Stefan Gamble: Jeff Bonser would sell Walsall if deal was right
Jeff Bonser will walk away from Walsall – but only when he finds a buyer who will safeguard the future of the club, chief executive Stefan Gamble has revealed.
Bonser, who bought Saddlers in 1992, has been heavily criticised by supporters over the years for a perceived lack of investment, both on and off the field.
At the heart of the issue is how the chairman owns both Walsall Football Club and the Banks’s Stadium as two separate entities.
While Bonser owns the club himself, the freehold titles of the stadium are held by Suffolk Life – a pension firm of which Bonser and his brother are beneficiaries.
That means the Saddlers have to pay rent to the pension firm to play at the Banks’s Stadium – with the cost last year £440,000.
Last year’s accounts revealed renumeration for the directors, including Bonser, totalled £164,000, £20,000 less than the year before. Bonser was also paid £288,000 in repayments on loans he has made to the club in the past. He is still owed more than £1.1million.
With the team operating on one of the lowest playing budgets in League One, fans have called on Bonser to lower his rent demands. And that has overshadowed the more positive elements of the chairman’s reign. Bonser is the most successful owner in Walsall’s history with the club having spent four seasons in English football’s second tier under his stewardship.
Financially, the Saddlers have turned in a profit for 13 seasons in a row and were the only club to do so in League One last year.
Bonser also oversaw the building of Walsall’s training centre in Essington, which cost £800,000 and ensured the club finally had its own training ground after 120-years without one.
Now the chairman is willing to step aside, but Gamble says the club has to go to the right buyer – with Walsall at risk of being ejected from the Banks’s Stadium if a new man came in and didn’t pay the rent.
“The club has a 99-year lease to play at the stadium,” the chief executive said.
“We have got about 76 years left and then there is an additional 25 years if the club wants to extend it, that is in the club’s favour. As long as the club pays its rent – whoever owns it – whether it is Jeff or if he has moved on, as long as they pay that rent the lease is secure.
“Jeff would sell if a deal was right, absolutely. But he is not desperate to off-load it to the first person who comes along.
“In lots of ways that could easily have been done over the years. But the club has been around for 130 years, and I think Jeff takes a great pride that there will be a legacy there ensuring the club can continue for at least another 130 years. Safeguarding the future of the club is his priority.”
Another issue which angers supporters is the lease for the stadium being a ‘full repairing lease.’
That means, unlike when you rent a house or flat, it is Walsall Football Club that has to pay for stadium repairs even though they don’t actually own the ground. Despite the Saddlers paying their own maintenance bills, the rent payment has risen from £90,000 to £440,000 while Bonser has been at the helm.
But Gamble says that increase is due to the amount of money the chairman – through his pension fund – has invested in the club. “The rent started at around £90,000 in 1995,” the chief executive continued.
“And then over the years, there has been £2.25million in landlord improvements to the facilities.
“Examples of that are the Bonser Suite, the M6 signage. The stadium also needed half a million to finish off the two-tier stand. But the club did not have the money.
“So the landlord invested it and in return, there is an uplift on the rent. That is how we have gone from £90,000 to £440,000 with all the RPI (retail price index) increases inbetween.
“But the club gets 100 per cent of the benefit of the facilities. It takes 100 per cent of the profit from advertising on the motorway and from the Bonser Suite.
“You compare us to Coventry, I don’t know what they pay in rent. But they don’t get any revenue from the stadium. That all goes to a third party. Every time landlord investment has been made, there has to be a return on it. So the rent goes up.
“But moving forward, the football club gets 100 per cent of the income. The reality is the rent is where it is because of ongoing landlord investment that has allowed the club to generate additional money.”
Walsall are currently in the process of securing the lease for The Saddlers Club – a venue based on the land surrounding the Banks’s Stadium – that recently went out of business. The building needs significant repair work, with fans worried the cost of that would then see the rent paid to Suffolk Life increased.
But Gamble said that will not be the case. “The Saddlers Club has gone out of business and a forfeiture of the lease needs to happen with the land registry for it to officially come back into our hands under the larger stadium lease,” he said. “I’m hoping in the next six months is we will be able to finalise that position.
“We will then be in a position where we can decide what to do with it.
“Having reviewed the building, it does need significant investment. But the rent would only go up if the landlord paid for it. If Suffolk Life paid for it.”
Maintenance work the club does need to undertake are repairs to the Bescot Bar which is dated and has been found to be leaking this season.
The club also had an issue over the Christmas period with toilets flooding.
But Gamble moved to reassure fans the club is working to improve facilities for them on a match day. “The stadium is 30 years old so maintenance is something that is now always on-going,” he added.
“We have a programme of renovations going on at the moment. And there has been significant investment from the club in that.
“The toilets aren’t perfect, we know that. There have been a couple of incidents, particularly on Boxing Day, where there was a perfect storm of everything going wrong.
“There were floods. They are not perfect and they are not luxurious and we are looking at ways to improve them.
“We also have plans for improving the Bescot Bar, we are just putting all the pieces together for that.
“What we don’t want to do is promise something now and not deliver it.
“When we are in a position to let supporters know what the plans are we will do that.
“But the facilities behind the goal, the Bescot Bar is poor. It’s been the same facility for the past 30 years and it is the next area that needs addressing.”