Dilemmas of Football Ownership: Are Foreign Owners or Dodgy Owners the Problem?

Image available under Creative Commons (c) Jon Candy

When Vincent Tan, the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City, made the – apparently unilateral – decision to change the club’s colours from blue to red, I posted a few remarks on Twitter intended to express some solidarity with those Cardiff supporters who felt that this change was the last straw. Some fans had even made the painful decision to stop going to watch their own club as a result.

I’ve long had an interest in football history and its emblems and wrote a blog about the subject in 2012. I can’t remember the exact words of my tweet but it was something about the owners of football clubs having little understanding of fans or their traditions. It came as a surprise, though, that I was immediately followed on Twitter by a number of people who I can only imagine were members of the Welsh branch of the English Defence League, which, admittedly, is something of an oxymoron (feel free to insert your own joke here). Friendly messages arrived expressing unpleasant views about “foreigners” owning football clubs. Although my new mates were soon disabused of their assumptions, it felt very uncomfortable that what I’d said had been misinterpreted in such a way.

The very existence of foreign owners in British football appears to be an issue for some, as any quick search of the term “foreign football owners” on Google demonstrates.

Spoof Twitter accounts and sketches on comedy shows mock foreign owners, giving them funny accents or making them speak in the kind of pidgin English that went out of fashion with the demise of the Boy’s Own Paper. They are depicted as somehow being inherently comical, or sinister, and often, also rather stupid. It’s a wonder any of them have ever been able to hold down a job, let alone have managed to become zillionaires and run international business empires.

There will, of course, inevitably be cultural differences between any owner that comes from a different country and the local supporters of a football club. Perhaps it may be missing the point, however, to conclude that the reasons behind their actions are some kind of attempt to impose their traditions upon ours. It may well be much more to do with re-branding, that is, with trying to appeal to a global market, and – not to put too fine a point on it – aimed at flogging stuff to punters, rather than any spurious notions that they’re choosing “auspicious” colours and symbols for their clubs, or importing their own culture and forcing it upon us.

The British tendency to find non-Western cultures simultaneously both romantic and threatening, might lead us to a mistaken view of the intentions of people who are, in fact, major players in a global market. The foreignness of these particular football club owners, their “otherness” if you like, their detachment from football supporters, their lack of understanding of the nature of football, the clubs, the fans and the traditions, may be because of another reason: the distancing nature of vast wealth.

Besides, some foreign owners are apparently more acceptable than others. The undoubted success that has come in the wake of the huge investment in Manchester City by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan does not appear to have been accompanied by very much angst or scepticism, either about his relationship with his club’s supporters or about his long-term plans. For most fans, success on the pitch will override any concerns about the way that their club is being run.

My own club has an owner who is British, but he’s most famous for his faceless detachment from the club and its supporters. When Marcus Evans bought into Ipswich Town in 2007, some fans saw him as our saviour. We were in dire financial straits. Few, if any, of our supporters had the faintest idea what Marcus Evans looked like and little knowledge of him as a businessman or a human being. Despite the publication online of a couple of snatched photographs, taken at a golf tournament and in the crowd at Wembley, he is still a remote figure to most Ipswich Town fans, who can only speculate as to his reasons for buying the club in the first place. Recently, in a public relations-inspired attempt at reassuring us, we’ve been informed that Evans – who spent some time in Suffolk as a child – is passionate about ITFC, but there’s little evidence that he has any other connection with the area. He’s a tax exile and his core company Marcus Evans Group is registered in Bermuda, although it’s proved difficult for more economically-literate people than me to track down the full details of his corporate existence. Evans reportedly flies into Portman Road by helicopter on (some) match days, landing at a local private school, and has little engagement with club staff and certainly none with the fans, apart from a rare column in the match day programme. He has bought a £9 million home in Cornwall, but does not appear to have any permanent connection with the Ipswich area. His plans for Ipswich Town may well be completely benign. He may even be a genuine fan. I can’t help thinking, however, that his main strategy is to add to his existing personal fortune of around £700 million and I can’t help feeling that he is as much a stranger in a strange land as any foreign owner of a football club could be. I doubt his background, life experience and culture have any similarity to mine, or that of many other ITFC supporters.

Similarly, Mike Ashley, according to The Sunday Times Rich List, one of the wealthiest people in Britain, with an estimated fortune of £3.75 billion, has little connection with Newcastle United, the club he bought in 2007. Described as “Britain’s answer to Howard Hughes,” Ashley is perhaps even more reclusive than Marcus Evans, although he does like to be seen at matches clad in his team’s traditional black and white stripes. Despite this, it’s difficult to see what connection he has with the Toon Army, or the north east of England, other than an economic one. It seems likely that his ownership of Newcastle United is not unconnected with the fact that his main financial interest – and the source of much of his vast wealth – is in the sale of sports goods. His companies include Sports Direct, Slazenger, Dunlop and Lillywhites.

Karl Oyston, the Chairman of Blackpool FC, comes from a family with long-standing connections with the seaside town. Succeeding his father Owen, who served three years in prison following a conviction for raping a young woman, Karl’s tenure at the helm of the club has been mired in controversy, many fans being extremely unhappy with events on and off the pitch.

And then there’s Peter Winkelman.

To all intents and purposes, the lifestyles of these football club owners are just as alien to us as those of owners who have been born outside this country. The dictionary definition of the word “foreign” is not just about coming from a different country or culture. It can also mean “strange and unfamiliar.” And how many of us are familiar with the lifestyle, culture and mindset of the unimaginably wealthy?

