SPECIAL REPORT: Q&A with Cobblers chairman Kelvin Thomas a year on after buying Northampton Town
This Saturday marks one year since Kelvin Thomas bought Northampton and what a year it's been.
As I sit writing this, Northampton Town are sitting mid-table in Sky Bet League One, with the team having clinched the league two title by a huge 13-point margin just six months ago.
Twice in the past two months attendance records have been broken at Sixfields Stadium, with the biggest crowd in the ground’s 22-year history watching the EFL Cup defeat to Premier League giants Manchester United in September, and then a league record 7,675 piling through the turnstiles for the weekend derby with Peterborough United.
That beat the previous record that was only set in April for the title celebration clash with Luton Town.
It has proved to be a golden period in the history of the football club, with the open-top bus parade in May - when 1,000s of supporters took to the the streets of Northampton, lining the roads from Sixfields to a packed Market Square, to hail the title-winning heroes - still fresh in the memory.
It has been a brilliant time to be a Cobblers supporter.
Which makes it even more remarkable to remember that just 12 months ago, the club was possibly just hours away from ceasing to exist.
Saturday is November 26, and that date will mark the first anniversary of Kelvin Thomas and his team stepping in to buy the club from David Cardoza.
After an Indian consortium had pulled out of a deal to buy the club a couple of months previously, they were unveiled at a press conference at Sixfields as the men who were going to rescue the club from what seemed to be certain oblivion.
And, in hindsight, that’s exactly where the Cobblers were heading after a period of epic mismanagement.
The club was being chased by Northampton Borough Council for the repayment of a £10.5m loan after failing to make repayments, it was being chased by the taxman for close to £200,000 owed, and facing High Court winding-up petitions.
The unbelievably loyal non-playing staff at Sixfields had gone more than two months without being paid, the collection buckets were out, former players and loyal supporters were raising funds by selling off their precious memorabilia online on eBay.
Opposition fans were dipping into their pockets and adding to the fighting fund, and plans were even being made for a phoenix club to rise from the ashes if the Cobblers did go bust.
It was a dire situation.
But here we are, a year on, and the club is flourishing.
Yes, the team has just suffered three straight league defeats to slip to 15th in the league one table, and yes, Rob Page’s team have just suffered two defeats to deadly rivals Posh in the space of five weeks. But the bigger picture is a good one.
Let’s face it, the fact the the Cobblers are even playing Peterborough is a reason for celebration when you think how close the club was to extinction on November 25, 2015.
Thomas and his associates - David Bower and Mike Wailing - struck the deal that saved the club and have turned things around off the pitch, while on the pitch the team has provided many glory days and glorious memories.
To mark the first anniversary of being the Cobblers chairman, I sat down with Kelvin Thomas for a look back on what has been a great year.
But, as the former Oxford United chief executive admits, the deal very nearly didn’t even happen...
Kelvin, a year on from rescuing the club, how close were you to pulling out of the deal to buy the Cobblers?
“It was interesting, and there were definitely times when it wasn’t going to happen, even up to five or six o’clock on the night we signed the deal.
“We ended up signing the deal at 11pm, but we had pretty much decided to pull out at that point (6pm).
“But then there was a bit of a change, and we decided to continue with it.”
What was the main issue that led to the doubts?
“There was something else that came out, I think it was another debt that could potentially affect the club, but all the way through it was challenging.
“It wasn’t an easy deal to do, because in reality you had a lot of people who were going to lose money out of it, and writing money off, including David Cardoza and the borough council who had to change the way their loan was structured.
“So we always knew it was going to be difficult, but probably not as difficult as it turned out to be.”
When did the interest first arise in taking over the Cobblers?
“It was about two months before when I first spoke to David Cardoza.
“I had spoken to Chris Wilder about something else, and he mentioned that the Indian consortium had pulled out, so I told David to call me if he needed something, and he did.
“We spoke on the Monday, and then I spoke to David Bower on the Tuesday, and we decided the only way we could advance it was if I flew back [to the UK, from America], so I did that on the Saturday and we met David and Tony Cardoza on the Monday.
“We met the council that week, and started the discussions.”
Were you looking to get back into football?
