Even I’m getting bored with my cynicism these days, so I can only apologise to you. The moment I saw the ice being applied to Wayne Rooney’s “injured” ankle at Bolton last weekend, I was applying those inverted commas in my head. I was not a jot surprised when Man Yoo’s BBC spokesperson Michael Phelan said that Giggs was the main doubt for the Valencia. Even when the “Rooney out for three weeks” story came out and I saw pictures of the spud-faced nipper leaving hospital, I never once thought, “Oooh, maybe this injury is for real after all.”
When I read the Portsmouth News headline “Clampers are not down to us, say Pompey,” my first thought was, “what’s Gaydamak up to?” remembering that he still owned the land around Portsmouth’s Fratton Park. And every time Andrew Andronikou opens his mouth, I hear Jeremy Paxman’s voice inside my head (which is not fun), saying “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” (even though Paxman no more said that than Bogart said “play it again, Sam”). Now, OK, I was right about Gaydamak. And there is a school of thought the size of Lincolnshire that I may be right about Andronikou. But my ability to see the worst in football finance people from the word go is, I’m sure, clouding my judgement on some issues.
So I’m more than hoping that there’s a face value attached to recent claims by AFC Bournemouth chairman Eddie Mitchell that his club are coming out of the financial mire in which they’ve been for some years. Mitchell is a property developer – and there’s land about Bournemouth’s Dean Court ground. He’s borrowed money to help pay down other debts (BTW: where has the phrase pay DOWN come from? Are the Glazers paying UP debt? At Man Yoo?). Question marks remain over his chairmanship of Bournemouth’s non-league near-neighbours Dorchester Town. And he’s a property developer…
All that Mitchell seems to have going for him is that he’s neither a banker nor Ken Bates. Yet maybe, just maybe, he’s doing the right thing at Bournemouth. We know that Mitchell has worked very hard since becoming Bournemouth’s chairman, because he’s said so. Often. Sometimes you’d wonder what the Bournemouth Echo newspaper would do if he went down with laryngitis for a fortnight. We know someone’s had to work hard because of the laugh-if-it-wasn’t-so-sad incompetence of so many of his predecessors, particularly his immediate one, Alastair “Savi to his mates” Saverimutto. And Saverimutto and his co-investor Paul Baker were themselves picking up a miserable financial legacy going back to the days of, to pick an example purely and utterly at random without implying anything whatsoever at all, Harry Redknapp.
So, if Mitchell is realistic about Bournemouth becoming debt-free this month, it will be an achievement. Bournemouth have, of course, already performed one Eddie-based miracle. They were minus 17 points thanks to their financial history, at the start of 2008/09, with one foot, an arm, a leg and a fair bit of torso in non-league football. But under the tutelage of the next-but-one England manager, Eddie Howe (you read it here first), those 17 points were wiped quickly away. And promotion followed last season, with the club now riding high among the Brightons of this world and South Coast derbies against Southampton on the fixture list rather than the wish list. On this week’s fixture list, in fact. Much of the early on-field work was done under Saverimutto and Baker. So it hasn’t been the hugest shock that on-field progress has continued under Mitchell, whatever reputation he may have brought with him to Dean Court.
Mitchell arrived as the club in July 2009, as the mouthpiece of the “Murry” Group, whose figurehead, Adam Murry, had been involved in protracted, occasionally vitriolic negotiations with Baker to buy the club off him for some months before a deal was done. Murry’s reputation was that of a latter-day saint, and some of the press coverage he received when his interest in Bournemouth was first revealed suggested he might have been on the beatification itinerary of the Pope’s recent visit to Britain. Since Mitchell took over as chairman, though, he’s also taken over the microphone. One week, the headline was “Murry completes Cherries Takeover.” The next, it was “Mitchell: I’m a winner.” And it’s been Mitchell ever since.
