Photograph: Luke Broughton
‘So, what are you looking at to get out … you know, how much?” Michelle Harness asked the question out of duty, desperation and numerous other powerful emotions. Her beloved Scunthorpe United had moved to the edge of the abyss under the ownership of David Hilton; in a death roll with more than £1.2m of debt, facing a winding-up petition from HMRC and eviction from their Glanford Park stadium, which remained in the hands of Hilton’s predecessor, Peter Swann. It was the subject of a bitter dispute between the pair.
Now, as the club counted down to the home game against Brackley Town on 7 October 2023 in the National League North – English football’s sixth tier and a level far removed from where Scunthorpe have always seen themselves – there was another problem and it surely spelled the end. The players were about to go on strike.
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“They wouldn’t play for him [Hilton] because he wasn’t paying them,” Harness says. “They’d prepared a statement to say they weren’t going to play. That was the club finished that day. It was when I went back to him and said: ‘How much?’”
Harness is Scunthorpe born and bred, a lifelong fan of the Iron, who were formed in 1899 and elected in 1950 into the Football League, where they stayed until their relegation from League Two in 2022. They would go down again from the National League in 2023.
Harness, a local businesswoman who had worked as the club’s commercial manager from 2000 to 2015, joined Hilton’s board in July 2023 and, as such, was on the ground as it threatened to subside. Hilton had taken over from Swann in January last year, although he was unable to come through on the £3m purchase of Glanford Park during a period of exclusivity that lasted until May.
It was one red flag concerning Hilton’s ability to oversee the financial running of the club and there would be many more. His fever-dream tenure continues to frame so much, especially the club’s jolt back from the brink and their ongoing fight for survival. Even, to a lesser extent, the pivotal match at home to the league leaders, Tamworth, on Saturday afternoon.
The manager, Jimmy Dean, has the team in second place, eight points behind, having played a game fewer, and it is easy to feel the hope and optimism on the field, despite the blip of taking one point from the past available six. Scunthorpe, whose players remain full-time professionals, are chasing the lone automatic promotion spot; a second club will go up via playoffs.
When Swann was selling up, it looked as though he would do so to Ian Sharp, a Scunthorpe-born, London-based film producer, who had partnered with Simon Elliott, a previous director of the club. It did not happen but Sharp remained in the background, developing a relationship with Harness and other influential figures, including the director Roj Rahman and Tahina Akther, a lawyer who had worked on the board. Then there was George Aitkenhead, another Scunthorpe fan and businessman, who had been part of Sharp’s original consortium. Harness brought them together; they were able to pay £100,000 and supplant Hilton.
“We thought: ‘What choice do we have but to get involved?’” Sharp says. “Because there was no one else. Knowing that your club is about to go out of business is sickening, completely devastating, because you know the impact it will have on the town. For me, it was bigger than football. How can this piece of our history just be wiped out? I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t give everything to try and save it. I know Michelle felt the same way. We all did.”
When I came in as owner, bailiffs used to visit every day … they even collected the phone system
The buy-in was only the start, what happened immediately afterwards a 24/7 whirlwind. Swann’s eviction deadline from Glanford Park stood at 11 October; Harness’s consortium needed to find the £3m for the ground and surrounding land – quickly. But here is the essence of the story: a community pulling in one direction to preserve something they treasure.
The Scunthorpe players would play against Brackley, with a crowd of more than 5,000 roaring them to victory. Those who were there can still feel the goosebumps. Harness and her directors, meanwhile, got into local businesses for donations; the council, too, and a word for the Conservative MP for Scunthorpe, Holly Mumby-Croft, who took a request for levelling-up funds to government and came back with £2.5m.
The consortium delivered the other £500,000 and they exchanged contracts for Glanford Park in mid-November, Swann having relaxed his deadline slightly. It has been placed into the ownership of a not-for-profit community interest company and there are “substantial plans in the pipeline”, according to Sharp, to use it for non-football events.
The deeply uncomfortable part of the past year is how Hilton was allowed to get the club and drive it so close to ruin. On 11 September, the Athletic said a man it believed to be Hilton was sentenced to two years in prison for 15 counts of fraud by false representation under the name of David Anderson. Hilton has never admitted to using the name Anderson. He said a custodial sentence he served for fraud from 2015 was spent and that he had passed the Football Association’s owners’ and directors’ test. He added he had repaid the value of the fraud, £68,000.
It was certainly a weird day on 30 September when, shortly after Hilton’s announcement that he had stopped funding Scunthorpe, they held a United We Stand campaign for the home game against Buxton, raising more than £50,000 to help cover unpaid wages. It was effectively the staff going against the owner.
When Harness talks about what she inherited from Hilton, the detail is searing and shocking – unpaid bills and invoices; non-payments to HMRC; shortfalls in the club’s pension scheme. “When I came in as owner, bailiffs used to visit every day … they even collected the phone system.”
Creditors came out of the woodwork, in seemingly exponential numbers – including on the football side. “Other clubs, players that he got rid of and never paid, agents …” Harness says.
Should she have been better across it all? She was on the board. “One of the directors, Keith Waters, who is COO at the PGA European Tour, continually asked him [Hilton] for a set of accounts,” she says. “Keith resigned off it. Tahina [Akther, another director] resigned too.”
There have been times when the salvage operation has felt overwhelming. The club also have an EFL loan of about £1m to repay although, in Harness’s words, “that comes out of our parachute money from National League relegation so I’ve parked that.” The wage bill was four times that of the average in the National League North. The club are under a transfer embargo.
What stands out every day is the energy and personality of Harness. “She’s a rock star,” Sharp says. It irks her to be working around the clock to put the club on a sustainable footing, which she has done, while needing to chip away at the mountain of debt that someone else has built up. But she estimates that she is “60% of the way through it” and come next season, when the playing budget reduces, it should be “happy days … we’ve just got to get to there”.
Harness’s can-do attitude inspires others. “I’ve got two volunteers in now with a load of emulsion to paint my office,” she says. “They’d come to see me and it was so bad. An accountancy company has taken on the pay-roll for free. Somebody else is recladding the front corner of the stadium for free, putting on new letters because we have a new sponsor – Attis Insurance.
“I’m going round to companies and I am literally begging from them. Sometimes I think I’m a bit of a pity case. I’m a woman that has stepped in to try to make the club survive. If I was some big-time Charlie with a big chequebook or whatever, I don’t think I’d get the same response. But if the town wants the club then they’ll have to step forward to fund it out of this mess.”