In recent weeks, football club owners have taken a hammering both in the press and by fans alike. But is all of the criticism justified? Town owner Dean Hoyle has just announced £199 season tickets and £100 for any season-ticket holder who has held one for over five years. Are we the luckiest club in the country to have him? Whilst town fans bathe in the magic of this season and the optimism that it brings for future seasons whether we are in the Championship or the Premier League, other clubs are not as fortunate.
The goal that the Town ownership holds of self-sustainability and a club that is completely committed to its communitarian and altruistic values should be a model that is replicated at clubs across the football league, but the truth is that town are a shining light in an ever darkening sea of renegade owners.
As proud and historic clubs like Leyton Orient and Coventry sink further and further into the abyss on both a financial and footballing basis, in this article I will examine case studies across a range of different clubs across the football league, comparing town’s ownership to these unfortunate cases and ask a few key questions: What are the characteristics that make for a good custodian of a football club? What is the point of the FA and EFL approved ‘fit and proper persons’ test? If it is not stopping these rogue owners from waltzing into football clubs and poisoning them from the inside, what is the point of it? What effective action, if any can be taken by the fans to stop their clubs from being destroyed? All of these questions bring further into disrepute the inaction of the EFL and the FA.
At the moment, they seem utterly powerless in curbing the egotistical excesses and vindictiveness of certain owners who have brought the clubs they own into decline, stagnation and in a couple of cases, to the brink of extinction.
Role of Ownership
The first question to ask when analysing the role of the owner is: what makes a good owner? Is it ensuring financial stability and self-sustainability? Is it strong investment and a willingness to propel the football club to greatness no matter what the cost? Or is it a desire to centre the club on community-based principles and making sure ticket-prices are affordable? Many fans would argue a good owner should have all those characteristics. However, the reality is that rarely do some owners share even one of those traits.
One of the main reasons town fans have been so quick to praise owner Dean Hoyle is that he understands that to be a good owner, you must devote yourself to the club. He is involved in the day-to-day running of the club and attends almost if not all town games. An effective owner cannot be absent from the club for months at a time and only fleetingly watch games when he or she happens to be in the country. This not only gives you a blinkered view of the manager and the squad but distorts your judgement when it comes to your decision-making ability.
Dean Hoyle is not just the custodian of the club who has invested large sums of his own money into helping make the club a success but is also a supporter of the club as well. This gives him a deep and meaningful connection to the club, ensuring a balance where the club is run successfully with a sound and sustainable business model but also that supporters are not treated with disdain like customers when it comes to season-ticket prices, merchandising and other costs like match-day refreshments.
Owners should also not be afraid to admit their mistakes and Hoyle has openly admitted his own mistakes during the early years of his tenure at the club. These included sanctioning former manager Lee Clark’s scatter-gun transfer policy, especially on central midfielders or his appointment of Chris Powell and the conservative style of play he brought about. This led to dwindling crowds and a draining of belief and optimism amongst the fans. Coupled with the rising ticket prices during this time, there have certainly been mistakes but these mistakes have been admitted and rectified by the club and a stronger communication strategy implemented between the fans and the club to ensure no feeling of disconnect occurs again.
The flaws and pitfalls of the ‘Fit and Proper Persons’ Test
The second key issue surrounding the rise of renegade owners is the ineffectiveness of the supposed ‘fit and proper persons’ test implemented jointly by the Premier League, the EFL and the Football Conference in 2004. Built as a safeguard for football clubs to prevent them falling into unscrupulous hands, some of the rules on this test included a forbidding of anyone being able to purchase a football club with unspent criminal convictions relating to acts of dishonesty or someone who has taken a club into administration twice. However, the only person this test has actually impacted upon was Rotherham director Dennis Coleman who twice took the club into administration. The toothless nature of this policy has not stopped a clutch of shady individuals duping clubs and bringing ruin upon them.
Since the explosion in popularity of the Premier League, foreign investors and companies have looked to the top division in this country and as the years have gone on, lower league teams as well with curiosity. They have looked at clubs as either an opportunity or an investment depending on the vision of the specific individual. Some have bought clubs and sought to exploit the commercialisation of the league in order to boost the club’s global standing and institute a ‘brand’ makeover. This can be seen in the cases of Cardiff’s Vincent Tan and Hull’s Allam family.
When Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan first took over the football club in May 2015, he immediately angered the entire fan base by implementing a complete alteration to the club’s aesthetic. He changed the colour of the home kit which has been historically blue to red and changed the club badge from a bluebird to an oriental dragon. Tan’s reasoning for this was to expand the club’s appeal to the Asian markets and draw in a new wave of supporters.
In the first year of the rebrand, Cardiff achieved promotion to the Premier League by winning the Championship title outright so whilst some sent their season tickets back, others swallowed their pride and bought the red-shirts. But the fairy-tale was not to last. Cardiff now finds itself back in the Championship after relegation and faces another season where it has no chance of getting promoted.
Tan eventually reversed his decision to regain the trust of the fans but the re-branding symbolises how some foreign owners seem to have a complete lack of awareness around the history of the clubs they’re purchasing. Fans priorities are not expanding the ‘brand’ of their teams to foreign markets, its progress.
A similar situation emerged at Hull where the owners, the Allam family wanted to rename the club ‘Hull Tigers’ and the proposal was put to a vote. The vote was narrowly passed but with only 5,874 of the 15,033 eligible to vote casting their ballots. A backlash ensued and the owner, Assem Allam declared that he would “give the club away” for nothing and subsequently put the club up for sale the day after the FA ruled against his proposal at a hearing.
This has sent the club into turmoil with confusion over possible investment, a chronic lack of funds available to both former manager Mike Phelan and new manager Marco Silva and being forced to sell off prized assets. Mike Phelan had 13 fit squad players at the start of this Premier League season and Silva has had to sell two of his star players in the January transfer window with Robert Snodgrass leaving for West Ham for £10m and Jake Livermore to West Bromwich Albion for around £10m respectively.
There are some owners, however, who seem to have a vindictive streak within them to bring disorder to the clubs they run. In 2010 Blackpool were in the Premier League, riding a wave of optimism and a feel-good factor perpetuated by then-manager Ian Holloway who was at the peak of his powers. Comical and witty in press conferences and interviews, he and his Blackpool players lit up the Premier League with their unlikely story and achieved historic shock victories including home and away wins against Liverpool and a home win against Tottenham.
However, once the bubble burst after their relegation at the end of the season, the wheels began to come off, slowly and then rapidly. There was massive fan anger directed at alleged financial mismanagement. Fans protested voraciously which culminated in the infamous match against Town where a group of Blackpool fans ran onto the centre circle and stayed protesting until the game was called off.
Blackpool are now languishing in League Two after several relegations and although they retain a chance of promotion through the play-offs this season, the disdain that owner Karl Oyston has shown towards the fans culminated in him taking a fan to court for libel for holding up a disparaging doctored newspaper front page on a televised game in October 2014.
The Oyston’s were due to take the fan to court and were seeking £250,000 in damages before dropping the case the day before the court case and being forced to pay the court costs and the fan, Jeremy Smith’s legal fees which totalled above £100,000. Owners that appear to be more concerned about PR battles than the success of their own club is a dangerous concoction that will only hurt the fans in the long-term.
The sad fact about all of this analysis is that the trend does not appear to be abating. In the last season, both Leyton Orient and Coventry have faced their own seemingly interminable declines amidst owners who seem to be doing nothing to halt their slide into ignominy.
In May 2014 Leyton Orient had just lost a heart-breaking play-off final to Rotherham where they had sacrificed a two goal lead and go on to lose on penalties. It was a miserable day for O’s fans but the future seemed bright. Owner Barry Hearn then sold the club to Italian Francesco Becchetti seemingly believing Becchetti could take the club established in 1882 to places that Hearn couldn’t.
The promise quickly turned into a façade. In the space of just three short years, Leyton Orient now lie dead bottom of the football league table with seemingly no hope of a miraculous escape. They have chewed up nine different managers since Becchetti took over the club and the playing squad has been decimated with largely youth team players and a few established pros left at the club.
This has been compounded by quite frankly insulting statements by the Chief Executive to the fans stating that when Becchetti took over, “a squad without future was inherited” and winding-up petitions were heard at the high court resulting in the LOFC trust campaign being set-up to acquire the necessary funds to save them.
