broking business. The Sheffield Steelers, who were going bust, owed him money, so he took the ice hockey club over, and he bought the Sharks from receivers. After he strolled into Chesterfield with borrowed money, he emptied the club of its cash to repay his own creditors, and keep his whole self-reinvention on the rails.

Chesterfield's loyal core of supporters have since dragged the club towards a more wholesome future, but this whole affair forced the Football League to re-evaluate how football clubs were to be run at boardroom level. Admittedly Brown didn’t get away with his little ruse for long, but those short months were still long enough to filter out almost a million pounds to splash out on cars and presumably hookers. Let that be a lesson to all club chief executives around the country: never trust anyone that claims to own an ice hockey team.

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