Birmingham City – Out With The Old & In With The New
Opinion is polarised in football about Birmingham’s new frontman Carson Yeung (not ‘owner,’ you’ll notice; takeovers just cannot be that simple). Some would agree with the man who sneered: “He’s not going to put a penny in…I don’t think that’s likely to change.” Others would back the man who declared: “We believe his people can take this football club to the next level”. Yet former Birmingham chairman David Gold offered both opinions. This year, too. Even individual opinions are divided, it would seem.
Birmingham fans are less divided than once they would have been about Gold going. The former (much to his personal regret) chairman was always a less repulsive figure than fellow former co-owner David Sullivan. The Gold family run the Ann Summers empire, relatively harmless stuff alongside Sullivan’s “real” pornography (Gold’s own involvement in the “business” is buried in most profiles of him) and, in 2005, Gold bought the FA Cup, the trophy which was presented to pre-First World War winners, to stop it leaving the country.
Much of the goodwill garnered by his part in Blues’ resurrection from the old Third Division to where they are now has, however, dissipated in more recent times. The Blues have been a yo-yo club, like city rivals West Bromwich Albion, and the charges of lack of investment levelled at Gold’s Albion counterpart Jeremy Peace have attached themselves to Gold and Sullivan too. Gold’s departure from St. Andrews was hardly endearing, either. Sullivan couldn’t wait to get out the gate – and off to another club, any club (West Ham…Charlton…ulp…Norwich).
Former Managing Director Karren Brady took her considerable pay-off and ran, but Gold lingered, assuming that Yeung’s regime couldn’t get going without the benefit of his experience and that they’d want him around anyway. Gold certainly didn’t want to go without the FA sinecures his Birmingham chairmanship offered him, and through them the opportunity to pontificate on football matters. He was one of the few vocal supporters of the plan to play a 39th round of Premier League fixtures around the globe. And because he helped Birmingham to survive Premier League relegation rather better than clubs such as Southampton or Leeds (practice makes perfect?), he has often been a ‘go-to’ figure for media discussions on football finance.
This has exposed his limitations. Whatever qualities he used to build up a considerable business empire outside football weren’t evident from an embarrassing performance during a recent BBC radio panel discussion on football’s relationship with money. He was clueless on the level of Manchester United’s debt and interest payments (“that’s 10%, that’s incredible! That will have to be rescheduled or they’ll go bust”). He claimed that, after Peter Ridsdale “lived the dream,” Leeds didn’t start selling players until they were relegated, which is plain wrong, and I’m still lost for an explanation for: “We have to be careful that we don’t go back 60 years, when Blackpool was the top club…because you’d end up with a very bland league”. Maybe he had a row with brother half-way up the tower one summer, or some dodgy candy floss that still repeats on him to this day.
But will Blues fans miss him now he’s gone? Not for a while yet, it would seem. Certainly not if Yeung continues to double the amount of money he claims he will make available to manager Alex McLeish in forthcoming transfer windows. The figure travelled from “£20-40m” to “more than £80m” in the space of two days. And this rather surprised and dismayed of his new Blues’ boardroom colleagues, who were reportedly unaware that this would be announced – and probably weren’t anxious for rival clubs to be gifted such information ahead of January transfer negotiations.
However, although Yeung and his people have determinedly made all the right noises during their first week in charge (and some other discordant ones: “Alex McLeish is a beautiful man.” Really?), there remain many imponderables surrounding Birmingham’s future. Naturally, being a modern football takeover, there are conflicting reports about the scale and sources of the ‘new’ money being brought in. Yeung’s company, Grandtop, has barely made a profit in four years, let alone a multi-million pound one, despite its rise from “small-scale clothing company” (Telegraph, June 2007) to “Cayman Islands-registered investments, entertainment and sportswear business” (Birmingham Mail, October 2009).
A £57m “bridging loan” had to be taken out to fund the takeover, underwritten by “Kingston Securities”, a Hong Kong brokerage firm 51% owned by Pollyanna Chu. The “glamorous Hong Kong billionairess”, naturally, has a chequered financial past, being the subject of multifarious investigations by, and sanctions from, the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) earlier in the decade. As indeed, was Yeung himself (it isn’t recorded whether their eyes met across a crowded SFC hearing). Meanwhile, new “vice-chairman, finance”, Peter Pannu, regaled us with tales of Triads in an exclusive interview with the local press, thus pre-empting the inevitable national media focus.
