Ipswich lose out

After a prospective investor failed the Football League's "Fit and Proper Persons Test", Ipswich fans are lefting thinking what might have been. Gavin Barber reports

When is a test not a test? It might sound like a Graham Taylor quote, but it’s a question that Ipswich supporters were asking themselves last month.

It all seemed such good news at first. On January 10, Town announced that Michael Anderson, a Florida-based businessman, was making a 15 per cent investment in the club – the maximum allowed by one person under the terms of the club’s share agreement – thought to be worth around £500,000.

But in exchange for his largesse, the pharmaceutical magnate was offered a seat on the club’s board, a move that required him to undertake the Football League’s “Fit and Proper Persons Test” (FPPT). Portentously, it was on Friday 13 that events took a dramatic turn. A national newspaper reported Anderson’s previous involvement in two clubs during the early 1990s. He had been a director at Aldershot when they dropped out of the Football League and shortly afterwards was on the board of Kettering when they went into administration. The dual revelation brought Oscar Wilde’s well worn distinction between misfortune and carelessness inescapably to mind.

Town chairman David Sheepshanks acted quickly, withdrawing the offer of a directorship. Anderson issued a statement expressing “regret” at his “grave error of judgment” in not revealing his previous associations with Aldershot or Kettering, while maintaining that he had done nothing wrong at either club.

Ipswich had been as careful as they could be. Anderson had approached Town in November, wanting to invest. ITFC had undertaken legal searches and taken up references, and Anderson had read and signed the FPPT. As Sheepshanks said, the crux of the issue was Anderson “not disclosing these past associations when he was directly asked about them”. In other words, misleading the board of directors he hoped to join. A few days later, the club announced that they were returning Anderson’s money.

To set this in context, Ipswich are operating under severe financial constraints. This is, therefore, not a club that can afford to turn away rich investors lightly, but the revelations about Anderson cast too great a shadow for anyone’s comfort. “The integrity of the club is paramount,” David Sheepshanks told WSC.

The Ipswich Supporters’ Trust conducted their own investigations into Anderson, which revealed a complex network of business interests, not to mention the fact that he often uses the name Boxted, having acquired the lordship of that manor. His alter ego is clearly not so reticent about revealing past involvement in the game: an interview in a Florida newspaper from 1995 reported Lord Michael Boxted, then investing in a youth academy, as having “owned European soccer teams”.

It’s important to note that Anderson’s history in football would not have prevented him from signing the FPPT, even though the test prohibits anyone “who has been… a Director of two different clubs that have each gone into administration in a five-year period” from joining another board. The test is currently hamstrung by its newness – it was introduced in July 2004 and does not cover involvement before that date. This is why the full weight of Ipswich’s background checks, plus the League’s FPPT, were not as revealing as those undertaken by a group of supporters with suspicious minds, good intentions and a flair for using Google.

Sheepshanks, who is a member of both the Football League and FA boards, accepts that the test may need to be made more rigorous. He also told WSC that he has asked the League to put the introduction of a “central register” for the vetting of potential investors on to the agenda for their next board meeting. The register would detail all previous board memberships or majority shareholdings, thus addressing the issues of transparency and past dealings not covered by the FPPT.

The task of compiling the register would be a huge one and would require co-operation from the FA as well as the League, but, if implemented, it could offer protection to clubs and fans by providing a central source of information about investors’ past involvement in the game – items that should be a matter of public record, yet which can apparently get lost in the murky depths of the game’s past.

As things stand, the problem seems to be that the Fit and Proper Persons “Test” seeks to sift out dishonest investors by asking them to be honest, effectively posing the question “are you a liar – yes or no?”. When is a test not a test? When it’s a paradox.

From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month