Foreign Owners – An Outsiders View – Competition

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Sportswriter Bob Holmes has taken a look at the rise of foreign ownership in the English game and as well as acknowledging the often aired thoughts of the fans, he’s also given his own opinions on how each club sale panned out.

Caesars, Saviours and Suckers: The good, bad and ugly of football’s foreign owners, takes a look at ten distinct journeys for a foreign owner and in some cases the long suffering fans during their period in charge.

Of course a couple of owners picked out for discussion have now moved on, but there are still incumbents in place and no doubt fans in the wider football world, not least fans of the clubs in question, will find point of resonance in the depicted stories.

Bob certainly takes a gritty whilst humorous and irreverent look at the journey’s undertaken in recent years by Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea, Heart of Midlothian, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, Notts County, Portsmouth, Queens Park Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers and of course each club has fared differently under new ownership in the years since takeover.

The back cover gives a taste of what readers can expect to find within the pages.

‘One wanted to play when pushing 60, but it was only a friendly – against Barcelona. Another thought his club was a BBQ restaurant. Another had never seen a match. There are messiahs and men on the run, philanthropists and fraudsters, a gun runner, fake sheikhs and others who don’t exist; grenade-tossers and just some tossers. Some even like football. In these fascinating tales, sportswriter Bob Holmes takes us to oblivion and back amid nuclear submarines, unpaid milk bills, the axis of evil, Angolan diamonds and deliberately crashed F1 cars.’

And the worry is that while most of those sound a little fantastical to the outside fan, there will be those who know exactly what they are meant to reference and will either be smiling to themselves rocking back and forth or retreating back behind the settee.

For a little taste of each of the clubs looked at, carry on scanning down the page but we do have a copy of the book to give away on

With the same kind of critical thinking that goes into almost every Donald Trump tweet, to enter the competition for a copy you simply have to Email Vitalfootball with your name, address and the answer to the following question – which is conveniently found on this page.

Which club may have had their buns burnt?

The competition will close on Tuesday April 4.

To purchase a copy of the book just follow the following link Click Here.

Aston Villa

Take Villa fans during the 2015-16 season. Doomed to relegation since January, they had a lame duck manager and players who didn`t seem to care. Off the field they were just as big a shambles: executives were quitting, fans were rebelling and even the match-day receptionist resigned in protest. The owner? A conspicuous absentee that was desperate to sell. But it could have been worse: when he`d bought the club, Randy Lerner had been preferred to one of the cowboys who bought Liverpool. All that stopped a deal going through was chairman Doug Ellis realising George Gillett didn`t have the cash. He writes in Deadly Doug: ‘Gillett badly wanted the club, and was willing to meet the new asking price.’ Ellis had dropped it by £20m, he said, ‘because I thought I was on my deathbed.’ ‘Deadly’ could be deadpan too. But when told by Rothschilds that all but one of the interested parties would have to borrow the money to buy him out, Ellis was instantly drawn to the one who didn`t. ‘I was impressed by Lerner`s demeanour and by his record,’ he wrote. ‘I believed Randy was the right man and so far I have been proved right.’

Blackburn Rovers

Jack Walker was not looking for a toy or fashion accessory when he bought Rovers. Neither did he seek an additional franchise for his sporting portfolio nor a global repositioning for his brand. In the wake of the overseas billionaire influx, Walker has become a case study for the hometown boy who bought the club he`d always supported. Simple as that. He didn`t want to be Caesar and had repositioned his brand by flogging it. Now he could spend his cash on players. In terms of football ownership, no one has ever been more ‘fit and proper’ than Jack Walker was for Blackburn Rovers. It is a supreme irony that after he`d sold his Walkersteel business to British Steel for £360 million in 1990, he was feared by the football establishment. A blunt-speaking Northerner who`d failed his eleven plus, put the wind up the big boys: he had more brass. Long before Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour altered the landscape forever, Walker was indulging his boyhood fantasies at Blackburn. He was like a kid in a sweet shop. A rich kid in a small sweet shop. ‘Doing a Blackburn’ became a byword for spending with which the gilded elite of the English game could not compete. And Blackburn were still in the Second Division.


As the season got under way a camera would be trained on the Russian mystery man throughout each televised game. Viewers would get glimpses of the kind of deadpan expression that a poker player would die for. Even when Chelsea scored. Occasionally he would clap, very occasionally he would stand up and maybe twice a season he would smile – but even that was a half-smile soon to vanish as he turned to his companions with a self-effacing shrug. It was impossible to say whether he thought he was getting his several hundred millions` worth. Indeed, The Independent`s James Lawton, in an open letter, wondered just that: ‘…with all the bodyguards and that expression of yours which mostly suggests that on balance you would rather be somewhere else, even a Siberian snowdrift…’ The public image was, however, very different to the one the players saw. Marcel Desailly, who just missed out on the Mourinho years, was still at Chelsea when Abramovich took over, and he told me how it felt to be part of a club when one of the world`s richest men buys it. He said: ‘For us players money didn`t count really. You know I had [Silvio] Berlusconi before [at Milan]. Abramovich to Berlusconi was like CocaCola to PepsiCola. And there was Bernard Tapie [at Marseille]. For us what was important was whether the chairman had the passion for the game. Whether he was able to bring a real unity internally.’ Abramovich did. I asked him why he was so passionate and he said to me, ‘My reason for life is football`. A business deal does not give him the same excitement as when Chelsea win.


