By John Southern
The pre-meeting chat was of anti-Wray graffiti that had appeared overnight "all over" Vicarage Road. Later that day, as I was driven past the ground, I could see none. There may well be grafitti on parts of the ground I couldn't see. It was obvious, however, that graffiti was most definitely not "all over" Vicarage Road. This is a small, but significant example of the kind of hysteria that is running through some of the club's support.
I went to the meeting to get one thing clear in my mind. What exactly did Mr Wray do at Nottingham Forest that was so bad and should I be concerned about his involvement in Watford F.C.?
Let's get one thing crystal clear. I have no particular like, or dislike, for Nigel Wray. I have listened to a lot of speculation and demonising but precious little fact. I may well be (no, definitely am) naive in the ways of big business.
The meeting had a relatively high turnout for a Sunday morning. I recognised most of the faces, some were new to me. At the top table were Hazel from W.I.S.A., Simon Banks from Football Investors, a fan from W.I.S.A. unknown to myself (or others around me) who acted as Chairman. He was a very good Chairman, being both professional and impartial. Also present was a Nottingham Forest fan, who had given up his Sunday morning (along with a friend) to address the meeting. A public and grateful thankyou to you both.
The meeting opened with a statement from the Forest fan about Nigel Wray's spell with Forest. As I took no notes, I apologise for any discrepancies. These are my observations and not the official minutes of the meeting.
Nigel Wray became involved with Forest when the club were in a bit of financial bother. Having a debt in excess of fifteen million pounds, Nigel Wray set about attacking the debt, by one method or another. The intention of this altruistic behaviour was, allegedly, to float the club on the stock market. This happened during a period when football was seen as a good investment and Forest, for one reason or another, were seen as possible candidates for floatation.
All seemed to be going swimmingly well up to this point. It was when shares in Forest were offered for sale that alarm bells rang. The fans (and some professional friends of fans) believed a share price of around thirty pence to be fair. The offer price was seventy pence or thereabouts. It was suggested that for this reason the sum raised fell way short of the expected total.
It is possible that this was the turning point in relations between Mr Wray and the Forest fans. May I add at this point that the representative from Forest did not hold Nigel Wray wholly responsible for the plight of Forest. There were the ubiquitous boardroom shenanigans and other players in the game, with less than blot-free copy books.
The signs all pointed toward a club in turmoil off the field. Investors were reluctant to commit money to the club for players. It was alleged that Nigel Wray's involvement with Forest was carried out via fax. In conclusion, matters deteriorated until one party became dominant and the club stabilised. It was suggested that this occurred after Nigel Wray had severed connections with Forest. The split was fairly acrimonious with Nigel Wray, reportedly calling the Forest fans "hypocritical". I presume for not putting their money where their mouths were.
By all accounts, Nigel Wray left Forest in a better financial position than when he arrived. It was speculated (although not officially confirmed) that he took a loss at Forest in excess of a million.
The Forest fan then fielded questions from the floor and the discussion, for some reason, swung across to speculation about a new ground for Watford F.C. A number of speakers argued for and against proposals for a new ground. Everyone was agreed on one key point. If we must move, it must be a move within Watford.
Simon Banks from Football Investors was called on to speak and he raised a number of points. Most interesting from my point of view was the call from the club for some inward capital investment. The club are seeking a new investor who is able to stump up five million pounds. Of this five million, half will be used to repay the Petchey debt. Hands up those of you with five million to spare? Hmmm, not many, now hands up those who would like to personally give Jack Petchey half of it? You can see the problem with that one.
Mr Banks could not divulge the contents of the club's prospectus document, for legal reasons. He could talk about things that were not in the document, however. Most obvious was the paucity of information regarding the proposed move to a new ground. He thought it strange that if you were trying to attract a new investor into the club, why not mention proposals for a move to a new centre of sporting excellence?
Simon also pointed out another potential stumbling block. Your five million would get you a third share in Watford F.C. Owning a third of Watford would bar you from owning a stake in any other football club. The trend seems to be going toward small stakes, in a lot of clubs. Just a point to be borne in mind.
He also made reference to the most important point of the meeting, in my humble opinion. The club has the lease on Vicarage Road until the year 2018. At this moment in time, with Saracens effectively paying the rent, why move? Our new found Premiership status along with modest development plans could secure the future of Watford Football Club for a long time to come. Why do we need to speculate about multi-sport complexes and retail parks? We are told that this is the way forward, but why now?
Simon also raised doubts about the need for football clubs to diversify. Isn't football good enough to stand on its own two feet? He made no particular recommendations regarding Watford, or its situation. But he did make two observations. The first has already been mentioned, Watford own the lease at Vicarage Road. A situation that a lot of clubs would like to be in. The second was equally straightforward. The minority shareholders in the club would have a greater voice, if they pooled their resources and acted in unity through an elected representative. Points were made from the floor regarding small shareholder apathy in general.
Hazel then concluded the meeting by reading out some correspondence from an Enfield supporter, cautioning us about dealing with Saracens. The author claimed that Saracens had modified Enfield's ground to such an extent that it no longer met with the required minimum standards for their league. He claimed that Saracens had verbally promised to make good their modifications but had reneged on that verbal commitment. As a consequence, Enfield were facing expulsion from the league and ultimately ruin. This was, of course, the view of an Enfield supporter, with no-one from Saracens being able to defend these accusations.
Hazel asked for a show of hands to support a proposal for a face to face meeting with Nigel Wray. If he was amenable. This was unanimously accepted. Mention was also made of the need for all Watford supporters to remain vigilant. I sloped off shortly after this, as the West Herts had been open for three quarters of an hour and I could no longer resist its siren call!
On a personal note, I was a little disappointed with the meeting. I was no further forward regarding Nigel Wray as a person, or his intentions for the club. A number of footballing clichés were in evidence. A general mistrust of 'big business' also. Is Nigel Wray good or bad news? The simple fact is, I still don't know. However, as I don't see a queue of people wanting to put money into the club, can we afford to ignore him?
Graham Taylor's name was mentioned on numerous occasions, as you would expect. One speaker described him as "One of the most moral persons he had ever met", a sentiment with which I would heartily agree. GT has, I believe, signed a new contract with Watford. Therefore it all comes down to one point (in my book at least). If Nigel Wray is good enough for GT, he's good enough for me.