Danny Bergara and the 'Friendly' Football Club
I massively enjoyed the first article I wrote about Danny Bergara, researching the piece was a delightful trip down memory lane and re-kindled some wonderful emotions. A big thank you to everyone who took the time to read and comment on it, it’s very much appreciated.
I did, however, purposely leave out the details of his dismissal from County as I wanted to focus on the positives and the enormous turnaround he helped to perform at EP. It wasn’t my intention to merely gloss over this in a flippant or vague manner, but it was pointed out that maybe I was doing him a disservice because what happened to him was grossly unfair and that a second article could be written to tell the story.
This article isn’t intended to drag up the past, to air dirty laundry in public or to start a witch hunt. As I said in my first piece, the information about Danny’s dismissal and subsequent court case are out there and have been for many years, but 25 years have passed since Bergara left and there is a generation of fans who don’t know the story, I daresay there are a lot of fans who followed County back then and don’t know the full story. By writing this I am merely passing on the truth, everything here is fact and I must say an enormous thanks to Phil Brennan for supplying the information on Danny’s unfair dismissal tribunal.
Back in March 1995, County were struggling in mid-table after a somewhat poor season. Not everything was going smoothly off the pitch and due to one selfish act, it was about to spiral out of control. Bergara had had a brief conversation with Chairman, Brendan Elwood about the £50 accommodation expense he was allowed to claim; living in Sheffield sometimes meant upon working late Danny would sometimes stay in a club-owned house close to EP. Elwood wanted to withdraw the allowance altogether with a view to Bergara moving to Stockport at the end of the season. However, Elwood had been due to go on holiday and it is reported the two agreed to talk about it when he returned.
At a subsequent board meeting on 16th March, in Bergara’s absence, Elwood informed the board that the two had agreed the accommodation allowance was to be withdrawn immediately. Two weeks later, Danny made a claim for £64 (two week’s worth of expense claims) and was told by administrative staff that it wouldn’t be paid. No one from the board had told him about the withdrawal of his allowance.
That night, 29th March, County held a sponsor’s function at the Alma Lodge hotel. Bergara, his coaching staff, the board of directors and several players were in attendance. Bergara, who felt he had been cheated by the very people who should have been most grateful for the club’s success, the success he had a massive part in building, was understandably less than happy about the situation. After the dinner, an incident occurred between Finance Director, David Jolley and Bergara and then in the foyer, between Elwood and Bergara.
Danny was dismissed in the days following and during a board meeting on the 31st March Elwood reported to the board that he was dismissed because Bergara had assaulted him and made a false expenses claim. Danny refused to accept the club’s claims and had no choice but to file an unfair dismissal claim against the club.
What transpired from the resulting tribunal was even more shocking than the fact a club legend at the peak of his County career, like Bergara, had been sacked without notice in the first place. In fact, it was a sleazy, abhorrent and frankly, revolting catalogue of blatant lies and fabrication.
The tribunal established that Elwood had indeed lied to the board at the meeting of 16th March; he and Bergara hadn’t agreed to withdraw his allowance, Danny was also never advised of the decision by anyone present at the meeting in the two weeks before the 29th March.
Crucially, the tribunal also found that Bergara did not assault Elwood, as another lie perpetrated by the club was unravelled as evidence proved it was the other way round; Elwood had been the aggressor and tried to strike Bergara twice. He also swore at him and told him “not to bother turning up for work as he no longer had a job”.
In the other incident, Dave Jolley was also aggressive to Bergara. He swore at him, poked him in the chest and ‘invited’ Danny to a meeting the following day where he would “take his contract and shove it up his arse”.
It got worse for the club as the tribunal concluded they did not hold a proper investigation into the events of the 29th March nor did they allow Danny to attend or have his case heard at the board meeting on 31st March. This allowed Jolley and Elwood to be “both judge and jury”, enabling them to take a one-sided approach to the allegations and evidence, thus the tribunal decided the club's story was “misconceived and inaccurate”. The tribunal also refuted the claims by the club that Bergara’s conduct in the previous six months had led to the incident at the Alma Lodge as no evidence was provided to substantiate this claim. Similarly, an allegation of Bergara being abusive following the function was dismissed, again the club failed to provide any evidence. The tribunal decided these allegations were “at best to be regarded as mischievous”. Finally, they concluded that Bergara’s conduct did not warrant dismissal.
