Owners are not all hits...
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).
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?
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.