Oh what a lovely war – from Billy to Gilly
As we enter the final month of the Northern League season with the closest title race in prospect for some years, I turned over the season in my mind in one of those rare idle moments that circumstances have allowed and realised, that for much of it, it has been rather like living in a war zone.
We opened with the impending “fight to the death” between Billingham Town and Hartlepool United. Before that my pre-season journies had included a friendly at Gretna 2008 FC (as they are now called) – a name which would take on more meaning as the season progressed.
In a moment of weakness I had offered my services as legal representative to Billingham Town. The first skirmish had occurred on May 18th when a handful of club faithfuls plus outgoing manager Peter Mulcaster turned up for the first hearing of the winding up petition which could have killed off the club. Hartlepool had a solicitor and Russ Green – hardly missable at the best of times but conspicuous by his absence from the court room and, for the most part, the court building. Whether he thought there wasn’t room for the two of us in the cramped room or simply couldn’t look the Billy lads in the eye will never be known. Playing the long game, we kicked the final hearing back to 27th October.
As the early season progressed, news began to emerge that Gillford Park were having problems with their landlords, the Railway Club. Health and safety, so it was said, although there were rumours of other clubs being interested in the ground including Gretna. News was sparse, home games were switched to opponents’ grounds. Our next match will be at home was the regular pronouncement, but it never was. Eventually they made arrangements – ultimately frustrated by the weather – to play at Gretna 2008 FC. Yes, the self same Gretna from pre-season.
Back at Billingham and shortly before 27th October we had a summit meeting at Bedford Terrace. Just four of us – myself, Tommy Donnelly, Peter Martin and Glenn Youngman. Peter asked about mobilising the press. “Good idea” was the universal cry. Within the week Peter has arranged a five minute slot on the Saturday teatime edition of Look North, as well as coverage on the ITV news and various local papers.
With two days to go to D-day, Hartlepool played their joker. Former chief executive Russ Green re-appeared with a proposal that an anonymous businessman would pay off the debt. Tom Donnelly rejected it out of hand. Green’s next proposal was that Hartlepool would take over the lease of Bedford Terrace. No chance.
On the morning of the hearing the press were out in force together with an army of Northern League fans clad in team colours. From as far north as Bedlington to as far south as Guisborough fans turned up to show their support for the Billy boys. Even Spennymoor Town manager Jason Ainsley put in an appearance. Respect.
Hartlepool couldn’t wait to get out of court. They wanted the hearing adjourned so we could “negotiate”. An ever astute judge guided as towards a hearing on 23rd December – the last working day before Christmas. If we had chosen a date for David to fight Goliath, we couldn’t have done better.
The “negotiations” never materialised. Hartlepool ducked out of a meeting at 20 minutes notice. Then went silent.
Finally at 11.39 a.m on 22nd December the end arrived with a terse fax from Hartlepool’s solicitors: “… we have received notification that a third party is willing to make a payment in full of all sums claimed under the winding up petition”. Billy Town was saved.
Since then I have often been asked if I believe that there really was a third party. Of course there was, just like there are fairies at the bottom of my garden.
If I thought that was it I was wrong. After a month to catch breath, it was on to Gillford Park. Gilly had been corresponding with their landlords through solicitors for six months and getting nowhere. I arranged to meet Gillford chairman Donald Cameron at the ground so that I would get an idea of the lie of the land. Being used to looking at crime scenes in unfashionable areas, I discreetly parked out of sight and had a look at the ground from outside. Donald was not so experienced and parked in the middle of the car park. Within ten minutes we were circled by a police van. Just an unfortunate co-incidence and nothing to do with the landlords, I am sure.
We discussed a “plan B” just in case. One possibility was Gretna – yes, that Gretna! Things went quiet for a while as plan B was considered and then Donald gave the instruction to go. By that time there were still at least 16 home games to play and time was running out if the season was to be completed before the league had no alternative but to expel them.
The landlords were given seven days “or else”. No response from them, obviously running down the clock so Gillford would be thrown out of the league. On day eight they got “or else” – an injunction order from the Carlisle County Court ordering them in effect to let Gillford back into the ground.
The landlords wouldn’t leave it. The day before the first match of the season at the club’s own ground, they turned up at court to try to overturn the injunction. Tried and failed. The next morning the water main mysteriously turned itself back on and plastic fittings pulled themselves apart, causing the home changing room to flood. Undeterred, the Gilly guys mopped out the changing room so the game could go ahead.
Then came the landlords’ jokers. Two police officers arrived to remove player manager Steve Skinner from the ground. Steve had been banned from the Railway Club itself for a passing conversation in Tesco in which he told the truth. A heated twenty minutes or so later the police officers departed, Skinner stayed and the landlords were fuming. “Who does he think he is ?” said the Chairman of the Railway Club to the police about Gillford’s legal representative.
Peace having been restored, the game continued. At a further hearing on the following Monday the injunction order was clarified and football will continue at Gillford Park without hindrance for the rest of the season.
By the time you read this Gillford will have played approximately half of those 16 games. No mention any more of health and safety issues. No need for postponements because they can’t get into the ground. So why couldn’t they play at their own ground earlier? On the face of it, no reason at all. But the definitive answer will have to wait until next season when the Railway Club tells us.
Job done, for this season anyway.
Best moment? It is difficult to decide between the moment the fax from Hartlepool arrived announcing their surrender and the moment that Gillford Park were granted the injunction order.
Most amusing moment? Being nicknamed “The Enforcer” by Northern Echo reporter Ray Simpson. I wish!
Most bizarre moment? Arguing with those police officers who wanted to remove Steve Skinner from the ground. And I won the day !
Most satisfying moment? Proving the Chairman of the Northern League wrong! In an unguarded moment he did let slip to me that he’d doubted that Billingham Town would be saved.
Many thanks to Richard Bloomfield for providing this article. One-time legal counsel for Frank McAvennie, Richard is an ex-Whitley Bay PA announcer and criminal lawyer who offered his services to Billingham Town after learning of their plight online. What modesty prevents Richard from making clear is that he represented both Billingham Town – where both Gary Pallister and Notts County midfielder Neal Bishop started their careers – and Gilford Park at no cost to either club, helping to save both from either extinction or, in Gilford Park’s case, at the very least expulsion from the Northern League.