Croydon Athletic fans fear that their club may not survive the week.
Croydon won their latest Ryman Premier League game 2-1 at Carshalton yesterday, but many Rams fans were subdued and some took exception to the unusual level of national media interest in a game attended by less than 350 supporters on a bank holiday.
Croydon Athletic’s millionaire property developer owner, Mazhar Majeed, was arrested on Sunday in connection with allegations in the News of the World that he paid members of the Pakistan cricket team to deliver no balls to order in the Lord’s Test match against England as part of a spot betting scam. He was one of three arrests, one of the others being a 35-year-old woman from Croydon. Majeed was released on bail late on Sunday.
Majeed was conspicuous by his absence from yesterday’s match, while his former co-owner, Ron Price, slipped away from the ground before the final whistle, apparently to elude reporters.
“Vultures from the media at the match today, it may well be the last before we’re kicked out the league,” one Rams fan Tweeted.
And in an interview with The Guardian, Croydon Athletic’s manager Tim O’Shea suggested that without the financial backing from Majeed, the club will be in jeopardy. “Maybe in the next 24 to 48 hours we’ll find out,” O’Shea said.
Majeed, 35, who lives in a £1.8 million house in one of Croydon’s plushest neighbourhoods, had been secretly filmed accepting £150,000 in cash from the News of the World‘s undercover reporters in return for the information on the no balls, which proved to be unerringly accurate.
Majeed also introduced the journalists to members of the Pakistan team earlier in the tour. Although he claims to be a players’ agent, he has no official registration as such.
Majeed was released without charge after being questioned by specialist police economic crime unit investigators for 24 hours.
But his admission to the Sunday newspaper’s undercover reporters that he had only bought Croydon Athletic as a means to launder cash from similar betting scams has rung alarm bells at the club, which is still recovering from the shock last month of its former chairman being jailed for three years for a £500,000 fraud unconnected with the latest allegations.
Police face possibly months of forensic accountancy work, poring through the books of 26 different companies set up by Majeed in the past decade.
All but six of Majeed’s companies were set up on the same day in April 2008 – just a couple of months before he acquired Croydon Athletic.
Of these companies, just three are still trading – an ice cream parlour called Afters Tooting Ltd and two development vehicles called Capital Investments No 2 and Capital Investments No 17.
Two of the firms formerly run by Majeed had assets worth more than £1 million seized by receivers after running into financial difficulties.
His Bluesky property development business in South Croydon has a bookmaker’s shop and two bank branches in its portfolio, but it appears to have struggled since the recession. Majeed is owed more than £160,000 by the company.
Majeed became co-owner of Croydon Athletic FC in July 2008, and at the same time was director of a short-lived company called Metrocroft (CAFC) Ltd. Another firm of his, Metrocroft Consultants Ltd, made unspecified investments of £1,024,104.
Given his general business circumstances, however, it makes Majeed’s purchase of Croydon Athletic all the more inexplicable.
While other clubs at this level of English football tend to operate on a near-amateur basis, with barely any payment to their players, Croydon Athletic have been able to hire a manager, O’Shea, the former Gillingham professional, reputedly full-time, while also using the services of a dietician and sports psychologist.
When a rival club went into receivership last season and was docked 10pts in the Ryman League 1 South, Croydon Athletic’s fans saw their side win promotion with ease.
The squad has included a string of former Football League professionals or youngsters plucked from top clubs’ academies.
Yesterday, the team had veteran defender Jermaine Wright, who last season was playing in the Blackpool side that won promotion to the Premiership, along with former Millwall player Joe Dolan.
O’Shea denies that he has made “big money” signings. “My budget is competitive,” he said.
With most clubs at the Rams’ level of football usually run by volunteers, and where their main source of income is through the bar, such signings nonetheless defy non-league economics.
Non-league clubs in Croydon Athletic’s league can operate on an average weekly wage bill of less than £1,200. Yet even before they won promotion, Croydon Athletic was estimated to be spending seven times that amount, while also running a programme of ground improvements that include the installation of an electronic scoreboard that would be the envy of many Football League clubs.
Given that Croydon Athletic’s ground in Thornton Heath is owned by the local council, the opportunities for property development appear limited, further reducing any logical explanation behind Majeed’s “investment” in the club.
One supporter of a rival non-league side told Inside Croydon: “I think the way Croydon Athletic have been run in the last couple of years represents everything bad in football – unsustainable amounts of money have been used to elevate a tiny, ill-supported club.
“Normally it’s someone with money pursuing a dream. The motives seem slightly different in this case.”
Click here to see Majeed and his Aston Martin “starring” in another, earlier video: a promo for a spoof Croydon club’s FA Cup run.