“I had been back in America for three years, although I did a little bit of consultancy work at Torquay United, and didn’t have any major motivation to get back into football.
“I had always liked Northampton, though.”
How influential was Chris Wilder in making the deal happen?
“We never bought the club because of Chris Wilder, Northampton was an opportunity in itself. Chris was offered another job the week before we took over, I think, and at the time we talked about it and said we didn’t want to see Chris go, but I couldn’t say to Chris that the takeover was definitely going to happen.
“He had to make his own decision, and fair play to Chris and his loyalty that he stuck around, and he did that without the knowledge of us taking over, and I think Chris’s speech at Notts County had an effect.”
How important was Wilder’s legendary post-match rant at Meadow Lane?
“I think it really galvanised the club, and I think even David Cardoza paid attention to that.
“I can’t speak for David, but I do think that speech had an effect on a lot of people, it was a powerful speech.”
Was David Cardoza an easy person to deal with during the takeover?
“David wasn’t difficult, but he was protecting his position. It was challenging, but he wasn’t any more difficult than other people I have dealt with.
“I quite like David. Whether I agree with every decision he made, and whether they were in the interests of the club, is another matter, but there is no ill feeling there.”
The deal was done. When you got into the club, was the situation better or worse than you anticipated?
“It was better. When you come into a situation where the club is in such disarray, you think the whole club is going to be in disarray, but it wasn’t.
“Certain aspects of it were, but that was more from the ownership rather than the operational side of things, and James (Whiting, Chief Executive) had done an excellent job keeping it going, and he has a lot of respect within the club for all the work that he did.
“The staff at the club hadn’t been paid, but they were still working hard and it was good.
“The club was operating well, and we were able to come in and sprinkle a little bit on that, and help out here and there and offer support and direction.
“We also had money, and it helps when you pay people. People often make the mistake when they get into football that you need to go in and change everything, but I didn’t feel that, especially early on.”
On the first day, you had a meeting with all the players and staff at the club, a key moment?
“It was an incredibly important meeting, and quite a good decision on our part.
“We got everybody together in a room and talked about what we wanted, what we were looking for and why we were there.
“We wanted to emphasise that yes, the team had been going well, but because we had taken over and everybody had been paid, we don’t take our foot off the pedal, and we keep going. The reacted fantastically.”
They certainly did react fantastically, with the team losing just one league game for the rest of the season as they went on to win the Sky Bet League Two title in style. It must have been a great feeling to be the new owners of such a side?
“No matter what happens, whether you are new owners or have been there for 20 years, if you win football matches then good things happen, and that was the case for us.
“You don’t often go into a club and lose just one game for the rest of the season, if it’s ever happened, and we describe it as the luckiest first year of ownership of a football club ever!”
Skipping on a few months, the title was won, there were parties galore, there was the open-top bus parade, but then there was the bombshell of losing manager Chris Wilder. Did that come as a shock or were you expecting it?
“It was something I half expected. Chris is an ambitious fella, and had done phenomenally well.
“I have experienced two promotions with Chris, so I know what he is all about and we know each other well. It was definitely a pain, you didn’t want it to happen, and didn’t want to lose Chris.
“With Charlton [who came in first, and offered the manager’s job to Wilder] I kind of understood it, and with Sheffield United it was a no-brainer.
“It’s the club he has supported since he was a boy, and I knew as soon as that phone call came in that he would make the decision to go there.
“I understand it, and I think the majority of Northampton fans understood it. And let’s be fair, when Chris came into Northampton what a challenge he took on.
“They were bottom of the league, coming from a club [Oxford] that were third, and that says a lot about Chris, that he backed himself.
“I know it wasn’t a financial decision, because I know he took less money. It was a decision he made for his peace of mind, and his career, and it ended up with him winning the league after two-and-half years. An incredible achievement.”
After the setback of losing Wilder, a new manager had to be found, and you opted for Rob Page. Confident you have got the right man?
“When I met Rob, quite early in our conversation I liked him, and felt strongly about it.
“I am very pleased, and as much as people think it was an easy job to take as Northampton was a successful team, I think it was a more difficult job, because of that success.
“Rob took on a successful group of players, he knew he had to make some changes and amend the formula, and also lose players, and take the view on players he felt weren’t good enough for league one.
