Amidst extraordinary scenes, the Say No CPO campaign saw their will and determination to defeat the proposal put by Chelsea Football Club to CPO shareholders come to fruition.
The West Lower concourse at Stamford Bridge was suitably transformed for such a dramatic occasion into The Great Hall, festooned with black drapes and with banks of comfortable seating, the latter being a consolation as the meeting stretched into a fourth hour with the results of the vote still awaited.
A grey and drizzly day greeted the shareholders as they arrived at Fulham Broadway. They were also greeted by members of the Say No campaign, who were handing out a leaflet entitled “Ten Questions to Be Answered by the CPO Board”, and again the distributors were hard pressed to keep up with demand as almost everyone attending the meeting seemed to want one. Registration opened at 10am, with stewards in attendance to marshal the 700-strong crowd into lines ensuring a steady flow to the ERS desks.
Identification was requested even before the voters got to the doors of the Spackman Entrance, and once inside voting cards were handed out and wristbands administered to ensure that only shareholders were admitted. A strict “no mobiles” policy was implemented, and although the media were permitted to enter the meeting, no filming was allowed.
In fact the meeting began some 20 minutes later than the scheduled start time of 11.30am, simply due to the number of people attending. Finally, at 11.50, Richard King in his role as Chairman as CPO called the meeting to order, and set out how events would proceed.
There were immediately a number of points of order relating to whether a debate would be allowed and whether the meeting would be minuted. Richard King advised that an audio recording of events would be kept.
The first real questions came from Paul Todd, who demanded to know whether club CEO Ron Gourlay was there as a shareholder. Mr Gourlay admitted to having bought a share just two days earlier. Mr Todd subsequently questioned Bruce Buck regarding the voicemails that were left on the phone of a club contractor.
Mr Buck attempted to bat this away, commenting that every effort had been made to contact Mr Todd to arrange a meeting prior to the voicemails being left, and that the club’s press statement was perfectly accurate. Again, Mr Todd pressed Mr Buck regarding the club’s comment that Todd had attacked CPO directors. Mr Buck maintained that this referred to emails and correspondence. He went on to say that he felt personal attacks were unwarranted.
The next questioner, Rachel Baker, asked why there was such a rush to hold the meeting. Mr Buck conceded that they had thought until waiting until the CPO AGM, but considered that giving CPO 28 days notice of the meeting was sufficient time. Ms Baker additionally commented, to loud applause, that she felt the tone of the club’s proposal was patronising.
Questions from the floor followed thick and fast, covering areas as diverse as the club obtaining an Act of Parliament to obtain the lease, and previous planning applications submitted to Hammersmith & Fulham Council by Chelsea FC. A shareholder who had travelled from Canada complained that neither he, nor a number of overseas shareholders, had received correspondence about the proposal from CPO. Bob Sewell of CPO’s commented that any overseas shareholders who had contacted CPO had been supplied with proxy forms by e-mail.
Mr Mark Wyeth QC, cited three breaches of company law with regard to the recent share issue, and called for the club to enter into a Conditional Sale Agreement with CPO whereby should the club fail to adhere to its proposal, the lease would revert by to CPO. This suggestion received considerable acclaim, but Bruce Buck refused to answer.
For those who were watching the platform, it was clear that the body language of those representing both the club and CPO was incredibly defensive, and they had good reason. By this time, every microphone in the hall had a handful of potential speakers behind it. Further questions covered issues that might arise in the event of anything happening to Roman Abramovich, and why the club weren’t working with CPO to identify an appropriate site.
Clint Steele of the Say No CPO campaign was recognised by the Chair. In an impassioned speech, he asked if CPO’s share were stolen today, what happens when Roman’s family eventually sell the club? He pointed out that it was 75 years after Joe Mears originally founded Chelsea FC his grandsons sold the ground to Marler Estates. Mr Steele additionally sought further clarification from Mr Buck regarding planning issues, including walkways, and ground expansion.
In what became one of the defining moments of the meeting, Mr Steele alluded to approximately £200,000 worth of shares that had been recently sold to 20 individuals. Mr Steele asked why would any individual wish to buy such a shareholding unless they wished to vote “yes”, and questioned whether it was ethical to regard these more recent shareholders in the same light as those in the hall, who had owned their shares for many years.
Richard King stated that CPO had sought Counsel with regard to a cut-off date for shares sales and felt that the board of CPO were in a no-win position as if shares had been taken off-sale they would have been criticised in any event.
Bruce Buck caused a stir of anger in the hall at this point by stating that the Club’s research suggested that only 12% of CPO shareholders are currently either season-ticket holders or members of the football club.
