Just how many more partners will ride into town?

Following the furore surrounding Liverpool chairmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett as well as Aston Villa’s Randy Lerner, Young Academic pull another one from the archives. Check out Charles Whitworth’s feature on the possible effect of foreign chairmen in football – written back in 2007…

It is now two years since Malcolm Glazer bought the shares required to take control of Manchester United. Since then two more premiership sides have fallen to American ownership in Aston Villa and Liverpool.

Charles Whitworth reports on whether the takeovers are proving positive for the club’s involved and whether the growing American influence on our game should be a worry.

Takeovers in football have been commonplace for years now; however the days of Alan Sugar and Elton John have gone. These millionaires, decided to apply their riches to Tottenham Hotspur and Watford because they watched them from the terraces as youngsters and wanted to give something back to their boyhood heroes.

Now, the premier league boasts just a handful of British chairmen with owners from nations such as Russia, Greece, Ukraine and Israel running their businesses in our top flight.

Today, it is the era of the oil tycoon, the arms dealer or the ski resorts entrepreneur. Mega rich businessmen now see the FA Barclaycard Premier League as a playground in which to maximise their wealth.

Football clubs are now seen as brand names, with the title of a team now having no relation to the geographical area it is situated. To coin a good example, Chelsea played PSV Eindhoven in the UEFA Champions League last Wednesday and the nearest any player was born to Stamford Bridge [Chelsea’s ground] was Arjen Robben from Bedum in Holland.

Football is changing, and it has been since the start of the influx of foreign stars to the premiership in 1996. Following the success of the national side in that summer’s European Championships the most skilful players on the globe have developed a desire to play in England.

This growth of status that English football has achieved has not only attracted the biggest playing names in the world, but also the big money-men. Rupert Murdoch famously failed in a bid to buy Manchester United for £350 million in 1998 – this was only rejected in order to stop the entrepreneur from gaining a Berlusconi-like stronghold in Britain.

When Malcolm Glazer took the reins at Manchester United in the spring of 2005, it was met by a revolt by a large proportion of the clubs supporters. In fact, the fans were so disgruntled – they formed a breakaway team called FC United and anti-Glazer literature could be found all over Manchester.

With no public appearance or even press conference – the fans feared that the tradition of Manchester United Football Club would be lost. They were also worried by the fact that the club was purchased with borrowed money – meaning limited transfer resources.

Randy Lerner’s takeover of Aston Villa Football Club was however, quite different. The fans had long hated Doug Ellis due to his refusal to purchase new players or improve their stadium, Villa Park. So when the Cleveland Browns owner, Mr. Lerner came along with his reputed £1.3 billion fortune, the fans were in high spirits. He also splashed out £14 million in the next transfer window to allay any fears of an Ellis-like regime.

Liverpool Football Club’s eventual takeover by American duo Tom Hicks and George Gillet, was entirely different again, and a saga to say the least. After months of haggling between the American enterprise and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, an agreement was finally reached on the 7th February which valued the club at £174.1 million. The pair also promised the capital needed to build Liverpool’s new 70,000-seater stadium on Stanley Park.

With Hicks and Gillet’s millions accrued from such ventures as the Texas Rangers [baseball] and the Dallas Stars [ice hockey], the entrepreneurs displayed an obvious passion for sport and an air of optimism similar to that of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. “We want, with the help of the existing board, to continue the legacy created by those before us – we believe we are at the best team in the best sport in the world. We know we can improve this franchise,” said the duo at a recent press conference held at Anfield.

The referral by Hicks to the club as ‘franchise’ is a worry for some, “I hope that was a linguistic mistake as they need to learn quickly that this is a club with a massive history,” said Kelly Underwood, spokesperson for Liverpool Youth Academy.
“Although Liverpool is a brand name, football is not the same as American sports – if you lose touch with the game’s history you’re in trouble. Football has been a passion in this city since before most American sports were invented”.

