Grubby, grubby money united?

A TV exposé of Bryan Robson’s attempt to flog football to foreigners assumed that all overseas investment is Bad.

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.

As a fan of Crystal Palace, one of the clubs touted by Joe Sim as available for takeover, I’m glad that the CPFC2012 consortium which owns the club are local businessmen and lifelong supporters. They appear to be steering the club in the right direction. But just because the owner is a local lad made good, it doesn’t guarantee that the club is in safe hands. Palace have twice been forced into administration in the space of a decade. On both occasions the club was owned by a local Palace-supporting entrepreneur – Mark Goldberg and, more recently, Simon Jordan. Neither man entered the football business to make money. They were both fans who wanted success for their club. However, both messed things up – Goldberg spectacularly so – and the consequence on both occasions was near extinction. English football is littered with similar examples of homegrown owners whose mismanagement has resulted in clubs going into administration.

I’d be interested to know whether any wealthy foreign investors have actually been seduced by Joe Lim’s business proposition. Anyone who has done their homework on English football will know that it’s not easy to make a profit by doing up dilapidated clubs and selling them on. Pumping money into a club doesn’t necessarily guarantee promotion as the Malaysian-owned Cardiff City illustrates. Moreover, as more investors inject money into Championship clubs, the tougher it will get to win promotion.

As I said, I’m not turning a blind eye to the potential problems of anonymous investors buying football clubs. I’m just tired of the endless whining about how money is ruining football. Ever since Sky TV money started pouring into football in the early 1990s the doomsayers have been predicting the death of the beautiful game. Yet somehow football continues to survive and, indeed, thrive. When ITV Digital went bust in 2002, there were predictions that up to 30 Football League clubs would go bust as a result of the loss of TV revenue. Although many clubs have suffered severe financial hardship, particularly those relegated from the Premiership, the end of the world hasn’t actually materialised. Clubs have gone into administration but the last league club to actually go bankrupt was Maidstone United in 1992.

Football fans want success, but they also want to preserve the tradition and character of their clubs. There is obviously a tension between these two aspirations, particularly when foreign investors enter the picture. What’s needed is an intelligent discussion about club ownership, not the lazy sleaze porn that Dispatches served up.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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