Coventry also face a similar situation in that a once established Premier League side now faces relegation to the lowest tier of the Football League. This is despite a magical day at Wembley beating Oxford United 2-1 in the Checkatrade Trophy final. To get a better insight into the chaos surrounding this historic club, I spoke to Coventry fan Jay Williams who outlined the problems with mysterious owners SISU in more detail:
“It has now been almost a decade with SISU. In that time, they have ensured that an ambitious Championship side hoping to return to the Premier League became the first Premiership founding member to reach the bottom division in the football league. They have proved themselves as unfit owners on a number of occasions and continue to do so.
The main problem is the impersonal owners: SISU are a hedge fund; a company, rather than one person. That means that no one is taking accountability for their incompetence. The Chairman Tim Fisher has previously blamed our fans for the failings on the pitch and has described us as “customers”.
As for SISU – their list of failures is seemingly endless. We have suffered two relegations in their tenure (more than we suffered in 50 years+ before they took over). To add to that, some of our most talented players have been sold for ridiculously low prices, for example Callum Wilson, Cyrus Christie and more recently James Maddison. All of these were Coventry academy products and we have not seen the money reinvested in signings whatsoever. Furthermore, they have recently sold our academy and training ground at Ryton so we may not even have an academy in the future.
There is no future. We were previously moved to Sixfields (in Northampton, almost 40 miles away) for a season after a dispute over the ownership of the Ricoh Arena and our lease on this stadium runs out in summer 2018. By then, we could have no ground, no academy, no training facilities and I wouldn’t be surprised if we were a non-league club too.
In recent years, we have stepped up the protests: pitch invasions and whistles against Sheffield United, joint marches and throwing plastic pigs on the pitch against Charlton and plenty of boycotts. A handful of ex-players (such as Dion Dublin and Darren Huckerby) have backed protests against SISU, as have the Coventry Telegraph and our current shirt sponsors. There have been online petitions and the unfit ownership has even been posed as a problem to parliament. But nothing we do will make them listen, because of their impersonal nature and lack of care that they are killing what was once a wonderful and proud top flight club.”
These last two clubs I have examined demonstrate the true scale of the unregulated policies surrounding owners of football clubs and the scandalous methods which are employed to silence fans and strip away the very fabric of what makes these clubs so special. But what can be done about it?
Mass organised fan protests always have their part to play and they have had varying degrees of success in influencing owners. But at the end of it all, in the cases of Coventry, Blackpool, Leyton Orient and many others, protests can be simply ignored perpetually. The first solution that must be proposed is a complete revamp of the ‘fit and proper persons test’.
More stringent rules must be applied surrounding guarantee of funds, an ethics code that takes into account the history and traditions of the club, the opinion of the fans and a pledge to maintain the key structures which bind the club together. Other possible solutions centre on giving the fan a greater say in the boardroom of every club. Prime Minister Theresa May has mentioned previously how she wants to give workers of companies a representative at board level. Why can’t this policy be transferred to football clubs whereby a senior level member of a supporters association, elected by the fans would have a real and genuinely effective voice in the upper echelons of the club?
Other clubs have implemented more far-reaching measures such as non-league side FC United of Manchester where every fan can purchase a stake in the club, giving them a vote on key decisions affecting the club. This has brought problems of its own but that does not mean to say the policy shouldn’t be fine-tuned and brought in to help reform other clubs.
As we stand right now in 2017, Town can count themselves extremely lucky to have an owner that is both a hard-nosed businessman, but also a dedicated and passionate fan who only wants what is best for the club. Dean Hoyle has admitted to the mistakes he has made in the past and rectified them whilst being open to ideas and listening to fans that hold a swathe of differing opinions. The cold reality of renegade football club owners in 2017 is that it is very hard to see how once a rogue owner has infected a football club, where the counter-measures are to remove them from the club and save it. With the cases of Leyton Orient, Coventry and Blackpool, all fans can hope for is that the owners no longer see the vitriol directed to them from the stands, the streets and online as tenable and sell the club to whoever wishes to purchase it. That at the moment for the ordinary fan is simply not good enough.