Editor’s Column: Widnes fans rally round the club in fight for its future

James Gordon

Sitting asking questions in a press conference about my team entering administration wasn’t something that had crossed my mind when working towards being a sports journalist.

On Friday, that was an unpleasant experience to go through as it was confirmed that Widnes, at the instruction of outgoing chief executive and director James Rule, were being placed in to administration with less than £1,000 in the bank.

Though it didn’t even kick in until Saturday afternoon, after the club’s unpaid staff received the green light from the administrators to promote, the fundraising to help save Widnes has been extraordinary, including the most incredible donation of £10,000 from fan Matt Taylor, who I had the pleasure of speaking to while doing my bit to help out at the stadium on Sunday.

There are many questions about how Widnes have got in to this situation. They have been in administration before back in 2007, having failed in successive years to earn promotion back to Super League, and after being knocked back less than a year later in the first cycle of licensing, they would return to the top flight ahead of the 2012 season.

A dismal first year was followed up by the signing of Kevin Brown and they gradually improved, reaching the play-offs for the first ever time in 2014, and also finishing in the top eight in 2016.

But off the field, the abolition of the licensing system coincided with a downturn seemingly in interest from the so-called custodians of the club.

Disgraced former Hull CEO Rule was brought in back in 2012, despite still having nine-months of a ban to serve for a drugs cover up involving Martin Gleeson, and while painting a rosy picture to the press, his peers at other Super League clubs and the community organisations he was apparently so good at gaining funding from, the truth was quite the opposite.

Disengaged supporters groups, individual fans and sponsors have all turned away from a club that was world champion 30 years ago this year, as a result of patronising statements, desperation for money, receiving the blame for the underspending and lack of transparency.

All the while, the club were still able to pay rumoured six-figure salaries to Rule and two other club directors, and at the same time paying significantly below the Super League salary cap, much to the angst of the fans, which ultimately resulted in their relegation in 2018, having come incredibly close just 12 months earlier.

So despite taking the Super League purse, which includes the majority of a parachute payment afforded to the club following their relegation, and underspending for several years on the salary cap, the club somehow still found itself in significant debt and the truth behind that may yet be discovered when the administrators are able to scrutinise the accounts.

A lot of comparisons has been made to Bradford, though this situation is different. The Bulls were issued a winding up order by HMRC, which meant the £1m figure they needed to raise was to cover the debt, whereas this isn’t the case at Widnes.

To my knowledge, none of the creditors of Widnes are pushing for their money back or to close the club; instead the decision was made by Rule to bring in administrators because he’s “at the end of his tether”.

What about Phil Finney, the Vikings’ Performance Director who has established and run the Vikings successful academy for the past decade, and has been left to pick up the pieces while the club’s millionaire owners disappeared in to the sunset; having to front a press conference alongside an administrator and explain to players, fans and sponsors what’s going on, while also doing what he can to save his hometown club.

All this while being unpaid. Both Finney and fellow Widnes champion Dave Rolt were emotional while addressing fans at a meeting on Sunday evening. These are the people that make rugby league what it is. They care about Widnes from the ground up.

The money being donated to Widnes is being ringfenced in a separate account with the hope that it can support any new owner or consortium taking over the club. At least one consortium is in discussions with the administrators, and the increased positivity and support from fans and local businesses over the weekend has certainly buoyed any takeover talks.

The trouble for Widnes is time is not on their side. This hasn’t happened out of season where you might have a bit longer to sort things out. They have games to play, including this Sunday against Featherstone. It’s clear that the administrators won’t allow the situation to go on unless it can be proved that someone, be it a consortium or the fans, can take over the club and ensure its survival beyond this weekend and beyond the end of the season.

One thing is for sure – it’s not the fans who are to blame for this fiasco.

You donate to the Widnes “Save Our Club” fund by visiting viqi.co.uk