The subject of football club ownership has been much discussed this season, with Newcastle United’s £305 million takeover in November 2021 by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF)-  controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman- prompting much ethical debate about who should be allowed to own clubs. 

The takeover was subject to heavy scrutiny from media, fans and governing bodies due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but was eventually approved after the Premier League received assurances that “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would not control Newcastle United”. 

Sport and politics have also become mixed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich one of a number of oligarchs to have his assets frozen by the UK government due to alleged links with Russian president Vladimir Putin. This eventually led to him putting Chelsea up for sale. 

When Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the success he brought to the club was almost instant. The club won the Premier League in 2005, the club’s first league title in 50 years, after embarking on a level of spending which was unprecedented in the English game. 

This had been the first time an English club had been bought by an overseas billionaire, but the success Chelsea enjoyed afterwards inspired other clubs to follow suit, such as Manchester City who were bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008. 

Before this many clubs, including Manchester United, had been Public Limited Companies floated on the Stock Exchange, while others had been owned by domestic investors. A 2020 study by Sheffield Hallam University looked at each of the three ownership models to determine if there was a correlation between ownership model and success of the club. 

The study looked at financial records for Premier League clubs between 2001 and 2010 and found that clubs owned by foreign investors or floated on the stock market performed better on the pitch compared to those with domestic owners, the stock market model proved to be the best for the financial health of clubs. 

It is not only Premier League clubs who have turned to billionaire investment in the hopes of success. Such is the money at the top of the game that clubs in the English Football League (EFL) have also looked to spend big in the hope of reaching the top flight and gaining some of the riches that come with it. 

Under the current TV rights deal, each Premier League club is given an equal share of £34 million with further money based on factors such as sporting merit (where teams finish in the table) and commercial revenue. In the 2020-21 season, bottom club Sheffield United made £96.5 million. 

Even if a club is relegated from the Premier League they are awarded ‘parachute payments’. This sees them receive a percentage of the equally shared broadcast revenue. In the 2019-20 season, Cardiff City and Fulham both received £42.6 million in parachute payments. There has been criticism of the system, with some feeling it damages the competitive balance of the Championship. 

The finances of clubs below the Premier League has been a major issue since the collapse of ITV Digital in 2002. Only the previous year, the service had agreed a three-year deal worth £315 million to show matches from the Championship, League One and League Two. However, just months later ITV Digital went into administration with debts of £178 million. 

This had a profound effect on EFL clubs, who had spent based on the money they expected to be coming in from the ITV Digital deal. Bradford City were the first of eight clubs to go into administration during the 2001-02 season.  

Barnsley went into administration in October 2002 with debts of £2.5 million, having made a profit for the twelve years prior to ITV Digital’s collapse. Other impacts on clubs included staff being made redundant, players being sold and ticket prices being increased to offset losses. 

While the number of clubs going into administration massively increased in the four years following ITV Digital going under, more recent years have seen a number of clubs facing financial issues which have put the EFL in the spotlight over their Owners and Directors Test and who is being allowed to buy football clubs. 

Portsmouth had several owners between Alexandre Gaydamak selling the club in 2009 and the purchase by the Portsmouth Supporters Trust and being able to declare the club debt free in 2014. One of these owners, Sulaiman Al Fahim, later went to jail for bank fraud. This raised serious questions about the effectiveness of EFL guidance around club ownership. 

These issues also came to the fore in 2019 due to financial issues at two North West clubs both due to play in League One, English football’s third tier, during the 2019-20 season. Bolton Wanderers were narrowly saved from liquidation due to a takeover by Football Ventures (Whites) Limited. However, Bury FC were expelled from the EFL, becoming the first team to suffer this fate since Maidstone in 1992. 

Photo by Darya Sannikova on Pexels.com

The EFL’s Owners and Directors Test sets out a number of what they call Disqualifying Conditions, which would prevent an individual from owning a club. One of these is if they already hold a position of influence at another club. When Gary Neville was questioned on Twitter as to why he did not help out Bury given his family’s involvement in the club, he cited this rule due to his position as a co-owner of Salford City. 

There are also rules relating to those who have owned companies who have been subject to Insolvency. This is where question marks are raised in the case of Bolton Wanderers. In 2005 Ken Anderson was given an eight-year ban from directing businesses after eight companies he had previously run had gone bust. This ban expired in 2013 and Anderson acquired Bolton in 2016. 

In the period since, Bolton, who had been a Premier League club as recently as 2012, had twice been relegated from the Championship and at the start of the 2019-20 season were forced to field youth team players in order to fulfil fixtures. 

Since Steve Dale bought Bury for £1 in December 2018, he had not provided proof that he had the necessary funds in order to support the club. Incredibly, he later admitted in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live that “I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury”. 

While financial issues are nothing new at Oldham Athletic, another former Premier League club, this has been only one of a number of problems facing the club under the ownership of Abdallah Lesmagam. In 2021, the club banned three supporters for speaking out against his ownership. 

Since Lesmagam took over the club in 2018 there have been repeated instances of players not being paid on time and protests against the way the club is being run.  

When Hull City were taken over by the Egyptian-born Allam family, the reaction from the fans was one of joy as they were on the brink of going out of business. However, a number of decisions taken by Aseem Allam quickly saw that relationship turn sour. 

The first was his attempt to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers. Other decisions such as scrapping discounted tickets for concessions lead to declining attendances as fans vowed to no longer attend matches while the Allams owned the club. Aseem Allam had previously stated he would put the club up for sale after the rejection of his name change bid. 

Every one of these clubs has a unique story, but each of them has one thing that unites them, the fans. Every weekend, and even a lot of midweeks, millions of fans travel up and down the country supporting their team.  

When football was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, it left a major hole in the lives of matchgoing fans as they were effectively left without a team to support for several months. It would be August of the following year before many of them would be able to attend games again. 

Even though football in the Premier League and Championship resumed in June, almost a full season was played out behind closed doors, grounds which would normally be full of the noise of fans now silent, the regular atmosphere completely missing. 

It is these fans whose views should be heard. Fans of several clubs have shared their perspective on the situation at their club, discussing views on the owner when they first bought the club, any particular event which changed the relationship between owner and fans, and their views on whether EFL regulations go far enough to protect its member clubs. 

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