Peter Pannu has his own niche in the moral quagmire into which the higher levels of modern English club football has sunk. In his five years at St Andrews, Pannu has been overpaid and has underachieved in roughly equal measure, enriching himself (and it has often seemed as if decisions on his remuneration have been his alone) while Blues league position and liquidity plummeted. As I’ve written before, Blues’ finances would be less unhealthy had Pannu been on performance-related pay. And the ex-Hong Kong policeman and barrister recently managed to nutshell all his considerable faults into a remarkable social media outburst at Daniel Ivery, author of authoritative fans’ website Often Partisan and co-author with Hong Kong-based lawyer Will Giles of Haircuts and League Cups, an equally authoritative account of Blues’ recent on-and-off-field history.
Pannu’s St Andrews tenure appeared to have come to a largely unmourned end when the club announced that his “service agreement” would “not be renewed beyond 30th September,” the same day as parent company Birmingham International Holdings’ “consultancy contract” (controversial and lucrative in equal measure) with Pannu’s Asia Rays Ltd company ended.
However, Pannu remains a big cheese/stink at the Cayman Islands-registered, Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE)-listed company and is up for re-election to its board at their Annual General Meeting on December 23rd. If Pannu were to stand and be judged on his Blues’ record, he would poll somewhere between the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Liberal Democrats. However, BIH board elections appear to more closely resemble 1970s Rumania than 2014 Rochester…Pannu was re-elected to the board in May 2013 with 92.89% support, possibly because, according to the formal results announcement, “no Shareholder was entitled to attend and vote only against the Resolutions at the AGM.”
This time, there are tales of board splits – a civil war which has hamstrung all sorts of decision-making, including Blues’ future ownership, if not (yet) the “new” club regime under Pannu’s supposed-replacement as BIH’s Birmingham rep, Panos Pavlakis. This suggests, strongly, that Pannu’s directorship is under pressure…to which he has reacted badly, judging by recent on-line behaviour. BIH formally announced their AGM agenda on November 25th. And Ivery called the elections a potential “watershed moment,” which could prove “that things are back on track in the BIH boardroom,” or “that the Company remains mired in a civil war which could just rebound on the club.”
Ivery and other Blues fans have long suspected that “former” owner Carson Yeung still influences club management. And in an Often Partisan article Just say No, on November 25th, Ivery claimed that Pannu’s re-election would be bad news; for Pavlakis, who has publicly criticised Pannu’s working methods at St Andrews; and for the club: “Pannu coming back would, from an administrative point of view, have dire consequences.” Ivery concluded: “All I can hope is that shareholders vote ‘no’.” One comment on this article came from “brainchildbluestar,” suggesting Ivery was motivated by “hatred of Carson and Pannu.” It heavily criticised Pavlakis who “thus far has done f*ck all for the club that Pannu has not done before” (true…in the sense that Pavlakis has yet to bring Blues to within seconds of League One on million-pound annual remuneration).
And it also referenced a renewed bid for Blues from Jeremy Wray, who had fronted an aborted close-season bid as a director of Soccer Management Worldwide (SMW). “Wray and team” had apparently “come to do due diligence at the club, as approved by Pandy but…blocked by Panos.” And “brainchildbluestar” wondered “why legitimate buyers are prevented.” Ivery said “privacy means I can’t give any details” of “brainchildbluestar,” although the phrase “Pannu is incorrect if he thinks I hate Carson” hinted at his thoughts. Indeed, stylistically – in as much it had any style at all – the post resembled Pannu at his haughtiest. Whoever “brainchildbluestar” was, on December 2nd, the “real” Pannu added his thousand-plus words worth, which Ivery probably took some pleasure in publishing “unedited and with no comments,” given both their (lack of) style and substance.
Perhaps mindful of Pannu’s love for litigation, journalists tied themselves in linguistic knots to avoid suggesting that Pannu was under any “influence” when he posted. But the post certainly replaced Pannu’s trademark careful, precise English with a dizzying mix of grammar-lite rant and ‘Google translate’ phraseology. Pannu’s English far outstrips my Cantonese…and sometimes my English. Not here. “At times you really do annoy us in Hong Kong (and) your book is not well received by Carson,” Pannu admitted, to Ivery’s delight, I’m sure. There were legal threats (“I can assure you that your book will receive some High Court attention in Hong Kong”), headline-grabbing references to “shithole pubs” and “girly bars” and claims that “I don’t hate you, I just pity you” and “your site does not bother me.”
Had Pannu stopped there, the post would have remained no more than an amusing footnote. However, there were 778 words left after Pannu declared that he didn’t give a “F… F…” (flying f*ck, presumably) and 718 after he declared he had “wasted a minute or two already.” These 700+ words have already threatened deeper repercussions. After claiming to “love the club as much as you” (on his money, who wouldn’t?), Pannu claimed Blues were “stuck with BIH for ever” as “the club is not for sale anymore and I feel my efforts to sell the club is over.” However, BIH told the HKSE the previous day merely that they would not accept “informal, non-binding offers,” which made Pannu’s comments an unwitting admission of huge failure and either ultra-share-price-sensitive inside information…or complete tosh.
