The administrators trying to find a buyer for Wigan Athletic fear the club could become the next Macclesfield, because of the difficulty of finding willing investors during the pandemic.
Covid-19 was cited by Wigan’s Hong Kong owners as the reason for pulling the plug in the first place, plunging the club into administration and triggering a 12-point deduction that saw them relegated into League One, and Paul Stanley of the corporate recovery specialists Begbies Traynor admits that selling an empty stadium is a much harder task than dealing with a football sale in normal circumstances.
His comments come on a bleak day for lower-league football as Macclesfield, relegated from League Two in August, were wound up after a judge was told the club owe more than £500,000.
“The pandemic certainly isn’t doing us any favours,” Stanley said. “Wigan are similar to Macclesfield in some ways, and Bury and Bolton for that matter. They are all just a bit too close to the big teams in Manchester, and were finding it hard-going financially when their grounds were still open to fans. Macclesfield have just been wound up but they could have been saved had an investor come along with as little as £150,000 or so. The club could have been bought for that price, but evidently no one wanted it.”
Begbies Traynor is asking about £3.3m for Wigan, priced as a package to include stadium, team and a training ground. In normal times that would seem an attractive price for a side that stayed in the Premier League for eight seasons a decade ago and won the FA Cup as recently as 2013, but these are far from normal times and Stanley and his colleagues have not been trampled in the rush.
“That is the lowest possible price to allow sufficient funds to pay the remaining creditors,” Stanley said. “If new buyers are unable to do that there will be a further 15-point deduction under EFL rules. Most buyers would obviously want to avoid that, but if anyone out there is willing to take a 15-point penalty we could probably do a deal for just north of £2m. That is definitely cheap when you consider the club still has a few players who might be worth that much.”
Many Wigan supporters might take issue with that, for despite Stanley’s initial promise that there would be no firesale at the club, more than 10 players have been sold at bargain prices. At least that is what a group calling itself the Wigan Athletic Grievance Society believe. Some 40 or 50 of its members demonstrated outside the Begbies Traynor office in Manchester last Friday, upset by a perceived lack of clarity on the part of the administrators and the suspicion that assets including quality players such as Antonee Robinson, Joe Gelhardt, Nathan Byrne and Sam Morsy had been offloaded on the cheap, in essence amounting to a firesale.
“You have to remember that Wigan have been relegated since I made that first statement,” Stanley said. “As a Championship side they would have had a much better chance of retaining their best players. As a Championship player Robinson alone would have been worth anything between £3m and £6m, but when Wigan went into League One they were powerless to keep him because he had a clause in his contract that said he could leave for £1.9m in the event of relegation.
“We actually got £2m for him from Fulham, which was good going, but what we feel was our major achievement in keeping the club alive was negotiating with the Hong Kong owners to get them to waive the 25% of their original investment that new buyers would have been obliged to fund. We are just pleased that we managed to finish last season and start this one.
“I’m sorry if supporters think the process is taking too long, but it is complicated and this is simply not the best of times to be selling a lower-league club in the Greater Manchester area. What people must not forget is that even when Dave Whelan was still in charge, he was putting in £800,000 a month to keep going. ”