Things start to fall apart at County

The 5-0 defeat to Notts County at the start of the season seemed like the first steps in a new Empire of football at Meadow Lane with the home team – Sven, Sol et al – inexorably rising through the leagues starting with a coasting of League Two. The Munto Group, funded in a Byzantine labyrinth of financial twists involving a “Middle East” organisation called QADBAK, were going to make a mark in sports starting with the oldest league club in football.

The Bantams were blown away by a set of very good footballers playing very well that day but that August afternoon seems increasingly long ago for the Magpies.

This week the Guardian released information to the effect that an investigation by Formula One into the QADBAK attempt to purchase the BMW Sauber team the findings of which seemed to be that QADBAK, Munto Group, County’s holding company Blenheim 1862 and First London all seemed to lead a trail back to a man called Russell King of whom the words “convicted fraudster” are often associated.

David Conn – the hero of football finance investigation – has spent months on unravelling this situation (and a similar oddity at Elland Road) and even his dedicated research has not been able to get to the bottom of the situation although his prompting has seen the Football League begin questioning County again.

County’s attitude to any questions on the people who own the club is aloof to say the least with head honcho at Meadow Lane Peter Trembling stating that “the people who need to know, know” when asked about the owners of the club who he characterised as “Middle East investors” that turn out to be based in Pakistan – not the Middle East – if indeed the location of incorporation of one of the many companies in the pyramid can be said to be a base. Trembling put down any queries or ill feeling County provoked as being a kind of sour grapes, as being jealousy.

One wonders what Trembling would say about Formula One’s rejection of the QADBAK money in their notoriously cash strapped sport. Hardly the stuff of envy the main reason that F1 sent QADBAK packing was because – well – they could not find any money at the end of the trail they followed and had more of a care over the sanctity of their sport than The Football League had.

The Football League took in whatever investment came into Meadow Lane with glee and welcomed Sven-Goran Eriksson to the lower leagues of the game with a level of investigation which they have twice felt the need to reopen. Sol Campbell walked away from County complaining that not much was happening to suggest that there was a revolution in progress and talk emerges that Eriksson might end up at Cadiz sharing his time between the two clubs should he be paid a few million pounds he was promised.

The worry – the worry when words like “fraudster”, “pyramid” and “no money at the end of the trail” start to be banded about is that at some point of putting sums between accounts then there will be a case where the cupboard is bare and the League Two all-star – assembled from the high earners of clubs like City and from the division above – would in short order find that the patience, the sympathy, the regard for football’s oldest club had gone. The adage of being nice on the way up because one would meet those people on the way back would come into force with the caveat that the rise had been – potentially – rather shallow.

Perhaps though the Formula One investigation has found one thing and another is the case. Perhaps County with the six figure debt winding up orders, the questions from Sven, the walking out of Sol and so on and so forth are simply a business who do business that way. Messy, but above board.

All of which concerns City little. County come again for a fourth game at Valley Parade after new year and will have the usual squad of quality players because unless the unravelling some see happening at Meadow Lane is more rapid than anyone could predict. Nevertheless though there will be an effect on the Bantams, and on everyone in football.

If – as doom sayers looking at the County situation would predict – everything at Meadow Lane build since the summer turns into a weight to drag the oldest club out of existence then the credibility of the game both in League Two and beyond suffers.

The attempts of clubs to raise money are hampered by another football failure and the integrity of the competition is damaged by the collection of Ben Davies, Graeme Lee et al assembled on what would be in this scenario false pretences unbalancing the league.

Moreover though such a situation demands questions of the footballing authorities and the Football League itself which at the moment seems to be less well governed than an organisation headed by Max Mosley and allows clubs to be bought and paid for with wind and ghosts.

Perhaps then calls for proper regulation of clubs, of owners and of the money in the game at this level might reach levels where they can not be ignored.

The blank space

Last week we saw freedom of speech taken to an extreme and it is it is an odd week where people are asking each other “did you see Question Time last night?”

