Transatlantic hopper: Kelvin Thomas shares his time between Florida and Northampton (photo by Kirsty Edmonds)
by Stuart Hammonds
Coast-to-Coast, the American restaurant and bar on top of the hill overlooking Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium, is an appropriate setting for the Cobblers’ new chairman to buy lunch.
The first question to the lean, water-drinking former Oxford United chairman Kelvin Thomas is simple: Why leave your wife and children behind in the Florida sunshine to come back to bail out a League Two club facing a winding-up petition over £166,000 owed to HMRC and in the midst of a £10.25m loan repayment scandal between outgoing owner David Cardoza and the local council?
The questioner already knows the answer. Thomas, 43, is an English football man. One who played in an FA Vase semi-final for Banstead Athletic 19 years ago; who qualified as a coach and set up his own academy in the US; who steered Oxford from the brink of oblivion in the Conference towards the top of League Two in his four years at the Kassam helm.
He had returned briefly to these shores last January to help then-Torquay owner Thea Bristow run the ailing Non-League club, before going back to Fort Myers to get basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal involved in an internet radio station he had invested in – Shaq-Fu.
“The radio station is fun. I’ve invested in it and been helping strategically,” says Londoner Thomas, who leaves American Liza, 13-year-old Chloe and 10-year-old Conor back in his adopted home for a fortnight at a time.
“But what happens is, when you’ve had a relatively successful time in football – as we did at Oxford – you tend to get a lot of people contact you with information about clubs being for sale.
“There was no burning desire to get involved in football, but I was always looking at opportunities.”
One of the calls about the situation Northampton were in, after Cardoza’s planned sale to an Indian consortium fell through, came from Chris Wilder, the manager who left Oxford nearly two years after Thomas’ 2012 exit to join then-bottom of the League Cobblers in January 2014.
Thomas doesn’t want this interview to be about himself. “I’ve hardly had to do anything,” he says, neglecting the fact he and partners David Bower and Mike Walling have transferred a seven-figure sum into the Town bank account to clear all debts, while negotiating to hand back responsibility for the £10.25m which the council plans to recover by developing land around the ground.
In addition, they plan to put seats into the unfinished East Stand that was the cause of Cardoza’s downfall and recent arrest by police investigating allegations of financial irregularities. Club computers were confiscated and the ex-owner is currently on conditional bail.
“It should be about the job Chris and his team have done on the pitch, as well as how well the staff behind the scenes have run the club, despite going weeks without pay,” says Thomas.
On Tuesday, he will go back to the Kassam for the first time as an opponent. “I always get a fantastic reception when I go back to watch games, but I don’t think I’ve ever sat in the away directors’ seats, so it’ll be a bit strange,” he smiles.
The only permanent manager he has ever appointed, Wilder, will be in charge of a team that went into this weekend five points clear at the top.
They have won 15 out of 18 league games during a period from the end of September, when they did not know if they were going to get paid from one month to the next, with the PFA stepping in at one stage.
It is eight from nine – just one defeat – since Thomas’ takeover was completed at the end of November, with Wilder’s side the first to hit the 60-plus point mark at this stage of a season since League Two was renamed in 2004. Oxford are third.
“I’ll always look out for Oxford’s results,” says Thomas. “Someone asked me on social media the other day, and I said ‘As long as Northampton go up, I’d love to see Oxford go up as well. It’s local, it’ll be a great game. It’s not the biggest rivalry we’ve all got, but I think it’s a fun rivalry, so I’m looking forward to it
“We have gone under the radar a little bit. Chris and the guys had a lot of coverage during the problems, from a financial perspective, but all of a sudden we find ourselves in a really good position but nobody’s really talking about us – which we like. It’s probably a mistake doing this interview!
“I know I wouldn’t want to play against us if I were an opposition team because I think we are stronger now than we were at the start of the window. We’ve been able to support Chris with four real quality additions in James Collins, Danny Rose, Luke Prosser and Lee Martin, to a squad already full of experienced leaders and top players.
“The injury record this year has been great, and that’s testament to what Chris has done and what the support staff have done, with the sport science, etc. They are preparing the team right.”
Such form inevitably sees Wilder’s name linked with a move up the league ladder and back to his native Yorkshire, where he still lives. Thomas sees this week’s speculation of interest from the 48-year-old’s old club Rotherham and links with League One Barnsley as natural.
“He definitely should be linked with higher jobs,” he says. “People talk about our friendship, but I never knew Chris until he came for the interview at Oxford just before Christmas 2008. There was me and Jim Smith sitting there interviewing Chris as somebody I’d never met in my life. Our relationship developed because we experienced success together in getting Oxford back into the Football League.
“I think whenever you experience success, and you have an honest, open relationship, you are always going to generate a friendship and a bond.
“You look at Chris’s career path, and knowing a bit more about the detail as to why he left Oxford, it was a tremendous leap of faith by him to come here.
“No matter what people think about the situation, he was still leaving a relatively secure situation – albeit, even if only for the rest of that season – and there was every chance that Oxford could go up to League One that year.
“Being realistic, I think he’d have been able to get a few more results than they did in those last few games, but he left for a club that was at the bottom of the league.
“Not many people thought they were getting out of that.
“Just over two years later and, through everything that has gone on, to have this team in their current position is phenomenal.
“Chris has done exceptionally well in the circumstances, and credit to his assistant Alan Knill and the other staff around him.
“The reality is that, in my opinion, Chris is now a better manager. He delegates more, doesn’t always come in on a Monday, for example. Football is a 24/7 job and he’s always working, but he’s realised he doesn’t need to be at the club all the time.
“That comes with experience. Everyone goes through different stages of life, Coming back and working with him again, I’ve been really impressed.”
The same can be said by the locals of Thomas. Whether it’s shaking hands with supporters at Sixfields, installing a fans’ village – with pop-up bar in a shipping container behind the North Stand – or donating funds to help the family whose pub burnt down next to the ground, the new regime has made a big impression.
Last week, he invited in disabled fan Derry Felton for a stadium tour ahead of the 2-0 win over York after learning that his specialist computer equipment and games consoles had been stolen during a burglary.
Touched by the plight of the supporter, who has been paralysed since he was two years old, the players had a whip-round and invited Derry back to the ground on Friday to present him with a cheque.
“It’s being part of the community,” says Thomas. “That’s what it’s about for a football club.
“I’m vice-president of the SpecialEffect charity, who help disabled youngsters through video gaming, and I learned Derry had been involved with them. He’s a fan and the players appreciate them here.
“Marc Richards said it right: the fans stuck by us in our time of trouble, so it’s only right we help them through theirs.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 14 February 2016.