Nicky Eaden is standing in the dark. Looking across the dressing room, smothered by blackness, it’s barely possible to make out the objects that surround him. A place normally full of enthusiasm is now encased with uncertainty.
A light suddenly appears, providing a shaft of illumination. Behind it, umpteen sets of eyes focus directly on Eaden, waiting for his next move.
“Can you still see, lads?” the Nuneaton Borough manager asks the figures sat in the gloom around him. “Right, we’ll carry on then.”
Eaden swivels in the shadow of the iPhone light now trained on the tactics board behind him and continues with his team talk. There’s no way an unpaid electric bill is going to stop him from preparing for today’s match. After all, being plunged into darkness just minutes before kick off is the least of Eaden’s worries as he gets to grips with his first permanent job in football management.
“We haven’t got a training ground, there’s no training kit and no hot water, so the lads haven’t had a hot shower all season,” says Eaden.
“The ground is running off an electric generator because last season it got cut off the mains and there’s a couple of times when that’s run of fuel, including during the team talk before a match. We even had to wait [until part way into the new season] for the match kit to turn up, while the stadium is run down and needs a lot doing to it.”
It’s a far cry from the 45-year-old’s spells playing in the Premier League with Barnsley, Birmingham City and Wigan. While his stints at English football’s top table weren’t for the country’s most glamorous outfits, Eaden would never have encountered conditions like the ones he’s faced since taking charge of non-league Boro this summer.
The National League North side only had one player on their books when he arrived in June, with the bulk of the squad having departed when their contracts weren’t paid following the previous season’s end. Eaden knew he’d have a rebuilding job to do on the field, but he hadn’t grasped the paucity of facilities he’d have to do it with.
“It’s just been a bit weird really, because everything I got told in the summer was going to happen just hasn’t anywhere near happened in terms of playing budget or what I could do,” he explains. “When I came in, they wanted to be full-time, and get the academy back up and running.
“Instead, we’re pretty much rock bottom at the moment and have nothing. No hot showers, no training kit – and you’re thinking, pub teams have that. I play over-35s on a Sunday and if the showers are freezing, everybody is going mad. It’s the real basics we haven’t got.”
Although Nuneaton’s travails might bear all the hallmarks of another non-league club pleading poverty in the shade of the Premier League’s riches, that assertion doesn’t tell the full story. For one, the Warwickshire side has no chairman, no owner or, reportedly, no bank account in its name. Instead, the Boro is a rudderless vessel, a ghost ship left sailing football’s seven seas without a captain to steer it into calmer waters.
The impasse has been in place since around the time of Eaden’s appointment. Given the job by previous owner Lee Thorn, Eaden knew that his new boss was keen to wash his hands of the club before he took charge. However, with the ground having been sold to Port Vale owner Norman Smurthwaite and the promise of a new figurehead to take charge of the club itself, the uncertainty was likely to pass quickly.
Only it didn’t.
After selling the Liberty Way pitch to Smurthwaite, Thorn appeared to cut all ties with Nuneaton. Smurthwaite, who claims to have agreed to act as a facilitator to find a new owner, wasn’t allowed to step into the void due to FA rules forbidding somebody to run two football clubs so close together in the pyramid.
And with Smurthwaite unable to find a suitable buyer quickly, things began to get even messier. When Eaden and his new-look team got off to a sluggish start in the league, it became clear that nobody had the authority to make the big decisions.
“The contract I was offered [by Thorn] was two years with a three-month notice period,” Eaden says. “But when I sat down with Norman [Smurthwaite] in September, he said that things needed to improve and that if we got to the end of the month without any improvement, he’d expect me to walk away.
“Obviously I’m trying to protect myself, so I said I’d got a three-month notice period that he’d agreed to, so he said that, in effect, I was working my notice from today, which I’m six weeks into.
“It’s a nonsense of a situation really. I did say to Norman that he’d have to hope I walked away because he can’t sack me. He said he could, but I told him no because he’s not the chairman or owner of the football club and there’s no board of directors. In effect, I’m unsackable.”
Despite the chaos, results started to pick up. But with no means of income other than paltry gate receipts, a reported deficit of between £17-19,000 per month spelled imminent danger off the pitch.
In the absence of anybody else, Smurthwaite released a statement on 12 October which outlined the severity of the situation, stating the following “week to 10 days is the most critical time I believe this club has ever faced” in the hunt for a new buyer. The alternative, it seemed, was that the club would cease to exist.
In the meantime, supporter unrest grew. While many people began to prepare themselves for the worst, a string of conspiracy theories began to crop up on social media and fans’ forums, centring on Smurthwaite attempting to ring the club’s death knell in order to sell the ground for his own financial gain. Smurthwaite strongly denies such claims.
When The Set Pieces spoke to Smurthwaite about the situation he referred us to his earlier statement, before going on record to reveal his feelings about being made a scapegoat by the Boro fans.
“The wider picture is that I bought it [the ground] to protect football in the community of Nuneaton, period. Nothing beyond that,” he says.
“On reflection, I should never have got involved. I should have let the club go bust and let Nuneaton deal with the consequences – that’s my position.
“The fact is, I read all the conspiracy stories going about and instead of applauding a man who put his hand in his pocket to do something to save the club – and that’s what the people of Nuneaton should be doing to save it – a man gets castigated because he tries to do something. Now all of a sudden, I’ve got a hidden agenda.”
In all, it leaves a club teetering on the brink of extinction. While statements of doom and speculation reign supreme, an axe appears to be hanging over players and fans – although nobody really knows if, when and indeed how it might fall.
But although it’s been a testing few months for Eaden, he’s refusing to walk away from his post until he’s given no other choice.
“Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job,” he adds. “Your first manager’s job is your most important because if you make a mess of it, you’re probably not going to get another job.
“You’ve got to give yourself the best chance, but if you look at it, I gave myself no chance. I’ve stuck it out because I fetched the players in and I have a responsibility to them. Whether it’s my upbringing in football, I believe you don’t pack in and give up, you stick it out and keep working.”
One thing’s for sure, Eaden isn’t the only one in the dark as to how Nuneaton Borough’s future will turn out.