The Football Men. Those ‘fixers’ concerned with the buying and selling of football clubs. People who carry the sobriquet with some chutzpah and have a covert influence on the financial health of the game and in some cases the very existence of individual clubs. Are they really fit and proper people to be entrusted with the task they take upon themselves? Unregulated by the game’s ruling bodies, are they safe hands in which to place the future of the clubs which they sell to any interested party they can find? Exactly what are they ‘fixing’?
Close examination of deals for the sale of clubs throws up a repetitive list of names. Financiers themselves, they are comfortable making big money deals and big money claims for the products they sell. They are accustomed to a high level of risk in their dealings, as their involvement in other ventures demonstrates. In their football dealings they take little or no risk with their own capital, being brokers of deals, although it is not unknown for them to take a percentage of the business they have brokered as payment for services rendered.
Is this a bad thing for football? I suppose it depends on your perspective to a certain extent. If, like Sky, you see football as an exciting entertainment that is able to generate millions in a global market; if you believe that the game is about watching highly skilled, highly paid ‘soccer stars’ perform for teams that are world-wide brands; if you would want your team to be one of those that is lauded in such a market then maybe you will see the potential investment from monied owners as a good thing. If you think that supporting your club through thick and thin is the way and have seen the times get thinner and thinner recently, you may be less than enthusiastic. If neither extreme has happened to your team – yet – you may not give a damn.
There are those who see investing in football as a good thing. For example, Christopher Samuelson, business colleague of agent Jerome Anderson in the failed Fortress Sport Fund attempt to buy Everton, made the Zingarevitch deal for Reading. Anderson himself offered Blackburn to Laurence Bassini before the latter chose Watford to take into choppy financial waters, introduced there by the daddy of them all, Keith Harris.
Keith Harris and his egregious PR man David Bick make a good case study in this respect. Bick has been working with Harris since at least 2002 when Harris, operating from within Seymour Pierce, had to ward off a little financial trouble in the high court brought about by involvement with a company called IEQ PLC. Harris was not convicted in this case but it serves to illustrate the financial playing fields he operates in. Bick ran Seymour Pierces’ PR from Holbourne PR. Now he is Square1 Consulting and has been most active in Harris’ recent venture – an unprecedented move into football club ownership in his attempt to buy Portsmouth. An attempt that will be material in the High Court again this week, when the administrator’s request to remove Portpin’s debenture on Fratton Park is heard. If successful the administrator will sell to Pompey Supporters Trust – unless Harris’ bid gets in the way.
Harris has been called ‘Football’s Mr Fixit’ – a title with more than one unfortunate connotation these days – and has been involved in many high profile club purchases. He is responsible for Abramovich at Chelsea (although perhaps Pini Zahavi may have some credit there) and Lerner at Villa (which, it is rumoured, Lerner may be less than happy about these days). In addition he brought Yeung to Birmingham, Shinawatra to Manchester City, the Iclandic Bank to West Ham, Laurence Bassini to Watford, Rupert Wilde to Southampton and Vladimir Antonov’s CSI to Portsmouth. Some car crashes there. He tried to broker the BSkyB deal to buy shares in Manchester United, to sell Newcastle for Mike Ashley, Everton and Liverpool at different times, and is accredited as being a member of the Red Knights in their attempt to take over Manchester United from the Glaziers – although there are conflicting stories on just how big a role he had in that. Ultimately he was indirectly responsible for the insolvency of thirteen Football League clubs during his period as Football League Chairman via the failed ITV Digital deal. In the balance of things, Dave Prentice’s words, ‘his track record in football isn’t anything to write home about’ would seem to have some analytical value. ‘Fixing it’ is not a term you would want to apply to Harris’ effect on football in general against the balance of evidence.
So – what exactly is Harris fixing? And for who? There is an air casualness in Harris’ business affairs if his Seymour Pierce’s 2011 fine by the AIM regulators is anything to go by, a company that has since gone out of business owing creditors £6m. There was certainly a casual approach to examining the credentials of some of the people he did business with in football. Ethics appear to be in short supply in some cases. Bringing CSI to Pompey is a case in point, as CSI owner Vladimir Antonov was already non grata with both the FSA and the American Authorities well before the deal was struck. You could argue that this was not Harris’ problem as the Football League passed them as fit and proper, but then again, reading their story you have to ask how careful Harris is in choosing who to deal with. Indeed, Harris was a long time associate of another ‘football man’, Chris Akers, who was on the board of CSI and so may have been swayed by his judgement. However, add to that the no longer fit and proper Shinawatra, the banned Bassini and the unlikely to be fit and proper Portpin of Pompey fame, with whom Harris has done business in the past as well as the in present, and one could feel that questions have to be asked.
