As fans cast about for someone to blame for our ongoing slump and decree our problems could all be solved by a new owner with deep pockets, Andrew Lawn looks at examples of clubs who have acquired super-rich new owners.
Be careful what you wish for...
As the good ship Canary flounders on a sandbar, adrift of the Play-Off marina and with the port of automatic promotion well over the horizon, its passengers are ever more frantically grasping at lifeboats to rescue our season.
The current favourite life raft is that marked ‘Sack Alex Neil’, who many feel has reached the end of his time at the helm. The reaction to his substitution of Admiral Nelson on Friday night highlighted just how far his stock had fallen as an eminently reasonable substitution was met with howls of derision and a concerted call to Delia to “sort it out”.
Not so long ago, and without doubt still bubbling away below the surface, the calls for Delia herself to go were loudest. The perception of repeated transfer window failings, finite financial resources and a tendency to see Norwich realistically as a top 25 club rather than a top 5 club, her undoing.
Now this isn’t another defence of Delia, as this has been done before, and better, by Duncan Edwards among others. Instead this is a look at the murky world of other football club owners. The conclusion is the same, we are without doubt lucky to have an owner the envy of 97% of the rest of football. But football fans don’t accept being better than we could be, they want the best and that ambition is more frequently than not the downfall of many a club.
Let’s begin close to home, just 40 miles down the A140 in a little town called Ipswich.
Now Ipswich achieved the dream of many City fans in 2007 when they announced a new deep pocketed owner had ridden into town to pump the club full of cash and bankroll a return to the Premier League. With an estimated wealth in the billions, the local-boy-done-good, appeared a shiny knight to the rescue and ticked all the boxes; super rich, ambitious, local, shy and successful.
10 years on Ipswich remain as deeply entrenched in the Championship as ever, but during that time their debt has tripled and continues to grow as the club pays the owner. Rather than bankrolling a return to the Premier League, Evans has turned the club into his personal moneybox.
Respected fanzine Turnstile Blues recently published 50 questions that needed answering to their completely absent owner. They include;
Added to that are stories that Ipswich’s youth sides are being forced to buy their own kit from the club, drive themselves to games and bring their own lunch to training and you begin to build up a fairly clear picture as to what Marcus Evan’s interest in Ipswich Town was and is; cash.
You can accuse Delia of many things, but you can’t accuse her of those things. Nor can you accuse her of things as deeply troubling as those things. Yes, you could argue that they are delaying the inevitable by not sacking Alex Neil now, but you can also admire their loyalty and courage of their convictions. You could also argue that the current board haven’t engaged with fan groups as much as McNally did, but there are signs this is changing with new forums for fan engagement being opened up. Both things are frustrating but compared to asset stripping, preferable.
Evans is not alone in this approach.
The Oystons at Blackpool are the worst example. Again local, again ambitious, again super rich, the Oystons having brought the club for £1 in 1998. 12 years later the club reached the Premier League for one swashbuckling season, but far from setting the club up financially, the success benefitted only the owners. Immediately the club paid a separate company owned by the family £11m, which according to The Guardian was more than the manager and players combined, while also giving out millions in interest-free loans to further companies under their control. While the finances of the owners skyrocketed the club’s balance sheet became ruinous and the team tumbled through the divisions, while player’s bonuses remained unpaid.
Similar situations are currently blighting Blackburn, Coventry and Charlton, all clubs similar in size and history to ourselves. Fans of each club have been forced to disrupt matches and boycott games in an attempt to free their clubs from the hands of owners who see them as little more than a glamourous bank account. Why else would Birmingham City's owners sack Gary Rowatt and immediately replace him with Gianfranco Zola if not for the perceived glitz the Italian brings?
The effects of this are long felt. Ask fans of any number of clubs who have been damaged by asset-stripping and/or frankly shady, trigger-happy owners. The list, ignoring those clubs already mentioned, from just the previous decade is a long one;
It could go on. Some of these clubs have recovered. Most haven’t.
To compare and contrast in that same 10 years, we have cleared all our debts and spent 3 of the last 4 years in the top flight. Is it good enough? That depends on your viewpoint, but could it be worse? Certainly.
Be careful what you wish for this Christmas. The simplest answer is very rarely the best one.