Unanswered Questions at Sheffield Wednesday

Posted by on Dec 12, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments

In February 2010, then Sheffield Wednesday Chairman Lee Strafford opined that “a lot of crooks” were showing an interest in buying the famous old club. But such scurrilous scaremongering has now thankfully proved to be unfounded; a Serbian-American knight in shining armour having ridden to the rescue and “secured” Wednesday’s future at the start of this month. With Neil Mellor revelling in successive hat tricks amid a six match winning sequence that has left the Owls firmly in the promotion picture, well…it’s all cushty.

But unanswered questions remain, both in South Yorkshire and more widely.

The terms of the rescue (and we should remember that these are set to be “rubber stamped” on December 14) are reported to have involved an up front payment to the Co-operative Bank of £7 million (although other sources state it could be a lot more). That’s a considerable amount of money of course — it would have bought you two Paolo Di Canios a few years back — but it’s a mere dent in a clubwide debt that has been variously reported as between £20m and £27m. Given that a previous bid from the shady Club 9 Sports (dubbed Cloud 9 Sports by cheeky fans) had been rejected due to its vague promises including a claimed £420,000 management fee for such services as “sales management” and “audience development”, then why the eagerness to accept Milan Mandarić’s also partial solution?

Then there is the Owls’ continuing jousting with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The aforementioned Co-operative Bank, to whom the lion’s share of the monies are owed, had bailed Wednesday out to the tune of £600,000 in September but the tax debt had escalated since, with a figure of £1.4m quoted in November court hearings. Do the terms of the takeover ensure that this is paid, or will priority be given to private creditors rather than public ones? Even if this is initially wiped out, will the tax bill be allowed to increase again? I may be wrong but I don’t have Mandarić down as a firm advocate of public spending to provide for public goods. The parks of Sheffield may be looking a bit tatty over the next few years and don’t even think about trying to borrow an up to date library book.

A bevy of interested parties had been jostling to take over Sheffield Wednesday throughout the Autumn but the most appealing of all would sure have been the Save Our Owls campaign, the name largely superseding another, Wednesday ‘Til I Die, that would have been too bothersome for copyeditors. Despite a £500k tranche from local businessman Gary Scotting and the amassing of £124k in 24 hours, the fund’s ambitions were cruelly gazumped by Mandarić’s weightier deal. Contributions of upward of £100 from generous supporters would have needed to come in floods to match the power of Big Business and Wednesday’s plight was so acute that gatekeepers Nick Parker and Howard Wilkinson probably had no option, but there will be few Wednesdayites who won’t be rueful. Save Our Owls should certainly be mothballed for another day rather than axed altogether.

Another query surrounds the identity of the non-institutional creditors. Six loan note holders have apparently settled for a reduction in the money owed to them. Now this cabal presumably includes former Chairman Dave Allen who had agreed to accept £1.5m, a million or so less than what he was originally owed — a decent amount of money for him of course, but also a large sum for Wednesday still to pay. More pertinently, the sextet have the right to be refunded in full should the Owls reach the Premier League: a far from inconceivable possibility: fans should not be bemused by the smallness of the transfer kitty should this happen.

Of course the final question to ponder is the wider one of how football clubs are financed. If you were to explain to a Martian that businessmen are allowed, Glazers style, to borrow capital from elsewhere and then use those funds to buy something else, especially on such an extraordinary scale, then the reaction would be disbelief. Then, that incredulity would increase still further on explaining how laissez faire the current system of regulation is. That a man associated with the formative years of one of football’s biggest financial basket cases has been allowed to breeze in to Hillsborough without quibble (indeed, to reported celebrations in some quarters) remains perplexing, just as the sight of Peter Ridsdale in the Home Park car park outraged Plymouth fans.

I would argue strongly that Milan Mandarić, even if he had coughed up the full £27m, no more owns Sheffield Wednesday than I do. The money disbursed should be regarded as a bond for the privilege of having a say in how the business is run. He is not the spiritual owner. That’s the fans. This Tuesday’s details should be analyzed in detail.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

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