Watford FC: Laurence Bassini Is Unwell

I was still researching Watford owner Laurence Bassini’s last no-show at a fans’ forum when the headline “Watford owner to face fans’ Q&A” appeared on the BBC Football website’s homepage. By the time I’d done my research and clicked onto the story itself, Bassini had “no-shown” again. It is remarkable and depressing the lengths to which some fans will go to justify actions taken by their own club and/or its owners. Even the otherwise largely unimpeachable David Conn pulls the occasional punch when detailing his club Manchester City’s grotesque distortion of the Premier League’s economy and ‘free’ market.  But in the face of some very stiff competition, some Watford fans have taken the proverbial biscuit with their willingness to overlook a business past and present which displays no signs of the required fitness or propriety to run a Football League Championship club.

The Watford owner formerly known as Lawrence Bazini was an unsuccessful businessman and declared bankrupt, reduced by his business failings to claiming benefits as recently as 2008. The bankruptcy made him change his name to Laurence Bassini – not, of course, by way of cunning disguise, because that would be ridiculous (although before he was exposed by a reader of the local Watford Observer (WO) newspaper, some fans were fooled). But: “…to have a fresh start,” which, actually, was scarcely less ridiculous. So unfit and improper was the business background exposed by former WO journalist Roy Stockdill that you sensed Bassini might be part of a newspaper sting to see just how much a football club’s fanbase would tolerate in the pursuit of the cure for all modern football’s financial ills, “new investment.”

Watford fans, it seems, are prepared to go a long way. Bassini has twice pulled out of events staged to give him a chance to answer questions on his six months as Watford owner. Each time, he has cited “illness.”  And while he has not been universally believed, some fans still seem prepared even now to give Bassini “a chance” or “the benefit of the doubt” over the many issues which have arisen since he took over Watford in April. When Bassini pulled out of the fans’ forum on November 8th, Watford non-executive chairman and (executive) legend Graham Taylor left the audience in no doubt that he believed Bassini’s sick note not one bit.  And his withdrawal from a phone-in on “Watford’s broadcast partner” BBC Three Counties Radio came after he had attended matches and meetings at the club and ought therefore to have been able to answer the questions already sent in by listeners – whether from the end of his home phone or in writing. The fact that he has chosen not to do so requires explanation; and even that isn’t forthcoming.

Among those supporters asking questions at all, there has been considerable unity of thought. They want to know why he has bought Watford and how and from where he (a) has funded his takeover, (b) is funding ongoing (loss-making) operations at the club and (c) will fund repayment of Watford’s complex, formalised debts to current and former directors. And the trouble is that Bassini seems determined to avoid all these questions, with the double no-show this month just the latest bodyswerve. These concerns were commonly known, and dutifully recorded on this site in the run-up to and completion of Bassini’s takeover.  So if Bassini really was “keen to tackle fans’ questions and concerns directly,” as he claimed, he could do so at leisure, taking no more time or energy than he has invested in writing apologies for his no-shows on the club’s official web-site. The logical conclusion is that he doesn’t want to. And fans are right to wonder why.

These concerns were heightened in the early part of the close season when there was a series of on-and-off-field departures from the club. Danny Graham and Will Buckley and Chief Executive Jeff Winter, described by the WO as “three popular Watford employees,” left within a couple of early-June days of each other. Whilst acknowledging fans’ “genuine concern,” Bassini said he wouldn’t “use clever words” to explain things. “There will be times…when some fans may wonder what is happening to their club,” he added, correctly. He had already announced that there were to be “no executive positions” at the club and instead had plans to introduce three of his “associates” onto the board, none of whom seemed sure of their roles when questioned by the local media. The departure of the competent and popular but expensive Winter magnified fans’ concerns, which were further enhanced in early July when Bassini announced that the only addition to the Watford board would be… himself.

Fans’ opinion ranged from those who didn’t believe ‘Bassini for Winter’ to be a fair exchange and those who saw the move as “…a cost saving, which is not a bad thing.” But Bassini hadn’t just changed his mind. A “stated intention” in his takeover document was that “Panos Thomas, Anthony Samuels and Sandra Purcell will be appointed to the board.” And if Bassini could disregard formal “stated intentions,” why trust his other announcements? Bassini’s supporters had an answer…well, more questions anyway, such as “who cares where the money comes from?” and “why should we know where the money is coming from?” If the first question resembled a Sven-Goran Eriksson soundbite from his Notts County days, then “Notts County” was the answer to the second. Yet certain Watford fans are still neither interested in the source of Bassini’s money, nor believe it to be fans’ business. “Would you tell everyone your salary?” asked one fan, missing the point by half of Hertfordshire.

