The role of the football club owner in the modern day has changed, whether we like it or not. After the news spread this week of Leeds United’s infamous dictator-like owner Massimo Cellino shutting Sky Sports cameras out of the ground with his set of keys just like a selfish child, the media once again questioned his sanity.
Over his tumultuous 20-month spell as majority shareholder, he has been quoted as saying “I sort out the f***ing problems at Leeds” and said the fans were “tired of eating sh*t and shutting their mouths. I'm the richest man in the world with these fans and I can challenge anyone, everyone.” This was one of his first interviews at the club. This is a man more trigger-happy than Lord Sugar in a series of The Apprentice, having sacked five managers, two assistant managers, the Under-18’s and Under-16’s managers, a sporting consultant and finally contributed to his friend and Leeds sporting director Nicola Salerno’s resignation.
He has a broad history of arrests for financial reasons, having attempted to hide £7.5m from the Italian Ministry of Agriculture in1996, and even in 2013 was arrested alongside an Italian mayor for embezzlement, after an investigation into the construction of his previous club Cagliari’s stadium. If that’s not bad enough, he even tried to raise ticket prices for fans in exchange for a ‘meal deal’ voucher. Is there nothing this man won’t try in pursuit of success?
In all seriousness, Cellino’s actions compound the fundamental issues with owners and investors in the game today. While some may argue that there are still owners who are in it to support their local club, the harsh facts are that these people are becoming rarer. 12 of the 20 Premier League clubs are currently at least partly foreign-owned, whereas 13 of the 24 teams in the Championship also are. Football, at the top levels, is now more a case of business rather than sport; it is a cut-throat environment. Nowadays, a majority of chairmen automatically believe they have the right to do whatever they want with the club, just because they can bankroll unsustainable success. Sadly, these clubs, especially those in the Championship, have to take a risk on these unstable, notably madcap businessmen as they offer a period of investment, as the directors are desperate to see the millions of pounds come in from promotion to the big time.
Football has been like this for a while now, although it has only been noticed by the media in the years since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich purchased the then-promising yet trophy-lacking Chelsea FC. In reality, like a lot of aspects of the modern game, the behaviour of chairmen changed for the worse around 1966. Previously unheard, out-of-sight local men who cared for the upkeep and sustainability of their football club became envious of the bigger stadiums and marketable players of the European clubs, and wanted a piece of the pie for themselves. In the year in which he was the youngest member of the World Cup winning squad, Alan Ball became the first player to be transferred between two British clubs for more than £100,000, when he took the short trip from Blackpool to Everton.
These were just the early days of commercialism having a play on the sport. In 1966, top players earned an average of £44 per week; almost double that of the average worker in the UK. Player wage caps were becoming unfashionable, and managers and fans alike wanted chairmen to dig deep, chasing worldwide status and glamorous continental ties. The local small businessmen who helped their clubs were priced out of football, and traditional havens for football dropped down the divisions, as ambitious young men began to rule the game. In a scene from one of my favourite sporting films, The Damned United, Derby County’s Chairman Sam Longson, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, warns Brian Clough that “The reality of a footballing life is this; the chairman is the boss, then comes the directors, then the secretary, then the fans, then the players and then finally, last of all, bottom of the heap, lowest of the low, comes the one who in the end we can all do without, the bloomin’ manager.” This strongly worded attack on Clough’s arrogance reveals the dangerous rhetoric modern owners hold, as managers can be removed in an instant, club kit colours can be changed (Vincent Tan, Cardiff City) and the bedrock of the club, the name and brand can be potentially scrapped, in the case of the Allams at Hull City.
The more often selfish and very questionable acts are performed by these worldwide billionaires, football will finally see that they are not the people who care about what is best for the game. To mark fifty years since those £44 a week players lifted the Jules Rimet trophy inside the old Wembley, we won’t see English players victorious in an international tournament again, we’ll be seeing our Premier League influenced by the money of Russian oil tycoons and inherently loaded Sheiks, even the Chinese Government at Manchester City. It’s not the situation anyone could’ve envisaged decades ago, but honestly it is the unfortunate reality of a sport where clubs are now selling shares on the stock market. Boardroom dramas are never supposed to rival those on the pitch, and it is fundamentally wrong that these Chairmen should be the ones grabbing the headlines in our game today.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!