Nevertheless the rights and wrongs of politics aside we can – on the whole – agree that free speech is to be welcomed and that attempts to stop someone saying something because you do not like what they are saying is not.

So there is something worrying in the news that David Conn and the newspaper he writes for The Guardian are no longer welcome at Elland Road because of Conn’s revealing articles about the ownership of the club who went down 2-1 to Millwall.

Conn’s writing had untangled a web of financial strands around the Leeds United chairman Ken Bates and the administration they went through which he emerged as owner of a debt free club following. The complexities are near mind boggling and commenting on them directly would be a presumption that I understood the detail but one thing becomes very clear when looking at stories of Cayman Islands-registered Forward Sports Fund and Guernsey accountants that the world of Leeds United administration is very different to that of Bradford City’s.

Likewise Bradford City’s two administrations were different from each other and both were different to Leicester City’s infamous debt shuffle which is a million miles away from what happened to AFC Bournemouth which was nothing like the Rotherham United into and out while still spending money which could never be afforded at Darlington.

Every administration is different, has different causes, ends in different results. When Bradford City struggled to stay afloat it was said at a supporters fund raiser that it might take the Bantams twenty years to recover from the woes but recover we would. I am of the belief that that statement was in essence true and that last season’s finishing a place higher than the previous season was a significant – if slight – sign of that recovery.

Other administrations see clubs like Rotherham United pleading poverty one year and then the next making offers to players like Nicky Law Jnr and Adam le Fondre whose former chairman Chris Dunphy has a thing or two to say about good governance in the game but oddly allowed a club that did seek protection from creditors to take le Fondre for an “undisclosed fee“. The people who had debts written off in South Yorkshire would probably be keen to know how much cash The Millers were able to find this year that was not there last.

The ownership of Leeds United is unclear but Conn’s articles would seem to suggest that the ownership is structured in a way that preferred Bates in the process and thus is not only illegal but would also be against the promises made by Bates and Leeds to the Football League. The punishments for the legal side of things – should Conn be accurate – one can only guess at and the football sanctions are rumoured to be as stiff as given out to any club in my memory with the Elland Road side facing a two division relegation should it be found that Conn’s conclusions are accurate.

The reaction of Bates to these allegations is troubling for Leeds United supporters as he attempts – one assumes – to give a lesson to those journalists who would dig too deep into his dealings that they will no longer be allowed to carry coverage on his team. Leeds are big business and newspapers – especially regional newspapers who struggle to keep going – can hardly afford to upset the local football side and Bates is infamous for enforcing a hegemony in the local media.

Of course Bates has a right to allow whomever he wants into Elland Road – as Conn attests he owns the League One club – but one doubts that will assuage any worries Leeds United supporters might have at the thought of getting promoted this year only to step backwards and be forced to find a new owner during a financial crisis. They would do well to follow the example of the Liverpool supporters who demand answers from their owners rather than doing as the Notts County fans do as some happily ignore things off the field and the muddiness of that club’s ownership.

Every administration is different, this is a point that is maybe lost on some, but in footballs age of rapid change of ownership the constant which is bought and sold is the good will of supporters. In our administration that was manifested by the half a million pounds raised because there was no other money to keep the club going but in but other clubs cases less scrupulous people – yes less scrupulous even than Gordon Gibb – have become involved and as a result supporters have suffered.

So The Guardian resisted the proposed riposte of leaving a large blank square in the sports pages to highlight the “ban” they are facing but when chairmen start stopping a newspaper from investigative reporting – and when such a ban is allowed to pass without comment from the rest of the media on the whole – then alarm bells need to ring for supporters.

Supporters should want the questions that need to be asked to be asked by the likes of David Conn and that every newspaper does not boycott Elland Road in protest is shame on them. The right for supporters to have their serious questions answered when asked by the highest quality of journalists is something that needs to be protected and when it is attacked by one is should be defended by all.

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