Saturday, October 09, 2021

My internal dialogue on football, Newcastle, oligarchs and Venky's

Why haven't you done one of your self-regarding and pompous blogs about the Newcastle takeover? Don't you care about murdered journalists?

I feel genuinely exhausted by all the commentary and back-and-forth on the Newcastle United takeover and pretty much every conversation about global football, investment trends and how everyone from your barber to the bloke that stands next to the fruit machine in the pub are now experts on sovereign wealth funds and cultural relativism.

So, you think you're above such banalities then? It's fine for you as the one-time editor of a business magazine, friend of football club directors and would-be owners of your club to have an opinion, but not now, right?

Everything that has been said and done has been said and done. Proper journalism's David Conn, a very good piece on an Arsenal website, and another piece by David Goldblatt in the Guardian, of course, which blames New Labour, obviously. It's the natural progression of the modern form of capitalism, acquisition of soft power assets by sovereign wealth funds to either greenwash or sports wash their reputation for a time when the oil runs out, or a UK passport gets secured. And something to do with TV rights and piracy in the Middle East and Qatar, or something.

Ah, so it's a government issue, not a moral one, that if only there was better regulation and enforcement of the rules on fit and proper persons who can own a football club, is that what you're saying? 

Do you know how many current Premier League and Championship owners would be barred from owning a club if the rules could by some miracle be enforced retrospectively? None. Not a single one. They aren't designed to block global tycoons, nation-states or oligarchs, they're meant to be a bar to the kind of local crook too thick to operate through an offshore trust.

Or a rapist?

Indeed. But equally I don't remember Blackpool fans complaining about Owen Oyston when Blackpool got promoted to the Premier League. Only when he took all the money, stiffed his Latvian business partner and laughed in the faces of the fans did it become an issue. Nothing in the rules prevented him from doing any of that.

So clubs should be co-operatives of local basket weavers run for the benefit of that nebulous and slightly contorted word "the community"? Basically, you're just tilting at windmills here, aren't you?

So if you follow the logical progression of football club ownership, this is all inevitable and therefore you price it in and swallow it? Skint local businessman gets bailed out by either highly skilful overleveraged and very lucky local businessman, who then flips it to national semi-celebrity businessman, or possibly a European with UK connections to the financial laundry of the City of London, who then realises he then needs to cash-out to either an oligarch, a nation-state, or a financially engineered American. 

Go on...

So if every club goes through a version of that progressive game of snakes and ladders, then the end result is a very wealthy Premier League, an ever more desperate Championship of clubs desperate to get into that cycle, and you just have to hope your club is owned by someone at the top of that slightly grotesque foodchain.

There's the German model?

If we had the German model of fan ownership then one of the big red teams would win the league every season, for a start. Plus, I used to have similar discussions when I worked in the education sector. You have to fix the fundamentals of the economy to get that model. The European Super League thing hasn't gone away you know.   

So you walk away from football then? Boycott it?

I see what you did there. So you either bail out of football entirely, go and support a non-league club, or suck it up. I think that's led us to the moral cop-out that says we can no more boycott football - it's too important - than we can give up using electricity.

But what about the long-suffering Newcastle fans burdened by the trauma of the Mike Ashley era, don't they have the right to a better future?

I don't care. Why do they think they're going to win anything anytime soon? In that world where every club is super-wealthy, only one team can win the Champions League, only one can win the league. And here's the other uncomfortable truth. Three of them have to be relegated. And who says it's a better future?

Will foreign ownership of football clubs end up being the same as the colonial slave trade issue of the future? Shamefully hiding their human rights reputations in investments into failing clubs…

Yes, kind of. But if you look at Manchester City it's been a well-run investment in a successful club that has also managed to project the new modern image of the UAE. As long as things are going well, the projection of that image looks good. You'll also see in the next year a series of well crafted long reads about Saudi Arabia's new generation of leaders moving on from Wahabi Islam, becoming a more tolerant and cohesive society, rooting out corruption and the old ways. How the ownership of Newcastle United is a gift to the people of the North East, consistent with the mainstream values of a technologically connected world. How tolerance and mutual respect for diversity of cultures is part of Saudi Arabia's step out of the dark ages.  

You're just jealous. I saw what your fans were saying on Twitter. Hoping for a rich Saudi to buy Blackburn, and you didn't stop supporting your team when a tax-dodger bought the Premier League, did you? Wouldn't you want Blackburn to be owned by a billionaire?

Blackburn Rovers literally is owned by a family which at the last time of checking was valued in the billions. But Venky's aren't stupid enough to break the rules of financial fair play on a gamble that may get us into the Premier League, but they are also somehow unwilling to walk away and plunge the club into liquidation. And I'd contest the Jack Walker description, a little bit, but Blackburn Rovers are very much on that conveyor belt of ownership. We got very, very lucky, played our hand well, then got very, very unlucky and were financially rinsed by a series of disastrous decisions made by people who didn't have the long term interests of the club at heart. No one truly knows what went on there except the Rao family, Steve Kean and Jerome Anderson. Portsmouth went through something similar too, they even went down the fan ownership route after having a financial disaster - and opted for the rich American option. But there's a long term structural reason why our club is currently where we are, the fan base, the tradition, the size of the town and the catchment area. As for expecting me to defend "your fans" though, really?

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