Stranger Danger – the Ipswich Town view
Ipswich Town were subject to their own takeover by anonymous owners recently, and their experience suggests that Wednesday fans might not get much comfort any time soon. Here is one Ipswich fan’s perspective on things:
Let’s see. We’ve got a Championship club, which has seen better days. They have won the League, and two different Cups, albeit many years ago, when the top flight was still being called Division One, rather than the Premier League. They haven’t been in the top flight for a few years, and the relegation, and the drop in revenue – particularly TV revenue is one of the reasons they’re in so much debt today. They’ve never been in so much debt in their entire history, and even now are losing money year on year. The only way is down. There seems no escape. The chairman’s not the most popular man at the club, and he’s not got the funds to help. What this club needs is a knight in shining armour. This club is not today’s Sheffield Wednesday, but 2007’s Ipswich Town. My club.
My club was contacted by a billionaire by the name of Marcus Evans. I say reputed, because not much is known about him. A few years ago, Evans tried to buy Trinity Mirror – publishers of the Daily Mirror. Naturally, journalists from the Mirror, as well as the other national newspapers spent a lot of time and energy trying to find out more about the man who would be the new owner of the second biggest newspaper in the country, but – nothing. Nothing of substance, at least. Not even a photograph.
Evans bid to buy into the club – unlike at Sheffield Wednesday, the new buyer did not buy existing shares, but newly created shares meaning he owns 87.5% of the club – succeeded after the club’s shareholder’s voted to allow the bid to pass. Like at Sheffield Wednesday, we also needed an injection, and part of Evans’ bid was that there would be an injection of cash into the club. This was in the form of the shares that Evans paid for. And while this has enabled Ipswich to compete in the transfer market for the first time since we were relegated in 2002, it comes as a price. Unlike the existing shareholders, Evans receives a premium on his shares. There is also a clause written into his purchase that he will receive the money he spent on acquiring the shares in the first place, if certain conditions are met. It has certainly not been an altruistic acquisition to his portfolio. Still, at least with the fact we are spending decent money on players for the first since we signed Marcus Bent in 2001. This must mean that we are free of debt, because Championship clubs in debt can’t spend seven figures on the likes of Gareth McAuley, can they?
The truthful answer is that yes, we are still in debt. We are in as much debt as we were 12 months ago. Instead of owing £32million to Aviva and Barclays Bank, we now owe the money to the Marcus Evans Group instead. Which is fine as long as he doesn’t call in the debt. Or sell the club to someone who will (one condition of his purchase is that he cannot sell Ipswich Town without selling the debt, or what is left of it, to the next buyer of the club). And, considering that we are now eight months on from his purchase, we must know what his intentions are, right?
Wrong. Even now, we still don’t know what Marcus Evans looks like. He hasn’t sat in the director’s box for a game. He has been to a game, but sat elsewhere. He didn’t attend the EGM where the vote was taken as to whether his purchase would be successful. He hasn’t made a single public comment since he bought the club. His only contact has been a letter sent to the Ipswich based Evening Star newspaper in November last year. None of the three directors of the club who represent him has made a public comment. Ipswich Town 1st, the Independent Supporters Trust for Ipswich Town fans has written to Marcus Evans seeking an audience with him or his representatives, yet – despite helping the club and the academy out financially during the club’s bleakest times – have not even received the courtesy of a reply.
The only suggestion that Marcus Evans has made in terms of how the club will be run during his tenure, or his motives and plans for the club, were that the club would continue to run as normal. Since that time Finance Director Anna Hughes has left the club, and David Sheepshanks’ paid Chairman position has now become a non-paid, non-executive role, and no longer has an office at the club. The latter only happened effective 1st July, and reading between the lines of certain statements made by the club, the suggestion is that it was a Marcus Evans decision, rather than one made by David Sheepshanks. Sheepshanks has worked for the club as chairman (full time, part time, paid and unpaid) for 13 seasons, so it clearly isn’t “business as usual”. Other than the changes made at board level, we have no idea what will happen in the future. What the plans are for the club, and what our mystery new owner has in store. While understanding his right to a private life, and wanting his privacy, one does not lose the right to privacy by communicating through written media, or even by allowing representatives to make public comments on your own behalf. Football club owners who have great plans are visible, and communicate to their fans. Do those who hide behind anonymity have something else to hide?
At least in the case of Ipswich Town, should everything go pear shaped with Marcus Evans, there is a Supporters Trust, that could follow in the footsteps of clubs elsewhere in the country who have stepped into the breach and take over the club. The Ipswich Supporters Trust have a small shareholding, enabling them to ask difficult questions at future AGMs, as they have done in the past when the need has arisen.
The number one aim of a Supporters Trust is to build up a shareholding of their club, not sign it away to people who do not even have the courage of their convictions to be named, and certainly not sell it to those who do not even have the respect for the fans to even outline their plans, and spell out their intentions.
As long as a Trust has a shareholding in a club, it has a voice for it’s members, for it’s club’s fans. If the Swiss-based trust were so interested in the fans view of the club, would they not seek to work together with the fans and the Trust? Combine their votes, rather than buy them outright? Put the £1million into the club, rather than a bank account of a Trust, which will just sit there gathering interest and dust, but serve no real purpose to anyone. Instead, the new owners are effectively being given a free pass to take ownership of the club, and do whatever they like. And if it all goes wrong, who takes the blame? Dave Allen? Geoff Hulley? John Hemmingham? Keith Addy? Geoff Sheard? Or the people that signed the rights away to a group of people they wouldn’t recognise by sight or by name? Think of the votes as “Should Wednesdayite go against the principle of a Supporter’s Trust and be allowed to sell their shares” and “Should Wednesdayite become voiceless and sell their shares to the nameless?”. Please, for the sake of Sheffield Wednesday, vote NO and NO, and keep the shares of the fans in the hands of the people who care about your great club more than anyone else.