Matt Maher: A football club, fan-owners and serious foul play...inside tale of failed bid to buy the Pitmen

Three years ago this week, Stuart Harvey came within a whisker of becoming Hednesford Town’s new owner.

Less than a fortnight later, with the deal dead, he drove more than 200 miles and beat up the journalist he blamed for the collapse of his business.

That extraordinary incident is among several retold in Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC, a recently released book co-authored by Martin Calladine, the man on the end of Harvey’s assault.

Part damning assessment on the sorry state of football regulation and part psychological thriller, it tells the story of how OWNAFC, a scheme which promised to deliver the biggest shake-up in the sport since the advent of the Premier League, instead left thousands of customers crying foul.

By the end you are left in no doubt Hednesford, one of the Midlands’ largest non-league clubs who have been plying their trade since 1880, had a narrow escape.

“A frightening but enriching experience,” is how Calladine now describes covering a story of which he and co-author James Cave, unintentionally and unnervingly, found themselves at the centre. “As a journalist, you feel you have some level of protection. To find out that didn’t apply in this case was a real shock.”

Passionate advocates of football reform, Calladine and Cave began scrutinising Harvey and his OWNAFC business when it first hit the headlines in February, 2019.

Complete with snazzy brochure and slick website, it promised to ‘turn football on its head and take it back to the people’. For a one-off payment of £49, customers could purchase an app which, once Harvey had completed his takeover of a club, would give them the chance to have their say on its day-to-day running, from voting on new signings, to hiring and firing staff. With the click of a button, it claimed, they would help manage a budget of up to £8.5million. It was, all told, a ‘once-in-a-lifetime chance to be at the forefront of a whole new generation of football club owners’.

When his interest in Hednesford emerged in the first week of March, Harvey told the Express & Star he had more than 3,500 people signed up. A former rugby league player with no previous experience of working in football, he had attended three matches while discussions with then Pitmen owner Steve Price took place. The mood among supporters ranged from caution to outrage the running of the club might be ripped away from its community and placed in the hands of a faceless online one. Long-time club volunteer Scott Smith warned the takeover would be ‘a disaster’ and was one of several to point out a similar concept had been tried before, at Ebbsfleet, without success.

Despite those warnings, the takeover appeared as good as done before collapsing at the 11th hour. Even now, it is unclear precisely why. When contacted by the Express & Star this week, Harvey suggested a deal had been verbally agreed. At the time, he claimed to have stepped aside to let a fan-led consortium continue their discussions with Price. Yet this drew the ire of his customers, who had been promised a vote on whether to proceed with the takeover. The following day, Harvey appeared to blame criticism of his scheme from Supporters’ Direct and the Football Supporters’ Federation for scuppering the deal.

From there, things rapidly unravelled. Calladine and Cave’s digging and online criticism of the project led to them being contacted by several OWNAs dissatisfied with the service they were getting. An extensive online question and answer session with Harvey, conducted by Cave, then further muddied the waters, particularly around the question of whether the £49 payment entitled customers to a share in the club, as had been suggested in some interviews. Slowly it began to dawn on people who previously believed they were investors they were actually merely customers.

“At the start I had a general distaste for the model,” explains Cave, who runs the Against League 3 Twitter account. “But over time I became more concerned about him.

“The Q&A took nine hours to compile and some of the answers were incredible. It became obvious the whole thing wasn’t going to work.”

Events came to a head on March 9 when Cave published details of Harvey’s previous business failures, including the fact he had been declared bankrupt in 2013. Within minutes, a message appeared on OWNAFC’s official Twitter feed, claiming the business had ceased trading.

“The more we published, the more disgruntled customers started to come forward with complaints,” says Calladine. “The moment OWNAFC experienced any kind of pressure, the wheels came off. Harvey blamed me and James for the collapse but asking pointed, honest questions about the structure of a business should not lead to a business collapsing. If I had that power, to bring down businesses with a few tweets and phone calls, I’d be doing a different job.” Even so, a statement on the app blamed an ‘ongoing online smear campaign’ for the decision to close, while claiming threats had been made against the children of the company’s directors on an unofficial OWNAFC Facebook group, an allegation repeated by Harvey this week when contacted by the Express & Star.

Just a few days after appearing to have ceased trading, OWNAFC was back, a message on the app declaring ‘business as usual’. By then, however, many people were asking for their money back. Harvey this week claimed to know of only one customer who failed to get a requested refund. That is contrary to accounts detailed in the book and newspaper reports at the time. Though the precise number of OWNAFC subscribers, the authors believe fewer than 10 received a full refund.

