Phil Sharman reflects on the American takeover of Derby County and how promises of world establishment have been cruelly transformed into economic turmoil
It used to be that owning a football club was about prestige. Few of the butchers and haulage contractors who took control of their local team expected to be able to sell at a profit. Today, however, if a club is moved up a level and established there it is possible to sell on at a price which exceeds the original investment. But three years on from their takeover, Derby County fans still cannot see what the American company General Sports and Entertainment (GSE) expects to get out of owning the club.
The potential was there at the time of GSE’s arrival in January 2008: crowds in excess of 30,000 with 18,000 season-ticket holders; good quality facilities and an ambitious manager in Billy Davies, who had taken the team to promotion the previous summer. The American investors were going to consolidate Premier League status and, that old chestnut, “establish the club as a world brand”. But the then chairman Adam Pearson soon sacked Davies, apparently for demanding to know how much was to be spent on the squad, and replaced him with the hapless Paul Jewell, who oversaw a humiliating relegation.
The playing staff has since been reduced to a level where Derby are unable to fill the substitutes’ bench for some League fixtures – not due to injuries but simply through not having enough players. Transfer windows follow a familiar and depressing pattern, with the best members of the squad being sold cheaply right at the end of the window, leaving no opportunity to bring in replacements. When replacements do arrive, they are either low-quality loanees or recruits from manager Nigel Clough’s beloved non-League scene who still look distinctly non-League in Championship surroundings.
Chief executive Tom Glick continues to offer feeble justifications to the bewildered supporters: “We are looking to put the club on a sound financial footing”; “the playing squad needs to be reduced to a manageable level”; “we are determined to make Derby County a debt-free organisation”. Derby, the only club outside of the big cities to win two League titles in living memory, now have a lower average wage, a smaller squad, and less ability to attract players than the likes of Doncaster and Scunthorpe, never mind Wigan and Blackpool. With apologies to those clubs, this is not where Rams fans expected to be when the talk was of “global branding”.
In the aftermath of the embarrassing Cup exit at Crawley in January, Clough commented that some of the opposing players were on higher wages than his own squad. This may have been intended to either compliment the victors or justify the defeat, but in fact it spoke volumes about the dismantling of the club by its gutless owners. The suspicion grows that Clough Junior retains his position because, unlike so many successful managers, he is undemanding, compliant and doesn’t expect transfer funding. It’s impossible to imagine any Premier League manager or, more poignantly, the likes of Billy Davies, quietly presiding over a squad 18 players lighter than the one they inherited.
If making the club debt free is perceived to be a way of attracting buyers, somebody needs to tell the Americans that a drop of two divisions will more than negate any enhanced value. As will overseeing a 6,000 decline in home attendances in the past six months.
Other than evidence suggesting that the absentee owners take out more than they put in – albeit not a fortune – it is hard to see what is motivating them to retain control of a club in freefall. There is no short-term gain or long-term profit and certainly none of the pleasure which comes with running a successful operation in any aspect of their involvement. Every sector of the club is in a worse state than it was when GSE arrived, and will in all likelihood get worse before it gets better. Unless, of course, there is a very rich butcher or haulage contractor out there ready to roll back the years.
From WSC 291 May 2011