The dust has finally settled on the failed Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United, so it seems as good a time as any to talk about club ownership.
The history of football is riddled with ownership disasters that have almost ripped clubs apart. In my personal experience, Wolves had a terrible time under Steve Morgan, under whose stewardship we suffered a lack of investment, successive relegations and, as fans, total contempt. But Wolves’ recent dark days (let’s not talk about the ‘80s) pale in comparison to other clubs. Steve Morgan, while hated alongside his right-hand man Jez Moxey, oversaw a disastrous period for the club, but in fairness he did rebuild the training and youth facilities (Category 1 status) and start the stadium redevelopment (even if he paid his own company to do it). Most importantly though, he sold us well; to people he had identified as the right hands to take the club forward. And so while I will always dislike Morgan for his time at Wolves, he did redeem himself a bit in the end. Look at all the other clubs who were just sold off to the first suitor; Aston Villa, for instance. They were sold to Dr Tony Xia, who led Villa through what can only be described as an utterly insane couple of years. The club nearly went into administration while Tony sat on Twitter tweeting out total bollocks (a bit like the Orange Terror currently occupying the White House). And this is the problem: his predecessor Randy Lerner just passed the club off onto the first person to meet his valuation, and while it was his choice to make, football clubs shouldn’t just be passed around like that. They are pillars of communities and should be treated with reverence and respect.
The FA claims it has a fit and proper person’s test (rebranded in 2011 to the Owners’ and Directors’ Test) in place for when a club is purchased, but what does it look like? Well, apparently if someone is buying from than a 30% share of any football club in British football they must be assessed. The test is essentially a set of criteria which prospective owners must meet, simple things like not being subject to a bankruptcy order or being a director at another club. The FA will also allegedly look into the backgrounds of potential buyers, but this just doesn’t seem to ever be followed through with. All you have to do is look at Wigan Athletic. If the allegations are true about the owners literally betting against their own club and then putting the club into administration to make it happen, the Owners’ test fails on every level. Its failure essentially allowed a club to be destroyed from the inside out, and because of that fans will suffer and people will lose their jobs. It’s easy to laugh at a club when they get relegated, but the harsh reality is that ordinary people will be let go, all because the club has either been mismanaged or purposely driven into the ground.
And I can’t not mention Bury FC, who have been to hell (and not even back yet). They were in all sorts of money trouble before they were sold to Steve Dale for £1 back in 2018. He did pay the outstanding tax bill to HMRC, but the staff still weren’t getting paid and through the months of July and August 2019 they were told they needed to show proof of funds or else. Dale claimed he was trying to sell but couldn’t, and they were thrown out of the league. (He also posted this bizarre rant on Bury’s website.) I hope one day Bury is saved from the clutches of a man who does not have its best interests at heart so it can return to the EFL, but in the meantime: fuck Steve Dale.
So how can we fix yet another broken system in football? Firstly, we need to introduce a proper background check before anyone is allowed to assume ownership of a club. Who exactly is that coming to buy the club? Will they work on improving it, or do they have a history of burning companies to the ground? With a system of proper checks like this in place, I doubt Bury would ever have been allowed to be sold to a maniac.
Talking of blocking owners, let’s talk about Newcastle United. Saudi-owned PIF, the company involved in their purchase, recently pulled out of the deal because the Owners’ and Directors’ test was taking too long. Newcastle United fans were angry and blamed Qatari influence via BEIN Sport. I don’t want to go into the politics in play here, but does Mike Ashley really seem that bad compared to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who effectively would have been the new owner? I know it seems odd to talk about morals in the sport that is almost devoid of them (hell, Chelsea are practically owned by the Russian mafia), but do you really want MBS in charge of your club? He’s not exactly know as a top bloke, even if you ignore the stuff that’s only alleged, like the torture and murder of a Saudi citizen in their embassy in Turkey. Sure, anyone would want to get rid of Mike Ashley in the same way that anyone would want to get dog shit off the sole of their shoe, but I’m not sure that an alleged murderer who allegedly paid the Sudan for child soldiers to use in the war in Yemen, and who has allegedly contributed to a genocide, is who you want running the club (albeit from the shadows).
So this is where we are: a world where Steve Dales and corrupt Crown Princes vye over football clubs. We are stuck between having our clubs owned by people who want to destroy them, and people completely devoid of any moral compass. (Indeed, the Venn diagram for the two is often a perfect circle…) But things need to change; otherwise we’ll end up with more Burys, or repeats of Reading and Oxford, where the previous owners finagled the stadiums, sold the clubs and then forced the club to pay them rent. How a complete change looks I have no idea, but a start would not be selling football clubs to people Amnesty International described as ‘bogus reformist’.