Book Review: Haircuts and League Cups: The Rise and Fall of Carson Yeung
Haircuts and League Cups: The Rise and Fall of Carson Yeung by Daniel Ivery and Will Giles
Published by GHI HK Limited
The career of Carson Yeung, and his troubled reign as Birmingham City chairman, is chronicled in a colourful book by Blues blogger Daniel Ivery.
Birmingham City meet West Bromwich Albion on Saturday at St Andrews, their first meeting since 5 March 2011 — six days after Blues’ famous League Cup win over Arsenal.
That Wembley triumph had left many Bluenoses convinced a new era for the club was dawning — but they were mistaken.
The game against Albion was lost 3-1, and proved a turning point; while West Brom would finish 11th that term, and four seasons later remain a Premier League club, Birmingham’s form would fall away, and they were relegated on the last day of the season.
What followed at St Andrews was a financial implosion, spectacular even by English football’s standards.
On 29 June 2011, only six weeks after the season’s end, Blues chairman and main shareholder Carson Yeung was arrested by Hong Kong police on money laundering charges.
The fall out from his arrest and trial, coupled with TV payments falling off a cliff following relegation, would push Birmingham City to the brink of oblivion over the next three and a half years.
Taking a haircut
These events are chronicled in a new book by Daniel Ivery and Will Giles: Haircuts and League Cups: The Rise and Fall of Carson Yeung. The title is a neat acknowledgement of both the financial trim that Blues have experienced since 2011, and Yeung’s early career as a hairdresser in Hong Kong.
Anyone who has read Ivery’s Often Partisan blog will not be surprised to find the book is meticulously researched.
Its content worried the Birmingham City board enough for them to threaten an injunction against publication — which has only served to give the book more publicity.
Besides Yeung’s tenure at St Andrew’s, Ivery also traces his earlier career, and in particular the dubious dealings on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, where he supposedly made his fortune.
Some of the writing in this section would not look out of place in The Financial Times, but the style is never dry. Ivery interweaves descriptions of stock exchange trading with colourful anecdotes that bring all of the major protagonists to life. And boy, what a colourful cast of characters they are.
The colourful cast — the main man
Yeung himself is portrayed, in some respects, with sympathy. He comes across as a football fan who “celebrated every goal wildly” and relaxed at home in front of Sky Sports News. Birmingham City’s support staff became a “happy team” who liked their new owner. The first 18 months of his reign saw Blues enjoy their highest league position in 50 years and a major trophy.
The poor kid from a Kowloon housing estate was doing well. He’d built a chain of hair salons, could name Jackie Chan among his celebrity clients, made a fortune on the stock market, and now owned a successful Premier League club.
He enjoyed the trappings of his ill-gotten gains, throwing huge gala dinners, invariably with a different woman on his arm at each one.
But his associates were as shadowy as his stock market deals. They included a Cheung Chi-Tai, alleged to be a Hong Kong triad, who contributed £1.5 million towards the purchase of Birmingham City.
Astonishingly, Yeung shelled out £81.3 million when he bought his stake in the club in 2009, compared to the £62.6 million paid by Randy Lerner for Aston Villa three years before.
It was “ego-boosting for fans”, Ivery observes, but “didn’t make commercial sense”. The alarm bells should have started ringing then.
The colourful cast — the supporting players
Another key figure is Peter Pannu, the former Hong Kong policeman who was suspended from the force during a corruption investigation for three years during the 1990s.
From July 2011 onwards, Pannu effectively ran Blues on Yeung’s behalf, and oversaw the ‘fire sale’ of players prompted by the club’s dire cash flow problems. He received £65,000 a month for his trouble.
Pannu was the only person at the club who spoke Cantonese, meaning his communications with Yeung could be kept secret, which helped fuel a sense of distrust between him and Blues fans.
It would emerge, following efforts by the club to censor Ivery’s blog, that Yeung had posted comments on Often Partisan under the pseudonym ‘Lover Blue Nose’, which attempted to cast himself in a better light. One example was: “For me, Pannu is the super star. He kept us alive and going and showed tremendous loyalty to Carson. These days no one is loyal to no one…”
Birmingham’s former regime — the unholy trinity of David Gold, David Sullivan, and Karren Brady — are also painted unfavourably. Despite assurances to the contrary, they left the club £11 million in debt, something Yeung failed to pick up with due diligence, to his fury. Sullivan and Gold would later return £3.1 million to Blues in an out-of-court settlement.
Brady, who left St Andrews with a £1 million ‘golden goodbye’ and a Porsche Cayenne 4×4, was forced to return the car when it turned out the vehicle belonged to the club.
Yeung was eventually sentenced on 7 March 2014, after a long, stop-start trial, to six years in prison.
The prosecution’s case was essentially that he had no paper trail to prove that many of his financial dealings were bona fide. In Hong Kong law, as solicitor Will Giles explains, this burden of proof rests with the defence, and probably explains why the former British colony has a conviction rate, in trials where defendants plead ‘not guilty’, 2.5 times higher than in England.
Even with their main shareholder behind bars, there is still no closure for Blues fans on the Yeung era.
A brief courtship by former QPR director Gianni Paladini ended when Pannu dismissed the Italian as “a toilet-cleaning bastard”.
At the time of writing, the company Yeung set up to buy the club, Birmingham International Holdings, still owns Birmingham City FC. There was speculation this week that the former chairman is still pulling the strings from prison.
“Be careful what you wish for” is Ivery’s advice to any football fan dreaming of a foreign benefactor transforming the fortunes of his or her club.
In a thoughtful chapter, he suggests some ideas for reform. This includes a change to the Premier League and Football League ‘fit and proper’ test, where their definition of an owner is someone who owns more than 30% of a club. Yeung sidestepped this by never owning more than 28% of Blues, even though it was pretty clear he controlled a much larger shareholding by proxy.
But football fans can be their own worst enemy. In the book’s forward, Ivery recalls the feeling among Birmingham supporters anticipating Yeung’s takeover: “We had almost caught our neighbours, and you could start to feel that with the right investment, the potential was there to overtake them.”
Yet the history books show Birmingham City’s crowds have rarely been consistently high, and their highest average league attendance for a season ranks them below all their three main rivals in the West Midlands.
The notion that Blues have the potential to become the leading team in the region is as fanciful as Carson Yeung’s dreams were when he bought the club.
Keep right on
Recent months have been kinder to Birmingham City, with old boy Gary Rowett’s appointment as manager proving the catalyst for an upsurge in form that should see the club avoid the final day survival drama of last season.
Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Albion will be a chance for Blues fans to temporarily forget about off-the-field troubles. In some respects, the game will be a reminder of football’s more innocent times: a sell-out crowd for a cup match that both clubs are taking seriously; reasonable admission prices; and a 3pm kick off on a Saturday.
If only more Saturdays were like that. The Premier League monster, and all the money it has attracted — dirty and not-so-dirty — has much to answer for.