The 30th April 1994. Huddersfield Town have just played their final game at the decrepit Leeds Road stadium. It is not, however, all doom and gloom for the Yorkshire club. Just over the road is the undeniably impressive 25,000 all-seater McAlpine Stadium. Surely this is the start of a glorious chapter in the club’s history? Wrong. Financial mismanagement, a brush with liquidation, boardroom politics and one man’s ego have jeopardized the club’s very existence and turned the stadium into a white (and blue) elephant.
The stadium was initially set up in a 3-way structure between the football club, Kirklees Council and the rugby league team Huddersfield Giants. The shares were split 40:40:20 with the football club and the council having the greater share of this so-called ‘community stadium’. The stadium had been largely funded by the sale of the old Leeds Road ground, and the council, as reflected in this setup. The stadium was initially fairly successful. Town were promoted in their first full season at the new location and in the summer of 1995 American band R.E.M. visited, performing in front of 70,000 people. Despite this, the fortunes of the football club, and the stadium, were to take a nosedive – starting in 2001.
Local businessman Barry Rubery was just one of a number of modern day entrepreneurs attracted by the lure of trying to take a football club to the ‘Big Time’. As is so often the case, the football club spent way beyond its means attempting to get to the promised land of the Premier League. Town were relegated to the 3rd division in 2001, which only exacerbated the financial problems at the club. Despite the admirable attempts of Lou Macari – and the dreadful efforts of Mick ‘Total Football’ Wadsworth – the club slipped through the relegation trapdoor and into the 4th tier of English football in 2003. At this point Town had debts of up to £17 million. Town plunged into administration and for a time there was a genuine possibility that this proud football club would go out of business. The club would eventually be ‘saved’ by Huddersfield Giants chairman Ken Davy to the relief of Town fans everywhere.
What does this have to do with the stadium? Upon his purchase of the club, Ken Davy transferred Town’s 40% share of the stadium into his own private company ‘Huddersfield Sporting Pride’. Surely he must have paid a hefty amount to get a 40% stake in a modern, 54-acre stadium? Well not exactly – the colossal sum of £2 to be precise. Even the most frugal of Yorkshiremen would see this as a great piece of business for Davy. This company also possessed the shares of Davy’s other team, the Huddersfield Giants, meaning this stadium, supposedly created for the benefit of the community, was now 60% owned by a private organisation. Davy has argued that he did this to protect the club from future liabilities, yet as the club emerged from the troubled backdrop of administration and financial turbulence, the shares have remained privately owned.
Dean Hoyle, the current Town chairman, agreed a deal with Davy to buy the shares back shortly before Christmas 2009. If messageboard talk is to be believed then the deal was rumoured to net Davy £3 million pounds, making him a 150,000% profit on his initial purchase price of £2. Had this deal gone through, I believe Davy would have retained at least some respect among Town fans. At the end of the day Davy is a businessman with no prior attachment to the club. Had he returned the shares at this premium price there would, in my opinion, have been an understanding that Davy had supported the club at a time of great difficulty, made his money back and prevented the community from losing its major sport team. The deal, however, fell through. The council held up the deal before deadline after deadline passed with no progress. Allegedly the reason for the collapse was Davy and his insistence on changing the agreement to further benefit him. Despite netting a cool £3 million from the share transfer, he pushed for further changes including the changing of the so-called ‘set in stone’ rental formula which would lead to the football club paying an even higher proportion of rent on the stadium to the Giants. Whether this is more than messageboard gossip remains to be seen, but Hoyle has promised Town fans that the truth behind the collapse will eventually come out.
It is amidst this backdrop that Town fans have begun a series of protests against the collapse of the deal, ranging from boycotts of the catering outlets to the donning of t-shirts in front of the Sky cameras. Huddersfield Town, and its fans, are the major providers of income to the stadium. Yet they are arguably little more than guests in a stadium that is their rightful home. Without question the stadium needs the full backing of the council, the football club and the rugby club to work effectively. As it stands Ken Davy and his private company hold far too much influence for the property to be an effective community stadium. The halcyon days of R.E.M., Bryan Adams and, (*ahem*) Blue seem a distant memory. The shares issue continues to cast a grim shadow over the football club and the community. What the final outcome of the stadium ownership will be remains to be seen. This trailblazer of a modern stadium, which inspired the Emirates, Wembley and erm, the Reebok, will continue to be a burden, rather than a source of pride, to the community and the football club until this saga comes to its eventual conclusion.