Every decent football supporter was outraged by the Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre’s repugnant call for changes to TV rights that would divert more and more money to a handful of “big” clubs. Jeremy Robson is surprised more attention was not given to another corporate threat to the national game, this time from Suits of the imported variety …
Ten of the 20 current Premier League clubs are foreign owned. This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
Of the current crop it was Fulham who were the first to be taken over by a foreign investor (Mohammed al Fayed), in 1997, when they were in the third tier. Much has changed in a short period (and that’s no pun or reference to our owner and chairman).
Why is this significant? What difference does it make where the money comes from?
Here’s why. Only a few days ago Richard Bevan (chief executive of the League Managers’ Association) warned that “there are a number of overseas owned clubs already talking about bringing about the avoidance or promotion and relegation in the Premier League”.
Under current PL rules, 14 of the 20 clubs must agree if any major changes are made to the format of the league. The implicit message from Mr Bevan is that the foreign owners are all in favour of getting rid of relegation. There is clearly, in his view at least, some sort of consensus that another four or five PL clubs falling into the hands of foreign investors could put an end to the pyramid structure of football in England which has existed in many different forms since football leagues were first established.
Perennial relegation strugglers, and yo-yo clubs may rejoice in the thought that they are at last safe from the perils of relegation and the financial implosion which so often results as sure as night follows day. But the threat Mr Bevan identifies is real and very clear.
A quick analysis of the ownership of the clubs heading the Championship shows that foreign money is not just running the top tier.
Southampton were taken over by a Swiss national Markus Liebherr, an engineering technology magnate who took over in July 2009. Derby County are owned by GSE a US Sports and Entertainment marketing firm. Bucking the ownership trend, Crystal Palace has been owned by a consortium of wealthy fans since the close season of 2010. Similarly, Ipswich Town is owned by Marcus Evans, a Suffolk businessman. Peterborough Utd is owned by Darragh MacAnthony a Florida based Irishman who made a fortune selling time share.
Blackpool have an English owner, the convicted rapist Owen Oyston. Continuing the unsavoury theme West Ham are British owned by two Davids; Gold and Sullivan, the former the son of an East End criminal and the latter a pornographer of some stature. (And, did someone say foreign money was dirty?). Not to be pedantic but 35 per cent of West Ham is still owned by the Icelandic Straumar-Burdaras Bank.
Some appreciation of where ownership lies of clubs just outside the top flight makes Mr Bevan’s concerns all the more understandable. He presumably made his comments in the hope that something can be done to prevent the meltdown and destruction of what is arguably the cornerstone of our national game. It’s easier if you know who owns a football club, of course, and there seems to be some confusion about that at Elland Road when Leeds Utd’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, told the House of Commons Select Committee for culture, media and sport that (between 2005 and 2011) he didn’t know who the owners were, and perhaps more significantly that “to my knowledge” neither did his chairman, Ken Bates (full article on this at this BBC link). Very strange you may think, but absolutely true, and particularly worrying at this time. It’s difficult to fight your enemy when you don’t know who your enemy is.
As I write this article Blackburn, Bolton and Wigan lie in the relegation zone of the PL. Southampton and West Ham occupy the automatic promotion places, followed by Middlesbrough, Derby County and indeed Leeds as a proverbial “Trojan Horse”.
It’s not inconceivable that the current bottom three clubs could be relegated from the PL at the end of the season. It’s not stretching credibility to suggest that Saints, West Ham and Derby could all achieve promotion this season. All are foreign owned or partly foreign owned. Only Blackburn of the three sides dropping down are foreign owned. Half of what Richard Bevan might consider a “buffer” against removing relegation would be gone in one foul swoop.
The “buffer” could be removed altogether by the end of the 2012/13 season if the relegation places were filled by either Newcastle (hopefully!), Wolves, Swansea etc with promotion places being taken by say Birmingham, Leicester, and Millwall.
This would create the precise situation that Richard Bevan fears. It’s surprising therefore that so little attention has been paid to his comments. Within the next 18 months, it is possible that Premier League owners could completely destroy one of the fundamental tenets of the league structure. The consequence of abandoning relegation does not bear thinking about. The image of newly promoted clubs pulling up the ladder behind them is unthinkable and would kill football for ever.