I went home and told my wife I`d met a Lithuanian banker who might buy Hearts. She had to check the calendar to make sure it wasn`t April 1st.’ Former Hearts chairman Leslie Deans. Submariner, high-flyer; banker, bootlegger; dictator, dreamer; saviour, megalomaniac; soap-dodger, money-launderer. Had Winston Churchill known Vladimir Nikolayevich Romanov, he may well have applied his famous description of the Soviet Union to Hearts` most infamous owner. After all who, among football`s ‘fit and proper persons`, is more deserving of the moniker ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’? As an oligarch, he may have been a Roman Abramovich-lite, a few divisions lower on the Forbes List, but he was also several rock-concerts louder, loonier and more controversial. He did not suffer fools, and with managers it was shoot-to-kill. He soon went from saviour to certifiable. Hearts were top of the table, unbeaten after 10 games – their best start since 1914 – and playing superbly. Tynecastle throbbed and the Old Firm looked uneasily over its shoulder. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything if you get rid of the manager. Of the 11 sackings that Romanov made, none were as mad cap as George Burley`s. Two of his successors didn`t speak English and there were several dispensable caretakers, but Burley had masterminded a brilliant dawn to what had the makings of a golden era. Not good enough for this owner though. Romanov liked to pick the team, picked his son as chairman and even tried to pick himself to play – when pushing 60. It was only a friendly though – against Barcelona.

Manchester City

Playing Devil`s Advocate, I press him [Garry Cook] over City not being the most obvious club to buy. ‘There were three other clubs who Abu Dhabi were looking at,’ he said, ‘but we ticked all the boxes. We could deliver the name Manchester – and I`m not ashamed to admit I used our rivals Manchester United to push our cause; we could deliver the name City – something that could become a powerful brand – and we could also deliver a fantastic stadium surrounded by 230 acres of land that was ripe for development. I addressed men of real intelligence and insight who recognised the potential of Manchester City. They knew the dream I had was realistic. Ironically, I had a much harder task convincing people at the club and many of City`s supporters. When I went to the Burnage branch of our supporters` club to tell them that we would beat United and that one day we would win the Premier League and the Champions League, they looked at me as if I was mad. They`d been used to thinking no further than the 40 points needed to stay in the Premier League. So there was 35 years of failure to address. We had to change the culture of the club. It had to be revolution rather than evolution. There could be no looking back – it had to be year zero. I came from an American culture. I came from a great company like Nike, where we never once worried about what Adidas were doing: we looked at what Disney were doing. So when I came to Manchester City and I was told that Manchester United were the team we had to challenge, I didn’t stop for a second to think about how we could emulate what they were doing at Old Trafford – the clubs I set my sights on were Barcelona and Real Madrid.’

Nottingham Forest

But when the identity of the prospective buyer was revealed, frying pans and Dante`s inferno immediately sprang to mind. No one has ever looked less ‘fit and proper` than Greek shipping magnate and Olympiakos owner, Evangelos Marinakis. With a girth as wide as the Aegean Sea and a charge sheet that might have been penned by Homer, a quick Google search explained the delay. Olympiakos had won the Greek league six times in a row, the last one by a 28-point margin. Credit for that, however, is sullied somewhat by Marinakis`s ban from any football activity. It was imposed when he was arrested in 2015 after a 173-page report by the public prosecutor alleged that he was ‘directing a criminal organisation’ with the aim of achieving ‘absolute control of Greek football`s fate by the methods of blackmailing and fraud’. He was also accused of trying to change the outcome of a game by bribery, and arranging an explosion. That incident was believed to relate to an alleged bombing of an uncooperative referee`s bakery business. No one was hurt but that morning`s buns were on the burnt side. As one Forest supporter told me: ‘Being run by an alleged crook has got to be better than being run by a proven idiot.’

Notts County

Just what are Munto doing in a book about foreign owners? You may well ask. For a few torrid months in 2009, the owners of Notts County were not foreign at all – they just pretended to be. Or more accurately, a trio of Englishmen pretended there was a foreign Mr Big behind them. Coming amid the fool`s gold rush of mystery takeovers from abroad, the shotgun marriage between the Magpies and Munto screams for inclusion. A year after Sheikh Mansour showed just how to transform a club at Manchester City, and before the Venky`s at Blackburn and various at Portsmouth showed how not to, the fascination that filthy-rich foreigners had for British football clubs was at its height. As was the belief among fans that such people would be their saviours. The Munto Months – for that`s all it lasted – the Qadbak Catastrophe or the Trillion Dollar Con (as Panorama called it), provides a crash course in how the sweetest of dreams can turn into a living nightmare. All the familiar ingredients are here from bucket rattlers to non-existent billionaires; Middle Eastern promise of Premier League football and fabulous riches, a fit and proper farce and an unpaid milk bill that led to a £7 million debt. The Notts County takeover ticked all the boxes and more. There was North Korea, the Serious Fraud Office, Sven and Sol and a try for Becks. Encapsulating all the hope, greed and despair of early 21st century football ownership, it was a parable of the times.


