After the antics of moustachioed Cardiff City super-villain Vincent Tan, it’s fair to say that the reputation of foreign owners in the Premier League has taken a hit in recent years. Manchester City, heavily criticised for their failure to keep in line with Financial Fair Play regulations, have also had their fair share of trials and tribulations. It is, of course, mere coincidence that they are owned by an Abu Dhabi based Middle Eastern consortium. Cynicism aside, City’s clashes with Football’s governing bodies have raised serious questions about the purchase and ownership of clubs in the English leagues. With West Bromwich Albion set to reveal Wang Jianlin, one of the richest men in China, as their new owner, we take a closer look at past failings.
Forgive me for slogging through the waffle first.
The Football Association in the UK has regulation in place to ensure owners are up to a required standard; the Owners’ and Directors’ Test. This test applies to all clubs in the Premier League, Football League, Football Conference, Isthmian League, Northern Premier League and Southern Football League, and is designed so that the owners, directors and officers of clubs in those leagues meet standards greater than that required under law so as to protect the reputation and image of the game.
If an individual is subject to what is termed a ‘Disqualifying Condition,’ that person is not allowed to be a director, owner or officer of a club. These may include prior disqualification from being director of a UK company, convictions for dishonesty, corruption, personal insolvency, or a historical ban by a Sports Governing Body or a professional body. Football specific offences include having been an Officer of two or more clubs that have entered into an insolvency event, or, have been an Officer of one club that has had two separate insolvency events, within the last 5 years, and being convicted under FA Rules of betting or bribery offences. In accordance with the FA’s Regulations, a declaration confirming that they are not subject to a Disqualifying Condition must be signed by any person wishing to become an Officer of a club and then must be subsequently provided to The FA for consideration. The game has agreed that where a person has broken the law and that the offence is such that it would not be appropriate for that person to be an Officer of a club then the Test prevents that person from being an Officer of a club.
The Football Association Regulatory Authority (FARA), part of a new FA licensing system intended to ease public concern over the financial affairs of many leading clubs, is responsible for signing off any changes of ownership. Any rules around this are to be harmonised between the Premier League and the Football League. In theory, all is rosy in the garden. However, for the critics of English football’s fit and proper person’s test, the case of Carson Yeung is the best example of a system that is failing the game.
Carson Yeung is the former President of Birmingham City Football Club, director of Birmingham City PLC and chairman of the club’s parent company, Birmingham International Holdings Limited (BIHL). In March 2014, he was convicted of five counts of money laundering and was sentenced to six years in prison in Hong Kong. Yeung was able to purchase a controlling interest of 96% of Birmingham City Football Club, through BIHL, for over £80 million in 2009, despite a history of failing to provide funds for the purchase. Not ideal, but at least he’s long gone now. Right? Wrong. Post-conviction, he still owns 15% of the club. It’s a fact that’s quite hard to get your head around.
Yeung and Tan aren’t the only dodgy characters under the microscope. Hull City’s Assem Allam attracted a great deal of criticism for his plans to change the club’s name. His proposal to rechristen them Hull Tigers has not been received well by fans. The Venky’s embarrassed Blackburn fans by coaxing the playing staff into appearing in an advert for their chicken. David Dunn should feel hard done by to miss out on a ‘Best Actor’ award. Oh, and does anyone remember Mohamed Al-Fayed’s Michael Jackson statue outside Craven Cottage? ‘If some stupid fans don’t understand and appreciate such a gift then they can go to hell.’ Nice one Mohamed.
It is saddening that after decades of not-for-profit values imposed by the FA on club owners, we now have men in charge that say without challenge that they have bought a football club purely as a financial venture, to make money for themselves.
I’m not saying that every foreign owner is a nutter, hell-bent on razing English football clubs to the ground, but there’s certainly a risk with every overseas purchase. Half of the investors have no affinity to the clubs they buy, nor knowledge of the traditions and culture of the English game. The problem is that it’s difficult to ban wealthy businessmen from buying football clubs. Prohibition based on speculation and conjecture comes with a risk of legal action.
With the current tests relying on self-certification from potential directors, fans have little peace of mind that the investors claiming to be their club’s latest trustworthy custodian are legitimate. Things need to change. A modification to the law may empower the FA to introduce rules which are more discretionary, allowing them to be more selective about the people who run football clubs in the UK. As for the leagues themselves, they can do more by setting aside resources to carry out their own due diligence.
The core issue comes with the finances of Premier League clubs. If they continue to fail to operate on a self-sustaining basis, they will continue to rely on the wealthy benefactors to bail them out, and risk losing their identity.