The good, bad and ugly of the Premier League's foreign owners

The billionaire with no access to his money, the owner who changed the team’s colours for ‘luck’ and protest chickens on the pitch! The good, bad and ugly of the Premier League’s foreign owners as Newcastle fans pray their £300m Saudi takeover is more Roman Abramovich than Vincent Tan

  • Newcastle are moving closer to £300m takeover by Saudi-led consortium
  • Backed by Saudi investment funds, Newcastle could be transformed overnight
  • But there are plenty of cautionary tales of foreign ownership in Premier League
  • Thaksin Shinawatra and Carson Yeung came in and departed under a cloud
  • Venky’s at Blackburn and the Glazer family at Man United faced huge protests
  • But likes of Roman Abramovich and Srivaddhanaprabha family offer progress

Newcastle United are on the verge of a £300million takeover by a consortium backed by money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

If the deal is completed, Newcastle would pass from the hands of retail tycoon Mike Ashley to the control of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

And with the Prince’s personal wealth valued at £7billion and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund worth a staggering £260bn, Newcastle could soon be a club transformed.

Yasir Al-Rumayyan is set to become the new chairman of Newcastle if the takeover is finalised

Amanda Staveley (second from right) is helping deliver the takeover, which could transform the Magpies into a member of the Premier League’s elite

Newcastle fans are excited at the prospect after years of under-performance with Mike Ashley

They would become just the latest prominent club to pass into foreign ownership and, as history has shown us, that has the potential to be good, bad or downright ugly.

We take a look back at some of the more colourful overseas owners in the Premier League and how it all went right – or wrong.

Roman Abramovich (Chelsea)

The meeting at the Dorchester Hotel that saw Roman Abramovich purchase Chelsea from Ken Bates for £140million in June 2003 was done and dusted in 20 minutes.

It’s doubtful few realised at the time just how the billionaire Russian oligarch – who apparently fell in love with football watching Manchester United’s 4-3 win over Real Madrid a few months earlier – would transform the landscape of English football.

At that time, only Chelsea’s west London neighbours Fulham were under foreign ownership in the Premier League but Abramovich sparked a clamour to invest from the world’s wealthiest.

Chelsea were transformed as well, from a cosmopolitan Cup-winning team unable to sustain a title challenge to serial winners of the top trophies.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (left) was little known when he bought Chelsea from Ken Bates in the summer of 2003

They have won five Premier League titles, the Champions League, the Europa League twice, the FA Cup four times and the League Cup three times in the 17 years of Abramovich’s reign.

It’s been achieved through lavish spending on world class players and the alarmingly regular chopping and changing of managers.

The Russian chooses to keep a low profile, though did attend games at Stamford Bridge from time to time before his visa issues a couple of years back.

Given what Chelsea have accomplished since his arrival, every football fan lives in hope an Abramovich-style figure will come and take over their club.

Abramovich’s millions lifted Chelsea to unprecedented heights in the years that followed 

Thaksin Shinawatra (Manchester City)

It’s been well and truly forgotten in the light of what’s happened to Manchester City since but there was giddy excitement when the deposed Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra bought the club for £81.6m in the summer of 2007.

After all, the previous season under manager Stuart Pearce had been dreadful, with the club flirting with relegation before eventually hauling themselves to 14th place.

Then from absolutely nowhere and following failed takeover attempts at Fulham and Liverpool, Thaksin arrived on the scene.

Any moral concerns about his history of human rights violations, brutal drugs war in Thailand and alleged corruption were swiftly forgotten when he laid down £40m for new signings and appointed Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager.

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra arrives at Manchester City in summer 2007

In came the likes of Rolando Bianchi, Geovanni, Vedran Corluka and Elano which, given the context of City prior to this point, were positively exotic and exciting signings.

On the field, City finished ninth, qualified for the UEFA Cup and beat rivals Man United home and away.

But with Thaksin’s assets frozen, he was actually financially crippled and in the end departed almost as soon as he’d arrived when Sheikh Mansour and the wealth of Abu Dhabi arrived the following summer.

With hindsight, however, his very brief time in charge gave City fans a tantalising glimpse of what could be and what would actually become reality in the years that followed.

Shinawatra brought in Sven-Goran Eriksson as City boss but the owner wasn’t around for long

Venky’s (Blackburn Rovers)

For the majority of football fans, Blackburn’s ongoing ownership by Indian poultry company Venky’s is summed up by two images.

The first is the cringeworthy TV advert that saw David Dunn and his team-mates performing the sign of the cross before tucking in to plates of Venky’s chicken in an inexplicably vibrating dressing room.

