I am pleased to be able to announce that the Club has now managed to conclude its business with the remaining two players to mutually terminate their contracts.
The last five months have been extremely difficult ones and I would like to place on record my gratitude for the unwavering and unequivocal support of my fellow board of directors Mike Latham, Jason Huyton, Steve Openshaw and Matthew Chantler whilst we put the future of the Club at the expense of our personal reputations to be able to reach this point.
I would like to thank the players and backroom staff for agreeing to terminate their contracts to enable the Club to continue and rebuild and I apologise to them for the manner in which I have had to conduct myself with them in order to achieve this. I would also like to thank the understanding sponsors and supporters whom have had to be kept in the dark but have refrained from being over critical and continued to pledge their support whilst understandably being concerned.
Most of all I would like to thank my wife, my children and my close family and friends for their unconditional love and support during this tough period, having to endure seeing and hearing vile and disgusting comments about me, not to mention many mistruths, whilst watching the effects of the situation take its toll on me. I haven’t personally been as affected by comments like them as I haven’t got social media accounts that are active although I have missed the use of them.
My aim, supported by the board, was to keep the Club in its current format as a viable business that could continue without the need for a benefactor once the required investment became too big for me personally and no others were forthcoming. When I embarked on this journey it wasn’t by choice; it was because I stood by a gentleman’s agreement from a handshake with the late Arthur Thomas who acquired my shares when I left in 2005 on the basis that I would acquire his under the same terms if the Club ever became a burden to him or his family. At that time the Club was in extreme difficulty. It had contracts with players it could not fulfil long term and was unable to pay them their salary that was due that month. Furthermore, it faced proceedings from HMRC which would ultimately finish it and had various creditors. People’s circumstances change and that had happened to Arthur, having put far in excess of two million pounds into the Club during his tenure.
At that point the Club was stabilised. I paid the players and we established a board which over time eventually changed and shaped into the current board. Each and every one of them played an important part along the way and I thank them all for their invaluable input of time and/or money during whatever length of period they served the Club. Once involved again I had a real desire to get the Club back to Super League where I had left it. I had always felt I had unfinished business when I left in 2005 and I was in a better financial position to do it this time round. With a plan in place we embarked on what I can only describe as an amazing experience, winning three Championship winner’s shields, appearing in two Challenge Cup quarter-finals and gaining automatic promotion to Super League.
It wasn’t easy and there were lots of issues along the way that one day I hope to cover in a book. But we did it and it was a dream come true for us all and that magical day on the pitch at LSV in front of all the fans is one of my greatest memories and one I will always treasure. Unfortunately, whilst having a great time in Super League, reaching our first ever away win against Hull and scoring 50 against Wigan at home whilst also beating Saints and Warrington, we were unable to retain our Super League status despite not finishing bottom and were relegated. This was a real low point and a very difficult period in my life working with Jukesy and Matthew having to terminate contracts so that the business could continue.
That time it was actually easier to achieve as there was protection within the contracts to enable the Club to terminate, unlike this time which meant it never had to face the issues it currently has had to face of going out of business but none the less it was a horrible process to go through. Then came the parachute payment from Super League which softened the blow somewhat although we still knew the attendances would drop and the commercial income as well.
We recruited on a lower budget to accommodate this and with the parachute I agreed to continue to invest to mount a return challenge to Super League. Everyone was talking up our signings and the squad we had. There was never a guarantee of a return to Super League so there was a risk that had to be considered on entering into contracts longer than that year which the quality of players we were signing were insisting upon. If we didn’t make Super League, we would lose the £500k parachute but I agreed with the board that I was prepared to cover that risk as we would have some contracts expiring so it wouldn’t be quite as bad as that which would have been on top of what I was already having to put in.
It was a risk but a calculated one and one I was prepared to take as otherwise we had no realistic prospect of a return to Super League. Also, the parachute had to be spent, along with the £750k central funding on players’ salaries alone.
What we never ever contemplated for a split second was the risk to the business of not making the top four and losing another £500k which is what happened to us. I continually fight this over in my head. Did we miss something? Should we have considered this? With the benefit of hindsight, yes but I never thought for one minute the team we had would not make the top two, never mind the top four. I always look back, learn from something and apply it going forward but when I look back if we had considered the risk it couldn’t have made any difference as if we didn’t spend on the players, we didn’t get the parachute. So, no matter how you slice it we would have been losing £1million of central funding above my commitment which is more than I am prepared to invest so it wouldn’t have been a risk I could have taken.
