So, Scottish venture capitalist Craig Whyte is not fit and proper to be a football club owner and director. That is amazing. I’ll be avoiding feathers for a few days, that’s for sure, because you could knock me down with even one. In one sense, and possibly two senses, the Scottish Football Association’s declaration that Whyte “is not considered a fit and proper person to hold a position within Association Football” is amazing.
Firstly the SFA’s initial statement does not clearly define “a position within Association Football.” As it stands, he could be disallowed from selling golden goal tickets at a non-league club. So don’t expect him to be shouting “two for a pound” at Banstead Athletic anytime soon (not that he has ever had any link with that club at all ever). Secondly, it is amazing that someone has actually failed to meet football’s “fit and proper” criteria. Even a TV pundit as anodyne as the BBC’s Mark Lawrenson asked “has anyone ever failed a fit and proper persons’ test?”, in connection with Portsmouth FC. Their previous owner-but-two, Ali Al-Faraj, was deemed fit and proper by the English Premier League despite failing to provide proof of existence, let alone funds.
For some time, the test’s only failure was Rotherham’s Denis Coleman in 2008, failed the test due to involvement in two “insolvency events” in which he was arguably a victim, not the problem. Whyte has seen himself as a solution, not the problem. He still did this week, if the story about he talking takeovers with hoaxers from Celtic-fan website Huddleboard are to be believed (and some, I accept, would consider that a big “if” given the story was a Daily Record newspaper “exclusive”). We will soon find out if he still thinks this – he has seven days to respond to the SFA independent inquiry’s findings into his fitness and propriety. His track record in self-belief and shame avoidance/evasion suggests he might. “I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of… my track record speaks for itself,” he said last October, minutes before his record said the opposite (see below).
I have never claimed any inside knowledge of Whyte’s business past. I have just read lots about him since his desire for a “position within Association Football” was first reported in November 2010. But even I seemed to twig that something was amiss before the SFA. Last month, I began a different piece on Whyte for this website. I reproduce this beginning below, in case anybody thinks this piece could be entirely filed under “wisdom after the event”:
Since Scottish venture capitalist Craig Whyte began his life on planet football he has said a lot… no… make that a LOT. So much in fact, that 100% consistency has almost inevitably proved beyond him. Whyte has talked at length, to many different audiences, about many issues where perspectives have moved with the times. And he has offered many opinions which have been overtaken by events. However, what he has failed to do, amongst many other things in the last eight-and-a-bit months, is provide any evidence whatsoever that he was, or is, a fit and proper person to bear the office he holds in the game. Business practices employed by so many business names in football usually reveal two things: that the gentlemen concerned (and it is all men…so far) know exactly where the edge of the law is in whatever they do; and that they know exactly where the edge of truth is in whatever they say.
Many believe Craig Whyte to be a typical example of this sort of businessman. Some did come to this conclusion from his earliest days on planet football (for example, Private Eye magazine) and some have come to this conclusion late. Yet some believe that Craig Whyte is a typical businessman full stop; that his business practices are common practice. And that when Whyte says, as he did last week, that he has been “involved in no criminal wrong-doing whatsoever,” he means he has done nothing wrong. Scottish Television (STV) viewers will have formed a view on a cousin of this opinion, called “nothing to hide.”
The STV “incident”, well-documented though it is, remains a good place to start any suggestion that Whyte wasn’t right for football. And it certainly bears repeating (he says, as he… er… repeats it). In Scotland, the events of Thursday October 20th are the stuff of legend. In England, they still make friends of mine wonder how Whyte got away with it. “It” was his claim, transmitted on STV’s evening news, that he “had nothing to hide” about his business past. This claim was minutes before, and designed as a spoiler of, a BBC documentary on that subject.
Whyte had dismissed the programme, entirely erroneously, as “largely based on internet chit-chat and bloggers” and he told STV’s David Cowan that “I’ve got nothing to hide at all, I’m very open.” Minutes later, the programme revealed – from formal legal and government sources, not “internet chit-chat” or “bloggers” – that Whyte had been disqualified as a director for seven years, something which he had, well, “hidden” from entities ranging from STV News to the PLUS Stock exchange, the latter from whom he was legally obliged not to “hide” this. That ought in itself to have stirred Scotland’s FA into the action they eventually took last month, choosing the most judge-sounding person in Scotland – the right honourable Lord William Nimmo Smith – to check Whyte’s fitness and propriety to be in football.