What isn’t disputed is that on Sunday, March 17, barely a week-and-a-half on from the Hednesford deal collapsing, Harvey turned up on the doorstep of Calladine’s London home.

Speaking to the Express & Star, Harvey claims he made the five-hour journey in order to ‘have a conversation’ with Calladine, having blamed his coverage for the online threats he claimed had been made toward his family. Whatever the original motive, a violent altercation took place. Though Harvey disputes the chilling first-person account provided by Calladine in the book, on June 4, 2019, he pled guilty to assault by beating at Wimbledon Magistrates Court and was given a six-month conditional discharge, in addition to paying a victim surcharge of £20.

OWNAFC eventually ceased trading in the summer of 2019, by which time Calladine and Cave, dissatisfied with the outcome, had decided to write their book. “It was a huge thing for both of us,” says Cave. “Even going right up to the release of the book we had doubts over whether we were doing the right thing. There were a lot of conversations. We had families to consider. But we decided we wanted to tell the story. I am glad we didn’t leave it. I think it is a valuable story and I’m pleased we have told it.”

It is impossible to argue that point. While the demise of OWNAFC has more than its share of surreal twists, the bigger picture is what it says about the current state of English football.

Harvey’s model might have been flawed, yet it tapped into the disillusionment of those increasing number of supporters tired at being treated like an irrelevance by their clubs. The book focuses on that subject in depth, with numerous accounts from those who gave their money to OWNAFC believing here really was a chance to do something differently. Further chapters focus on clubs such as Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon, where fan ownership has proven a success. There is also a withering takedown of the existing owners’ and directors’ test, which has been proven time and again to offer little to no protection from prospective buyers with questionable motives. No such test even exists in non-league.

“It seems extraordinary there is this huge pool of people out there looking to buy clubs and no-one really doing any due diligence,” says Calladine. “At a certain point people are going to slip through the net. Clubs can so easily vanish and be a victim of how football is run.”

“Harvey definitely did tap in to a dissatisfaction among supporters in general,” says Cave. “They don’t have a say and are disenfranchised from the way the clubs are run.

“The marketing was excellent, the branding was fantastic. He had a great logo and website. In a way, we advertised him too.

“Our argument is there is a better way of doing it. Supporters Trusts running clubs is not perfect but it is an established model which works. Of course he tapped into something. It is why he got as far as he did. But you can’t bottle up what these clubs mean and sell it in an app.”

Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC, is available to buy now.

The owner of an online app which came close to buying Hednesford Town has claimed he “enjoyed” reading a book which details the collapse of his business.

Speaking to the Express & Star this week, Stuart Harvey blamed authors Martin Calladine and James Cave for instigating the demise of his venture but conceded he too had made mistakes with a project which promised fans the chance to buy and run their own club.

Non-league Hednesford were one of the clubs targeted by OWNAFC but a proposed takeover broke down in March, 2019.

The business had promised the biggest shake-up in football since the advent of the Premier League but the book, Fit and Proper People: The Lies and Fall of OWNAFC, claims thousands of people were left out of pocket when it collapsed just days later.

Harvey, who told the Express & Star he was aware of only one customer who failed to get a requested refund, insisted he had “no regrets” over the project while reiterating his belief its demise was prompted by Calladine and Cave’s online criticism.

“I think the only people who got what they wanted are the two people who wrote the book,” he said. “I think everyone else was quite disappointed by their actions.

“They ruined a lot of good stuff for a lot of good people. But they got what they wanted. Do I have any regrets? Not a single one.

“A few mistakes were made on a business level from my side. Maybe a bit of ego sneaked in. A bit more planning and I think we would have been alright.

“It made a few quid and lost a few quid. We move on. You win some, you lose some.”

The book claims only a handful of OWNAFC’s customers were able to get full refunds but Harvey replied: “Nobody has ever contacted me and said they didn’t get a refund. Actually, there was one person. He is the only one who didn’t get a refund.

“I don’t know of anyone else. We asked people to email in if they felt disgruntled and we didn’t get anyone email in.”

Harvey is no longer involved in football but refused to rule out a return to the sport in the future.

“You don’t know what is going to arise round the corner,” he said. “Football clubs have approached us since but have not been the right opportunity. If the right one comes up then never say never. I wish Hednesford all the best. They have found a place in my heart. I don’t know why, but they have.

“I wish Martin and James all the best with the book. I hope they make a lot of money and I hope they can roll it on to the next book. I enjoyed the read. I wish everyone all the best. I hope everyone moves on and learns lessons from it. God bless to everyone involved.”

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