Pannu was charged with, and acquitted of, all sorts during a meteoric rise through Hong Kong’s police ranks – becoming a “senior inspector” at 29 after only five years in the force. But, as he explained, he was “dealing with very, very vicious people” and “was set up by these same people I was trying to eradicate.” (Richard Scudamore, you feel, won’t intimidate him much). “If there had been any wrong-doing, I wouldn’t have been allowed to become a barrister,” he added, perhaps unwisely. However, Chu’s and Pannu’s ‘experiences’ pre-date the Premier League’s “fit and proper persons test”, which was introduced in August 2004 and not applied retrospectively. So they don’t come within its remit. This in itself is no harm. After all, West Ham’s Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson was convicted of embezzlement in 1991 in a massive Icelandic financial scandal and he’s still a fit and proper person to run a football club.
Of course, Yeung isn’t Birmingham’s owner any more. Repayment of the aforementioned bridging loan, reportedly this week, has come via a Grandtop share issue. So Yeung owns only 14% of Blues’ holding company, re-named ‘Birmingham’ International Holdings. Hence, he was the Blues’ “president” when he took his seat at the Emirates Stadium, and until any publication of a Grandtop/Birmingham shareholders list, yet more identities of yet another club will be unknown.
The new board are a mixed bunch. There is the PR-savvy appointment of Michael Wiseman, son and grandson of Blues’ ex-chairmen going back eons, as vice-president. Michael Dunford is a solid appointment as Chief Executive, for his wealth of experience at Derby and Everton, and for not being Peter Kenyon – briefly linked with the role during some particularly scurrilous rumour-mongering. But Sammy Yu seems destined to use his “vice-chairman, football” role to give McLeish an unsolicited “hand” on the training pitch, based on his knowledge of the… er… Morden and District Sunday League.
In 2007, Yeung was criticised for interfering in playing matters when Hong Kong Rangers chairman. Rangers coach Tim Bradbury, sacked after only three matches, complained about a “Mr. Mok”, who also offered opinions alongside Yeung. “A bit of a shambles,” he concluded, understating nicely. To be fair, Yu’s experience is more extensive: “I was fortunate enough to meet great players like Willie Henderson and Johann Cruyff when I was coaching in the 80s in Hong Kong.” And whatever Cruyff couldn’t teach, I’m sure Henderson could. Also, he mentioned, “Peter Reid and Joe Kinnear, they are my good friends too.” What could possibly go wrong? If I were Alex McLeish, I’d be studying Kevin Keegan’s recent, and Alan Curbishley’s forthcoming, Premier League tribunals, and googling “constructive dismissal.”
Beyond the inevitable, and understandable, questioning of the new board’s past, there’s been no shortage of negative publicity. Yeung was dismissed as a “Hong Kong barber” by a spiteful Sunday Telegraph ‘investigation’ which amounted to… reading the papers over recent months. It re-hashed all the Chu and Pannu stuff above and threw in observations about Yeung “vanishing into obscurity” before pitching up at Birmingham in 2007, which suggested that the Telegraph hadn’t read the Sheffield papers, as Yeung expressed an interest in Wednesday nearly three years ago as a “multi-millionaire casino owner” (Sheffield Star, December 2006).
Meanwhile. Vico Hui, the “new David Gold” has been banging on about Birmingham becoming China’s Premier League club, citing Chinese basketball player Yao Ming’s NBA success as a business “model”. This depends on a Chinese footballer being a ‘new Lee Bowyer’, and McLeish’s willingness to pick him (see “constructive dismissal” above). But, as Yeung says, we “have businesses in China and the contacts to sell Birmingham City”, which the Premier League will know about after their extensive “fit and proper persons” investigations. He also added that, “We will be more popular than Manchester United or Chelsea.” If the words, “run before you can walk” spring to mind, you are not alone. With all these imponderables about Blues’ new regime, after a week and more of Yeung and his people “setting out” their plans, some Blues fans may already miss the days of (G)old.