Since I first ventured onto these hallowed pages back in about 1924, there have been those amongst the readership convinced that I’ve had to move aside my Aston Villa season ticket and “Champions 1981” coffee mug to get to my keyboard, whilst Peter Withe winning the European Cup via both posts from a yard and a half out plays on a constant tape loop in the background. I’m nothing special, though – as many will agree, regardless of the context. The “readers’ comments” section of many a website, from here to the Guardian via even the Blues’ very own Birmingham Mail, has long had theories of conspiracies and agenda against the St Andrews club. And after the events of ‘Survival Sunday’ (copyright, BSkyB), Blues are back in the Football League, where so many writers apparently believe they belong. So, let’s get this party started?
Well, I can’t speak for Nick Harris or David Conn, or any proper journalists who have had the temerity to point out that relegation will seriously dent the already precarious finances of the second city’s eponymous club. But while I admit I was pleased to see West Ham’s plan to keep Premier League football out of the Olympic Stadium start so well, and I’m looking forward to Mick McCarthy’s Barnsley Irish brogue gracing the back end of the BBC’s Match of the Day programme again next year, Blues’ relegation didn’t trigger any celebrations. I took no joy from the mixture of anger and impotence on major shareholder Carson Yeung’s face at White Hart Lane as news broke that Wolves had leapfrogged “his” team on goals scored – perhaps the only team to ensure Premier League survival by not losing TOO heavily at home to Blackburn Rovers.
The Blues’ relegation will only add fuel to the fire of those who oppose foreign takeovers of Premier League clubs on national grounds alone. And the idea that the national media will be slapping themselves on the back at the success of their efforts at “destabilising” Birmingham is similarly misplaced. Last week’s Guardian newspaper inspired a frenzy of such talk. To be fair, David Conn’s description of Blues as the “Premier League’s headache club” was a touch emotive and needed more detailed explanation than available column inches allowed. Birmingham’s debt is loose change compared not only to the high-profile borrowings of Manchester United and Chelsea but also to the alarming plunges into the red taken by clubs such as Bolton Wanderers. The suggestion of some fans, however, is that the Guardian is “almost” undertaking “a concerted effort to destabilise the club.” One reader asked: “How come the major queries of Blues’ finances come just before our most crucial games?”
Why would the paper make this effort? Another reader points out: “’We don’t like you, you don’t score enough goals’ would appear to be the gist of every other Birmingham article (of which there are precious few, until we’re in trouble and there’s gloating to be done”). The concerns over Blues’ finances may come from the accounts of the club’s parent company, Birmingham International Holdings (BIH). However, the auditor’s comments about the “material uncertainty” casting “significant doubt” over the company’s “ability to continue as a going concern” are common enough for some of us to know by heart. And one fan claimed they say “more about accountants than the finances.” Because if the various Premier League club benefactors (including “Abramovich, the government of Abu Dhabi and Indian chickens” – a phrase designed to be followed by “…walked into a bar”) were taken hostage, their clubs wouldn’t last long. “And if the accountants are not mentioning that…it’s a bit remiss.”
Then there’s West Ham’s role in trying to destabilise Birmingham. Was it former Blues co-owners Sullivan and Gold and their desire for revenge against a regime that Gold in particular felt treated them badly on departure? Or simply that the Hammers were relegation candidates and thought dispiriting rivals would better boost their survival chances than hoping for inspiration from manager Avram Grant? Either way, some stories “emerged at a convenient time” because “perhaps info has been leaked out of East London?… After all, lots of the Fleet Street journos are Hammers fans.” It can’t be a proper conspiracy without it being an international conspiracy. But don’t worry. Uefa are in on it too. A Birmingham Mail reader reminded us that “Uefa want Liverpool in the Europa League and that means blowing us out if they possibly can.” While Platini and co. aren’t “looking into Man City, Man United and Chelsea debt,” so obviously “aren’t concerned about them.”