By far the most interesting of those who may or may not have owned the club is Arkady Gaydamak. A carrier of four passports – Russian, Israeli, Canadian and Angolan – he might have been invented by Frederick Forsyth. Having made his billions in arms and diamonds, in 2009 he was sentenced in absentia by a French court to six years for tax fraud, embezzlement, money laundering and arms trafficking in the Angolan civil war of the 1990s. He got it reduced to three years on appeal. And if the Pompey saga ever makes it to the big screen, no director worth a carat could miss a clip from Blood Diamond to kick it off. At a time (2012) tea ladies were being sacked, Gaydamak Snr lost a $2billion court case with the so-called king of diamonds, Lev Leviev. There was testimony from both a Russian rabbi and an Angolan general. Connecting all this with a medium-sized football club on England`s south coast may be a stretch, but you can see where McInnes is coming from. If you believe Gaydamak Snr was the power behind his son`s throne, you are beginning to link the dots – his own and the club`s woes uncannily coincide. And according to whispers, he took a keen paternal interest. Although a wanted man, it is alleged that Papa Gaydamak turned up at Sacha`s birthday bash one year, flying by private jet into a local airport where checks are limited. Unlike his mild-mannered son, it is said that he can be quite terrifying and must have appeared that way to Redknapp if one eye-witness account is true. After the tightening of the transfer budget, Harry, in his inimitable way, had had a bit of a moan about Sacha and said he needed new players. According to sources – and the incident was seen by several people – Papa Gaydamak cornered Harry, grabbing him by the throat. He told him that if he badmouthed his son again, he`d be flying straight back. A couple of days later, there was a newspaper story about Harry praising his excellent chairman.

Queens Park Rangers

‘I was thinking of buying a pizzeria and someone mentioned QPR. I thought it was a barbecue restaurant.’ Flavio Briatore. ‘It`s cost me 50 million quid to find the game`s immoral,’ said Tony Fernandes after QPR were relegated in 2013. A clutch of over-priced and over-paid millionaires had taken the budget airline boss for a very expensive ride. The Independent called the club: ‘An El Dorado for aging mercenaries’. A few years earlier, Flavio Briatore described their predecessors as ‘a load of shit’. The modern history of QPR sees players mostly in supporting roles to a star-studded board. As colourful as the stadium is drab, directors have included a Brazilian World Cup winning captain, Britain`s richest man, the boss of Formula One, a wanted man, wheeler-dealers, fly-by-nights and a high flyer who was one of Time Magazine`s 100 Most Influential People for 2015. Alas for Fernandes and the club, he has not been as influential when it comes to football. This tale is essentially about two regimes: the Lakshmi Mittal/Bernie Ecclestone/Flavio Briatore trident – a veritable Messi, Suarez & Neymar among the extravagantly heeled – and their successors led by Fernandes. The first was immortalised in The Four Year Plan, the second is into its fourth year and as many discarded drawing boards. Throughout, QPR have shown that being richer than Croesus is no guarantee of getting a football club to function properly, let alone succeed on the pitch. In fact, building a world-famous brand or Asia`s biggest budget airline from two planes must have seemed a doddle in comparison.

Wolverhampton Wanderers

‘The headlines belonged to my favourite team, Wolves. Even then kids liked to follow the successful team: they always appear more glamorous for that reason.’ George Best. MOLINEUX in the early fifties: misty nights in the Black Country, floodlights that might have been installed by Thomas Edison, ‘Soviet` opponents who looked like they`d been trained by Josef Stalin. Home fans weren`t worried though – Wolves were trained by Stan Cullis. It was the Iron Curtain versus the Iron Manager. Wolves, champions of England, old gold shirts glistening under four clusters of what seemed no more than 40 watt bulbs on stilts, had the nation glued to nine-inch black and white screens. Long before the Champions League was even a twinkle, these were big ‘European nights`. Dynamo and Spartak of Moscow, and Honved, with half the Hungarians who had bewitched England at Wembley and Budapest, were vanquished: Cullis hailed Wolves as ‘champions of the world`. The claim was unverifiable but far from outrageous: Real Madrid, Racing Club of Argentina and ‘a South African XI` would also fall to Wolves` long-ball game. Devised by Cullis, it was an ‘up and at ’em` approach from a side with skill and dash as well as sinew. If General Patton had been a football manager, it was how he`d have set up a team. And as Patton did with his troops, Cullis put the fear of God into his players. They, in turn, would ‘die` for him. They won the League in 1954, 1958 and 1959, were runners-up in 1950, 1955 and 1960, and came third in 1953 and 1956. ‘World champions` might have been a stretch, but in England, with respect to the Busby Babes, Wolves were the team of the decade.’


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