We have two pieces on last night’s edition of Panorama, which featured Notts County’s abortive take-over of 2009, today. Mark Murphy will be running his eyes over the show later, but first of all Ian King wonders what the whole debacle says about the state of the governance of English football.
If ever there was a parable for the madness of modern football, perhaps the take-over of Notts County by Munto Finance during the summer of 2009 was definitive. Notts, the oldest professional football club in the world, had been in some difficulties for a while, and the Supporters Trust – who owned 60% of the share-holding in the club – were persuaded to hand over ownership to an organisation that claimed to have the backing of extraordinarily rich businessmen from the Middle East and who promised them the earth. For a few weeks, it looked as if they might just get away with it before the whole charade tumbled like a pack of cards and Notts County were left fighting off furious creditors. And last night, the BBC’s Panorama got around to telling the extraordinary story behind it.
The BBC’s show was centred upon Russell King, a convicted fraudster claiming to have access to the vast riches of the Bahrainian royal family. King had found himself a route into the British bank, First London, and used a false guarantee of funds from them to convince the club’s Supporters Trust board and the Football League that they were planning to pour money into the club. Using one Abid Hayat Khan, under the pretence that he was a prince, everybody was fooled. Indeed, at the time that Notts were going through the FA’s Fit & Proper Persons Test, it was Khan (who, it was claimed by the programme, is currently on the run over a £1m fraud) who was approved to pass the biggest single hurdle to their taking control of the club.
Having got into the club, they persuaded Sven Goran Eriksson to take over as the manager before sending him to North Korea to meet the government there. The aim was to squeeze money from the North Korean government through the medium of convincing them to invest in return for mining rights in the country. Another company, Swiss Commodity Holdings, had been set up to facilitate this. When the money, however, failed to materialised, the plan began to unravel. Notts County was left £7m in debt and on the brink of administration, before Ray Trew and Jim Rodwell bought the club from Peter Trembling, who had unwittingly set himself up as the public face of Munto Finance before buying the club himself for £1.
The plan to get Notts into the Premier League or the Championship in the next five years was in ruins. The club was promoted at the end of last season off the back of borrowing money that it didn’t have but believed that it would get, but Eriksson quit his position at the club and, without Trew and Rodwell (a man with a past of his own, courtesy of Boston United) pouring enormous amounts of money in, relegation back to League Two after just one season remains a distinct possibility with just a handful of matches left this season. With the benefit of hindsight, though, it is not unreasonable to state that Notts County Football Club’s continuing existence should be a cause for relief for all that still support the club. The club has certainly done better than First London, the bank that put up the “guarantee”. First London is currently in administration.
King’s name was frequently being mentioned in association with this take-over from the very beginning, but mention of it seemed to invite only ridicule from Munto’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. He was, we were repeatedly told, only a “consultant”. While the focus of the Panorama programme was, understandably, King, Eriksson and the attempt to defraud everybody that those concerned came across, though, perhaps our focus, in bringing this miserable story to a close, should be on the systematic failure of governance that allowed them to take control of a football club under false pretences. It s surely worth asking the question of how those running a football club and – probably more significantly – those charged with ensuring that those behind the take-over of the club are “fit and proper” to do so were all taken in by a single sheet of paper that wasn’t worth a single penny.
Much was made of the £5m bank guarantee that seems to have allowed Khan to sail through the F&PP Test. At the time, however, it was not made public by the Football League who it was that had been tested under it, meaning that attempts to establish what, exactly, was going on behind the scenes at the club were considerably more difficult than they might otherwise have been. On last night’s show, however, everybody – Peter Trembling, Brian Mawhinney (the chairman of the Football League at the time), John Armstrong-Homes of the NCST, even the Notts supporters interviewed outside Meadow Lane – were keen to portray themselves as the unwitting victims of a scam.
The fact remains, however, that people such as the Guardian’s Matt Scott, who was doing his level best to get to the bottom of the story, was given a dog’s abuse by the very people that he was trying to protect: the supporters themselves. The Notts County Supporters Trust, meanwhile, battered by years of internal wrangling, heavy (and sometimes unfair) criticism from its own support and a hostile board of directors (as owners of 60% of the club’s shares, they were never more than majority share-holders), went against one of their raisons d’etre in surrendering their share-holding. The trust now lies moribund. In addition to this, it feels that a considerable amount of goodwill towards the club has evaporated over the previous 18 months.
Frausters use human fallibility to get what they want, and this is what seems to have happened at Notts County. In truth, it is likely that nobody wanted to believe that it wasn’t true even though there was no rational reaason to believe that somebody with bottomless pockets would want to plough millions of money into a League Two football club, and it was was this simple fact that allowed King to get as close as he did to sealing his scam. There are salutory lessons to be learnt here for the supporters of all football clubs. The single most important thing that any football club can do is to exist, and this seems to have been forgotten by everybody at Notts County during the autumn of 2009. The fundamental point is that if something looks good to be true it probably is, and this has never been truer than the bizarre story of Notts County, Sven Goran Eriksson, Munto Finance and the North Korean government.
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