Pannu referenced the “different conflicting directions which the major shareholder and the majority of board members wish to take.” He claimed he and Wray had “a strategy that would have allowed us to sell the full club by January 2015.” And if that wasn’t inside information enough, Pannu referenced “a £1.8m potential tax liability which is not factored in the UK cashflow yet which comes from the novation of the funds in Hong Kong,” during Pannu’s tenure as BIH chief…he neglected to mention. “If that materializes, funds runs out in January/February 2015…let’s hope the HMRC won’t come knocking.” With all this inside information now outside, BIH unsurprisingly suspended share trading on December 4th.
Pannu blamed the failure to sell Blues on “different views that Carson have to those now controlling the board…Carson certainly wanted Wray to proceed…which did not meet with the current majority of the board members’ views, who wish to sell to another party, possibly in China, as opposed to a British owner.” And he added that “a local owner is preferable,” which may have surprised Solihull-based Gianni Paladini, whose failures to get the time of day from Pannu in 2012 and 2013 were legendary. But despite this new-found localism, Pannu still found time for some dismal playing of the race card.
Ivery, the club and Blues’ Supporters Trust were quick to condemn. “Following legal advice” Ivery published a statement condemning Pannu for comments which “have implications with regard to inside information” and dismissing Pannu’s legal threats. He found it “incredible” that “a managing director, chief executive officer and executive director of a main board-listed company in Hong Kong, as well as acting chairman and director of a Championship club would openly post (such) comments.” And he “passed these comments to the Securities and Futures Commission and the (HKSE) for their consideration.”
The club said that “all involved” were “wholly unimpressed and saddened by the unprofessional and ludicrous actions taken, which seem intent on discrediting and damaging individuals at the club,” calling them “entirely un-necessary,” which was perhaps open to misinterpretation. But Pannu’s financial allegations were “categorically refuted.” Blues Trust, meanwhile, wrote in impressive detail to Shaun Harvey at the Football League’s “Operations centre,” a role which, given Harvey’s adjacency to Ken Bates’ “operations at Leeds United, could be seen as the height of irony. They cited the “evidence” just made “available” by Pannu, and the League’s regulations, to demonstrate that Yeung was “convicted of a dishonest act” and therefore “subject to a disqualifying condition” which prevented him legally “exercising an element of control over a club” or “having the power to determine or influence” club management.
They claimed Yeung was a “shadow director,” defined in legislation as “a person in accordance with whose directions or instructions the persons constituting the management of the club are accustomed to act.” With Carson’s 21-year-old son Ryan on Blue’s board, it was easy to demonstrate that he at least had been “accustomed to act in accordance with” Carson’s directions since he was in nappies. They quoted Pannu (“the different views that Carson have to those now controlling the board”) to demonstrate “an element of control over the affairs of Birmingham City.” Blues Trust have since launched an “e-petition against Pannu’s board re-election,” which at the time of typing had 1,500 signatures. Pannu’s “tenure,” they said, had been “fraught with issues” including his “excessive remuneration.” And he lacked “leadership and…respect for the club’s true custodians – the fans.” Pannu’s re-election, they concluded, “will see a return of the issues,” adding: “We need to send a clear message to major BIH shareholders in Hong Kong that the re-election of Peter Pannu is not only damaging for the club but also damaging for their own business interests.”
Despite these considerable and admirable efforts, it will be difficult to inspire either the League or BIH shareholders to take requisite action. Fans’ cynicism towards the League is all-too-well founded. Without legally-watertight foundations, the League have been desperately reluctant to act against owners – as exemplified by the pains taken towards even temporary action in such a superficially open-and-shut case as Massimo Cellino’s at Leeds… and the inability to pin anything significant on Bates over three decades. Certainly if lawyers can penetrate the dense legal jungle of Financial Fair Play regulations, they could run lanes through Football League regulations during a lunchtime pint. And Pannu’s “evidence” won’t even be that challenging…the board’s ability to block Wray’s takeover suggesting Yeung has no boardroom influence or control at all.
So Blues remain hamstrung by distant events and by the Premier League’s non-existent structural scrutiny of Yeung’s takeover in 2009 (though there’s no evidence that the Football League would have been more stringent). Worse, Yeung’s immediate legal future looks brighter, with a recent Hong Kong appeal court ruling enhancing his own appeal’s prospects. And Pannu’s survival instincts are powerful, especially when League regulations appear as unfit for purpose as he is.
“Difficult” is not, however, impossible. The more people who sign the Trust’s petition, the better…Blues fans or not. And Pannu’s recent social media forays exposed a man under pressure. It is not clear what BIH directors want for/from Blues. But Pannu proves that it is not always “the better the devil you know.”
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