For some, it was the romantic football story of the summer, whilst for others it was a story that didn’t quite make sense. The take-over of Notts County and the subsequent arrival of Sven-Goran Eriksson and Sol Campbell changed the future of Notts County, but is everything at Meadow Lane sweetness and light? Munto Finance, an ‘investment vehicle’ of ‘QADBAK Investments Ltd’, have talked the “building a community club” talk as if they were the Supporters Trust they’d popularly replaced, only with a lot more money. However, doubts still lurk about the set-up and attitude of the new regime, and news that the takeover is unlikely to be ratified by the Football League until after their October 8th board meeting will only add fuel to those that are suspicious of the sudden interest of investors in the hitherto unprofitable world of lower league English football.
It’s unclear why the non-ratification was a Sun ‘exclusive’ this weekend. Certain Notts directors received the seal of Football League approval ages ago, since when media outlets have pointedly emphasised that the “ultimate beneficiaries” of the takeover are still unknown. This is what the Football League meant when their spokesman told reporters that “discussions are on-going with regard to the club’s ownership structure”, by pure co-incidence, the phrase a Football League spokesman used when talking to the Guardian nearly a month ago…and the Telegraph nearly two months ago.
Football clubs’ “ultimate beneficiaries” have long been a protected species from identification. Last year, Football League chairman Brian Mawhinney wrote, in response to the then culture secretary Andy Burnham’s famous ‘seven questions’ on football governance: “off-shore investment vehicles (are) impenetrable when it comes to transparency”. He complained that “the legal position prevents greater transparency”, revealing that he’d “had discussions with your Cabinet colleagues on this subject”. Leeds chairman Ken Bates doesn’t know the “ultimate beneficiaries” of Leeds’ owners, Forward Sports Fund, despite being their “UK representative” to the extent that he pleaded it in court.
QADBAK, in the meantime, have bought the BMW Sauber F1 team, under a thus far comparable cloak of anonymity. The US website grandprix.com, which prides itself on in-depth F1 news coverage, provided an interesting non-football perspective on the new team owners. “The company will be represented by a Swiss person,” noted a news article, dripping with disdain, “which tells us that whoever is buying the team does not want us to know who they are”. It arrives at the perhaps surprising conclusion that “’Ltd’ in the company’s name suggests that it is probably registered in one of the Caribbean tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands [the ‘home’ of Leeds United’s’ Forward Sports Fund and many, many more], the Bahamas or even the Channel Islands”, and goes on to explain the tax implications (you pay less) and says such arrangements “preserve the assets of private individuals.”
BMW have trotted out the same line Notts fans got about QADBAK representing “the interests of certain Middle East and European-based families”, helpfully narrowing down their potential identities to about 15% of the world’s population – noting that QADBAK could be an acronym for any number of combinations of Qatar and other Middle Eastern nations. Munto is presented as a “BVI company” to add to its self-portrait as representing “a Middle East-backed investment fund based in Switzerland”, which together covers all bases bar “Made in Taiwan”. Grandprix.com’s key conclusion is that “as an independent…company answerable to its shareholders, BMW needs to be quite sure that any deal is done with the right kind of people who have the kind of money that is needed” .
As long as Munto’s anonymity remains, this is impossible for BMW and Notts. Of course, football’s authorities aren’t nearly so thorough. As long as investors’ identities don’t include a recent prison number, anyone can join in, and only an indeterminate proportion of football’s authorities need to know such details. Supporters? No chance. A Munto spokesperson told the Telegraph in July, in another previous “Munto have yet to pass the Fit and Proper Persons Test” story. “As is normal with such (investment) funds, the investors enjoy confidentiality. Unfortunately, supporters will have to look at the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson and accept that the individuals are unknown to them”.
This would be hard to swallow even if it wasn’t delivered in such a superior, patronising tone. Why investors have to “enjoy” confidentiality to “preserve” their assets isn’t always obvious. An “X for no publicity” box would certainly have protected Newcastle’s Mike Ashley from the opprobrium he has been subjected to and what Sulaiman Al-Fahim will be subjected to if Portsmouth don’t pick up a Premier League point soon. Surely there are sophisticated-enough PR machines around to keep investors’ public personae to ‘name, rank and serial number’? Indeed, Al-Fahim has that machine – it goes by the name Ivo Ilic Gabara. He’s just too fond of self-publicity to use it.
The Notts takeover is starting to feel as if it has taken too long for there not to be problems. It is over three months since the takeover was confirmed and nearly a year since former Notts chairman John Armstrong-Holmes first met with new investors’ representatives. Armstrong-Holmes entered into confidentiality agreements over these talks from the start – which has been forcefully argued as a dereliction of his duty as a Trust representative on the club board. But whatever the rights and wrongs of that, such agreements suggest Armstrong-Holmes knew who he was dealing with, and could therefore be forced to tell us now. If he never knew with whom he was negotiating away the Trust’s majority shareholding, then his role in this whole affair would seem grubbier than ever.
So far, Munto’s record isn’t good. They tried to end a groundsharing arrangement with Nottingham Rugby Club, an arrangement which had helped both clubs in financially darker days. Their money hasn’t quite yet bought the success fans crave, although Notts being on the fringe of the play-offs rather than the relegation zone is a success of sorts. Whatever galvanising effect Munto’s money has had on Notts has been matched, and more, by many of their opponents – Morecambe a case in point. Moreover, in the headlong rush towards Munto’s money, Notts fans have forgotten, or overlooked, one of the less-vague promises the investment vehicle made in June:
“(We will) run the club in a reasonable manner…to ensure that after an initial period of investment, the Club is able to steadily rise through the tables depending upon its own resources (my emphasis).
If Sol Campbell at £40,000 per week is not to be the last “investment”, Notts will have a lot of their “own resources” to find, much sooner rather than later. Peter Trembling dismissed as “laughable” suggestions that the Football League are “worried” about Munto’s takeover, and Notts said they were expecting a “statement of satisfaction” from the League with regard to the takeover any day now. However, it was Notts’ expectations which proved to be laughable, as the League upgraded their “discussions are on-going” line to “analysing information (and) making further inquiries.” These will last some weeks yet, nearly four months after the takeover was “completed.” Someone should be “worried”, because if Munto aren’t declared “fit and proper”, will Notts have to give them – and Sol, and Sven – their money back?
Edit: Of course, Notts’ financial situation may be eased slightly if the rumours that Sol Campbell has quit the club after one match have anything to them. According to The Times this morning, “The episode also casts yet more doubt on the future of the club after their takeover, which has come under the scrutiny of the Football League. The precise backers behind Munto Finance are unknown and rules state that all owners must pass a fit and proper persons test”.