So what measures then would I have put in place? In a competitive environment for signatures, especially the key ones, you need to be giving security, especially to the overseas players who are uprooting their families to the other side of the world. I recall seeing one critic of me write in the trade press I should have had a clause in the contracts to terminate if we didn’t make the top four. That individual is unlikely to have dealt with an agent for an overseas NRL player before as, to the contrary, they demanded that the contract was still valid if the Club didn’t return to Super League with them having the right to leave if they got a Super League club and we hadn’t been promoted, so chucking in there ‘by the way this gets shredded if we don’t make the four’ was never going to be an option. No matter how I look back, I keep coming up with that we would have had to back ourselves to be making the four.
In the end we didn’t make the four and I have taken full responsibility for that. There was an immediate threat to the viability of the business and I and the board acted immediately to safeguard the Club’s future to the best of our ability, always acting in the Club’s best interests. Despite the fierce criticism and accusations that I believe have been made about me and the board, I believe we have done a remarkable job to get the club from a payroll of £2.2m plus employers’ NI, facing liquidation, which was legally advised to us in the first instance, to the position it is in now.
It is believed that many clubs exist during this period on season ticket sales for the following year, hence the early bird offers. It is also believed that they exist on sponsorship revenue paid at this time for the following year. Indeed, that has certainly been the case at Leigh in the past. Whilst the future of the Club remained uncertain and we were negotiating our way through the difficulties, it would not have been appropriate to generate income from loyal fans and sponsors. I always remained committed to see this through to steer the Club back to a part time club that could exist off its fans and sponsors, providing it could get a good deal from the council for the amazing stadium it plays in, but ultimately that wasn’t totally in my control unless I could alleviate the Club of the contracts it could no longer fulfil.
Once it became close with the remaining two players and we could see the potential for a future, we had to plan for a future which was then put on stop by being placed under special measures by the RFL, but we planned ahead and set realistic budgets that stacked up.
We now have an enthusiastic, young head coach who is really passionate about the town and its fans and have a squad being built around our home-grown hero Martyn Ridyard with more now to be announced over the coming days, now that it is appropriate to do so. The very fact Martyn has returned should put people right about their wild accusations over his departure and my relationship with him, but I gave up worrying about that some time ago.
So a little battered and bruised and extremely exhausted with rugby work and commitments I am able to remove myself from the Club and leave it in the capable hands of the remaining board of directors without owing anybody anything significant, save for AB Sundecks with a solid, sustainable budget which is self-sufficient and money in the bank, not having taken a penny in revenue from fans or sponsors. This means that every penny now introduced to the Club is to the benefit of its future not historic debt.
Contrary to what people may think of me and the board we know the facts. We know the details and the extensive work that has had to be done to get to this point. We know the significant money I have invested and the time that all of us have offered up to the detriment of our own businesses and family life and to have achieved this in the face of fierce and vile criticism when it would have been easier to walk away makes it all the more rewarding.
The Club can now announce more players and continue to recruit and I will ensure I complete this process with John which is almost done. It can sell sponsorship and season tickets and be as successful as the fans and sponsors make it. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, full of ups and downs, but many good times and the fans have had the pleasure of that off the back of my money and with no damage to the Club.
I leave it at this point in a significantly better place than I found it and I am proud of what I have managed to achieve, but it is now time for me to concentrate on my business and spend time with my family without the stress and heartache of the Club. I will always be a fan and will always be a sounding board for Duffs and the board and I may even sponsor the odd game and turn up at some away games, providing I am not made to feel unwelcome.
The Club is safe and can prosper. It is up to the people of the town to now come out and support it so that it can thrive and look to mount a challenge towards the top of the table. I fully believe that Duffs will guide the Club into one of the last places of the play-offs with the squad that is being put together and he knows where I am at all times, as do the board of directors.
Maybe he and the players can re-ignite a spark in me to significantly invest again in the future as I remain capable of doing so but right now I don’t have the appetite. But I never say never and part of me still feels like it isn’t over, but I must remove myself from a position that has an adverse effect on my family as they mean more to me than any success or any amount of money.
I will part with this thought. The town has a benefactor bigger than me who is a massive fan that can get the club into Super League with ease. That person is YOU. If the 3,000 people who turned up last season can all convince one person to become a fan, which isn’t a big job, then you have an additional £500k of income through the turnstiles and a budget for a squad that once Toronto have got promoted will win the League and a place in Super League.
It is easier for 3,000 people to convince one person each than one person to convince 3,000 and in the end when we were in Super League, we had an average of 6,000. So they are out there and it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one person each.
I wish John, Ando and Micky every success on the field and trust Matt, Jason, Steve and Mike to continue their outstanding work for which I am extremely grateful to them while I take a back seat and I collectively wish all of them and each and every sponsor and spectator, even the rudest and most critical, a very healthy and prosperous New Year and the best of luck for 2019.
Yours in sport