Blimey, I thought, Bryan Robson’s trending on Twitter. Why is that? Is he dead or, worse still, making a pig’s ear of a soufflé on Celebrity Come Dine with Me? It turned out he was the victim of an undercover sting investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, ‘How to buy a football club’, which aimed to lift the lid on the murky world of football takeovers.
For those of you who didn’t catch the programme, the undercover team secretly filmed Robson and a couple of shady associates offering themselves as fixers for wealthy foreigners who wanted to make a fast buck by investing in English football clubs. Essentially, it was a footballing version of Location, Location, Location with Robbo and Thai entrepreneur Joe Sim in the Kirsty and Phil roles (albeit without the sexual chemistry). The fixers find a once famous club which has fallen on hard times and is now languishing in the Football League. Sim brokers the takeover, the investors inject the cash, Robbo gets his ‘mates’ to loan players and, hey presto, the club gets promoted to the Premier League and hawked off for a handsome profit. Simple.
The main problem with the programme was that, for a year-long investigation, it revealed little more than the bleeding obvious. We learned that some foreign businessmen, with more money than sense, see English football as a prime investment opportunity. No shit, Sherlock. The foreign takeover of English football – both visible and invisible – is pretty much a permanent lament in the media, on fan forums and on football phone-ins. Dispatches provided titillating undercover video footage but added little to our understanding of football ownership issues.
So what exactly were Robbo and chums up to that was so very wrong? They appeared to be offering to help circumvent FA rules which prevent an individual or company owning a stake in more than one club. As Very Bad Things go this isn’t exactly up there with child trafficking or smuggling heroin is it? Yes, I get the point that multiple club ownership potentially undermines the integrity of a competition. I just don’t have sleepless nights worrying about it. What football fans on Twitter seemed to find most shocking was the apparent cynicism and venality of a former England football hero. ‘I disagree with people when they say football is a sport’, said Robson. ‘When the Sky money came in, that changed. Football is a business.’
Dispatches chimed with the widespread sentiment that football’s relationship with money, and in particular foreign money, is a Faustian pact which is ultimately ruinous. It would have been more illuminating if the programme had cut down on the voyeuristic hidden camera footage of Joe Sim bragging about how Sir Alex Ferguson is his pal and spent more time explaining why all this is necessarily bad for football. If, for example, Leicester City, currently owned by a Thai-led consortium, were to win promotion and are subsequently sold to new owners, would anyone complain? I’m not suggesting there are no potential downsides. There are clearly huge risks. We’ve all seen the mess that foreign investors have made of Portsmouth. However, I also think it is too simplistic to say that foreign investment will necessarily be catastrophic. The key question is not the nationality of the owner but whether the business model is sound.