This new move of Harris’ in attempting to actually own a football club is interesting in the light of his past business dealings. His agent, David Bick, makes a big thing of the ‘growth play’ in football club investment. Buy cheap – especially if it can be done out of administration (never mind the bad faith of all those unpaid creditors) – ‘restructure’ and sell on at a profit is an enticing business plan. It is seems to be what Portpin attempted to do with Pompey in selling to CSI. It doesn’t always work, as Coventry fans can tell, particularly if the club is light on assets, such as not owning its own ground.
A ‘growth play’ can be made through debt management and, as we know, football clubs tend to be run on debt. Remove historic debt that has to be paid to someone else (here is where administration comes in handy) and add debt that benefits the club (whether this is nominally from owners, unpaid fees for services rendered or from third parties such as ‘passive investors’) and you get a kind of repetitive ‘debt on, debt off’ manoeuvre. Third party debt can include a mark (to be exploited) or from those wishing to move money into a vehicle for various motives (legal or less than legal). Debt is what the modern football world is built upon as it allows tax-free income streams to occur.
Of course, such a play doesn’t necessarily allow for anything significant in the way of investment in or subsidy of the playing squad. However, a restructuring of income streams and liabilities means that a club can maximise existing income streams to give more room to allow a larger budget for players. The key thing is that growth and value has to come out of existing income streams. A growth play can see a club operate more efficiently in terms of customer experiences, but this is not a ‘sugar daddy’ investment plan – no matter how wealthy a region the new ‘investors’ come from. Often profits are made by ‘flipping’ the club on to new owners, although promotion to the Premier League can earn you dividends (see the Blackpool owner’s recent pay day, for example).
Harris’ bid for Pompey bears the promise of backing from Asia and the UK. In the light of the quality of person Harris has brought to Pompey in the past, fans were well aware of the need to check out the antecedents of Harris’ associates, even more so because the bid was from the man himself. In particular, where Harris has chosen to go head-to-head with a bid from the fans themselves in the form of the Supporters Trust, scrutiny was surely to be expected. This proved to be a sensitive area however. It may be thought that people shy of publicity may be well advised to be careful who they associate with, but then we don’t know and can’t tell in these particular circumstances why Harris’ ‘passive investors’ have chosen to back his bid, particularly as one is a complete unknown in the football world.
Harris made a bid to buy the club back in February which encompassed a lease back deal for the ground from debenture holder Portpin. How Portpin were to re-gain control of a ground, currently in the hands of the administrator, in order for this to happen was never explained. A powerless 15% sop of shares was offered to the Trust and rejected with the attitude, ‘why have 15% when we can get 100% with our own deal?’ Now we are told that Harris is prepared to lay out £6.3m to buy, not the club, not the ground, but the debenture held by Portpin on the ground. It seems to be an attempt to separate club and ground one way or another. You have to ask where this money has come from when six weeks ago there was no money for ground purchase. You can ask, but you cannot publish the answers you find without threats of court proceedings. Such is the transparency of the bid.
So, can you trust these ‘football men’? Ultimately you can only look at their actions and decide, for their words do not hold water. In words, Harris claims his bid will cut all ties with the past ownership history of the club. In deed, he brings on board as financial director John Redgate. A man appointed by Portpin’s administrator Andrew Andronikou in 2010 and kept on by Portpin and CSI. A man implicated in the Hiroshima deal that saw the diversion of season ticket money away from the club. The man who helped put the club into administration in February 2012. Redgate is a football man too – a Pompey fan of long standing. But he is also a businessman with a history of business dealings with Portpin’s administrator of choice, Andrew Andronikou.
This is clearly not a classic growth play. If it was, why pay £6.3m for a debenture about to be challenged in the High Court? Why burden a club in severe need of re-development and in League 2 next season with that amount of debt? The ground could be got for half that sum after the hearing. The Pompey Trust are offering £3m for the ground in a bid that injects equity not debt, one that has Football League and administrator approval. Harris has neither, despite his assertions to the contrary on Portsmouth’s Express FM Radio’s Football Hour last Friday. The Football League will be handing the Golden Share to no one but the Pompey Trust. No share – no club to play at Fratton next season. Why make a play for a club, its ground or the debenture on its ground that could, if successful, drive the club into liquidation? Are these the actions of a ‘Football Man’?
So you have to ask, just what is Mr Harris trying to fix? And for who?
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