And Birmingham’s Carling Cup victory over Arsenal – a source of delight, you might have imagined, for the hordes of Hammers on national newspaper sports desks – couldn’t go by unlamented. “Surely this is old news… the club has been in debt for years,” noted another Mail reader, after Blues’ Wembley triumph. “I can only think this is an attempt by certain members of the media to dampen our spirits after winning the cup.” Now I go for a conspiracy theory as much as the next man, unless I’m stood next to Oliver Stone. And even where the “unanswered questions” usually have credible answers, such as those about a certain Paris car crash in 1997, I have no problems with the questions being asked. But some of this stuff is utterly Wacky Races. There is nothing sinister whatsoever in the “timing” of certain questions. The annual reviews of Premier League finances in the Guardian take place at about the same time every year. This year, the relegation battle was the focus of all media attention at this same time, given the closeness of the race and the fact that all the top five issues were all-but-decided. And the possibly severe financial implications for all relegation-threatened clubs (bar Wolves) were a major focus within that story, hence Wigan and Blackburn sharing the limelight with Birmingham. Just as the £1.5 billion combined debts of Chelsea and Manchester United were the focus in May 2008.
Questions were raised in the Guardian in mid-April about the Premier League’s investigation into Birmingham’s finances AND ownership structure. “The timing of this article is very dodgy,” claimed one reader. “This is a recycled story from about a month ago,” noted another. “Right before a crucial six pointer,” it was further noted. Or was it a comment piece on the same day that the Press Association ran a story about Carson Yeung increasing his stake in Birmingham’s parent company by 8.66%, to just under the not-insignificant figure of 25%? Or does the Press Association deliberately “hone in” on such stories “at a crucial time” for Birmingham too? UEFA “aren’t concerned” about “Man City, Man United and Chelsea debt”? Well, I suppose if they were they’d have spent much of the last three years formulating a complex set of enhanced club licensing regulations, specifically designed to deal with precisely those issues at precisely those clubs. And to attract maximum publicity, they’d come up with a catchy title/slogan for the work. Like, I don’t know, “financial fair play” perhaps? And how did Uefa’s interest in Blues’ finances become a story “just before the League Cup final, and the time before that the League Cup semi-final?” Well, from the moment Arsenal were drawn against Championship club Ipswich, Birmingham were likely to qualify for the Europa League if they won their semi-final. There’s a clue in there somewhere.
Birmingham’s debt may be “nothing compared to the majority of PL clubs.” But the warning in the accounts, however common it now is, remains a serious one. And the specific references to the need for extra cash to keep the club going “within its agreed banking facilities” were not “scaremongering,” nor the product of “an anti-Blues, anti-Chinese agenda in the national media,” nor, get this, “a desperation to see another Portsmouth.” They were the CLUB DIRECTORS’ OWN assessments of the situation. And THEY tell us Blues need “around £7.5m in the short-term…based on the expected placing of the club in the Premier League.” This “expected placing” is not specified. However, mid-table seems a reasonable guess given that the club would still “retain its Premier League status” even if they didn’t “achieve the forecast position.” However, in that event, “the forecast shows a further requirement for funding of up to £3m.” This, remember, is in order for the club to keep going, and is “on the basis” that the club “will retain its Premier League status.” It is entirely fair to assume that there will be “further” requirements still after relegation.
And whatever Wigan owe Dave Whelan, Fulham owe Mohamed Fayed or Bolton owe Edwin Davies, they don’t need to find it “in the short-term” to survive. Problems will arise at these clubs. For example, the next generation of Fayeds show no signs of interest in football, so Fulham will need another benefactor when Mohamed meets his maker. But when these problems do arise, they will get the same attention as Birmingham’s current travails. So, forget accusations of “sensationalist drivel” or Blues being “an embarrassment to the global brand” of the Premier League. One contributor noted: “there is room for investigation” into Birmingham’s finances “but nobody’s ever bothered to dig deeper or attempted anything more than the most superficial skim.”
Well, journalists such as Harris in the Mail on Sunday have dug a little “deeper.” And they’ve discovered that not only are Birmingham’s finances precarious, but that Birmingham’s own directors have said so. And if the suggestion is that even Birmingham’s own directors have an “anti-Blues, anti-Chinese agenda” then Birmingham fans’ paranoia has definitely gone too far.
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