Eastbourne Borough crisis: Differences resolved - after 'rude and unfair attempts at public humiliation' revealed

Eastbourne Borough Football Club have resolved the internal differences which, last weekend, had led to the resignations of the entire CIC Board at Priory Lane.

Celebrations as Eastbourne Borough beat Hungerford came hours before eight directors resigned, throwing the club into turmoil / Picture: Andy Pelling
Celebrations as Eastbourne Borough beat Hungerford came hours before eight directors resigned, throwing the club into turmoil / Picture: Andy Pelling

After several days of uncertainty, and detailed discussion behind the scenes, statements were issued on Wednesday evening (19th) by the parties involved.

The Board of the Acorns Charitable Trust, which has a 51% holding in the club and normally operates in the background, stepped in to hold a lengthy board meeting on Monday. Subsequently the Trust chairman, Andy Miller, has held further meetings, in particular with CIC Chairman David Blackmore. And both parties have now published conciliatory statements. They are published in full below.

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It followed the shock news last Saturday night that the directors had resigned which was followed in the week by questions about why they had done so and what might happen now.

Statement by Andy Miller - Chair of Acorns Charitable Trust

"We were saddened by the decision of seven members of the CIC Board, the Company Secretary and the Commercial and Community Manager to tender their resignations on 15 January 2022. We understand their reasons for doing so and we wish to make it clear that the Trust, as majority shareholder of Eastbourne Borough Football Club CIC have at all times had complete trust and confidence in the CIC Board and the direction in which they are taking the CIC.

We accept that all decisions concerning the affairs of the CIC, including those relating to the operation of the Football Club and the Sports Club, its staffing and membership, are entirely matters for the Board, subject to the right of shareholders to raise any concerns through a CIC AGM. That being said, it is always our preference to resolve any issues through discussion in the first instance.

What took place at a meeting at the club on Thursday 13th January was not, in my opinion, the proudest moment in the club’s fine history. Attempts at public humiliation, by a minority of individuals aimed at others who are voluntary long-standing club servants, who have invested a huge amount of their time and money into making the club what it is today, was rude and unfair, resulting in nine people feeling undervalued, unappreciated and left with no option but to resign. At that meeting, I asked all those present if they would be prepared to step up and fill the vacancies that had just appeared before them. To date I have not had an approach or been contacted by anyone.

The Trust have since convened and re-iterated our unwavering support, to those individuals, who between them have given in excess of 100 years’ service to what we all collectively call, our "community" club. If you follow the football, are a shareholder, a social club member or a member of the bowls club, this facility is there for us all to share and enjoy together. We might not all get on or agree, all of the time, but we can all agree that we want the club and the facilities to flourish and be there for many years to come.

The Langney Sports Club Management Committee was disbanded by the Board during the Covid pandemic because of the need to make urgent decisions about the safe operation of the entire site. In our view, what needs to now happen is to establish a way of working that recognises the directors’ ultimate legal accountability for all things that take place at Priory Lane but which takes account members’ views. The CIC board are that responsible body, and they have always made it clear that they would be in favour of some forum where members and supporters views are communicated in a reasonable and constructive way.

We also wish to make it clear that all staff and volunteers at EBFC are solely answerable to the CEO who is appointed by the Board and ultimately to the CIC Board itself. I am hoping to work with the Board going forward to establish a code of conduct for all employees. volunteers and members to make all those involved in our wonderful club feel safe and valued and to know what is expected of them.

We all need to make sure that all elements of the facilities, based here at Priory Lane, work together for the same common aim, with the Board of Directors at the heart of all decision making. The Trust intends to work more closely going forward with the Board and we hope in light of this clear statement that the directors, the company secretary and the commercial and community manager, who have all resigned, will quickly reconsider their position, withdraw their resignations and continue the excellent progress they have made to date."

Simultaneously, CIC Chairman David Blackmore published the following statement, on behalf of his fellow directors...

Statement on behalf of the Board of Directors of Eastbourne Borough Football Club CIC (“the CIC”) and its Company Secretary and Commercial Manager

"The purpose of this statement is to explain the reasons for our resignations from the CIC Board on 15 January 2022. We fully appreciate that the announcement will have been a shock to the Club’s supporters far and wide, especially coming after such a magnificent performance by the first team, and such a fantastic atmosphere created by the scores of young fans who have been frequenting Priory Lane of late. This was obviously not a decision that we took lightly. However, recent events conspired to make it inevitable as each of us considered that our positions had been made untenable.

The CIC Board operate with the consent of its shareholders. The majority shareholder is the Acorns Community Trust (“the Trust”). The Board can only function if it is satisfied that it has the full confidence of the trustees of the Trust, both collectively and individually, and there have never been any issues between the Trust Board and the CIC Board.

Many lose sight of the fact that the CIC Directors are unpaid volunteers. They devote a huge amount of time to the CIC, and they do not seek, nor do they often receive, thanks for their efforts, although statements of overwhelming support since our announcement are hugely appreciated. Their families are often the ones to pay the price for their dedication. They are ultimately liable if the CIC does not operate within an ever-increasing tide of legislation, whether in terms of football regulation, licensing laws, health and safety, (especially COVID compliance), and of course financial competence.

