Harchester United – the circus comes to Mansfield Town

With Aldershot’s promotion all but confirmed from the Blue Square Premier, the race is on to see who’ll drop down, and there’s a strong possibility Harchester United could take their place in the non-league top flight. But anybody looking for Harchester on the map will be hard pressed to find it. Harchester, you see, doesn’t yet exist in the real world but if the efforts of one John Batchelor are successful, it won’t be long before a soap opera literally becomes part of football.

The name Harchester United may sound familiar to Sky One viewers. The name John Batchelor will probably only be familiar to hardcore racing enthusiasts and York City supporters. Both are equally flamboyant and tend to take fans on a swift rollercoaster before leaving a mess behind them. This mess looks likely to end up at the gates of Mansfield Town.

Fiction meets rebranding

Harchester United were a fictional club on Sky’s Dream Team, a soap opera set at a football club. The show was axed last year due to falling viewer figures, but still retains an online fanbase of about 20,000. By changing Mansfield’s name to Harchester United, it’s these twenty thousand John Batchelor claims he’ll be able to tap into if his proposed purchase of Mansfield Town from current owner Keith Haslam goes ahead. To Batchelor, it makes perfect sense:

“Football supporters in general have to understand that if they want professional football in their town, they have to accept it has to be done on a commercial basis. Harchester is more promotable than Mansfield. That’s not any form of insult to Mansfield at all because it’s a club with a long tradition but it’s just a fact of life.

“One club has been on the television for 10 years and the other one hasn’t.”

Notwithstanding one being fictional, with a loose fanbase scattered around the country, and one has a loyal hardcore and history dating back over 110 years and is actually on TV every week with the Championship Goals on ITV1. But then John Batchelor’s never been adverse to making daft-sounding name changes if he thinks it will get him a bit of extra cash. In his days as a racing driver he changed his name by deed poll to John Top-Gear and John B&Q to attract more sponsorship, and during his stint as chairman of York City, the Ministermen were renamed York City Soccer Club to make them more appealing to American investors.

All this could be brushed off as the whims of one in a long line of eccentric chairman populating boardrooms across the country. But of more worry to Mansfield fans is the state Batchelor left the finances of York City. After buying the club for £1, he then took the York into administration, as well as pocketing hundreds of thousands from a deal between ex-chairman Douglas Craig and Persimmon Homes over the sale of the club’s ground, Bootham Crescent. It was only thanks to the club’s Supporters’ Trust that York didn’t go bust, and it was the supporters who managed to eventually buy the ground back.

Not that Batchelor has offered many reassurances to worried Mansfield fans. Indeed, in an interview with the town’s local paper, his candidness is almost as astonishing as his plans for the club:

“Let’s be clear, I want a football club, preferably one in the league. The ONLY reason that I want it is to make money, the only reason that I want to do that is to look after my immediate family. I can only do that by making it work on the pitch and as a result making it work commercially. This would be MY club, if you like what you see come and watch, if you don’t, then stay away. I am not even interested in discussing it with “fans”, however, I will talk to customers anytime.”

With comments like these, along with his past record at York and the renaming plans, in less than a week he’s managed to achieve a feat most Mansfield fans would have considered impossible – becoming more unpopular than current owner Keith Haslam.

The million pound chairman

Fifteen years ago, Haslam took over the Stags promising Championship football. Despite one brief promotion to the old Second Division (League One), the club now occupies one of the relegation places at the bottom of League Two and it seems likely they’ll be playing in the Blue Square Premier next season. In the meantime, there’s the small matter of over half a million pounds their chairman owes the team.

Since taking over at Field Mill, Keith Haslam has taken out, in total, over a million pounds in loans from Mansfield Town, either personally or to his holding company Stags Limited. Of the personal loans to Haslam, which are illegal under company law, accounts show that £239,297 have been written off, meaning Mansfield will never see that money again. The £585,728 loaned to Stags Limited in order to purchase land for a training facility and youth academy is still outstanding. The facilities have never been built.

In 1996 Haslam claimed not to be taking an kind of salary from Mansfield Town. Accounts showed he took £30,000 that year, while his current salary is around £70,000. During Haslam’s ownership, the club had to work under a transfer embargo, on and off for about three seasons (a situation he claimed was perfectly normal) while between 1994 and 1997, Haslam managed to hold just one legally required annual general meeting.

Haslam’s advocates, including local MP Alan Meale, point to the redevelopment of a badly run-down Field Mill in 2003 into an all-seater stadium. This was done with heavy grants from the old Football Trust and two years later, the reconstituted Football Stadium Improvement Fund suspended Mansfield for three years from receiving any further money due to concerns over the validity of a grant application.

Despite repeated claims he was ready to sell up, it was only as recently as two weeks that Stags fans were cautiously optimistic that their million-pound-loaned owner would be finally leaving their club, with negotiations between Haslam and current chairman James Derry at advance stage. But these fell through and, with Mansfield fans believing it couldn’t get any worse, John Batchelor rode into town.

Enter the clown and soap-opera-cum-circus

Batchelor has been on a strange kind of charm offensive since details of his bid emerged, if by charm you mean a massive publicity campaign, alienating most hardcore Mansfield supporters, and giving out his phone number on radio show. Several supporters have called him. None have managed to dissuade him from pressing ahead with his purchase, although he generously offered the concession that he wouldn’t change the name to Harchester United if Field Mill was filled every week.

The situation with Field Mill is also causing great alarm among the Stags faithful. Keith Haslam had been demanding £275,000 rent every year for ten years, reduced to £175,000 if the club got relegated, to anybody who brought his majority shareholding for £1. It’s not clear how Haslam’s half a million pound loan would be repaid as part of this purchase.

But if Batchelor wants the ground and the as-yet-unbuilt training facilities, he’ll have to stump up around £4 million, which he intends to raise through remortgaging Field Mill. Batchelor claims this is the only way to rid Mansfield of Haslam once and for all, but if anything this could be even more dangerous financially for the Stags.

If Haslam remains as landlord and Batchelor fails to pay then rent, then ownership would revert to Haslam. This would be a far from ideal scenario for Mansfield fans but is infinitely preferable to the second possibility, if Batchelor buys the ground outright on a mortgage. Any defaulting on payments could lead whichever bank the money’s been borrowed from to repossess Field Mill, leaving Mansfield homeless, with a worst case scenario of sending the club into liquidation.

The Football League may take a dim view on Mansfield being turned into Harchester, but the Conference is much more laid back abut name changes. Were Mansfield to turn into the fictional dream, even the script-writers on the show may have difficulty coming up with a plot as far-fetched as to what’s currently going on at Field Mill.

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