Birmingham City are the latest Premier League club to be lined up for foreign ownership. As Mark Murphy reports, the new potential new owner has already had a go at buying the club, but fans are split on whether his involvement and there are question marks over his financial credentials.
Birmingham City chairman David Gold isn’t easy to like. There’s all the rubbish he spouts on football matters – his enthusiastic support for the Premier League’s execrable Game 39 plan and the less than stunning “insights” that he brought to a recent 5Live debate on football debt and its (un)sustainability. As if that’s not enough, there’s also his inappropriately slicked back hair – for which he’s years too old – and sickly grin. Whilst some people ooze class, Gold merely oozes.
Even when prospective Birmingham City owner Carson Yeung Ka-Shing was sniffing around the club in 2007, it was difficult to summon any sympathy for Gold or his partner in crime, co-owner David Sullivan. Yeung was arguably more sinned against than sinning back then, and was treated with the utmost disrespect and disdain before he became the Sulaiman Al-Fahim of his day by failing to deliver long-promised finance to complete his takeover of the club. This time around, however, he has rather more to offer than a patchy business and football history, a two-bit, loss-making clothing firm as an investment vehicle and…Steve McManaman.
Money, of course, is what counts in the world of Gold and Sullivan, despite protestations as recently as three months ago that fell little short of them saying that they didn’t want Yeung’s sort at St Andrews. Money doesn’t talk to them, it screams. This time around, Yeung has already, very wisely, given the fullest available backing to Blues manager Alex McLeish. Nothing undermined him more in the public eye in 2007 than his refusal to allow the Birmingham board to pursue contract renewal negotiations with manager Steve Bruce. However, it was disingenuous of Gold and Sullivan to lay Birmingham’s 2008 relegation from the Premier League entirely at Yeung’s door. As late as February, Gold declared McLeish “the coup of the year… tell me of another club who has done better in terms of acquisition than Alex and his team”. Birmingham were two places above the relegation zone when McLeish took over, a situation which looked safer still after Blues won his first game in charge, 3-2 at Spurs. By the end of the season, though,Wigan Athletic, was the answer to Gold’s apparently rhetorical question.
This time around, Yeung seems good for the money, so long as plans to pay back a £57m bridging loan via a Grandtop share issue come to fruition. City’s share price leapt 40% on news of the takeover talks, in no small part because the figures currently being banded about are double what was mooted in 2007. Then, Yeung paid a £1.09m non-refundable deposit prior to his investment vehicle Grandtop International acquiring 29.9% of the club. This time he has been required to find £3m. In 2007, the cost was 41p per share, but this time Yeung’s offer is £1 per share, valuing the club at a Newcastle-esque £81.5m.
In 2009, there seems also to be a greater willingness on the part of the club’s shareholders to sell. Grandtop’s bid announcement referred to “irrevocable undertakings from certain shareholders (all of which are existing board members – or associated entities)”. This time around, though, the colour of Yeung’s money has inspired a sea change in the attitudes of Gold and Sullivan. As recently as late-April, Gold bemoaned that, “We [meaning Sullivan and he] had to pledge £2m each to see us through to the next parachute payment. Yeung was asked when he was going to put in his third – and we’ve never heard from him”. Little wonder, you might imagine. Largest individual shareholder or not, Yeung and his representatives had been flatly refused a place on Blues’ board, and the urgency for £6m raised questions about Gold and Sullivan’s financial husbandry. Of course, that urgency also plays a part in their new-found affection for Yeung. At the same time as Yeung was being lambasted for not coming up with his third, Gold told a fans’ forum: “We are actively seeking investors…we would be happy to dilute our shareholding if we could put Birmingham City up there alongside Manchester City. The more wealthy people we can have at the football club the better”.
Yeung is no Sheikh Mansour. Despite numerous “Hong Kong billionaire” headlines, his fortune is believed to be more like something in the region of £150m, or at least it was a couple of years ago. Grandtop’s latest accounts, to March 2009, showed losses of over £7m and contained words which have recently struck fear into business hearts from Lehman Bros to Liverpool FC: “…the existence of material uncertainty which casts doubt on the company’s ability to continue as a going concern”, and although Gold’s contributions to the BBC Radio 5 Live debate included the admission that: “I’m a mere millionaire, and today you have to be a billionaire to have any real impact on the major clubs”, it seems as if £150m may be enough of a fortune to run Birmingham City in the current climate.
