“I’m as mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore,” said Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. Birmingham City fans clearly can’t either. The Blues are mired in a Championship relegation battle. The club and parent company, Birmingham International Holdings (BIH) continue to lose multi-millions despite selling almost every decent player manager Lee Clark has had. And in advance of BIH’s Extraordinary General Meeting, which approved plans for it to financially restructure – and borrow – its way out of its financial woes, fans arranged their first public display of disaffection, a banner protest based around the slogan “DelayNoMore,” urging club president Carson Yeung to do just that in selling the club.
Immediately after the EGM, the club’s sole paid director, Peter Pannu, suggested that Blues’ future looked “bright,” which disaffected fans have treated as rhyming slang. And any remaining faith in Yeung will have dissolved among fans who read BIH’s announcement concerning its much-trumpeted relisting on Hong Kong’s Stock Exchange (HKSE). Pannu has made a huge deal of BIH’s relisting because the project was his responsibility as BIH’s top executive, and it actually was a huge deal, for BIH at least, as demonstrated by share-trading activities since the relisting on February 7th, including progress on BIH’s long-promised “disposal” of its interest in Birmingham City PLC with a 12% shareholding just bought by what BIH coyly referred to as “a Beijing-based advertising business.”
A “confidentiality clause does not allow for the identity of individuals to be made public at this moment,” but the business was soon revealed as “Beijing Triumph International Media Advertising Company,” although media advertising in China won’t do Blues much good as Championship strugglers, if it didn’t help them as a mid-table Premier League outfit. Buoyed by the success of “his” relisting project, Pannu deemed “local radio personality” (copyright: the Birmingham Mail newspaper) Tom Ross worthy of a half-hour telephone interview on Free Radio on February 7th. And even for Pannu, it was self-serving tripe. He blamed everyone and everything but himself, Yeung and the weather for City’s woes. He claimed to recognise that he and Yeung had to “repair their relationship” with fans and media (“that’s why I’m speaking to you, Tom”). But he destroyed much of this repair work before it started by lecturing fans and media on their “responsibilities” to himself and the club.
The interview, the first Pannu had given the station for thirteen months allowed him to explain the EGM’s significance to City and update on any club sale and Yeung’s intentions. Admirably, Ross kept his counsel through the codswallop and intermittent sense… until Pannu said supposed Blues-bidder Gianni Paladini “does not honour non-disclosure agreements” (Paladini having twice used close friend Ross’s show to disclose at length his failed bid). Pannu infamously asked “what troubles?” straight after the EGM. He suggested to Ross that “we don’t need to us the word ‘trouble,’ we need to use the word ‘issues that have been imposed upon us,’ before adding that “some people want to call it disaster…avalanche …nightmare.”
These “issues,” apparently, were “imposed upon me by the freezing of Carson’s assets” after Yeung’s June 2011 arrest on money-laundering charges, and were nothing to do with Blues’ relegation from the Premier League the previous month. And they have been solved, it seems, by BIH’s debt restructuring and borrowing, particularly the fate of £15.255m loaned via Yeung to Blues, which will now be BIH’s debt. “The club is effectively debt-free,” claimed Pannu. “So it’s got to be all good.” And if BIH’s problems hadn’t been dealt with “in the way I have, we would have been busted… possibly in liquidation, in League One by now” (instead of by May, cynics might suggest).
Even the firesales of players have been recalibrated as “not bad business, you know.” For example: “Look at Roger Johnson – he’s a good player… and where’s Wolves now and what is Roger doing?” Naturally, the sales weren’t all Pannu’s fault. “Sometimes the players want to go,” he claimed. “They hear the negativity and say ‘I want to go to Stoke because I want to move on.” However, Jack Butland, the young England goalkeeper sold to Stoke for £3.5m last January, tweeted that Yeung had “made a total mess of an amazing club,” which sent out a rather different message. Yet when Pannu asked rhetorically “Why are attendances so bad?” it was designed as a put-down of “on-line warriors who probably don’t even go to games.” Ross nailed it, however, by countering: “A lot of fans would say, ‘we’d love to come down but all the best players have been sold.’”
“Fans,” Pannu advised, “should look at it from an objective point of view ‘what is it that Peter could have done otherwise?’” And he said they should “put themselves in my shoes, what could they have done?…they’d probably have resigned and left,” his version of the school-playground classic “bet you couldn’t do any better.” Hopefully not, given Pannu’s salary. Ah, yes, the money. “Fans have got to understand,” he lectured again, “in Hong Kong, high-powered execs are paid a lot of money…had BIH not given me these sort of fees, I would not have been in England.” Only Pannu, you feel, would regard Pannu as a “high-powered” exec, in a company as small as BIH, and then be oblivious to the irony of the second part of that statement.
The background noise was not a penny dropping (though Pannu would almost certainly not let it hit the ground), even when Pannu contextualised his “whopping salary” (copyright Birmingham Mail again) with “We’re paying (Zigic),” the beanpole Serbian striker whose signing Yeung authorised, “£70,000-a-week, & he’s not even playing.” Predictably Pannu blamed the media. “This is where, Tom, you have got to be responsible,” he demanded. “Yourself and Colin (Tattum, the Birmingham Mail’s Blues correspondent) and other media outlets…it’s your responsibility to educate the fans…fanning animosity is not going to assist us sell the club.” Not that fans’ animosity needed… er… fanning, as “anti-owners is a norm in England.” Pannu said “tell me one club, apart from Manchester City, where the fans are pro the owners,” as if English club football was in a permanent state of revolution.