It was a serious indictment on the way the club was being run that Danny’s case was not the only one to be filed during the Elwood era as three other employees made unfair dismissal claims in a five year period. It certainly suggests something of a dictatorial atmosphere hung over the club at a time when County ironically advertised themselves as ‘The Friendly Football Club’ to the outside world.
As far as Danny’s involvement in the incident was concerned, the tribunal found he didn’t misbehave before, during or after the event at the Alma Lodge. However, he was at fault for making derogatory remarks about Elwood and Jolley to Dave Jones and John Sainty. Vice-Chairman, Grahame White also testified that on the way to the function Bergara said, Jolley and Elwood had behaved like a couple of “fucking gangsters”.
Given the circumstances which lead up to this incident, it is understandable why he was annoyed and upset, anyone else in his situation would have acted in the same way.
The tribunal was also satisfied that Bergara had been invited to an official board meeting on 30th March, despite the abusive and aggressive way in which Jolley proposed the offer to him (the club actually stated that “It was a very proper invitation to a disciplinary committee at which these matters would be fairly heard”. Danny was quoted at the time “I didn’t quite fancy it, would you?!”. It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious). The tribunal, therefore, considered that 25% of any resulting compensation would be deducted to account for Bergara’s involvement on the evening of 29th March.
Bergara, showing an incredible amount of dignity, despite the extremely stressful and frustrating circumstances, told the tribunal he would have apologised for swearing had he been given the opportunity to. He apologised to his coaching staff and the hotel manager the day after the incident.
Elwood did not accept the tribunal's verdict of unfair dismissal, he rather pompously blustered “I was gobsmacked that they could come to this verdict, that he was only 25% responsible. It was more like 100%. I don’t accept any responsibility at all.”
Needless to say, the club appealed, but it was also unsurprising that in June 1997 the tribunal dismissed the appeal, stating “It appears this is a decision which is full of common sense, understanding and correct direction at every point.” and further describing the initial decision as “a model decision”.
The lies spread by Elwood and Jolley surrounding Danny’s alleged behaviour in the months leading up to 29th March, at the sponsor’s function and the purported assault of Elwood were arguably the most horrifying factor in the whole saga, but they were never held accountable. They surely knew their accusations would be questioned and eventually found to be false when the tribunal made their investigations, but they didn’t deviate from their story and the ‘manager punches chairman’ slur spread throughout football.
The case had been won but for Danny, the damage had already been done in the immediate aftermath of his sacking from County. He struggled to get another management job, despite his hugely impressive time at EP and spells in the dugout at Rotherham United and Doncaster Rovers brought little success, the pressure of having a tribunal to prepare and fight for arguably negatively contributed to his time at the respective clubs.
Not for the last time under the Elwood regime a legend was treated in such a repulsive fashion because of a dispute over money. Not millions, merely £64. They clearly wanted to get rid of Bergara considering the devious way they undermined him in the first place, but even after a poor season all Elwood and company had to do was sit down with him and discuss the issues at hand. What they did instead was discredit and lie about a man who gave them more reason than most to be thankful of his effort and determination, and they went about it in a most thoroughly unprofessional, vile and tasteless way.
This was a man who understood County more than most and understood just what being a County fan was all about, he proudly claimed that County were not a dumping ground for the players nobody else wanted nor merely content to live in the shadows of their illustrious neighbours. No, County were their own club, with their own history, plus a few thousand fans who deserved self-respect too. The way he was treated flew in the face of those profound words, he wasn’t offered dignity or respect. We can be glad he was able to tell his story, clear his name and that the truth of just how shady and crass the macho dictatorship under Elwood and Jolley was eventually made public.
Elwood continued as County chairman for the next half-decade although he and his colleagues can consider themselves very fortunate to only be found 75% responsible for Bergara’s unceremonious exit, especially when they also allowed a blatant lie to ferment around the football world which caused Danny to struggle to find another job. They are also fortunate the backlash from fans after the tribunal’s verdict wasn’t more severe. Elwood left County in 2003 with his head held high and his reputation largely intact. It’s a travesty and a shameful stain on the club that Danny Bergara wasn’t afforded such a dignified exit.