Mike Ashley’s departure has long been sought by those with the club’s best interests at heart. But rumoured interested parties have come and gone over the summer without managing to either prove their finances or come up with an offer which Ashley finds acceptable.
By all accounts, a bid involving local businessman Barry Moat has come closest to success so far, being named as the preferred bidder of Seymour Pierce, in charge of negotiations for Ashley. Moat has been unable to complete the process, with reports offering various reasons for this from a basic failure to meet the asking price, to the inability or reluctance to provide funds to reduce the overdraft to a level acceptable to the banks. It’s even been claimed that the desire to avoid paying for a settlement to Kevin Keegan’s upcoming constructive dismissal case has led Moat to pull back from an agreement. Whatever the reason, it seems clear that a sum of no more than £10m is preventing a sale taking place.
However, good on-field performances culminating in promotion would increase the value of the club dramatically, and that appears within the grasp of our current squad with modest additions. Serious well-funded bidders might think it worth paying the extra to break the deadlock, especially with a reasonable chance of an immediate return. The suspicion lingers that they just don’t have the money, and even were this bid or one like it to succeed, the limited finances involved would mean that the club remained ultimately in the control of its bankers, unable to speculate sufficiently to generate success. Some think that a takeover on these terms would leave us in effectively the same situation as we find ourselves now: with an owner unable to find operating cash to improve on-pitch performances. Millionaires, the theory goes, just aren’t rich enough to make a difference these days.
So is it oil money or nothing? The alternatives we’ve seen recently don’t offer much hope. The Fans 410 group which had a brief flirtation with the back pages before promptly disappearing again proposed changing the ownership model of the club to one which mirrored that of Barcelona, where a large number of members each own shares and together vote on the appointment of a board to run things. The ex-Spurs defender Graham Roberts was the front for the approach, and Ashley’s connections with that club raise the possibility that this bid was generated by him to concentrate Moat’s mind during negotiations. Such a plan isn’t dependent on the involvement of Roberts’ group however, and the proposed structure is fairly common in Europe. As well as Barcelona and a few other Spanish clubs, most German clubs are owned by members’ organisations. Indeed, the German FA have a rule stipulating that a majority of club shares are held this way.
The problem is that it’s one thing for a club owned by members to grow organically into a top-level force over 50 years under the protection of FA rules, another thing entirely for a fans group to buy control of a business owned by a private individual and valued at £100m. Have you got a spare ten grand ferreted away to buy your stake? I know I haven’t.
The club Supporter’s Trust has the ultimate aim of supporter representation on the board, through the ongoing purchase of an ever-increasing stake in the club. This seems a more realistic path than attempting to arrange a one-off complete buy-out, but of course it is dependent on the current owner wishing to participate, with the club no longer listed on the stock market. A laudable scheme then, in terms of aims and ambition, but by necessity one for the ongoing future.
So what of the present? The apparent drawback to the Moat bid, as stated here, is the lack of evident funds for investment in the playing staff, meaning that as a club we’d be no better off than under Ashley. Perhaps the way to look at this is that if it goes through we’ll surely be no worse off than under Ashley in terms of team building. If Moat then at least tries to run the club properly, by appointing a manager who has final control of incomings and outgoings, by allowing him to spend money raised through transfers, by allowing the squad size to be increased, we have to be better off overall. If we do climb out of this division and he makes his wedge there is no reason to believe that some of that money wouldn’t then become available for team building, and previous quibbles would no longer apply. Rather than wait for a billionaire sugar-daddy, at this point I’d settle for a self-financing club which uses surplus Premiership cash to pay for squad improvements.