He “was not prepared to be (anti-Carson) because,” shock, “Carson did not want to be arrested.” And he believed that “to suddenly criticise a person by saying ‘get out of our club’ because he got arrested…I feel this is too much.” Where Pannu got the idea that criticism of Yeung was “sudden” or that getting arrested didn’t merit it, only he knows. Unarguably “chanting anti-Chinese slogans is not on,” although laying the race card on protest organisers was unfair. And in urging fans to support the team regardless, he rightly asked “What has the team done wrong?” But this was rare logic. And he ignored the key question completely: “What will your role be at Birmingham City?” Given that he was paid £389,000 for that role last year – and £688,000 two years ago – he should have had at least some answer prepared.
Pannu’s BIH role is clear. Facilitating the resumption of BIH share-trading which, he has claimed, “has got to be beneficial to the club.” He told Ross that “It will get the balls rolling” (nope, no joke there), and said it would give “those who are going to be in charge in Hong Kong” the “ability to raise capital. The proposals included the “creation of an additional 40 billion shares” (eek!) to increase BIH’s authorised share capital from HK$100m to HK$500m – their shares being almost literally ten-a-penny – and a “fully-underwritten” share placing. And the EGM unanimously approved the conversion of tens of millions of Hong Kong Dollars in loans and debts into shares (although such unanimity was possibly aided by no Shareholder being “entitled to attend and vote only against any of the Resolutions”).
However, the auditor’s report on Birmingham City PLC’s accounts, written by Adrian Stevens of suburban Birmingham chartered accountants Edwards, was a stark reminder of Blues’ need for “additional funding… to continue its operations for at least 12 months.” Stevens added: “To meet this funding shortfall, the Company will raise loan finance secured on future income… £5.4m will be made available… to Birmingham City as an interest-free loan.” Generous loan terms, but a loan nonetheless. Also “the directors (of Birmingham City) and BIH… are taking steps to secure additional external funding (through) convertible instrument arrangements…with an independent subscriber to the tune of HK$300m (approximately £24m).”
But there are no clear guarantees as to how much, if any, of these multi-millions will cover Blues annual multi-million losses. Pannu said “This is a question for the new chairman, I only take orders” (and obey them, natch). And he added “The threat of administration is not imminent if we spend prudently,” which I think was supposed to be reassuring. He also tried to reassure fans that Yeung wants to sell Blues (“he is doing it, he intends to do it”). But Yeung’s own message is less clear. His multi-resignations from Birmingham-related directorships on February 4th were less the “end of an era” than simply a condition of BIH’s relisting. As BIH announced on February 5th: “On 6 June 2013, Mr. Yeung informed the Board that he will voluntarily suspend his management duties within the Group immediately on or before the resumption of trading of the Shares and at least until Mr. Yeung’s criminal case has come to a favourable close or upon his resignation, whichever is the earlier.”
But Yeung remains the major individual BIH shareholder. He retains influence with club and company, as he always has, through various brothers-in-law; now including brother-in-law-to-be Panos Pavlakis, whose presence at recent home games led to speculation that he might replace Pannu as BIH’s presence in England…although Pannu told Free Radio that “Mr Panos” is “here to assist me.” And, lest we forget, Carson’s son Ryan is a club director who, as a twenty-year-old, is surely qualified for the role… oh yes. The announcement also added that: “the Board may consider appointing Mr. Yeung as an executive Director and/or a director of one or more of the Company’s subsidiaries… if he is cleared of all legal charges… and if it is in the overall interests of the Company and the Shareholders.” I’ll bet they “may.”
This announcement also provided reminders of BIH’S appalling governance. A report into “known transactions” between Yeung and both club and company noted “a number of patterns in general.” Most “funds allegedly received from Mr. Yeung…were remitted from third parties.” And there was ”a general lack of documentation within the Company showing the reasons behind or arrangement between Mr. Yeung and funds paid to and received from third parties; at the same time, there was lack of documentation on the commercial and ancillary aspects of the transfer of funds via/to/from third parties.”
Little wonder Blues fans have stirred from their helplessness and apathy. The “DelayNoMore” campaign has started in conjunction with the Blues (Supporters’) Trust “to apply pressure to the BIH hierarchy with the message that the time has come for the club to be sold.” And the slightly off-beat slogan came from an observation made by Daniel Ivery of the excellent fan-website Often Partisan, during one of his Hong Kong trips last year. Phonetically, it is a virulent plea in Cantonese to… er… go away. This dual message was an inventive way to garner attention but Pannu and others claimed to take offence. Hopefully Pannu’s reference to “anti-Chinese slogans” was just his misinterpretation of Ivery’s idea. Ivery admits that “it’s probably for the best” if the Chinese script no longer appears on protest banners. But the protests have thus far been peaceful, dignified… and they are growing.
Pannu’s sense of irony and ridiculousness remains elusive. “Made in Birmingham, destroyed in Hong Kong” banners should, apparently, read “made In Birmingham, developed in Hong Kong.” And perhaps the heaviest irony was that his words should fully justify fans’ protests. “A good fan,” he declared, “shows resentment when it needs to be shown.” Which currently makes Birmingham City fans very good indeed.
Further information on the “DelayNoMore” campaign can be found here.