“He made those changes, he is strong, and I like him. He has a good personality about him. Rob is different to Chris, but they are similar in the way they like to get a good spirit in a squad, and it was a good continuity for us.”
Moving away from playing matters, one of the main issues you have had to constantly deal wth is the development, or lack of development, of the east stand. It is that stand, or the rebuilding of that stand, that ultimately led to you to being at the club. Seats have been put in, but the stand is still a bit of a shell with no facilities or corporate boxes. What is the latest on it? What are the legal issues that currently mean no development is taking place?
“There are a couple of leases that are owned by CDNL and they are in liquidation, and Buckingham are the major creditors.
“So we are working with Buckingham and have put a proposal to the borough council to try and resolve that, so that everybody gets their money back and we get the stand finished at a reasonable price, and we can all move forward and put this behind us.
“That is all with the council now, and they are reviewing it. They have to look at their options, and have to look at what works and what doesn’t work, and if this is the best value for them. We are trying to resolve it all.”
So when can supporters hope to start seeing some progress being made?
“We are making progress every day. I would love to think we are open and operating near the start of next year. That would be a target, but whether we can hit that is going to depend a lot on a lawyers etc, etc.”
You have mentioned you are keen to redesign the original plans you inherited. Is that still the case?
“I think we would definitely look to do that and see what we can do.
“The design we inherited was flawed, the overall design of the stand is flawed, but we will make do and will do alright. We are hoping to get 18 corporate boxes in there (instead of the planned 10) and that will help financially.
“I’m not sure we will sell all 18 straight away, but in reality the income from them will offset the cost of building the stand.
“It is just an increased income, and the whole stand will increase the income for the football club, and that is the key.”
When the east stand is finished, the capacity of the stadium will be around 8,000, so what do you feel is the ideal capacity for the Cobblers?
“I don’t think there is an ideal capacity. It depends on your league, depends on where you are in the table.
“There are lot of big grounds around that haven’t got many fans in them, and there are a lot of small grounds with a lot of fans in.
“Every club is a bit different, but the numbers of people coming through the door are going to dictate that.
“In reality, it is about knowing what capacity you need, and the commercial aspects of that. Does it make financial sense? So we have to look at that.
“From a commercial perspective, if we are going to have to put in, or the club is going to have to generate £2m, to increase the capacity by 1,000, but those seats are going to sit empty, would you do it?
“If we were selling out every week, and you had 20 home games where away fans were being locked out, then it would be different, but we will take a view on it.
“There is a sliding scale, but like everything else we will make a sensible decision.”
Is there a chance you could expand the north and south stands?
“We have been thinking about that. You also look at the corners of the ground, you look at what is the expansion. That is standard business operating procedure in our mind, it’s what you do. You look at the future, and what’s next, and where you can benefit.”
So plenty of work going on behind the scenes with the east stand, but there have been plenty of other improvements to the stadium over the past year. Will those improvements continue?
“I think we have made massive strides, and all credit to James Whiting and the staff at the club - we have made massive improvements. In the fans’ village [behind the north stand)] we ‘re looking to put a marquee up, and have put plans in for that. We’re getting there, and slowly we will improve things.”
A year ago, things looked very bleak for the club financially and it was potentially days away from ceasing to exist. What is the financial state of the club now?
“It is stable, good. I wouldn’t say we are neutral in terms of season-ticket sales and cashflow, etc, but we are a lot better than where we were.
“We have no cash concerns, we are continuing to operate within our budgets, and I would say we are one of the more financially secure football clubs.”
What is the club’s debt?
“I am not sure what the balance sheet says, but probably about £1m, maybe just over that.
“There is trading debt as well, but the only debt in the club, apart from trading debt, is the debt to us as owners. There is no external debt. It is debt-free in terms of external, which is important.”
The club is also on course to make a profit this year?
“Yes, maybe. We are projected to make a profit this year, and we will always try and operate on a break-even.
“It will swing either way a little bit, but playing Manchester United has helped, and it will now depend on how much of that we decide to put into players and what Rob Page wants to do, but fingers crossed we will make a profit.
“One thing for sure is we are in a much heatlthier position than we were a year ago.”
