Wednesday's woes on hold for now
Companies Court at the Royal Courts of Justice is a gloomy place at the best of times and really depressing the day it deals with the winding-up list.
Hundreds of businesses are consigned to the dustbin in a matter of hours and behind each failure is a story of bad luck, broken promises and dodgy decision-making.
In that regard, Sheffield Wednesday are no different to the fading firms, ill-fated enterprises and assorted Del Boys they shared a trench with on Wednesday.
But a club with 143 years of history, one of football's most famous grounds and a loyal fan base in England's fourth largest city should never darken these doors.
So how did it get this bad?
This isn't the blog to provide a full analysis of how an institution that spent most of the 1990s in the top half of English football's highest division came to find itself on the brink of doom but I can shed some light on the most recent chapter.
I'm not going to start with The Relegation (any of them). My story starts last week when club officials were presented with the first serious offer to rescue Wednesday from their current crisis.
"Serious" is the key word here because unlike the numerous would-be saviours who had linked themselves with the Owls in recent months, Milan Mandaric had actual cash in a real bank account.
The 72-year-old might not be everybody's cup of tea - Wednesday chairman Howard Wilkinson also chairs the League Managers Association, an organisation Mandaric has frequently upset - but his plan had its backers.
Foremost among them was the Co-operative Bank, Wednesday's largest creditor. Owed £23.5m and counting, the firm cannot extricate itself from football fast enough and was willing to take just £7m from Mandaric to walk away.
The former Portsmouth owner and (still) Leicester City chairman had also agreed deals with four of the six men, all current or former directors at Hillsborough, holding loan notes against the club. Unfortunately for Mandaric, the two not onboard were the most important: Dave Allen and Mick Wright.
Allen, the majority shareholder at Chesterfield, is owed £2.4m by the club he served as chairman for four eventful years until 2007. Like the Co-op, he is willing to take a haircut but doesn't want a scalping. That is what he claims he was offered - a one-off payment of £300,000, not the three instalments of £500,000 he thinks is fair.
To the outsider, this looked like a case of high stakes poker between two old card sharps. To the insiders at the Co-op, watching through their fingers, this looked like recklessness.
Wright's reaction to Mandaric's overtures was harder to gauge. Some suggested he was willing to take the same discount on his £800,000 debt as the rest of the creditors, bar Allen. But more canny observers realised he was playing a different game.
The boss of a quintessentially Sheffield firm, ELG Templeborough steel company, Wright and partners were formulating their own plan to buy Wednesday.
Good, you might think, two bids are better than one. And in Wednesday's case it was better than that. There appeared to be as many as five options on the table last week.
Former Owls goalkeeper and manager Chris Turner was still talking up the Middle East-based group he had been championing for a month or more, club sources were claiming there was a different consortium from that region in the running, while there was also a second group of local businessmen trying to resurrect their "Wednesday Forward" fans-partnership plan.
By Tuesday, the five had become four - Turner's group melting away - with the two local groups, Wright's and Wednesday Forward, leading the way. But any chance of a deal to head off the date with HM Revenue & Customs, the club's most dangerous creditor, had long passed.
With the Co-op adamant it would not bale them out again, Wednesday had only two real options: persuade the court to give them more time or opt for the bankruptcy protection that administration provides.
Which brings us to events in Court 55.
The taxman's battles with football have been a bountiful source of material for this blog so I will keep it short: HMRC does not like being messed about by "companies" which appear to be running expensive operations whilst failing to pay taxes.
This week's winding-up petition was the third the taxman has issued to Wednesday in five months. The first was rolled over and the Co-op settled the second with a "this really is it" cheque of £1.1m. But the problem with tax is that it keeps coming.
So two months later, Wednesday are back in court owing £600,000, although by this stage it isn't even that amount. It is actually £1.4m because of interest, late-payment penalties and VAT.
So it was on a sticky wicket that the club's barrister opened proceedings with a request for a 28-day adjournment to enable the club to pursue talks with a group of local businessmen. Suddenly, the two leading bids had become one.
HMRC's barrister ignored this revelation, ploughed straight on with Wednesday's history of tax avoidance and asked the judge to give the club a choice of administration or liquidation. The Co-op barrister then popped up to say that if the judge was leaning towards the latter then an administrator had already been lined up.
The club's lawyer interrupted this worrying narrative with her second surprise. She suggested her HMRC counterpart wasn't fully apprised of the facts, otherwise she would know the club had spoken to a higher-up at the tax office who had sanctioned their adjournment request. At this point, the judge said "erm, this sounds complicated, let's continue after lunch" or words to that effect.
What happened next was, in the context of Companies Court, dramatic. The Co-op lawyer was double-booked after lunch (I'm not making this up) so Mr Registrar Jacques agreed to press on.
This interlude gave the club's barrister enough time to kick the shins of the Co-op barrister, who now changed her tune to say the bank was supporting the request for an adjournment. HMRC's barrister, meanwhile, had checked with the office and discovered there was no late change to her brief - she should continue to say "no".
The Co-op's support, however, was the clincher for Jacques. Wednesday got their adjournment but only under the "exceptional circumstances" of the takeover talks and main creditor's patience.
He underlined this point with a statement as chilling as anything I heard during the Portsmouth debacle: "You are clearly trading insolvently and you are very probably doing so using HMRC money." HMRC's money is our money. Once this perception of your behaviour takes root, you do not need a judge to say this is your last stay of execution.
Wednesday's chief executive Nick Parker was a shaken man when he spoke to the press outside the court. He said he was angry with the charlatans and time wasters who had brought the club to this precipice and urged those angling for a better pay-out to put aside their selfish agenda and work for the greater good. Most of all, he just said he never, ever wanted to be put through that experience again.
Wednesday fans around the world will know how he feels.