The ownership of football clubs is far more complex than merely being about someone’s country of origin. Hull City owner, Assem Allam, has alienated many of his own supporters by attempting to drop the word “City” from the club’s name, but he’s a British citizen, and has lived in the UK since 1968, having come to this country as a refugee from Egypt. Allam has been popular in Hull, particularly because of his philanthropy. He has been generous to local hospitals, to the university and the arts. That’s not to say that any self-respecting football supporter should have any truck with his plans to re-brand Hull City.

Anyone who has read books like Tom Bowers’ Broken Dreams will not be under any illusions about British owners, such as Ken Bates, Alan Sugar or Terry Venables. The idea that a football club can be owned by a local-fan-made-good, or a rock musician with a few million to spare, is a remote fantasy now. The likes of Elton John, who owned Watford FC in the late 1970s, have long ago been usurped by people with much greater financial resources and different ambitions. Pop stars, and even former international footballers, simply aren’t rich enough to own a football club outright any longer. One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson’s recent attempt at crowd-funding a takeover of Doncaster Rovers was stymied by the Football League, who did not consider him to be a “fit and proper person,” despite quite happily allowing people with rather dubious pasts to buy clubs. When it comes to the football authorities and prospective owners’ bank balances, size definitely matters.

Whatever you think of the Glazers, Tan, or Abramovich, their attitude to their clubs probably hasn’t much connection with their countries of origin. It’s more to do with the fact that – despite TV directors’ fondness for showing shots of them in the director’s box – they’re not really in it for the football. They’re in it for altogether different reasons: raising the profile of their brands (Venky’s at Blackburn Rovers freely admit this), egotism, merchandizing and because, since the Premier League and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky money came along, owning a football club must be one of the quickest and easiest ways for someone to get rich(er) and stay rich(er) than almost any other legal enterprise in the world.

As David Goldblatt wrote recently, in an excellent article in the Guardian, “the game’s new lords have never acknowledged the real value of the deep seam of football culture that preceded their arrival and sustains the playing and meaning of the game.”

That is true whether those new lords are arrivistes from an obscure post-Soviet republic, an oil-rich member of a ruling dynasty in one of the Gulf states, or as English as Queen Victoria (who was, of course, half-German). It may, in the end, be their downfall. Unless owners, wherever they’re from, learn to acknowledge and respect the deep-seated and strong attachment that most supporters have to their clubs and traditions, they may alienate more fans than their exciting plans to entertain us with US-style dancing girls and extraneous “fun” activities at half-time can attract.

At the moment, however, owning a football club appears to be a very lucrative prospect for your average billionaire entrepreneur. What football club owners all have in common, whether they are British or not, is that they are perfectly aware that our addiction is their fortune.

Susan Gardiner spent many years as an Ipswich Town season ticket holder while living in Norfolk. Now in Suffolk and much closer to Portman Road, she has written about social history for various publications since the 1990s and, more recently, also about football. She is on the committee of the ITFC independent supporters' trust, Ipswich Town 1st, and a member of the Turnstile Blues fanzine collective for which she edited the first issue. Her book, Ipswich Town: A History was published by Amberley in 2013 and her blog (only occasionally about football) is thosewhowillnotbedrowned.wordpress.com. Twitter name is @susan1878.

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13 Comments on "Dilemmas of Football Ownership: Are Foreign Owners or Dodgy Owners the Problem?"

  1. Phil Withall says:

    Another excellent piece, Sarah. It does make me rather grateful that, in Delia Smith, Norwich have a majority shareholder who appears to be in for the love of the club. I can’t imagine it helps her sell cookbooks and having saved the club from implosion and possibly complete collapse she has built a well run club that regularly has full houses, a sound financial base and an excellent youth system. Some are in for profit and prestige, no matter what nationality they are but fortunately so just love thier club.

  2. Terry Clague says:

    Sehr Gut, though all claimed ownership of a football club is theft of course ;-)

    It might be interesting to refer to research done by CRESC around the foundational economy , this book is worth reading. They suggest that organizations operating in natural monopoly spheres (and the football fan must generally be regarded as a captured consumer) could be required to have a form of social license to operate. In theory, this would be about as far away from the FA’s risible “Fit and Proper Person” nonsense as it’s possible to imagine.

    • That would be a very interesting approach. As I’m interested in the past, I see it as comparable to the enclosure of commonly owned land in the 16th to 18th centuries – also claimed to be done for efficiency, but regardless of the human costs. When I looked at the origins of my own club, it seems as if some of the town’s “movers and shakers” simply formed a company and decided that they owned the football club. Land and stadia etc. more difficult though. Luckily the local,council own ours and it’s an ACV.

      • Terry Clague says:

        Fascinating. We should also remember to quote Shanks on this kind of thing of course: “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”

  3. Lanterne Rouge says:

    Excellent piece as always Susan. Dodgy owners don’t even have to be from a remote part of the UK – look at George Reynolds at Darlington although some Darlo fans might regard Reynolds’ native Sunderland as indeed a foreign country.

    • Thanks. Indeed I don’t think being local is necessarily a better thing although there may be more chance of the owner being a genuine fan (Coates at Stoke City) but good intentions don’t always result in things being well run, as ITFC fans know from David Sheepshanks (another genuine fan) taking the club into administration.

  4. Ming says:

    Great piece. More relevant than where the owners come from is how responsibly they run the club – and one thing I would add is that too many owners are far from responsible in their spending, either bankrolling their clubs so that they can overspend (and therefore encouraging other clubs to do likewise) or worse, running them into the ground. Hereford are a perfect example of the latter. Sadly, clubs that spend within their means are a growing minority these days…

    “And then there’s Peter Winkelman.”

    Brilliant! (I’m a Wimbledon fan)

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