With the news as we went to press that Sven-Göran Eriksson was set to be sacked after his new club’s best top-flight season since 1992, Thaksin Shinawatra appears to have confirmed his ambition of turning Manchester City into the English equivalent of Hearts. That story started quite well, too, back in 2005. The club’s new Lithuanian owner, Vladimir Romanov, loudly proclaimed his determination to challenge Rangers and Celtic, and the team led the SPL for just over three months. But even with the team topping the table, manager George Burley was manoeuvred out. Half a dozen less successful men, whose names even Hearts fans would struggle to keep track of, have followed.
As we write, Romanov Disunited sit seventh in the table, in a lower position than when the Lithuanian took over. Manchester City are eighth, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t be that high up, or even in the same division, when Thaksin finally tires of hiring and firing highly paid international managers and moves on.
Some of the new breed of club owners are involved in football purely to make money, like the Glazers and their fellow countrymen at Liverpool; they are at least answerable to the market, however painful that may be to the fans who have to answer the cash calls. More often now the objective is personal aggrandisement – a platform from which to preen as the owner of a club whose matches are beamed around the world. But that is also what precludes independently wealthy men such as Thaksin, Romanov and Co from being capable of running clubs effectively. They want to be the star, expecting applause from the fans for making funds available to each new manager, and there is no one who can give them advice that they will heed.
“I will build a team that the Thai people will be proud of,” Thaksin said on one of his trips back home in February, to prepare his defence on corruption charges. “In the next season Manchester City will be another Manchester United.” However, United only attained their current status because they kept their manager when the team were in mid-table in the late 1980s. Only stability can bring about long-term success, but then the manager will become the focus for praise rather than the owner.
Some Everton fans are prone to complaining about club chairman Bill Kenwright and what is seen as his continuing failure to come up with funds to enable the squad to challenge the top four. While Liverpool will be extravagant transfer shoppers whoever owns their shares, David Moyes’s concern over how much he will have to spend is said to be holding up talks on a renewal of his contract, which will expire in a year’s time. The club’s “special advisors” – Terry Leahy, CEO of Tesco, and Sir Philip Green, the UK’s seventh wealthiest individual – were said to be the source of the £12 million used to buy Yakubu last August. Neither appears to have any ambition to become the owner of the club, although the man from Tesco has a vested interest in the proposed new stadium in Kirkby. Indeed the only approach Kenwright had to sell his controlling stake in recent years, from the mysterious Russian-owned Fortress Sports Fund, turned into a satire on global capital – at one point the hold-up in a takeover supposedly being due to someone in New Zealand needing to counter-sign a cheque being sent from Brunei.
Until mid-April, Everton had seemed to be set for a repeat of UEFA Cup qualification – at the time of writing they could yet miss on out on a European place, with Villa and Portsmouth closing in. Winning the 16-team mini league within the top flight is as much as Everton can be expected to achieve given the current resources available to Moyes. But the manager has been backed by his chairman even in the two seasons of his six-year tenure when the club were struggling in the bottom half. Many other owners in that position would have hired and fired at least a couple of managers while complaining loudly about their money going to waste.
Man City are not the only club below Everton likely to outspend them this summer, so the latter may have their work cut out even to retain a place in the top six in 2008-09, let alone to have another tilt at fourth. But Everton have made progress – for the first time since the Premier League began, they have finished in the top half for two years in a row – without yet adding to the game’s swelling list of cautionary tales.
At Hearts, fans who had hailed the arrival of their new investor quickly found that they had lost their club to a man answerable to no one and nothing. Many Manchester City fans who welcomed Thaksin’s (and Eriksson’s) arrival will despair of the latest developments. Stability might not be glamorous, but it’s an underrated virtue and those who have it should be careful what they wish for.
From WSC 256 June 2008