By Charles Randall
28 August 2018
A massive fraud by a trusted official has pushed a cricket club in Durham close to extinction, forcing the club to put their ground up for sale to housing developers.
Gary Sams pleaded guilty at Newcastle Crown Court recently for stealing almost £80,000 from Annfield Plain CC during his time as treasurer. More than half of that came in a single season.
Four years after the extent of the financial damage became apparent the club are still not certain they can move, even though a disused school playing field 150 yards away has been earmarked as a suitable site. Protracted negotiations and delays at council level have jeopardised the sale.
Steve Newstead, the club's chairman, said he was neither optimistic or pessimistic about survival. "I simply don't know," he said. "We are so much in debt that the only way to survive is to sell the land, rent another ground and start again."
The would-be developers have intimated they would assist with a new pavilion elsewhere, but the whole project is in doubt. "We certainly want to keep the club open," Newstead said, "not just as a cricket club but as a community resource - there is nothing else in the area."
In addition to the loss of revenue Annfield Plain, from the Northumberland and Tyneside Senior League, have been saddled with fraudulent loans and unapproved commitments that are still coming to light. Newstead estimated that liabilities could be as much as £250,000.
Sams, 52, a former player at the club, had already been convicted on five counts of defrauding friends of more than £300,000, and after his plea he was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison.
The court was told that for a number of years until 2013 Sams transferred money from club funds into his own account, made illicit cash withdrawals, stole receipts from the sale of tickets for prize draws and dipped into bar takings. The amount of money lost by Annfield Plain was calculated as £79,889.04, leaving the club barely able to manage and forced to take drastic action.
Sams, a financial advisor for a major bank, had been a respectable member of local society as a family man trusted completely by his local cricket club. His crimes began to unravel in 2014 when borrowings and promises of investment on behalf of his friends were suspected of being fraudulent.
Newcastle Crown Court was told that Sams funded a lifestyle "out of his means" including a hospitality box at Riverside, the Chester-le-Street headquarters of Durham county cricket club, and at Sunderland Football Club.
Passing sentence, Recorder Andrew Haslam said Sams had abused his position of trust and responsibility as the cricket club’s treasurer, as a financial advisor. and as a friend to his victims. His deceit covered a "sustained period of time" and involved a degree of planning.
Three victims of his fraud were friends at Annfield Plain CC, including a married couple who handed over their life savings of £366,000, thinking they were investing in a Lloyds Bank scheme. Fortunately for them, Sams paid back £50,000 and the bank re-imbursed the rest out of goodwill.
Rhys Meggy, defending, said Sams was sorry for the "devastating mess" he had caused. Meggy said Sams suffered from chronic mental health issues, including depression, and was a "deeply flawed and troubled soul."
Newstead said that he and the club secretary began to suspect something when Sams, a long-term friend, kept insisting the financial situation was dire without any apparent reason. "We eventually wrestled the books off him," he said, "and discovered £43,000 had gone in one year. The steward would give him the bar takings and he was banking them straight into his private account. Cricket clubs are run on honesty, and we trusted each other."
The exposure and conviction of a fraudster would be little consolation to Annfield Plain. The damage has been done.
In 2006 Bedfordshire cricket suffered a shock when the county's leading club Bedford Town had to fold after a trusted official absconded with thousands of pounds of funds. Such drastic consequences of theft are fortunately rare though, as with Annfield Plain, Malden Wanderers once had to sell off land in Surrey - not the entire ground - to save themselves after they were victims of theft. That was in 1932, and the sum was £1,000, an enormous figure in that era.