The other is a real live chicken draped in a Blackburn flag released onto the pitch at Ewood Park in protest and having to be scooped up by Wigan goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi during the 2012 fixture that confirmed their relegation to the Championship.

To say the relationship between Rovers fans and Venky’s after their £43m takeover in 2010 was fractious is a colossal understatement.

The cringeworthy Venky’s advert starring the Blackburn team following their 2010 takeover

Sacking manager Sam Allardyce was their first move, replacing him with Steve Kean in a move that baffled everyone until it emerged Kean’s agent Jerome Anderson had advised during Venky’s takeover.

Kean was at the helm when Rovers’ 11-year stint in the top-flight came to an end in 2012 and they dropped further to League One in 2017, bouncing straight back.

Anuradha Desai and her brothers Balaji and Venkatesh Rao certainly kept a low profile during this dramatic fall from grace for the former Premier League champions.

They have kept the club, now little more than mid-table Championship filler, afloat financially but quite what their ambitions are remains a mystery.

The chicken adorned in a Blackburn flag released onto the pitch at Ewood Park in protest

Eggert Magnusson and Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson (West Ham)

West Ham were deep in the relegation mire when an Icelandic consortium headed by Eggert Magnusson bought the club for £85m back in November 2006.

The main backer was the billionaire financier Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, the chairman of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki, and the usual promises about debt clearance and transfer funds were made.

Despite having Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano (that’s a whole different tale, as we know) in their side, the Hammers languished down the bottom and the new owners soon showed a cold-bloodedness by sacking Alan Pardew for Alan Curbishley.

The Tevez and Mascherano third party ownership row was a distraction all season – and costly to the owners with a £5.5m fine – but they did ultimately win their relegation fight.

Eggert Magnusson helped an Icelandic consortium take over West Ham in November 2006

Magnusson soon took a back seat and left in December 2007 but the Hammers’ league position improved in the following two seasons.

What nobody foresaw was the catastrophic collapse of the Icelandic banking sector, notably Landsbanki, in 2008 which meant investments like football clubs were very much unsustainable for Gudmundsson and Co.

Within another year, the club had been sold on, with a credit crunched Gudmundsson left to lament: ‘My fortunes have changed.’

The financial crash meant we would never know whether this Icelandic investment would have truly transformed West Ham.

 

Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson had little choice but to withdraw his money after the banking crisis

The Glazer family (Manchester United)

With their on-field success and commercial might, Manchester United were always going to be an attractive proposition to anyone with enough money to buy them.

The Glazer family, billionaire American investors and owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team, went largely unnoticed as they gradually snapped up shares in United from 2003 onwards.

It was only in 2005, when the Glazers bought out the 28.7 per cent stake of JP McManus and John Magnier to take a 57 per cent controlling stake and quickly raised that to the 75 per cent needed to delist from the stock exchange, that things turned ugly.

Fierce fan protests outside Old Trafford saw effigies of Malcolm Glazer torched, battles with riot police and Joel, Avi and Bryan Glazer, Malcolm’s three sons, having to make a hasty retreat in a police van.

An effigy of Malcolm Glazer burns outside Old Trafford following their takeover in 2005

The capital used in the near-£800m takeover came in the form of loans secured against the club’s assets with eye-watering interest payments of £60m a year. The club had been debt-free for years, hence the supporter anger.

There have been sporadic protests since but the Glazers remain very much in charge. United continued winning trophies (at least for the first few years), boosted their financial muscle and transfer funds have always been available.

But with success harder to come by today than in the Sir Alex Ferguson years, many fans blame a relentless focus on signing new sponsorship deals and exploring new markets to make profit.

United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer speaks to Avram and Joel Glazer in Barcelona last season

Carson Yeung (Birmingham City)

The Premier League’s ‘fit and proper persons’ test is designed to thoroughly vet anyone who wishes to come in and purchase a top-flight club.

Unfortunately it was left looking rather inadequate when it comes to the case of Carson Yeung, who took over Birmingham City for £81.5m in 2009.

Birmingham had told the Premier League of Yeung’s 2004 criminal conviction in Hong Kong for failing to disclose shareholdings in listed companies, but this was not an offence under UK law so he passed the test.

Carson Yeung announces his arrival as owner of Birmingham City following his 2009 takeover

So a smiling Yeung posed with the blue shirt at St Andrew’s and City made progress, achieving a ninth-place finish on their Premier League return and winning the League Cup.

But things very quickly unravelled in 2014 when Yeung was jailed for six years by a Hong Kong court for laundering £55m between 2001 and 2007.

The erstwhile hairdresser turned millionaire stockbroker exaggerated the earnings from his hair salons and stock market trading, while it was found £2.8m of laundered money was used to buy Birmingham shares in 2007.