Bournemouth were on the staple diet of a modern-day Football League club in crisis – HMRC winding-up petition and transfer embargo. The debts were alleged to be a whacking £1.7m and Mitchell sounded perpetually non-plussed at the financials which confronted him, although due diligence should have told the tale. “It’s beyond me how the club expected to continue not to pay the taxman”, he said soon after arriving. And he declared that in the future, “if we can’t pay for it, we won’t buy it”, basic economic logic to many, a cultural revolution in football.
There were gripes from supporters that the new board weren’t stumping up any cash themselves, particularly as rival bidders for the club at the time allegedly had the cash to “pump in” to the club. Mitchell had the verbal begging bowl out almost from day one and although he was soon in a position to announce a reduction in the debt figure, he didn’t make it clear how. He had already established a reputation for using a lot of words to say not very much, so when he announced that “we’re down from £1.5m to £1.3m in realistic terms,” fans didn’t feel especially enlightened.
Newspaper headlines such as “Embargo still in place” (Echo, 29 August 2009) and “Attempt to relax embargo fails” (Echo, 13 January 2010) probably weren’t calming anyone’s nerves. And a November story headlined “Mitchell keen for Redknapp to join the ranks” certainly wasn’t. And the overall debt figure was confusing. There was a “legacy debt” which went back to previous administrations – in both senses of the word. There were “historic” tax debts, which were announced as paid in mid-November. And there were “on-going PAYE and VAT liabilities” which weren’t announced as paid and kept “Bournemouth served with winding-up petition” headlines in regular use until March.
I wrote in these pages the last time I tried to separate the legacy from the on-going: “Mitchell has made it abundantly clear that neither he nor his fellow directors will be funding” any debt reduction, “replacing one debt with another.” From £1.8m down to the £800,000 claimed in March, Mitchell and his fellows could claim they had been true to his word. Not now. Before seeing off one of the unlikelier Russian bids for a football club by telling Vladimir Antonov and Roman Dubov to Goand Sodov, Mitchell announced that a director had “provided” a “cash boost” of “six figures-plus” to cover “the barren summer period.”
Announced as an “injection” of funds, it was, of course, the usual “financial commitment by way of a loan,” (how can you lend an injection?). The details were as elusive as ever. The director was un-named. The amount was merely confirmed as “more than six figures” (seven?). And the terms of the loan might as well have been locked deep in a Bank of England safe, for all that was made public about them. One respondent to the Echo story about the loan figured that “using Mr Mitchell’s own figures, we now owe more than when he arrived,” what with loans to pay off legacy debts, this year’s season ticket money being spent last year, and now this new loan of indeterminate thousands.
Cynics were well-fed in the summer with the extra announcement that property developer Mitchell was interested in buying a “development site” behind Dean Court’s main stand…funny he hadn’t thought of that before. And the close season saw all sorts of grandiose schemes and copious self-confidence oozing from him. In July he suggested the fans could buy the stadium in time for its 100th birthday later this year, the board having “investigated the possibility of forming a trust” to buy the ground from London-based property group Structadene, who had bought Dean Court via a sale and leaseback agreement in 2005 – a deal that has been of SUCH benefit to the football club, as such deals ALWAYS are. And the following month he felt safe to tell a fans’ forum that the debt was down to £300k and “I think by October, we’d like to think we’d be debt-free.”
Well, its October now and no further debts have emerged. So we await an announcement with baited breath, one which won’t be long in coming if Mitchell’s past form is a guide. In the meantime, the club’s audited accounts for 2008/09 were submitted to the Football League, as per the club’s most recent administration-exit agreement. They were late, which put a loan signing in jeopardy. But when they did appear, no-one could remember when audited accounts had appeared before. And the figures fully backed what Mitchell had said about the financial state he and the Murry Group walked into last summer. He was responsible for Bournemouth’s finances and he’d told the truth. And no-one could remember when the truth about Bournemouth’s finances had been told before. Whether it’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth is something the cynics are still pondering. But in an age when football’s finances were mismanaged into the ground even while there was an economic boom going on around them, it would be nice… no… make that wonderful if, just for once, a football club had got itself out of a financial hole, in a fit and proper manner. Maybe. Just maybe.