There is likely to be residual disenchantment towards Yeung among fans who still feel let down by his 2007 shenanigans but, if Gold and Sullivan are replaced by real moneymen, fans’ attitudes may undergo a similar sea change. It has been a while since Sullivan’s heart as truly been in the club. He has for some years been under various clouds of suspicion for his role in Birmingham’s much-investigated financial practices. He was threatening to leave even before talks with Yeung broke down in 2007 and before the abuse he and Gold received in the immediate aftermath of Blues relegation.
Never knowlingly undersold, Sullivan said in October 2007 that he’d be back “to push the club to the next level” if Yeung‘s bid collapsed, which, in a sense, is what transpired. It just so happened that the next level turned out to be a level down. He did, however, declare that “most of the board would love to stay and finish the job I started fourteen-and-a-half years ago”. It is, therefore, no surprise that of the three leading players at St. Andrews – he, Gold and outspoken MD Karren Brady –Sullivan is the only one that is likely to head for the exit, although after the criticism Brady heaped on Yeung in 2008 when he tried to get his representatives elected to the club board, their relationship will be worth watching.
Gold is being retained as “honorary” chairman, which suggests some distance between him and the St. Andrews purse strings. Just as well, given his surprisingly tenuous grasp of modern football economics. On BBC Radio 5 Live recently, he argued that Premier League debt was sustainable because “if you look at Manchester United, they owe £500m and their payments on that would be £30m a year – and Manchester United generate that amount of money with comfort”. When embarrassed presenter George Riley pointed out that the figures were £700m and £70m, Gold initially tried to laugh it off, saying that, “it’s going up as we speak”, before being forced to admit that, “that is worrying.” “That’s 10%,” he added, displaying little better grasp of arithmetic than of footballing economic reality.
In response to calls for stronger regulation of clubs incurrence of debt, Gold said, “You have to be very careful that you don’t go back 50 or 60 years, when Blackpool were the top club, because you would end up with a very bland Football League”. Nobody knew why he said this, unless he’d had a nasty experience with a stick of Blackpool rock as a child. He also that he felt that Manchester City breaking into the top four would, “address the issue you are all concerned with. The top four would budget for the possibility of not getting into the Champions League, which means reducing debt”. Unfortunately, none of the other guests seemed able to point out what rubbish this was, too busy were they picking their jaws up from the floor. Still, he concluded, “the Premier League is the greatest league the world has ever seen and will continue to be so for many years to come”.
There are few certainties about Birmingham’s future, whoever takes charge of them. Even among those keen to offset the woeful press Yeung has received since he started sniffing round English clubs at Sheffield Wednesday and Reading about four years ago have to admit that. Questions, however, have arisen about Yeung’s fitness and propriety for club ownership. Some months before Yeung’s involvement with Birmingham, Hong Kong business magazine ‘Next’ uncovered allegations against him of share-ramping, the artificial driving up of share prices for personal financial gain, on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Three years earlier, Yeung was fined for persistent breaches of the rules on declaration of company interests. Yeung is no Thaksin Shinawatra, to revisit the Manchester City comparison. There is, however, enough there for seeds of doubt to be planted in fans’ minds by those opposed to his take-over.
Grandtop’s specific plans, beyond helping the club “retain its Premier League status”, should emerge over the next few days. It is hoped they show more scope and imagination than the stereotypical promises which eroded his 2007 bid’s credibility long before the money ran out. His 2007 plans to add “the best Chinese players available” to Birmingham’s squad was a marginally better idea than Thaksin’s suggested Thai additions to Liverpool’s squad when he bid for the Anfield club in 2004, but they won’t have Cameron Jerome or James McFadden quaking in their boots. Brady certainly thinks the new plans are exciting – “I can foresee links with the powerhouse Chinese economy” – but she would have to say that, wouldn’t she? Nevertheless, if Yeung’s arrival divests English football of any significant influence from David Sullivan or Gold, it could be argued that it will be to the benefit of the English game as a whole, if not necessarily particularly good news for Birmingham City Football Club.