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A different type of football club owner

12/09/2018

 

 

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World in the aftermath of the huge outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of Leicester City’s “different type of football club owner” in a helicopter crash in October

In a central London pub, a couple of years ago, I listened to one of FC United’s former board members recount her time on the board. I left after nearly three hours of what was chiefly a self-justificatory snorefest but not before I heard reference to something called the “Roman Abramovich test” of which she was quite proud. Apparently on occasions when the board weren’t sure how open they should be with the club’s owners (i.e. us) she urged fellow board members to consider how much information the Chelsea board would be willing to divulge with their billionaire Russian owner in a similar situation. An interesting glimpse into the mind-set of our former board when it comes to what they expected of the club’s owners. There was us merrily thinking we were trying to show the world that a bunch of supporters could own and run a football club but really all that was expected of us was to keep quiet and reach into our wallets when required – little different to the likes of Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Saint Vichai.

I’ll be honest until the news story broke on that late October Saturday night I had never heard of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. I’ve long since lost touch with big football – I don’t have Sky and rarely make the trip to the pub to watch United games anymore – so the identity of Leicester City’s owner hadn’t featured on my scaled down football horizon. I was under the impression that their “fairytale” Premier League title win in 2016 was simply a once-in-a-lifetime story of plucky underdogs triumphing against the odds and hadn’t fully appreciated until much later that it had, in fact, been bankrolled by a Thai billionaire who owned a company called King Power who had a monopoly on the sale of duty free products in Thailand.

So the huge outpouring of grief that accompanied the death of the Leicester owner, along with four others, in a horrific helicopter crash outside the King Power Stadium took me by surprise. Of course it was a terrible tragedy for the family and friends of the Thai billionaire but it was also one that appeared to unite the entire football world in grief as players, supporters and reporters rushed to copy and paste his name into social media posts paying tribute to a “truly great, kind, loving man”, and a “different type of football club owner” who was “so generous in the extreme”.

Supporters laying floral tributes outside the ground told of how he bought them a pint, always acknowledged them with a smile and gave money to the local hospital. Enough to be lauded as a “man of the people” these days. Even polo partner Prince William waxed lyrical about a “businessman of strong values who was dedicated to his family”. So dedicated that his former beauty queen mistress died in the helicopter with him. And surfing the Diana-style wave of grief engulfing the nation the Sun ran an eight page pull-out to mark the passing of the great man, referring to him as a “legend” of the game and the ripples were even felt as far afield as Broadhurst Park where, at the suggestion of the National League, a minute’s silence was held before FC United’s midweek match with Alfreton.

Of course, the Thai tycoon was another example of one of those “good” migrants who everyone likes. Not the ones fleeing the horrors of civil war desperate to find shelter and make a new life elsewhere but the ones who bring pots of cash with them – cash is king in this age of austerity with public services crumbling. Made billions by bribing government officials to acquire a controlling interest in a privatised oil company sold off way below its true value? Come on in, pour yourself a vodka. Or made your fortune by using your political and royal connections to acquire a lucrative monopoly in flogging duty free products from your country’s biggest airport? No problem, come on in. The helicopter? Land it where you want mate. Your mistress? Yeah, bring her as well, the more the merrier.

But dig a bit deeper and it’s apparent that Vichai’s business dealings left much to be desired. His company King Power has thrived thanks not only to royal connections but also to top level political support – in particular to the leaders who ordered a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations across Thailand in 2010 which saw more than 80 people killed and two thousand injured. All this is well documented in the Political Prisoners in Thailand blog, an excellent, not to say brave, feat of investigative journalism that has been detailing abuses of the law and human rights in Thailand over the last decade. Even a cursory glance at the mentions of King Power and the former Leicester owner on this website leaves you with the impression that here was a man that certainly did not live up to the recent hype. A “businessman of strong values”? Hmmm.

But setting aside these allegations it’s remarkable, as Red Issue tweeted, how easy it is, particularly in this post-Savile era, for a murky past to be scrubbed clean by a few charitable donations and how we remain so ridiculously in thrall in this country to anyone that has a pile of cash, no matter where it has come from or how it has been acquired, and is prepared to splash it around a few charities and public services. The fact that by organising society in a way that reduces inequality we could ensure that hospitals, schools and other public services were properly funded and didn’t have to rely on the well publicised largesse of wealthy benefactors is no doubt lost on most.

And let’s be honest, when it comes to generosity, writing off a football club’s debt and continuing to bankroll it, as the Thai billionaire did with Leicester, is hardly news these days – it happens all the time at all levels of the game. Only in the last few weeks, our fellow National League North side Nuneaton Borough, experiencing serious financial problems of their own, confirmed that more than £450k of loans to the club by two of its former directors had been generously written off in order to secure the club’s long term future.

And what of FC United’s different type of football club owner who are no strangers to pumping money into our football club time and time again? As the news of the helicopter crash swamped social media on that Saturday night after our hard-earned draw with Brackley, across on The Soul is One forum supporters were already responding to an appeal for us to club together to raise more than £3,000 to support our new manager in the form of a set of hi-tech tracker vests to be worn by the players – a sign of the more professional managerial approach that Neil Reynolds is keen on. Already, late on that Saturday night, cash was being chucked into the pot and barely forty eight hours later, more than eighty supporters had raised around £4,000 and the market was being scoured for a suitable supplier. A heartwarming sign, yet again, of how much we all care for this club of ours.

Indeed it would be interesting to compare how much Leicester’s legendary billionaire owner pumped into the club as a fraction of his wealth (estimated at more than three billion quid) with the sums that many FC United supporters invested in the club’s community share scheme which raised more than £2 million to get our Broadhurst Park ground built, as a proportion of what might loosely be termed as our “wealth” or life savings. I’m going to hazard a guess here, as we clearly don’t have such figures to hand, that a fair few FCers, encouraged by the silver tongue of our very own former “light of progressive glory” ended up over-extending ourselves financially and chucked a bit more into the community shares pot than perhaps we could reasonably afford in “one last push” for Moston. Especially as we might not have read that pesky small print. And when we do the maths that proportion of our total “wealth” is probably several multiples of what the Thai duty free mogul pumped into Leicester. But let’s not hold our breath on a Gary Lineker tweet or newspaper pull-out any time soon.

For all our failings, the recent vest contributions and the current extent of the involvement of supporters in the day to day running of the club, illustrate again how we have something worth shouting about here – a genuinely different form of football club ownership that is a world away from being bankrolled by a Thai oligarch. And thankfully too we’ve come a long way from the “Roman Abramovich test” and the mushroom management that nearly drove us into oblivion.

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