With the takeover being the third of its kind in a relatively short period of time, should these events be viewed a positive or negative for the game? There are reasons to suggest that the extra cash being put into the game can only improve facilities and standards as a result, but do these businessmen have the true interests of their clubs at heart?

Liam Sanders of Liverpool radio station, Radio City 96.7, said: “At the end of the day, improved results will mean improved revenue so these men are always going to have the interests of the club at heart, but from interviews already conducted the pair seems to be really excited about the prospect of becoming part of Liverpool FC’s legacy”.

“Our contacts in the USA and Canada have only good things to say about them [Gillet and Hicks], both the sides they control across the pond have experienced improved fortunes under their guidance”

Two years on from the controversial takeover at Manchester United, the club are sitting pretty at the top of the premiership and are on course for a domestic and European treble, signs that the takeover may have not been as bad for the club as critics had first suggested. Dan Adams of the Red Café at Old Trafford thinks that overall the new owners have the club at heart, “There was always going to be uproar when a club like Manchester United are taken over but the buzz is back in the ground now, we are top of the league and still in all the cups and that is the main thing – results”.

After just 10 months of American rule, Aston Villa have enjoyed immediate success under their new chairman and owner. In the two seasons before Doug Ellis agreed to sell up, Villa Park was rarely 70 per cent full. This campaign has seen the fans fill the stadium every home match and shirt sales are reportedly at an all time high according the club shop ‘Villain’. “ I think Mr. Ellis had let Aston Villa turn into a sleeping giant, the fan base was always there but they had become disgruntled with the chairman. Since Randy Lerner bought us, we have had to employ extra staff just to man the club shop” commented Sue Hitchcock who runs the store.

The streets of Liverpool were as vibrant as ever before their recent victory over Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League tie. Jack Tomlins, 24, who has followed the club all his life thinks that the changes were necessary “as we have to move in to the 21st century with the like of Chelsea and Manchester United,” he explains. “David Moores [the former owner] did a lot for the club but he did not have the funds for a new stadium and he knew that. He was careful in who he sold to – he would never have done anything to jeopardise the future of his club”.
“You look at the likes of Roman Abramovich [Chelsea] and Sergey Gaydamak [Portsmouth] and see that their funding comes from oil and possibly arms – at least our owners are honest businessmen with a genuine interest in sport” continued Mr. Tomlins as he purchased his match-day programme.

Ken Ranson of the Official Manchester United Supporters Club (OMUSC) thinks that the heritage of the English game is too resilient to allow too much Americanisation. “Fans would not stand for it getting too American, no chance of getting a ‘quarters instead of halves’ situation that is for sure. Maybe we should keep an eye on it, but I don’t think it is anything to worry about”.

The fans seem to be happy as long as they are satisfied the club will be run properly regardless of the nationality of their owners and are ultimately kept content by good results according to Mike Taylor of BBC Birmingham. “The fans don’t really give a monkey’s who is sat upstairs unless results are going badly, at the end of the day they are the one’s who are responsible”.
“I’m not buying into this notion of Americanisation; it is too easy for the media to tap into this, Mr. Lerner introduced himself to the fans and has since bought three top players who have fired Villa into the top half of the table – how can anyone see that as negative”.

The common consensus among players and fans alike seems to be that although the heritage, legacy and tradition of English football does appear to be threatened by the emergence of foreign chairmen, that is the direction that the game has gone as it has concreted itself as the biggest sport in the world.

The games oldest body, The Football Association (F.A.) commented on the debate; “When ever a club is bought, or even the shares of a club are purchased – the F.A. has a series of standards that have to be met to ensure the interests of the club are being considered.”
“We can see no reason why an individual would purchase something as lucrative as a football club if they did not have the true interests of it at heart” said John McGinlay, former Bolton Wanderers striker and spokesperson for the F.A.

“One thing that has always and will always confuse the Americans is the off-side rule – once they get their heads around that then they will start to understand football” said a Barcelona fan on Anfield road last Tuesday. So we are not alone in our scepticism, it remains to be seen whether or not it is justified.

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