Football club ownership: The rich and the poor

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From the moment Roman Abramovich sat down in the Chelsea Boardroom; like a domino effect, English football seems to be awash with a myriad of foreign investment. Perhaps Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea was the moment the fashion of the super-rich owning a football club was created. In the year since, it could be argued that there is hardly a premiership club remaining which hasn’t had at least some takeover attempt or “back-page speculation.”

It is now obvious that having a super-rich owner by no means bring immediate success. In fact in some cases it has almost ruined some clubs, Portsmouth and Newcastle being the obvious examples. Portsmouth a club that was tossed from one owner to the next as the debt and financial mess mounted, leading to administration, point deductions and inevitable relegation.

Liverpool almost ended up in a similar situation, the club in and out of court until the midnight hour due to the iron fist approach by owners Gillet and Hicks attempting to keep the club amid the large £230 million loan they had burdened Liverpool football club with. But in the end karma hit them, leaving with hefty multi-million pound losses when a takeover attempt was eventually successful by New England Sports Ventures, who also own the Red Sox Baseball team.

Perhaps the term foreign investment has to be carefully considered, fans would argue foreign owners have no real understanding of English Football. With investors having no clear picture of what actually they are buying in terms of culture, history or even fan’s expectations.

Alternatively an investor could be fully aware of his purchase, and merely want the football club as a fashion accessory amongst their wealth of assets. It is obvious even to the lamest of business minded people that it is extremely tough if at all to making a decent return on a football club if at all. In fact it is the best way of pouring money down the drain, given the amount of investment a club requires to operate successfully at the highest level. Abramovich, since his takeover of Chelsea having spent over £600m on the club and financial reports each year are showing hefty eight figure losses.

It seems rich investors make huge promises prior to takeover, planting seeds such as, transfer kitties for world-class players, stadiums and new managers. However once they have grasp of the club these seeds never flower and the club is left in the dark. Alternatively these promises can be made but at the same time, the huge cost is not taken on by the new owners, instead this is placed on club assets. Manchester United, the one that immediately comes to mind. Arguably the biggest club in the world which has had a bulging trophy cabinet before and after the Glazers took hold of the club, but at the same time, they chose to burden the club with £800 million worth of debt; a figure which varies depending which newspaper you decided to refer to. Therefore what is on paper an extremely profitable club, these profits are quickly poured into the pockets of the latest bank the club has re-financed with, in interest payments.

Due to such occurrences any common sensual fan would view a football club takeover with caution; any proposed owner will sound like any other broken record with the usual promises. But then again, the successful takeovers must be considered. Chelsea and perhaps Manchester City are the obvious contenders. Chelsea and City are in their forte during the transfer period, approaching any club known to have a world talent with an open chequebook. The owners seeing the tens of millions spent as mere spare change, hardly making a dent in their bank balance of billions, such expenditure is not burdening the club with any debt. The owners having spent £200 million on buying the club, and have spent close to £300 million on players and are paying over £100m a year on wages.

Chelsea being the most developed and established example of a foreign takeover, has taken a lengthy period for the many world class players to gel and any clear success to be shown, in terms of domestic trophies, however European glory has yet to be reaped. Some would argue such glory is the only definite indication of success. Manchester City is also taking its time to become an accomplished “big” club and winning its first form of silverware since their league cup trophy in 1976. It is obvious that simply spending tens of millions in one transfer period will not guarantee overnight success. City seem to have taken the attitude which Chelsea originally had to another level, as soon as they hear of any young, world class, superstar they cannot wait to get their chequebook out. This maybe fantastic for a City fan, but this cannot hold a bright future for football as a whole. At some point, any fan would agree a line in the sand has to be drawn when money and football come together.

On the other side of the coin, Arsenal who are as yet to endure a takeover may not have rich owners but have a healthy bank balance, remain a PLC, and are the third most valuable club in the world. They have not thrown around millions of pounds in anywhere near the same context as City and Chelsea. They seemed to have adopted a more sensible approach, at times spending big but also taking time to use youth talent and academy stars such as, Gibbs and Wilshere. Arsenal highlight that an endless pot of money is not the full answer to becoming an established world renowned club. But importantly any fan must take account that City has bought a large proportion of English talent Barry, Richards, Bridge, Wright- Phillips, Johnson and Lescott. Rather than simply buying overseas established stars something which any English fan cannot grumble about especially when you look at Barcelona and Spain’s World Cup success.

The array of foreign wealth and investment that has been introduced to English Football over the years has no doubt made the premiership into arguably the best league in the world with the amount of world class players which are bought from all corners of the globe. However this has tarnished the chance of a large proportion of English talent getting into the first team of many clubs. In the opening weekend of the Premiership in the 1992 season, a mere 11 overseas players started for all 20 teams and 22 overseas players were listed within all squads,  as of the 2002 season it grew to 280 this figure will have no doubt grown.  Recent changes to the rules and regulations on foreign players, now means clubs have to have a squad limited to 25 players over the age of 21. At least eight of those players must be home grown.  As previously mentioned, Manchester City have to be praised for strengthening their squad with some of our best players this country has to offer. Perhaps the prospect of the future England team and World Cup hopes can look a little brighter for a change.

However, this decade of “takeover sagas” has damaged English football as much as it has brought success. Clubs have been taken over, financially strangled and put up for sale, the list of Newcastle’s and Portsmouth’s will no doubt grow. Has Fantasy Football becoming a reality? Let’s hope English Football quickly learns its lessons.

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