Goals Soccer Centres, the chain of 5-a-side football pitches, has called in the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to examine an apparent accounting fraud that has forced it off the London stock market.
Sky News has learnt that Goals has handed the SFO a dossier of evidence in the last ten days following what it described as “improper behaviour on the part of a small number of individuals historically within the company”.
The decision by the board of Goals to involve the SFO comes week after the company saw its shares delisted because of its inability to produce an accurate picture of its finances.
A VAT liability of at least £12m emerged earlier this year, and led to the accountancy firm BDO producing a report alleging that Goals’ former chief executive and chief financial officer colluded to produce fictitious invoices.
Last month, Goals warned that the potential misdeclaration could be materially higher than the £12m originally forecast and said it had made little progress resolving the issue with HM Revenue and Customs.
The crisis has forced Goals’ board to put the company up for sale and triggered a bitter row with the Sports Direct International tycoon Mike Ashley, who had become the football venue operator’s biggest shareholder.
Last week, Mr Ashley walked away from a bid for the company.
It was unclear on Monday whether the SFO intended to launch a formal probe into the accounting issues at Goals, which are already understood to be the subject of an investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority.
Keith Rogers, Goals’ former chief executive and the architect of its stock market flotation, has previously denied any wrongdoing and did not respond to an approach from Sky News.
Bill Gow, the former finance chief, has not commented on the allegations raised in the BDO report.
The scandal raises fresh questions about the auditing of a public company’s books following prominent accounting frauds at the likes of Patisserie Holdings.
Goals operates about 45 venues in the UK, and has a joint venture in California with City Football Group, the owner of Premier League champions Manchester City.
Throughout the six-month period in which its shares were suspended, it insisted that trading was robust, with analysts expectant that it will find a buyer willing to take on the business.
Mr Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United FC, had lambasted Goals’ directors for failing to appoint Kroll, the corporate investigator, to probe the apparent wrongdoing at the company.
Last week, he renewed his attack on them, saying they had presided over a period of “skulduggery”.
Goals had a market value of £20m when its shares were suspended in March, although it is unclear what the company might trade for in any eventual sale.
People close to the company, which employs about 700 people, said it remained cash-generative.
Goals’ chief executive, Andy Anson, who had only been in the job for just over a year, resigned several months ago to run the British Olympic Association (BOA).
He had said he would remain with Goals until next month to assist with resolving the accounting crisis.
Goals and the SFO declined to comment.