What was the financial state of the club prior to the takeover?
“A year ago the club was £17m/£18m in debt, it owed serious money to the taxman, and the staff hadn’t been paid for two months.
“I think people underestimate what we did when we came in, because I think people thought we came in for just the £160,000 Inland Revenue.
“People forget that by the time we took over that bill was closer to £300,000, and there was then all of the wages to pay and whatever else came out, so it was a bit more substantial than people thought. But we have done it, and we have moved it on.”
You and Dave Bower don’t draw a salary from the club, so what is your motivation?
“I don’t think a lot of owners will draw a salary out of football.
“We know that we have an asset that is probably worth more than we have invested in it. We know that, and the club is in a very strong position.
“Let’s be realistic, football as it is now with the money that is being invested at the higher levels, has become an attraction to a lot of people.
“We get offers, or interest in the club, on a weekly basis in different forms, although we are not looking to sell the club.
“But, if the right partner came along... and I think with any club, if a Roman Abramovich type came along, or a Sheikh Mansour came along said ‘we really want to take Northampton on’, then we would be doing the club a disservice if we didn’t go and speak to them.
“Our motivation is, we have done okay in life, we have gone and taken a bit of a risk by taking over the club, and it has gone very well.
“We knew we would get to this point at some point, but we didn’t think it would be in less than a year!
“We knew in a few years we would have got promoted because we have confidence in the decisions we make, so we are now sitting on a football club with an asset base which is more than what we paid for it.
“Will we make money out of it? Probably, eventually at some point we will, and that might be sooner rather than later.
“But what I have said, and I said this right at the start, the club will be in a better position when we exit, if we exit.
“It will be in a better position, and nobody will be rattling buckets on our watch, trying to save the club.
“If we do bring a partner in, or somebody who wants to buy the club, they are going to have to show they can take the club further than we can.
“We are not egotistical, and if somebody has more funds to take the club forward, then fantastic.
“So, motivation-wise, it is sometimes hard to define what that is.
“But we like our football, we enjoy it, it is fun, and we think we are making a positive impact on people’s lives.
“I think we all saw 12 months ago just how important this football club is to people.
“We are watching Sky Sports the night we took over and people are celebrating in the car park, people are crying, and that is massive, it is really important.
“You see the kids on a Saturday and the excitement when they meet players, the excitement at meeting a Marc Richards or an Alex Revell, it is wonderful.”
How far do you think the club can go in the future?
“There is no ceiling in football, and there are the good examples of Swansea and Bournemouth.
“I think now you need a lot of investment to start thinking Premier League, I mean Bournemouth is a great story, but it probably took £50m.
“But look at Burton? They have done a fantastic job over there and you have to give them so much credit.
“That is a club not dissimilar in size to Northampton, maybe even smaller in some ways, so for us, why shouldn’t we push on?
“We are ambitious, and we want to go, but we are going to do things sensibly. It would be easy to blow money, but then you get right back to where you were.
“We are never going to compete off the pitch with some of these clubs, even in the championship. I mean, look at Newcastle United. How can you compete with them off the pitch?
“But we can compete on the pitch, and we have shown that and will show that.
“We went to Charlton and competed, we will go to Sheffield United and compete. We will hold our own, and we will be proud of what we do.”
So, a year on, are you happy you took over the Cobblers?
“Absolutely. It has been a great year, a fantastic year. It has been hard work and there has been a lot of effort, a lot of stress.
“But just getting to know people with a positive nature, this is just a good club. Everyone I know that come as guests, they all say ‘Northampton is a good club’. They says it’s a solid club, a family club, a friendly club, and that is important for us.
“We don’t want to be known as an arrogant club, we don’t want to be known as a negative club. This is a positive place to be, and I get that feeling now. It is good to go to work,
“I love going into the office, and seeing the how positive the people working there are.
“Realistically, it’s not about what we are doing, it’s about what people are doing in the buildling, the people that are there working hard.
“You have to give them credit, everyone from the stewards, to the groundstaff, to the volunteers and the programme sellers, we are trying to make things better, and they are out there working to do that. I can’t mention everybody, but I mean it.
“All the staff, all the part-timers, all the volunteers, and of course the fans who have been wonderful. It is great.”