Own­ers are not all hits...

The Football League Paper - - GLENN MOORE -

IN MY early years in foot­ball jour­nal­ism, Reading’s Elm Park was a reg­u­lar as­sign­ment. This was in the years im­me­di­ately af­ter the Bradford fire dis­as­ter, so at half-time re­porters and fans would leave the wooden main stand to have a smoke pitch­side.

Af­ter the match, the hand­ful of me­dia would ad­journ to Ian Bran­foot’s cramped of­fice for the post-match ‘press con­fer­ence’.

The man­ager would ask who­ever was near­est the fil­ing cabi­net to open the bot­tom drawer and hand round the beers kept in there.

It was a homely place. The near­est it came to in­ter­na­tional glam­our was when the sound of a head­liner at the Reading Fes­ti­val drifted across town.

As for the club’s own­ers, I don’t re­call writ­ing much about chair­man Roger Smee, but he was a for­mer player and lo­cal busi­ness­man, who had helped thwart Robert Maxwell’s in­fa­mous Thames Val­ley Roy­als project (a pro­posed merger of Reading and Ox­ford United).

These rec­ol­lec­tions came to mind with the news that Chi­nese in­vestors were seek­ing to buy the Roy­als. The sell­ers are Thai. The pre­vi­ous owner was Rus­sian.

It is a fair bet none was lured to Berk­shire by a child­hood be­ing weaned on tales of Robin Fri­day or Trevor Se­nior.

The at­trac­tion, of course, is the mil­lions of the Premier League. Be­ing in the play-off po­si­tions, Reading are an es­pe­cially en­tic­ing prospect.

The cur­rent own­ers say they can­not af­ford the costs of run­ning the club, which may be true as Cham­pi­onship clubs gen­er­ally run at a loss. But they may also, as those gam­bling ad­verts tell us ev­ery half-time, be cash­ing out on their in­vest­ment while ahead.

Eleven of the two dozen Cham­pi­onship clubs are cur­rently for­eign-owned, all by Asian in­vestors with the ex­cep­tions of Ful­ham (Amer­i­can) and Leeds (Ital­ian).

Mar­que

Lower down the EFL, for­eign own­er­ship is rarer, but grow­ing, with Portsmouth the lat­est club to flirt with US own­er­ship.

Is this a prob­lem? Large parts of Bri­tish in­dus­try are for­eign-owned. Think of some iconic UK brands: Jaguar (owned by Tata, In­dia), Cad­bury’s (Mon­delez, US), New­cas­tle Brown Ale (Heineken, Dutch), McVi­tie’s di­ges­tive bis­cuits (Yildiz, Turk­ish), Branston pickle (Mizkan, Ja­panese).

This is the mod­ern world and will re­main so post-Brexit and Trump. Even Lon­don’s City Hall is for­eignowned (Kuwaiti).

In re­tail­ing, how­ever, peo­ple usu­ally have a choice, though buy­ing a gen­uinely Bri­tish car is ad­mit­tedly dif­fi­cult if you can’t af­ford a mar­que such as As­ton Martin or Mor­gan. Foot­ball fans are stuck with their team.

For­eign own­ers are not nec­es­sar­ily bad, nor lo­cal ones guar­an­teed to be good. The ex­am­ples of Smee and, more re­cently, Tony Bloom (Brighton), Matthew Ben­ham (Brent­ford) and Peter Coates (Stoke City) sug­gest a com­mit­ted, rea­son­ably wealthy, fan-owner is the ideal. But they can over-reach them­selves in their de­sire for suc­cess, as with Mark Gold­berg at Crys­tal Palace. Fur­ther­more, not ev­ery small­ish club is for­tu­nate enough to have a mil­lion­aire fan.

For­eign in­vestors whose pri­or­ity is the bot­tom line can be good for a club, mak­ing clear-eyed de­ci­sions and pos­sess­ing deep enough pock­ets to fund the climb to the Premier League.

Wit­ness the late Markus Lieb­herr (Southamp­ton), Maxim Denim (Bournemouth) and Vichai Sri­vad­dhanaprabha (Le­ices­ter City).

How­ever, events at Coven­try City, Charlton Athletic and Ley­ton Ori­ent high­light the dan­gers of hav­ing an emo­tion­ally-dis­con­nected owner when a club starts to slide.

Even own­ers who have pushed their club up the league can make de­ci­sions no fan would like, seek­ing to change the name, as Assem Al­lam is try­ing to do at Hull City, or tra­di­tional shirt colour, like Vin­cent Tan at Cardiff.

In the ab­sence of a lo­cal mil­lion­aire fan in ev­ery town (which, let’s face it, would only push up wages and trans­fer fees all round) what can be done?

Sanc­tion

Ideally, the checks that pu­ta­tive own­ers should have to go through ought to be stiff­ened, if nec­es­sary with leg­isla­tive clout (though the politi­cians are some­what pre­oc­cu­pied at pre­sent). Even be­fore Ori­ent had kicked a ball un­der Francesco Bec­chetti, a Pri­vate Eye ar­ti­cle flagged up con­cerns, but he was al­lowed to take over with lit­tle fuss. Fans are partly re­spon­si­ble, many avidly be­liev­ing the prom­ises of their ‘saviour’ far too read­ily. And there are times when a new owner seems the only bar to bank­ruptcy and the EFL are criticised for slow­ing the deal down. How­ever, the Premier League’s re­ported re­luc­tance to sanc­tion the pur­chase of Hull City by Dai Yongge and his sis­ter Dai Xiu Li ought to make Reading fans – and the EFL – think very care­fully be­fore hail­ing the takeover, es­pe­cially af­ter their ex­pe­ri­ence with Anton Zin­gare­vich’s own­er­ship.

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