Mr Steele maintained that the vote should have been carried out on a basis of one person, one vote, rather than voters being allowed a maximum of 100 votes. He was then invited on to the platform to address the meeting. His next question was the identity of the new bulk shareholders, and asked why CPO weren’t willing to disclose their names to the media. Data protection concerns were cited.
At this point, Mr Steele called for a vote of “no confidence” in the current board of CPO, but this was overruled by the Solicitor acting for CPO. Mr Steele then proposed that an Adjournment be called whilst irregularities such as the recent share issue and loss of proxy form identified at the start of the meeting were looked into, but it was ruled that the meeting should continue.
The next questioner, Ms Kim Holdaway, professed herself unhappy with the “Trust Roman” message put forward by the club, stating that Mr Abramovich had only been associated with Chelsea FC for eight years. She also described the “Roll of Honour” idea as “shabby” and requested that in the event of this coming to pass, it should include the names of all shareholders, not just those voting “yes”. Mr Buck’s answer was that he respected this view, but it did not form part of the proposal put by the club.
There was a call from the floor that a representative of Hammersmith & Fulham Council should have been in attendance at the meeting to explain why the ground couldn’t be expanded, and also the issues surrounding planning proposals.
A West Lower season ticket holder put a variety of points, firstly citing Mr Buck’s description of CPO shares as “souvenirs” and that it was unlikely anyone attending the meeting regarded them as such. More tellingly, Mr Buck was asked if the timing of the meeting was due to the board of the Football Club believing it represented their best opportunity of forcing a “yes” vote, as Richard King had promised to deliver this, and he would face a no confidence vote as the next AGM.
In an aside, Paul Todd requested the speaker to raise the issue of difficulty in selling naming rights at a ground so universally known as Stamford Bridge. Ron Gourlay denied this was a problem. The speaker concluded that the meeting were running the risk of selling the club’s birthright, and, after 2020, there was the real risk that Chelsea FC could, as Marler Estates promised 25 years ago, end up at a “superstadium on the M25”.
Mr Terry Molloy was subsequently recognised by the Chair and asked about the process of transferring the lease to a new Stadium. Bruce Buck stated that he believed that the brand of Chelsea FC was worth a great deal more than it was in 1993 and therefore was worth more than any land it occupied. Therefore transferring the lease was not a viable proposition.
At that point, there were further calls for the meeting to be adjourned with requests for the club to go away and consider everything they’d heard and return with an amended proposal.
Richard King called for a report of the proxy vote following which a decision would be made by a show of hands on whether to adjourn or vote. James Greenbury of Say No CPO asked for assurances from the Chair that if an adjournment was called, a further meeting would be convened to discuss the proposal. Mr King then revealed that as a result of the proxy vote, 1400 of the 1700 votes present in the hall would be required to carry a “yes” vote.
There was then a period of off-microphone legal arguments, and, following a show of hands, a decision was taken to allow a further 10 minutes of questions, followed by a vote on the proposal.
Last speakers cited the gulf between the boards of the football club and CPO and the feeling of shareholders and fans, the reticence to discuss the proposal with fans and a reminiscence from a supporter who had taken his wife to Stamford Bridge on their first date, and had taken his children and then grandchildren to the ground.
Richard King then spoke the Resolutions before the meeting, stating that if Resolution 1 was voted down then none of the other resolutions would be voted on. The representatives of the ERS positioned themselves around the hall and collected the votes. The meeting was adjourned for an hour.
A tense wait ensued for all parties. A number of shareholders continued to mill around the hall, whilst others temporarily left for stronger refreshment elsewhere.
At 2.55pm, those not already in the Hall returned and Richard King called for order. Members of SNCPO huddled together at the back. Around half of the audience had stayed for the finale. Mr King announced that yes votes cast were 61.1%, with No votes cast at 38.4%. Therefore the resolution had failed and no further resolutions would be voted on.
In emotional closing remarks, Richard King stated that he would now consider his future* and described himself as “hurt” at some of the allegations levelled against him. Bruce Buck said that they would accept the decision of the shareholders, and hoped that everyone would come together on Saturday to “beat the crap out of Arsenal”.
The mood amongst the Say No Campaign was one of relief and joy, tempered with the knowledge that there would be hard work to come. However, in a fitting tribute to the origins of the club, they convened in the Butchers Hook where Chelsea FC was formed in 1905.
The above is a factual account of yesterday’s events. Any errors are mine and I apologise in advance of same. Next week, there’ll be a personal view of the meeting, together a look at where the future may lie for CPO. Follow me @BlueBaby67 on Twitter and continue to #SayNoCPO
*In a dramatic development this afternoon, Richard King resigned as Chair of CPO. Again, more to come on this story.