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It is part of the change that has come over football that, as the new season starts, the fans must not only look out for the new players who have walked into the clubs’ changing rooms but the new owners who may now own their clubs’ boardrooms.

In the last few weeks, the football news has been as dominated by the transfers of club ownership as much as player transfers. Or more accurately stories of possible sales of clubs with Liverpool, Blackburn and Leicester all about to be sold, and Portsmouth’s change of ownership dependent to an extent on the Revenue.

And just as transferring players is a game within a game and can involve a lot of smoke and mirrors, the transfer of clubs is an even more elaborate game. The obvious rarely happens and the first story of new owners often turns out to be the wrong one. But both change of ownership and change of club by a player share the same lack of transparency with the figures mentioned never quite the right ones. Clubs rarely disclose the exact transfer fee and the millions talked about as being paid by a new owner for a club turn out not to be so much cash changing hands but all sorts of loan guarantees and complicated financial instruments.

But what really separates the transfer of players from the change of club ownership is the use they make of the media.

The transfer of players is very special to football because of the peculiar football rule which does not allow a club wanting a player to approach the player directly. I say peculiar because in any other trade or profession that would be the natural thing to do.

In my profession of journalism such poaching is the norm and, while it may involve the person negotiating a way out of a contract, it is not considered unusual or illegal. Indeed job changes would be impossible in our economy if football rules applied. In football, in order to protect the integrity of the team, such a direct approach is illegal. This has made so-called agents, who are really headhunters, crucial for the clubs seeking players.

In the process, the agent cum headhunter uses the media in a very clever way. Often a story is put about that a certain club is interested in a certain player. At that moment that club may have expressed no interest in that player but the publicity serves the purpose of putting the player in the transfer shop window and sets the transfer merry-go-round turning. In other words these headhunters are using the media to advertise their wares.

Observe how many transfers start with a player linked to one club but ending up moving to a quite different one.

During such time we hear all sorts of a very special football language used with one word in particular being specially favoured: ambition. So there is talk by the player of the ambition of the club to win honours, in order words how much is the club prepared to spend to get high profile players. This is combined with talk of the ambition of the player to go to a club where he can himself win honours. In reality the only ambition the player is interested in is finding how much he will be paid and the only ambition for the headhunter, masquerading as agent, is the fee he can collect.

But takeover battles for football clubs are almost the exact reverse of this. Here the man or consortium that eventually ends up owning the club is almost the last person whose identity is revealed. Very often the names that are initially bandied about as possible owners are those who may have made an inquiry but failed to complete the deal.

In a transfer, the agent broadcasts a name of a player in the press in order to start a bidding war between clubs. In an ownership battle, the most serious bidders are anxious to keep their names out of the limelight until they have nailed the deal.

Partly this is because some people who say they want to buy a club just do not have the money, and even those who have must go through due diligence and other City formalities. And sometimes, as in the case of Roman Abramovich, you end up with a club you did not want in the beginning – he initially wanted Tottenham but finding it was overpriced moved to Chelsea.

But while his lavish spending has made Chelsea, once a yo-yo club, now the one every other club in the land has to beat, he both distorted the transfer market and gave fans of other clubs unrealistic expectations.

So soon after he took over Chelsea in 2003 his cash on the nail payments for players, something not normal in transfers, rescued West Ham’s financial fortunes. Yet three years later, when West Ham had a new owner, fans had hoped for an Abramovich only to find the club subject to the fortunes of the Icelandic economy.

Just look back to the start of the 2006 season. West Ham seemed to be ticking along nicely as a mid-table Premier League club. But their owners wanted to match their London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal and saw a move to the Olympic Stadium as ideal for this purpose: seven minutes from the Eurostar terminal to Paris, very attractive to City high rollers and financially very lucrative. But to do that required more money than the owners had.

The scheme they came up with fantastic combining player transfers with a sale.

Image courtesy of Insideworldfootball.biz

Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, players who would normally be beyond West Ham’s reach, were effectively parked at the club in the expectation that this would lead to the sale of the club to an Israeli buyer. But as West Ham struggled on the field the Israeli, worried West Ham might be relegated, as they very nearly were, haggled over the price. From left field another buyer from Iceland, a rich businessman called Björgólfur Guomundsson, emerged.

He knew little about English football and had been encouraged to look at the club by Eggert Magnusson, whose knowledge about the game could not be doubted, having been President of the Icelandic Football Association and a member of the UEFA executive. Indeed he used his contacts in UEFA to persuade David Richards, Premier league chairman, to put pressure on Terry Brown then West Ham chairman to speak to the Icelanders. Brown, who was keen on the Israeli deal, had not wanted to but in the end did and sold the club to the Icelander.

The first year of the change of ownership was as great a charade as any seen in football recently. Magnusson, who had not put a penny into the sale, fronted the purchase as if he was the real club owner. But, in the end he spent so much money that Guomundsson, the real owner had to intervene, only to find within months that his own country was going bankrupt.

And with Guodmundsson in hock to his creditors, this East End club which had been owned by one family for decades, was now subject to the economic fortunes of another country. The two Davids – Sullivan and Gold – have since rescued West Ham but this story shows how much more complicated modern club ownership can be compared with the transfer of a player.

All this proves that there is one thing that applies to both to a new player and a new owner, there is no way of knowing whether he will work. A club may spend a lot of money on a hoped-for star and find he is a dud, a new owner may promise the earth or at least a new stadium, as the Liverpool American duo did, and in the end deliver nothing.

A Jack Walker or a Roman Abramovich are exceptions to the rule. Fans as they welcome a new player or a new owner should invert the old Roman saying caveat emptor and worry what the new buyer brings.

      

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