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Nov 18, 2010

Owls facing taxing times

After a decade of decline, the future of Sheffield Wednesday is likely to be decided within 14 days. It will be a relief for most fans - an end to the pain and torture of watching a once proud club disintegrate before their eyes.

The club has been run into the ground. From beating Manchester United in the League Cup final of 1991 - making them the last second-tier side to win a major trophy in England - and finishing third in the league in 1992, being a founder member of the Premier League and playing Arsenal in both cup finals of 1993, the Owls are now just a shell with debts approaching £30 million.

Wednesday have been bleeding to a slow and painful death for ten years. The fans have been driven away; the imagination and sense of occasion has gone from watching the club. Only a takeover can solve that now.

They are lounging in the third tier of English football for the second time since being relegated from the Premier League in 2000 - the first of the original Premiership 'elite' to suffer that fate - and, unlike 2003, there is no financial safety net to prop up the club this time.

It is impossible to chronicle here all the reasons the club are in this position today. That would take a book, which will surely one day be written once the dust of decay has settled.

As soon as relegation was confirmed on the final day of last season at a packed Hillsborough in front of 37,121, the warning signs were there. Lee Strafford, who arrived on the club's board in December 2008 to much fanfare and was appointed chairman the following month, was effectively forced to resign as the bitter realisation of the troubles ahead became clear.

The result now is a date at the High Court on December 1 when the club's total exposure in tax owed will amount to £1.4 million.

While Strafford looked to, in his own words, "fix" the club, he tried to move too fast. The money spent on new ticketing systems, as well as cancelling kit deals and other commercial arrangements to switch to more beneficial arrangements, may in the long run have proved a wise move, but there was no way that spending could survive the crash of relegation. That, and believing too much in a fan-base that had become as apathetic as the club itself.

Waging a bizarre online war with fans has hardly helped Strafford before or after his departure, while there clearly remains much ill feeling between him and those still running the club judging by his Facebook rants.

Strafford is not solely to blame for the situation the club finds itself in as the debt has grown from around £12 million in 2000, but he tried to run before he could walk and the reverberations from that have led to the current situation.

In the close season, the club were served with the first of what has totalled four winding-up orders from Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. The sale of goalkeeper Lee Grant to Burnley was thought to have cured the tax problem but, when the club stood before the High Court, more tax was already owed. A month later and the Co-op bank covered the bill in the belief that a takeover was imminent, which failed to materialise.

Within weeks, another winding-up order was served by the tax authorities but so confident were the club that an investment deal had been struck that, on the eve of the BBC's Football Focus cameras heading to Hillsborough, they announced £2 million had been immediately made available to pay off the remaining tax debts and see the club through their cash-flow problems.

That the £2 million never made it to the club's bank account only added to the general air of incompetence.

As seems to be the case with so many aborted football club takeovers, the money was not there after several broken promises. Chief executive Nick Parker was fuming outside the High Court on Wednesday about those who have approached the club without funds or used the media to try to further claims.

Strafford, who joined the board with the clear remit of bringing investment to the table, failed to attract investors. American group Club 9 Sports was one company which publically declared its interest in buying the Owls but eventually turned out not to have the necessary funds. That was the result of Strafford's attempts to trawl the States for money.

At this week's court hearing, the club were in effect 20 minutes from either administration or complete closure when Mr Registrar Jacques finally granted a 28 day adjournment due to exceptional circumstances stating: "You are clearly trading insolvently and you are very probably doing so using HMRC money." The tax man is desperate to make an example of a football club and in Sheffield Wednesday they almost had their sacrificial lamb.

While the judge granted 28 days, Wednesday will be back in court on December 1 over an unpaid VAT bill, so only two weeks remain to find a saviour.

December 1 will be a line in the sand for the incumbents, an end to a horrific era from which surely those who are to blame can never return no matter who owns the club.

Strafford's approach to running a football club may have been flawed, but the historical blame lies at the door of directors Ken Cooke, Bob Grierson and Geoff Hulley, who have presided over the entire decline. BBC Radio Sheffield telephoned Hulley ten days ago, who was on holiday in France, and he seemingly had no knowledge of what was going on within the company or what measures were being taken to safeguard its future. He eventually hung up saying that the traffic was too bad for him to talk, the whole episode encapsulating the inertia that had swirled around the corridors of power at the South Yorkshire club for far too long.

The hopes of a reprieve for this once truly great club, whose Hillsborough home is one of the last, great traditional football stadia, may now lie with Spencer Fearn plus new fans' group Wednesday 'Til I Die (WTID).

Fearn is fresh from transforming Scottish Third Division side East Stirlingshire from the whipping boys of the game north of the border - they finished bottom of the league ladder five years in a row with 21 wins from 180 games - to a side capable of challenging for promotion before he resigned at the end of last season. In his last two seasons at Ochilview Park, they lost out in the semi-finals of the play-offs.

A Wednesday fan, he does not have the finances to personally rescue the club from such a financial hole. He can, however, with the help of WTID, assist in attracting other wealthy fans in the area as well as galvanising the fan-base to try to finance a desperate rescue package.

Fearn is the preferred bidder of all those to have shown their hand of late. Wednesday fans have had enough of supposed oil companies and rich foreign investors. That is no longer a viable solution and the only way this club will get back on its feet is with the removal of the old guard and with someone to return it to the community-based club it once was before the millions of the Premier League twisted it beyond recognition.

Football at Wednesday has become so politicised over the last ten years that any solution seems to have been more about who is better than who rather than who has the best-laid plans. Bickering has been favoured over sense and sensibility.

But there comes a time when the in-fighting must stop and all those factions have to come together as one. If not then Wednesday risk imploding after 143 years as a professional football club.

Wednesday were once seen as a sleeping giant; now they are nothing more than an after-thought on the football map. Only investment can change that perception.

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