There was plenty more to suggest that Whyte was worth a look under such criteria. The ‘complex’ business history which emerged from the BBC’s documentary was not exactly news even to those like me who were relatively little-informed about Scottish business. It was no state secret that Whyte was a young business success who disappeared to Monaco in 2000 when lots of things went wrong. Google “Craig Whyte – Monaco”, pick a page purely at random, give yourself an hour and you’ll discover Whyte “fled Scotland under the shadow of a tax probe,” was “officially insolvent” and “owed £3.5m to a single creditor.” And many, many more. You will even discover Whyte was “once dubbed ‘the next David Murray’” – the winner of any irony awards going in June 2004 when that comment appeared in the Herald newspaper.
Had the SFA done this, it would not have led them to deem Whyte unfit or improper. As is the case now, investigations into wrong-doings do not equate to actual wrong-doings, something which Whyte’s modern-day critics would do well to remember. But it would have led them down the path followed by the BBC, which would have led to the documentary evidence upon which the BBC’s programme was based and would surely, in turn, have led them to ask more pertinent questions of Whyte than they did – i.e. any at all.
Contemporary issues with Whyte’s business conduct were not hard to find, either. I certainly find it difficult to believe that a London-based satirical magazine – albeit a well-renowned one such as Private Eye – is better-resourced than the SFA to do so. In the fortnightly publication’s mid-April 2011 issue, two months after Whyte was reportedly “on the brink” of entering Scottish football, the Eye published considerable details of his aversions to filing company accounts on-time. It quoted from auditors’ (low) opinions of filed accounts, raising huge concerns over whether Whyte companies were “going concerns”, stating that “financial statements” failed to “give a true and fair view of the state of the company’s affairs” and that some accounts “have not been prepared in accordance with (legal) requirements.” But apart from that…
It also noted failures of companies which did file on-time and Whyte’s tendency to resign as their director just before they collapsed. (As I typed, Pritchard Stockbrokers, from whom Whyte resigned as company secretary on February 20th, entered “special administration,” providing a perfect contemporary example of this scenario. That was kind of them). And the list of company names in the article makes familiar reading now. Pritchard made an appearance alongside Tixway UK, Merchant Capital, LM Logistics, all flagged up as areas of concern eleven months ago, none of which appeared to remotely concern the SFA.
But even if you the above seems to be a mix of the unproven and Celtic-centric paranoia-driven drivel, it begs the question: if it took Smith a fortnight to dismiss Whyte’s fitness and propriety, why did the SFA not take that time during Whyte’s months of interest in becoming involved in football, between November 2010 and May 2011? This question remains begged even though SFA CEO Stewart Regan gave an answer to it on November 30th 2011, after Whyte’s formal admission that yes, he had been disqualified. When BBC Scotland “asked if it was the SFA’s duty to check such matters when a person takes over a football club, Regan told (us): “…given that clubs are changing their directors and people are coming and going every day, it is impossible for the SFA to investigate every single person across every professional club in Scotland.”
This was what I term a “classic Scudamore,” in (dis)honour of EPL CEO Richard Scudamore’s interview tactic of deflecting genuine criticism of his or the league’s conduct by bullishly rejecting criticisms which weren’t being made at all. Leaving aside the unlikely-sounding scenario of “clubs… changing their directors… every day,” Regan wasn’t asked about “every single person across every professional club in Scotland,” and the SFA were not asked to investigate them all. He was just asked about those buying control of a professional club – surely a narrower field altogether and a yearly rather than daily occurrence, unless the Scottish media have missed a good few real “exclusives.”
Doubtless, Regan and other leading Scottish Football administrators, such as Regan’s Scottish Premier League counterpart Neil Doncaster, would ask where they would “draw the line” with such investigations. But even that would not be an especially difficult question. Transactions which attract the attention of “Takeover Panels” might be a good place to get the pen out – certainly better than barely starting. The SFA have reduced fit and proper persons’ tests to box-ticking exercises, letting the “investigated” tick their own boxes. The test might as well boil down to: “Are you a crook or not?” for all its apparent effectiveness.
An increasingly long list of people and organisations, not just internet chit-chatters and bloggers, concluded that Whyte was possibly unfit and improper. The SFA should have topped that list. They tailed it. They may no longer deem Whyte fit and proper for a role in Association Football. But when it mattered, they thought he was, or did not care enough to check. If Whyte’s admission into Scottish football ends in disaster, as Regan himself warned this week, it will be a disaster entirely of his organisation’s own making.
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