Comment: Not just foreign owners who ruin clubs

Vincent Tan and his sacking of Malky Mackay has put foreign club owners under the spotlight. Picture: PA
Vincent Tan and his sacking of Malky Mackay has put foreign club owners under the spotlight. Picture: PA
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‘It doesn’t need foreign owners to ruin once-great clubs – just ask Rangers supporters’

The sacking of Malky Mackay by Cardiff City is the predictable end of a very tawdry saga. It’s also one that brings the issue of foreign owners back into sharp focus once again. There’s no doubt that Vincent Tan, the billionaire owner of Cardiff, who bought the debt-ridden club in 2010, is the villain of the piece. That much was clear when his erratic stewardship – suspected when he made the Bluebirds play in red – was confirmed when he sacked Mackay’s much-respected head of recruitment Iain Moody and replaced him with a 23-year-old Kazakh pal of his son’s who was so patently unqualified for the job that he was refused a work visa by the Home Office.

Thanks largely to Tan’s provocative behaviour and dismissal of the man who masterminded Cardiff’s rise to the top flight, a head of steam is now building up over the issue of foreign ownership of Premiership and even Championship clubs. The Malaysian isn’t the only rogue owner, of course, and there have been numerous other examples. The manner in which Indian company Venky’s bought Blackburn Rovers, fired Sam Allardyce and then oversaw a disastrous descent into the lower reaches of the Championship, was one case in point. So was the decision of the Hull City owner Assem Allam to press on with plans to rename his club Hull Tigers in the face of almost unanimous disapproval from the fans.

Yet, leaving aside the fact that it doesn’t need foreign owners to ruin once-great clubs – just ask Rangers fans if you doubt that – this is a ledger with two sides to it, and the records of foreign owners are not all in the debit side. In fact, let’s take a few obvious examples, starting with Hull. Not only has Allam poured huge sums of money into the club, the whole debate around him is staged on a false premise. He and his family have lived on Humberside for almost three decades, so he knows the area and its culture. He simply believes that the best way to secure the club’s long-term future is to establish a substantial fan-base in the Far East, where the tiger is revered. He may be proved wrong but to call the strategy senseless is just as bone-headed as to berate Sports Direct tycoon Mike Ashley for refusing to pour money down a black hole at Newcastle.

There have been plenty of instances of knee-jerk xenophobia. When Southampton head honcho Nicola Cortese gave that doughty relegation scrapper Nigel Adkins his marching orders as manager, there was uproar. Hadn’t the Liverpudlian kept the Hampshire club in the Premiership? What more could they ask for? Fast forward to now, when the Saints, under exciting new manager Mauricio Pochettino, are playing a sublime brand of football and are in the hunt for a European spot, and barely anyone spares a thought for Adkins, now at Reading.

It’s much the same at Liverpool, where the arrival of John Henry and the Fenway Sports Group was sceptically received. Thanks to Roman Abramovich, fans only really laud foreign owners who are willing to spend ludicrous sums of money on marquee names but, while Henry’s FSG established its credentials by splashing out £35 million on Andy Carroll, it has been its steady stewardship and long-term view over everything from choice of manager to investing in players such as Luis Suarez, as well as biding its time over a new stadium, which is bearing fruit and winning over the fans. Ditto Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, who stumped up eye-watering sums for top players, yet has also insisted on putting in place a youth set-up that is second to none.

The truth is that there can only be so many winners, and every time a club is in decline or tries a strategy that doesn’t work, its supporters look for someone to blame. Foreign owners are convenient scapegoats, even if there is now a Premiership that looks like developing into a genuinely competitive league, unlike Italy, Germany and Spain (or Scotland for that matter) where overseas owners are virtually unheard of and domestic spending power dominates.

If there is a real villain in all this, it is Richard Scudamore and his cronies at the FA Premier League, who have not only allowed an unfettered access to the English football market that has horrified the rest of Europe, but have actually encouraged it. They’ve put no rules in place to stop leveraged buyouts of the sort the Glazers used to purchase Manchester United, and have refused to act in those instances where they actually have some discretion (the colour of a club’s strip, or its name, to mention just two). They’ve flirted with playing league games overseas and will no doubt continue to do so.

The Premiership’s existential challenge looms large, however. With one or two exceptions, foreign owners aren’t generally investing in English football for their health, but for their wealth and, although it is anathema to all that British sport stands for, many see a franchise system as a locked-in guarantee of profits.

When two thirds of the Premiership clubs are owned by foreign interests, they will be in a position to push through such a seismic change in our footballing culture. And if they choose to do so, nobody can say we weren’t warned.

Scots need answer to starter for 10

THE first leg of rugby’s 1872 Cup between Edinburgh and Glasgow was a real thriller, and you wonder what Vern Cotter, watching the Warriors’ 20-16 win from Clermont Auvergne, made of it all. In fact, you wonder what the Kiwi will make of the Scotland team he will inherit next year, almost exactly a year before the next World Cup.

The best teams have continuity and stability, but at this stage the main thing that he knows about the Scotland team he will take over in the summer is that it is doughty but in a state of flux. Put simply, after Scott Johnson’s 11 games in charge (plus the three in which he was Andy Robinson’s de facto No.2), he can successfully argue that he has blooded a whole raft of players, thus giving options, but he has so far failed to decide which is Scotland’s first-choice team.

There are exceptions, of course. Loosehead Ryan Grant, hooker Ross Ford and inside centre Matt Scott are all bolted on, while the only question is where Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and skipper Kelly Brown play when fit, not whether they play. Of course, injuries have played havoc in some areas, most notably in the centre, while the emergence of Tim Swinson, Grant Gilchrist and Johnny Gray, plus the plummeting form of Richie Gray, has created a happy second-row selection problem.

It is at stand-off, however, that the real issue lies, not least because it feeds into who plays at scrum-half. At the moment the lack of clarity over No.10 means that Greig Laidlaw must play because he is comfortably Scotland’s best goalkicker. Yet the difference in the styles of the two main stand-off options, Duncan Weir and Ruaridh Jackson, has a knock-on effect on the whole way the team plays. If Johnson wants Cotter, pictured above, to inherit a Scotland team that’s shipshape, then the one thing above all that he needs to do in the forthcoming Six Nations is to plump for one No.10 and stick to his decision.