“Are they any good?” It’s a simple question. And it is in the top one of questions supporters should ask of bidders for football clubs. But, as the BBC’s flagship documentary programme Panorama revealed this week, no-one at Notts County was asking the question while the club was being taken over by ‘Munto Finance.’ Or any question at all for that matter. Not that supporters of other clubs going through ownership ‘issues’ have any reserved seats on the moral high ground. There were many lessons to be learned from Panorama about the need for supporter vigilance and scrutiny of their clubs’ owners and executives. Among some fan bases, those lessons have been ignored.
Birmingham City’s appearances in the headlines since their stunning Carling Cup final triumph have been as much about their dismal finances as their dismal form. Hong Kong’s stock exchange regularly features announcements about Birmingham International Holdings, City’s parent company. And they are usually about money lost, money borrowed or money not raised. Yet some Blues fans are convinced of “an anti-Blues and anti-Chinese agenda” in the midst of our national football press. While others suggest the Premier League is probing City’s finances because of Uefa’s ‘pro-Liverpool’ bias.
Meanwhile, Watford’s takeover, now all-but-complete, continues to turn logic apex-over-elbow, with some supporters refusing to acknowledge new owner Laurence Bassini’s demonstrable business inabilities. “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” some say, even when the book is entitled “Bankruptcy: How I did it.” In such circumstances, cynicism and mistrust ought to be supporters’ and commentators’ default position. Panorama this week offered a timely reminder of why this should be so.
Panorama has taken this default position on all the footballing issues it has covered in recent years. And rightly so, as evidenced by how accurate they were about the nature of the 2018 World Cup bidding process. This week’s programme, The Trillion Dollar Con-Man, about Russell King and his (mis)adventures at Notts County last season, was a more reactive piece, although it clearly took over a year in the making, as former County chief executive Peter Trembling is shown petulantly cutting short an interview with presenter Peter Marshall which took place in January 2010, shortly after County’s finances unravelled.
Throughout 2009, those among Notts’ support and certain other writers (most notably Matt Scott and including Ian King and others on this site) who smelt a bubonic plague’s worth of rats in the deal were pilloried for having an anti-Notts agenda or an anti-small-clubs-in-general agenda. They (we) apparently couldn’t stand the thought of “little” Notts buying their way up the league towards Premier League glory. This was nonsense. The idea that Notts, the oldest club in the league, could be galvanised to return to the top-flight for the first time in almost twenty years had a deal of romanticism about it. The only “agenda” on show were internal.
The Supporters Trust, under which the club had largely struggled in English football’s fourth tier, split over the issue of ceding their majority shareholding in the club to what turned out to be a fat bloke with a dodgy piece of paper and more fake sheikhs than a News of the World investigative journalists’ reunion. And the grounds for cynicism got firmer each time a ‘fact’ emerged about ‘Qadbak,’ the investment vehicle of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin supposedly behind Notts’ takeover in June 2009. The identities of those supposedly involved were either hidden, or belonged to people who were either not involved, or were not who they claimed to be… or a combination of the three.
The deal made as little sense as the criticism of those questioning it. But, as Panorama reminded us in chilling and forensic detail, Scott and others were right. Not only were Notts owners not “any good”, they and their finances didn’t really exist. Other supporters, however, have failed, or refused to learn the mistakes of their Notts counterparts. The Premier League are about to probe Birmingham City’s finances. City want a licence to play in front of half-empty European stadia in front of TV viewing figures embarrassing even for Channel Five – the ‘Europa League’ to its few mates. This has been accurately reported in both the national and local press.
It is safe to say, and I have said it before, that the Birmingham Mail newspaper has taken an altogether more forgiving line than the Daily Mail newspaper on the club’s financial situation. But the Premier League’s concerns haven’t been raised on the basis of anything I’ve written (unless I’m way more influential than is safe for the game), or anything journalists like Scott or the Mail’s Nick Harris have written. The often dire warnings about City’s abilities or otherwise to continue as a “going concern” without the injection of shedloads of cash have come from the very professionals hired by the club’s parent company to produce their financial results. The figures are undeniable and undeniably bad.
Regular seven-figure sums in proverbial red ink have naturally begged the question, “are they any good?” about those responsible for Birmingham’s finances. And this question leads seamlessly into “who are those responsible for Birmingham’s finances? Are they responsible for these losses? Are these losses the serious concern suggested by the professionals?” These are not rhetorical questions. I don’t have to shove an Aston Villa season-ticket out of the way to get at my keyboard. Of the Premier League’s current bottom six, there are three teams I would like to see go down. Birmingham are one of the other three. But for every Blue sharing the legitimate concerns raised by their club’s finances, there’s a headbanger claiming press conspiracies against their ‘little’ club. Or that “Uefa want Liverpool in the Europa League at any cost and that means blowing us out if they possibly can.” It might test a few interesting theories if Birmingham were to be relegated. But there are other clubs who would make more desirable test cases.
