Nottingham Forest: Beware Greeks Bearing Loans

by | Jul 18, 2016

When we last touched on the subject of Nottingham Forest in March, the story that we told was one of stagnation and a lack of direction that was reaching into every corner of the club. The end of the season came and went with little by way of thrills or spills. The club finished its season in the Championship in sixteenth place in the table, fifteen points above the relegation places but nineteen below the play-off places, and at the end of June Philippe Montanier – formerly of Boulogne, Valeniciennes, Real Sociedad and Rennes – was appointed as its tenth manager in the last ten years, scotching rumours that Ryan Giggs, freshly at leisure after having recently ended his near twenty-nine years at Manchester United, would be taking over the management of the club.

Off the pitch, meanwhile, a transfer embargo put in place in February 2015 for breaching financial fair play rules was finally lifted and owner Fawaz Al-Hasawi was understood to be close to agreement to sell the club. Over the course of the summer, however, there have been a couple of clouds on the horizon that have threatened to cast a pall over the start of the new season. At the relatively trivial end of the spectrum was the news that The City Ground had seen its capacity reduced to zero because the club had no safety certificate holder. It’s a story that makes a good headline, and the start of July during a major international tournament is definitely a time when those are thin on the ground, but with weeks still to go before the start of the season, it seems unlikely that this will still the case by the time the team starts its 2016/17 season against newly-promoted Burton Albion on the sixth of August. A council spokesman had this to say on the matter:

The County Council is currently leading on Nottingham Forest’s annual safety audit and we have been informed by the club that it no longer has a safety certificate holder, which is a legal requirement for sports grounds.

Unfortunately, we have no choice other than to restrict the club’s spectator capacity to nil until they put in place a suitable person to fill this role, which will allow the club to hold matches with spectators at its City ground. We are keeping this position under review and will be working closely with the club in the coming weeks on this issue.

There has been no official confirmation that this situation has been rectified yet, but season tickets for the new season remain on sale and there has been no indication as yet that there will be any significant issues with this matter being resolved before the start of the new season. As such, one can only assume that it will be resolved by the start of the new season. Should that not come to pass, of course, the club would face all manner of embarrassment – and, most likely, sanctions – come the start of the new season. Until then, however, Forest supporters can probably assume that this is no more than an administrative hiccup that will be resolved in time for the start of the league season.

The other matter in the forefront of Forest minds as July continues to tick away is the proposed takeover of the club by Evangelos Marinakis, a Greek shipowner and the owner of Olympiacos. Marinakis is a wealthy man, something of a philanthropist and has overseen spectacular success for Olympiacos, who have won eighteen of the last twenty Greek Superleague titles, including six in a row since he took ownership of the club in 2010. For all of this, however, controversy has dogged his time in charge of the club and, whilst he hasn’t been convicted of any of the charges levelled against him, he is currently banned from involvement in any football administration in Greece as part of bail conditions – which also involve a requirement to report to a police station every fifteen days – imposed following a lengthy report into the Greek football crisis of 2015, which accused Marinakis of offences including “setting up, participating in and directing a criminal organisation, fraud, attempted criminal extortion and corruption”.

The 2015 crisis was, in some respects, just a continuation of several years of rumoured corruption in football in Greece. Its immediate predecessor, the Koriopolis scandal of 2011, had started after a UEFA report identified at least forty matches that were fixed in the country during the 2009/10 season. Marinakis had been amongst sixty-eight people listed by the Greek authorities as being suspects in this case, but he was acquitted of all charges relating to this case in the summer of last year. He remains, however, charged with five criminal offences, including being involved in blowing up a bakery owned by a referee who now serves as an MP. These are listed as follows:

  • Involved in and directing a criminal organization
  • Aiding and abetting blackmailing
  • Aiding and abetting explosion
  • Aiding and abetting bribery
  • Fraud

The nature of these allegations is hardly news. Public Eye was reporting on Marinakis’ eventful past more than a month ago, and the condition of Greek football – as well the continual slew of allegations against Marinakis – has been reasonably well known for some considerable time. There is no question that the charges leveled against him are extremely serious. Conviction for just one of them would mean that he would be banned under the Owners & Directors Test. But at the time of writing, none of the attempts to nail him down have been successful, and even the ban from involvement in football that he is currently under wouldn’t fail our current rules because they were brought about as a part of his bail conditions. Such a state of affairs is unprecedented, even in the strange world of football club ownership in the Football League in recent years, and it’s difficult to preempt what the authorities’ reaction to an attempt to complete the takeover might be.

There’s plenty of reason to suggest that the Football League might not be too interested in getting involved in this takeover unless a criminal conviction against Marinakis is forthcoming. The League got their fingers burned in attempting to pin down Massimo Cellino, the owner of Leeds United, with Cellino openly acting as the owner of that club while apparently banned over his involvement in a fraud case in Italy, and the League could be forgiven for taking the viewpoint that closely studying the terms of Marinakis’ bail conditions might amount to little more than chasing down a cul-de-sac, when it may yet be just a matter of time before something absolutely solid comes their way in the form of a convictions against Marinakis. Whether this will ever come to pass, however, is anybody’s guess and, considering the systemic corruption that seems so endemic in so many areas of Greek society, the likelihood is that any conviction would be followed by a lengthy appeals process.

After four years, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Fawaz Al-Hasawi experiment at Nottingham Forest has failed. Whilst the immediate financial uncertainty caused by the premature and sudden death of former owner Nigel Doughty in 2011 has definitely eased, crowds are down and the club is little closer to a return to the Premier League than it was upon his arrival. The owner has put £67m into the club in loans over this period of time, and Forest only managed the best part of a year and a half with a transfer embargo in return for this. With the prizes for getting into the Premier League being as great as they now are, getting promotion into the top flight only seems likely to become increasingly difficult over time, but the gold rush of speculators into the Championship, each of them with their own idle daydreams of £100m television money windfalls and vague notions of “doing a Leicester”, have been at best a mixed blessing for clubs at this level, many of whom have history but little more on their side when it comes to aspirations of top flight football.

Against such a background, it is completely unsurprising that a potential suitor should coming knocking at the door at a club with the history of Nottingham Forest. Former champions of England and Europe, the first English club to pay £1m for a player, Forest are woven into the story of English football, a distinctive name with a unique history within the game. But sceptical Forest supporters might well be forgiven for asking what the plan is to get the club back into the Premier League, and whether it’s possible that a new owner could be found who doesn’t carry the amount of baggage that Evangelos Marinakis does. A former Premier League football club with the potential to return there should be able to find an owner who doesn’t have the possibility of criminal convictions hanging over his head. The fact that this wasn’t the case at Leeds United a couple of years ago and may well not be the case at Nottingham Forest now says something about football below the Premier League in England, and what it says isn’t terribly complimentary. It’s certainly time for the speculation at The City Ground to stop, and for a little stability to take its place instead. This club deserves better.