Tuesday, 19 July 2011

How to Buy a Football Club...or Not!

My twitter timeline went kind of mad last night, with a peak at around 8:50pm onwards. The Dispatches - How to Buy a Football Club programme on Channel 4 was suitably hyped as must see television, yet for the most part it didn't really live up to expectations and can be seen as a missed opportunity. A view I know is shared by writers at Two Hundred Percent and The Two Unfortunates.

When the goal was gaping several times (the opportunity to expose further cracks in foreign club ownership), the investigative team seemed intent on trying to round yet another defender, showboating when they should have tapped home. Joe Sim's braggadocio about his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, was latched on to as the big name target to reel viewers in, a target that would be particularly difficult to nail, yet they still went ahead. Yet there were many, just as important, threads not pursued, regarding the network of far-eastern football investors/potential investors.

So what did the first 50 minutes tell us. For the informed football fan, probably not a lot more than we already know:

That football attracts businessmen for who breaking rules is just a minor headache to get what they want. Really!

That Bryan Robson proposes a business model where a (non-supporting) owner buys a floundering lower league club on the cheap, invests enough to try and reach the Premier League (or the Premiership as he seemed intent on referring to it) and then sells up at a profit (probably without a care about who to). What's new about that? Isn't that the Milan Mandaric model? One that he is applying to his purchase of Sheffield Wednesday?

That a footballer/ex-footballer is happy to hang around with businessmen who buy him drinks and go along with their business deals providing there is something in it for him? No - didn't see that one coming.

That Bryan Robson, former England captain, failed club manager, failed international coach is now desperately trying to claw something back from his footballing connections/ nah, can't imagine an ex-pro would be doing any of that.

That Robson's knowledge of the modern game is limited. Ask any Blades fan or Boro fan and they wouldn't disagree. Noting Sheffield Wednesday as having big investment potential, yes I can see, but the sell the training ground model he proposed wont work at Wednesday and to say they will get average Premier league crowds on 35-38,000 was naïve in the extreme. Wednesday haven't averaged 35,000 crowds for over 50 years.

That big businessmen, get to sit at the shoulder of football managers and owners at dinner? Well if certain businessmen get the ear of politicians, the PM, why are football directors and managers any different when they are being "entertained"?

That the Football League is a "simple alliance" of clubs who cannot afford to have the regulatory systems in place that identify and prevent potential shared ownership or unscrupulous owners taking over. The Football League - archaic in it's approach? Never! If the Premier League struggle to manage and impose a Fit & Proper rule, what chance have the Football League got? It has barely moved forward from the Hardaker days.

Then, after 50 minutes came the big reveal. Joe Sim was prepared to name one of his two target clubs, the one he was going to invest in with the Dispatches consortium. Photos of Bramall Lane appeared. Photos of Sim being entertained by Scott McCabe, son of majority shareholder Kevin were shown. The #twitterblades #sufc hashtags were in frenzy.

The club, he claimed, is £57m in debt (although most of that is owed to McCabe and his companies) and was available for $15m. So we are seen as ripe for investment, despite the significant debt. No surprise really, although it shows the hit McCabe is willing to take to get out. It was also no surprise to hear the names of other clubs mentioned earlier in the programme as potential targets. All with decent fan bases, most with recent Premier League experience.

So should Blades fans be embarrassed that their club was shown to be entertaining Joe Sim? Well after the initial shock of seeing us involved, no I don't think so.

We have an owner trying to take a back seat, who is looking for new investors and has promised to ensure the club is in safe hands. As he is a fan, we have more reason than most to believe the latter point. Can other club's fans feel as confident? Maybe we have misplaced confidence? God knows McCabe has made mistakes in recent years.

In advertising the fact that he is looking for investment, McCabe is going to attract a variety of different people to the club. Some will be the right kind of person, some wont. Some will be unscrupulous businessmen, where it is self evident, others may mask it well. He will not know this until they have been fully researched, met and discussions have taken place. The statement from the club this morning; that initial meetings took place, but the club decided to take it no further, were no more than I expected. 

Sim and London Nominees are not the only reported investors showing an interest in United. The Malaysian press reported the interest of "billionaire" Vinod Sekhar a man who was reportedly at Bramall Lane for the QPR match last August. A match which saw the Blades defeated and  Kevin Blackwell sacked after just 3 games of the season. This story then went quiet as a bankruptcy claim was filed against him in Malaysia, a claim dismissed just a couple of months ago. Having read some of the comments under this article regarding the case, I would suggest we proceed with caution should any further interest arise.

Interestingly, Dave McCarthy (United's Managing Director), in an interview with the Sheffield Star at the end of June reassured fans that any potential investment would undergo the utmost scrutiny;

"Investment is an ongoing search and before anything gets done it has to satisfy Kevin McCabe and his family. they want what's best for United. they don't want to do something in haste that turns out to be wrong further down the line."

Maybe to temper press speculation, maybe based on the club's recent experience, or maybe even pre-empting last night's programme? Either way we have to take the directors at their word. Trust is a massive part of being a fan of a football club. It is not a nice position of trust, but when someone has as much money tied up in the club as McCabe we have to accept his word.

So we escaped from the clutches of a man who said the need for good PR on takeover was so that they can appease the fans who can be "a bit of a headache". Nice not to know you Joe. Yet we haven't been so lucky in the past. 

I recently reviewed the book Fit & Proper: Conflicts and Conscience in an English Football Club for When Saturday Comes. You can read the review here. The book sets out many of the "characters" to have taken a seat in the Blades boardroom over the last thirty years. From the country's biggest white collar fraudster, to an Iraqi businessman later to undergo gender realignment - before a subsequent reversal. A chairman subject to an international arrest warrant to a fugitive still on the run from Interpol and a London socialite known as "The Count", with indirect connections to Libyan arms dealers. It would have been less of a surprise if Joe Sim and co had taken over.

On reflection, I think the people to be most worried about last night's programme are those with existing foreign ownership, particularly from the Far East where the number of connections made between various football investors was a concern. This was where the programme fell down, briefly casting light on these connections, before returning to Sim and Ferguson.

Do you really know who owns your club? Can you be sure that they are fit and proper? Do they have interests in other clubs? The scary thing is not that you don't know, but the Football League and Premier League probably don't know either.

Football fans as stakeholders deserve greater governance of those running the game and their clubs. There is enough money flushing around our game to fund it, so it just makes you wonder if deep down they really want it. Maybe it is up to the fans to up the ante and really demand it.

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