The most blinkered, Notts County-esque supporters, however, appear to be from Watford. Their takeover is literally questionable to the point of caricature – changing your name from Lawrence Bazini to Laurence Bassini AS A DISGUISE is something you really could not make up. And although Bassini is a less shadowy figure than King, it hasn’t been for the want of trying. The Watford Observer sent Bassini an open letter on April 8th, a week after his takeover became ‘wholly unconditional.’ It contained a set of reasoned questions, including a number about Bassini’s unimpressive business background. As a natural follow-up, it questioned his ability to finance the deal and his unwillingness to reveal any details of his sources of funding. And the tone of the letter was an impatience stemming from the fact that all such questions should have been answered long before any takeover deal was accepted.
A week later, Bassini gave a detail-free reply which stressed that it was “difficult at this early stage” to answer the questions – even the ones about his past and the deal just completed – filling the vacant spaces with meaning-free drivel about being “custodians here for a snapshot of time.” And having avoided anything resembling new information, he then claimed “good communication is key to generate the unity which already exists at Vicarage Road,” apparently in all seriousness. “Unity” at Vicarage Road hasn’t existed since Elton John had all his own hair and was married to a woman. But the opportunity to unite against Bassini’s joke of a takeover has been passed up. Many fans complained that the letter was too aggressive and would lead to the Observer’s relationship with the club souring as it had done when they’d been critical of, and right about, previous Watford chief Graham Simpson. Others suggested that it was too early to be questioning Bassini on such matters. And one reader unintentionally hit upon a key point, asking: “Don’t you think before he was accepted by the board and chairman, he told them of his plans for the club in great detail, otherwise he wouldn’t have got this far?”
Well, frankly, no. Bassini was “accepted” only by major shareholders Lord Ashcroft and the afore-mentioned Simpson…and his wife. And their interests were far less in the future of the club than in getting back loans they’d made to the club and secured last year. Ironically, the ‘right’ questions have surfaced at Arsenal. There must have been enough Stan Kroenke articles in the Guardian newspaper on the day he took majority control of the club to fill a supplement all their own. The paper’s three ‘heavyweight’ sports finance journalists, David Conn, Owen Gibson and the afore-mentioned Scott all had their say… and then had at least another one each. There was enough and more about Arsenal’s history, tradition, history and tradition of custodianship and history, tradition and custodianship of Arsenal’s rich heritage.
But they, alongside Arsenal’s Supporters Trust and independent supporters association, have also been careful not to let anything about Stan Kroenke’s bid for majority control slip in, metaphorically, under what is clearly one of Premier League chairman Dave Richards’ cast-off hairpieces. In particular, Kroenke’s “confirmation” that he won’t “do a Glazer” has come under microscopic scrutiny, with every conceivable interpretation of his words analysed for a sign that he might take money out of Arsenal’s coffers to help fund the takeover and/or future share acquisitions. Four years ago, Messrs Hicks and Gillett promised not to “do a Glazer” at Liverpool but then did one. Lessons from that disaster were learned. And so it is that Kroenke, the one owner mentioned here who really could be “any good”, is coming under the most pressure.
It is to be hoped, therefore, that fans of Birmingham and Watford were watching BBC1 on Monday night and not the half-time analysis from QPR v Derby. Port Vale fans, largely refusing to question the motivation for property developer Mo Chaudry’s bid for the club, would also have learnt more of use from Peter Marshall on the Beeb than from anyone at Loftus Road. For example, Abid Hyat Khan fooled the Football League into deeming him ‘fit and proper’ to run Notts – “the Football League was either gullible or it was impotent,” suggested Marshall, to the gloriously uncomfortable Brian Mawhinney, league chairman at the time.
But John Armstrong-Holmes, the Supporters Trust chairman who drove the sale of their 60% shareholding to Khan, had months longer to check if he was the Bahraini ‘prince’ he claimed to be. As a representative of Bahrain’s Information Affairs authority noted: “To be a prince, you have to have a principality.” Something which, it seems, Armstrong-Holmes neglected to check. There were more examples of this throughout a packed 29 minutes, more evidence that Panorama is worth the 50 minutes it used to occupy before 9pm when I was a boy. (Indeed, it was a hugely entertaining programme. Not just the execrable Executive Peter Trembling hissy fitting out of an interview. Twice. But the revelation that King had spent $90,000 of his ill-gotten County gains on “five-star hotels and food,” which was a less shocking revelation when you eventually saw King in all his obese glory towards the end. The idea that this tub of lard could “run rings round regulators and politicians” amuses probably more than it should).
The Notts County tale has not yet finished. The Serious Fraud Office is investigating King’s entire fraud, which is probably why a number of questions arising from County’s experiences remain unanswered. For example, how Trembling was appointed in the first place. But with Panorama making repeated references to their evidence of King’s real involvement with County, more answers will probably be forthcoming. In the meantime, supporters should learn to be more cynical about potential new owners. There are a lot of them to be cynical about, after all. And what harm if such cynicism turns out to be misplaced. Better surely to be wrong like that, than to ignore the warnings. “Are they any good?” – it’s a simple question.
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