Saturday 18 July ~
Few would have noticed Ferencvaros’s brief tour of the north this month. Only a few thousand in total witnessed the Hungarians’ 5-1 win against non-League Sheffield FC, their 0-0 draw with Lincoln and the 3-2 defeat to Barnsley – on appearance a curious set of pre-season fixtures for a once splendid side. Yet for supporters of Sheffield United the games provided the opportunity to check on one of their satellite clubs. Since early 2008, the once European regulars have been owned by Esplanade Kft, a company belonging to the United Chairman and property developer Kevin McCabe.
In recent years United, led by McCabe, have sought to expand their operations overseas. The Hungarians have become a partner club, as have the imaginatively titled Chengdu Blades of China, Royal White Star Woluwe of the Belgian Third Division and Australia’s Central Coast Mariners. The objective being in each case to improve the footballing abilities of the parent club – as players are nurtured away from Sheffield – while promoting the Blades and their “brand” to potentially lucrative markets. A “win-win situation” according Terry Robinson, the club’s International Chairman.
Such tie-ups are not uncommon, nor generally do they perturb supporters of these clubs. Manchester United’s talented prospects have for years been sent to Royal Antwerp to gain first team experience. Ajax are linked to Ajax Cape Town. And Crystal Palace own American second tier outfit Crystal Palace FC USA, Baltimore. But yet, does that make it acceptable for those like Sheffield United to have such international interests? They argue they are helping these other clubs. Last year, for instance, McCabe unveiled a document detailing how the then struggling Ferencvaros would reverse their fall from the top. Entitled “Come Back”, the text promised both a return to the country’s first division, following their demotion in 2006 for financial irregularities (this season they do return), and a new stadium.
It is perhaps for the latter reason that the club was acquired. In May last year McCabe, through Esplanade Kft, gained 75 per cent of Ferencvaros, its Stadion Albert Flórián home and the surrounding land. In return the Budapest side will get the new ground, either on the current site or elsewhere, plus a share of revenue generated by the developed site. But so will Esplanade, making the reputed £8.75 million outlay appear good value. Though the precise share that either party will receive is unclear.
In China, commercial gain is the clear objective of the Blades’ ownership of Chengdu. The country, it is believed, is an ideal place in which to place your footballing brand thanks to the population‘s supposed enthusiasm for the sport. Which is why in 2006 United bought 90 per cent of Chengdu Wuniu. They immediately renamed them the Chengdu Blades and provided them with a new badge almost identical to United’s. They now play in the Chinese Super League following their promotion in late 2007. As with Ferencvaros, United say they are helping the Chinese club progress. Yet there are questions about how far a club can go in an underdeveloped and troubled league and what Chengdu’s motivation for generating revenue is when the British owners are able to take a slice of it anyway. Similarly from United’s point of view, it remains to be seen if enough merchandise can be sold to the Chinese to make it a worthwhile exercise.
Of course players can be moved between the various partner clubs, handing them experience of different cultures and playing styles. But so far no such player has emerged in the United first team – only youngsters who have failed to make an impact in the Championship have gone the opposite way, midfielder James Ashmore for example. Admittedly this may change in the future, but currently it appears a lot of hard work in the place of a comprehensive scouting system. Perhaps to keep within the spirit of the game United and others should simply focus on their own interests, allowing others to do the same. The Football Association prohibit partnerships between its clubs. Why shouldn’t this apply internationally? Especially when some such tie-ups have attached commercial perks. Tom Whitworth