Livescore Thursday, April 25

It is probably a mistake to start with a British cultural reference that is nearly 29 years old, but this is a story about misgivings and mistakes, so it feels apt.

In 1995, the late/great comedian Caroline Aherne had a spoof talk show in which she played a character called Mrs Merton, an elderly lady from Manchester who would ask celebrities disingenuously blunt questions.

“So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” was her famous opener to Debbie McGee, the glamorous assistant and wife of the aforementioned TV magician.

A version of that question had been rattling around my head while I tried to find a common thread between the four case studies we have done this week on men who want to buy football clubs.

So, Chris/Dozy/William/Thomas, what first attracted you to the cash business with property assets that would guarantee weeks, if not months, of positive media coverage and a huge dopamine hit from the gratitude of strangers?

Because when you put it like that, it is not hard to see how bidding for football clubs might be addictive/a good smokescreen/useful advertising/worth a go (delete as applicable).

We picked Chris Kirchner, Dozy Mmobuosi, William Storey and Thomas Zilliacus this time, but if there are any streaming giants reading, we could flesh out season one of the documentary series with Laurence Bassini and Massimo Cellino, before getting stuck into Russell King, Henry Mauriss, Carson Yeung and David Hilton — the man with four names who bought Scunthorpe United last year — et al in season two. Like a Bruce Springsteen concert, we could even take requests.

But what does this seemingly bottomless pit of candidates say about English football? Nothing good, right?

Well, no, but it is important to note that none of the gentlemen we featured this week actually bought the clubs they so publicly pursued. Some got closer than others, but they all fell short.

The men who want to buy football clubs:

We should also make it clear that English football is not uniquely vulnerable. Kirchner also cosied up to professional golf and sponsored the NHL’s Dallas Stars; Mmobuosi threw (other people’s) money at Nigerian football; Storey’s biggest play involved a Formula 1 team; and whatever it is Zilliacus is up to, he has already done it with football teams in Finland and Singapore.

Those are just the foreign football teams and other sports that our not-so-fab four have targeted. Perhaps the most famous fraudulent takeover in sports involved the NHL’s New York Islanders in the 1990s, although American fraudster Allen Stanford’s attempt to buy English cricket a decade later must run it close.

And do we need to point out that fraud exists beyond sport? Charles Ponzi, anyone? Bernie Madoff? Anna Sorokin? Elizabeth Holmes? Sam Bankman-Fried?

No country, sport or industry should be pointing fingers here: grifters are going to grift, anywhere and everywhere they can.

However, it would be a mistake just to gloss over English football’s long list of ne’er-do-wells and pretend this goes with the territory. Our clubs might not be uniquely vulnerable, but they are vulnerable and that is largely because most of them are loss-making.

If they were car companies, fashion brands or restaurants that no longer made money, they would just be wound up. Some people might miss them for a while but most of us would get over their demise pretty quickly.

Football clubs, on the other hand, are far more than just another company. So, instead of just giving in to market forces, we fight to keep them alive. That makes them remarkably resilient.

But there are lots of them, most of them are for sale and many of them go to market as distressed assets. And guess what? There tends not to be so many great buyers for that type of company. Beggars can’t be choosers.

So, instead of asking why do so many of our clubs attract fraudsters, fantasists or those attracting publicity, we should be asking: why are so many of our clubs for sale in the first place? And when they come up for sale, why aren’t they inundated with copper-bottomed offers from the most successful entrepreneurs and investors?

Sort out the game’s sustainability issue and you will go a long way to solving its dodgy owner problem, too. It would be nice if we did not have to wait for an independent regulator to work that out, but one of those is on its way, so the cavalry is coming.

But a fairer financial distribution, cost controls and a licensing system are not going to eradicate all of football’s vulnerabilities. And neither would a stricter vetting process for potential owners. It would help, of course, but we would still be dealing with human beings and — I’m sorry to break this to you — human beings are flawed.

A more robust financial model, a better warning system and more due diligence are also not going to stop good owners from going rogue. For every story I could tell you about a rascal who was trying to launder his ill-gotten gains through the turnstiles or put houses on the training ground, I could tell you two about the well-intentioned businessman who lost his mind chasing glory and left the club on the brink of bankruptcy.

Weeding out the corrupt can be difficult, but it is doable; finding the incompetent before they break things is much harder.

We could take a leaf out of the NFL’s book and effectively leave the vetting of new entrants to the ownership club to the existing members — what former Premier League boss Richard Scudamore used to dismissively refer to as the “cut of your jib” test — but that would require English club owners to act like partners in a joint venture. Good luck with that.

However, we can and must keep trying to make our game more robust, so that the next time there is an international break and the boss asks for a series on the men who have tried and failed to buy clubs, I am not able to say: “Well, I’ve done half a dozen of those this year, take your pick.”

I like my job, but it should not be this easy.

(Top photo: Adam Fussell)

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