In a worst-case scenario, their houses and individual liberty could be on the line. It should therefore not be a surprise that the Board are very careful about delegating decision making powers to those who do not bear such liability. The Directors have also financially supported the club in a myriad of ways, whether through major shirt and board sponsorship or making direct loans when cash flow was required. Again, this was done with no expectation of recognition or thanks. We did it because we love the club, and all that it has achieved both on and off the pitch.

When the current directors joined the Board at various points over the last decade, they inherited a club with a solid infrastructure, but one that has needed to gradually change to keep in line with new regulations and the formation of the CIC.

It was plain that the club needed new revenue streams if the club was to sustain itself in the Conference South, let alone in the Conference National. That is why we invested a huge sum in installing a 3G pitch n 2016, only the second club in our league to do so at the time, although many have since followed. That historic step enabled us, for the first time ever, to bring the disparate and distant Eastbourne Borough Youth teams, who had previously been playing at venues all over the town into the fold at Priory Lane. It enabled us to improve the quality of youth football, expand our girls’ section, reintroduce a women’s team and to develop our inspirational Spirit of Football squad.

These achievements were recognised nationally when we were voted Community Club of the Year. For us, this was our proudest achievement. This also puts our “One Club One Community” motto into context - it is why we do what we do. In 18 months’, the 3G pitch loan will have been repaid, creating a further substantial year on year revenue stream for the club, whilst enabling us to further improve our facilities and investments throughout the club and to continue to grow our work in the community.

Then along came COVID. We were expected to play matches behind closed doors with no bar or gate revenue, and the grant funding promised by the League, the FA, and the Government turned out to be loans, albeit on favourable terms. The personal risks to the Directors suddenly increased exponentially.

We had previously disbanded the football committee as we felt that it was crucial that football related decisions of a legal or financial nature should be taken by the directors. When Covid came along, the Sports Club Committee understandably did not meet, yet urgent decisions needed to be taken to ensure that the entire site was Covid compliant. Again, the Directors were personally liable for any infringement. The Board had no choice but to assume responsibility for all aspects of the CIC’s operation, including the Sports Club. The steps that we took to ensure Covid safety were ground-breaking and received warm praise not just from the National League and local authorities, but also from our friends at Blackpool FC, who favourably compared our measures to those of most Football League clubs.

Under Board control, and during lockdown, we completely modernised the Sports bar itself, with significant help of local sponsorship, and its offering. We have made it clear that we want to do much more to turn the Sports Club into a thriving venue for its members and the public. Unfortunately, some sought to wrestle back control of the Sports Club from the Board to take it back to its old way of operating.

Naturally, given how far we had come, we were not prepared to stand by and see that work undone, nor to put ourselves and our families at risk from decisions that we could not control. That is not to say that we would not and did not listen to the reasonable views of the club’s members. Sadly, too few of those views were expressed openly, moderately or constructively.

A group of 30 club members instigated and held an EGM of the Sports Club on 13 January, without agreement with the Board. Requests to postpone the meeting until the Board could explain the position went unheeded. We had meetings and tried to come up with a compromise position that would have been acceptable to the Board, whilst enabling some members to be co-opted onto an operating group reporting to the Board, dealing with all issues relating to the Sports Club.

The meeting went ahead and started without any CIC Directors present, and attempts were made to elect members to the defunct Sports Club Committee. At one point the meeting was informed by its chair that certain steps, if taken, would result in resignations from the Board. The members present attempted to take those steps regardless and made it clear to the Directors that had joined the meeting, that resignations would be a welcome step, and the Board Directors were openly and loudly jeered. For those present it was the lowest point of our years of service and loyalty to the club.

We love this club and believe that Eastbourne Borough Football Club has massive potential on and off the field. With the whole town behind it, there is no reason why it cannot one day give Eastbourne its first ever Football League team, along with a thriving Community Club for all. However, that can only happen if the whole club is pulling in the same direction, with all sections of the club working together as one, under the umbrella of the CIC.

It has become abundantly clear since our resignation that the Board does indeed have the confidence of our major shareholder, The Trust, along with the support of the majority of the club’s supporters and members, and we are very grateful for the support shown publicly by all.

Considering this clear support, and at the request of the Trust Chairman, I am delighted to say that all the Directors of the club, along with the Club Secretary and Commercial & Community Manager, have today withdrawn their resignations.

We will all continue to work tirelessly for the good of the entire club and we will also learn some clear lessons from what has happened. We share the view that what needs to now happen is to establish a way of working that recognises the Director’s ultimate legal accountability for all things that take place at Priory Lane, but which takes account members views. However, reversion to management by committee will not take place, instead we will form operating groups.

We will invite the majority of those nominated by the members at the meeting to be on this operating group for Langney Sports Club. We would also like to take the opportunity to invite any member, or supporter, who feels they could add value to any operating groups to please come forward and help. Our club will always need volunteers who share the vision and passion to take our club forward.

We hope this explains the position from our perspective, and we can put this sad episode behind us and work together as One Club One Community."