Yeung stepped down from all roles associated with the club days before the trial verdict came out with supporters reassured City wouldn’t be run ‘by proxy’ from a prison cell.

In 2014, Yeung was jailed for six years in Hong Kong for laundering £55million

Alexandre Gaydamak (Portsmouth)

Businessman Gaydamak, the son of a Russian billionaire, became owner of struggling Portsmouth in 2006 with Milan Mandaric stepping aside.

It appeared that with some investment, exciting times lay in store for Pompey. And, for a time, that was certainly the case – they won the FA Cup in 2008 and finished eighth in the league.

It had followed extensive investment in players – for a club of Portsmouth’s size anyway – with the likes of Sol Campbell, Glen Johnson, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Benjani all on sizeable wages.

Big spending came before a crash for Portsmouth owner Alexandre Gaydamak in 2010

But it was all spending facilitated through borrowed money and when Gaydamak – and his father Arcadi – took a hit in the financial crisis, things unravelled very quickly.

By 2010, having sold the club on to Emirati businessman Sulaiman Al-Fahim for £60m, Gaydamak was making demands for £32m he believed he was owed including a £2.5m upfront payment at one stage.

Pompey were in administration by then, sliding out of the Premier League and into a downward spiral that saw a merry-go-round of owners and a plummet to League Two by 2013.

It was a classic case of wealth belonging to an owner, rather than the club, and very quickly disappearing when circumstances changed.

The Srivaddhanaprabha family (Leicester City)

Few owners can claim such a deep emotional bond with a club and their supporters, through glory and tragedy, as the Srivaddhanaprabha family and Leicester City.

Billionaire Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who made his money through duty free shops, took over Leicester when a Championship club in August 2010.

We all know the story, of course. Promoted to the Premier League in 2014, they pulled off a great escape in their first season and then, at odds of 5,000-1, pulled off a miraculous title triumph in 2016.

Vichai and Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha pose with the Premier League trophy in 2016

Vichai’s tragic death in a helicopter crash outside Leicester’s King Power Stadium in October 2018 brought about an outpouring of grief not just in that city but from the whole football world.

It showed the close bond the family had established with everyone connected with the football club and the general high esteem in which they were held.

With Vichai’s son Aiyawatt, now Leicester chairman, has continued the legacy with the Foxes thriving in third place in the Premier League when football shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Vichai’s death in a 2018 helicopter led to an outpouring of grief in the football community 

Vincent Tan (Cardiff City)

There should be certain golden rules when it comes to taking over a football club. One should be not to tamper with the club’s colours when they’ve been the same for a century.

None of that bothered the Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan, who announced in May 2012 that Cardiff City, the club he’d taken over two years earlier, would change their kit from blue to red.

They’d also change their badge, with its traditional bluebird, to one featuring a prominent Welsh dragon. All in the interests of an ‘appeal to international markets’ apparently.

Malaysian owner Vincent Tan courted controversy by changing Cardiff’s colours to red

Once Cardiff fans checked it wasn’t April 1, there was understandable outcry but Tan pressed ahead anyway and City’s home kit was a ‘lucky red’ number for three years.

In that time, Cardiff won promotion to the Premier League but there was more controversy when Tan clashed with the club’s head of recruitment Iain Moody and then manager Malky Mackay.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer couldn’t keep Cardiff in the top-flight but at least Tan did change the colours back to blue during the 2014-15 season in the interests of ‘unity’.

There were plenty of fan protests against Tan at the time but he remains involved at Cardiff

Sheikh Mansour (Manchester City)

If there was excitement at City when Thaksin took over, it was nothing compared to when Sheikh Mansour and his Abu Dhabi United Group took control a year later.

With a personal wealth approaching £20billion and in a family worth $1trillion, City fans have every reason to expect something transformative.

In the next decade, a direct investment into the club totalling £1.3bn changed City from plucky but generally hopeless to challengers for every major honour going.

Manchester City were transformed overnight when Shiekh Mansour took over in 2008

The tone was set on the day the takeover was agreed, September 1, 2008, when City went out and spent £32.5m on Real Madrid’s Robinho and they’ve rolled from there.

Four Premier League titles, two FA Cups and five League Cups since have made up for years of chronic underachievement, though the Champions League remains the final frontier.

City have also been transformed off the field with a state-of-the-art training complex and now have sister clubs all around the world.

But this spending has now caught up with City and their Abu Dhabi backers. A two-year ban from European competition – an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport pending – for breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations, could hamper City’s progress.

City manager Pep Guardiola in conversation with Sheikh Mansour in Abu Dhabi in 2018

 


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