In February, Thomas, a “highly-respected orthopaedic surgeon,” was Bassini’s “front man for the group looking to take over” when Bassini was only “Mr Thomas’s friend” and was “understood” to be providing “some of the money for the purchase.” The whereabouts and identity of the rest of both this “group”, and “the money for the purchase” is not clear. Bassini is reportedly from a successful, well-to-do family. So, as one fan suggested: “if mummy and daddy are providing it, even better, for they will not let him mess up such a precious and public commodity as Watford.” Yet “mummy and daddy” let “him mess up” his business life to the extent that he had to claim benefits (and if he had those means, why was he allowed to claim benefits?). And this fan saw no problem with funding “such a… public commodity” in complete privacy.

Bassini promised at the outset to fund improvement work on Vicarage Road’s East Stand, South West corner and tannoy system. And his supporters believe “he has done what he has said he would do so far,” as he claimed to have “invested… around £10m” in the club since the takeover. These claims were disingenuous. The £10m included costs of the takeover itself. His arrival was headlined a “£440,000 takeover” – the price of the shareholding in the club’s controlling company. But the going rate for control of a Championship club is considerably more than that. And Watford was no special offer. Bassini said he “put in £3.5m in working capital.” However, this was a 12-month “working capital loan” which was one of the takeover’s “undertakings.” In fairness, Bassini’s loan was interest-free, which was rather better than interest rates charged for loans from previous owners.

But it certainly wasn’t new investment. Nor was the “£1m I put into the bond repayment on day one; and the curiously phrased “£1.5m, which is held.” And nor was other money Bassini claimed as his own. The 2011 accounts for Watford Association Football Club (WAFC) were recently published, relatively un-noticed. WAFC’s “immediate parent company” is “Watford Leisure Ltd” whose own parent company (WAFC’s grandparent company?) is “Watford FC Limited” – Bassini’s takeover vehicle. But they revealed the considerable money which came Watford’s way during the summer. The transfers of Graham and Buckley brought in “net income” of £2.67m, while player acquisitions cost only £1.03m. And there will be “£1.018m receivable” from Ashley Young’s sale to Manchester United – 15% of the difference between Aston Villa’s sale price and the £9.5m Villa paid Watford for Young in January 2007. This money more than covered the promised stadium work. And Bassini delayed the promised, and necessary, relaying of the Vicarage Road pitch to allow rugby club Saracens to pay £500,000+ to play there this season – a decision criticised by Taylor at the owner-light fans’ forum as “not made by football people.”

The accounts also confirmed continuing operational losses of £4.05m. This halved the previous year’s losses, thanks mainly to the business model (i.e. salary cuts) imposed by the board. Yet Bassini supporters claim he is “pumping” in £1m-per-month to cover those losses. That figure came from the disturbing aftermath of Bassini’s non-appearance at the forum. Taylor hinted at his true feelings as strongly as possible without booking a trip to court. “I think you can see where I’m coming from,” he said, twice, while suggesting “It is up to all of us to decide how ill he is.” So Bassini texted WO journalist Frank Smith to say he was “stripping” Taylor of his chairmanship, resigning as a director within 24 hours and withholding £1m of “much-needed” funding, unless Taylor apologised for his forum comments, which Bassini’s supporters interpreted, for no clear reason, as a regular monthly amount.

Critics wondered whether Bassini’s mature, considered response meant he was “in fact a teenage girl,” having “run away because someone said some nasty things about them and then communicating via text.” Taylor, publicly at least, ignored this petulant ultimatum. And, to no-one’s real surprise, Bassini backtracked feverishly (he was “ill” remember?). However, he was well enough to meet Taylor “at the club’s offices” to “draw a line under their fall-out.” A new “executive committee” resulted, containing representatives from Watford’s “key pillars”… though not Bassini himself, which may prove significant. Nevertheless, Bassini was still due to participate in a Q&A radio phone-in session. And having attended key meetings at the club, and matches, since the forum, there was no logical reason for him to duck out of this commitment.

It shows what little regard most fans now have for Bassini that his late pull-out from this event met with collective dismay but almost no surprise. Bassini says he will “ask BBC Three Counties Radio to re-arrange the phone-in for some time early in the New Year.” No-one is clearing their diary. Bassini supporters are putting this shambles down to “bad PR” and still believe all that “given a chance” and “benefit of the doubt” stuff. But the “doubt” will continue while he refuses to answer simple questions about his motivation and who is funding him, how and why. And seven months is more of a “chance” than any secretive, evasive, business failure deserves.

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