Portsmouth Failed By Premier League's Ownership Test

Gareth Llewellyn-StevensCorrespondent IJanuary 2, 2010

It's not a great time to be a Pompey fan, or indeed someone employed by the club if you're not a mega-rich player or coach.

In the last year, Portsmouth FC have had three different owners. Alexandre Gaydamak, Sulaiman al-Fahim, and current owner Ali al-Faraj. All three owners have passed the Premier League's Fit and Proper Person test, with the last two passing the 'more stringent' test.

With that in mind, it begs the question, what exactly is this test, and how does one pass? Because it appears almost anyone can.

It is a good thing that the Premier League conduct the test before takeover, compared to other leagues which conduct them after, but when shadowy consortia are involved with a number of international businessmen, do we ever find out who the real people behind it are?

The test says anyone who owns more than 10 percent must be named publically, but if my GLS Investment group decides to buy a club, and I am its public figure, only I am named, yet the 12 or more people actually holding the purse strings don't have to be, because the scrutiny doesn't go that far, at least that's the impression we get from the Premier League.

The test is also supposed to look at where the money is coming from to fund the buy out, and that it is legitimate, but again there are problems with this. I'm a property tycoon who owns a bit of land here and there, and will be developing unrealistic buildings on it in the next couple of years, which if they sell means I'll be mega rich and be able to buy everyone at any price.

Of course, you can't actually see that, but you check out my credentials, and sure enough I am a property tycoon, and I do own this land, and speculatively, yes I do have the money, but again this appears to be as far as the checks go.

In theory, assuming you have no unspent convictions for dishonesty and haven't ran a club into administration twice, you're in—no such joy for former Rotherham United director Dennis Coleman then.

Al-Fahim passed the test, yet said he would sell the club within six months and was "no billionaire." There isn't a problem with him not being a billionaire, but selling the club after six months? A child could probably tell you it's asking for trouble.

At the beginning of last month it established that al-Faraj was looking to secure bank loans against the club's TV revenue, administered by the Premier League, just to play the wages.

The club is guaranteed revenue for 10 games, whether they are televised 10 times or not, with a merit system in place ranging from £14m for the champions, down to £720,000 for the bottom club - it's worth pointing out the club finishing 19th gets double that of the bottom club.

It's worth also considering that Liverpool, a club with a much larger fan base, and more than double the gate receipts, cannot secure bank loans to finance its debts and a new stadium.

Who is al-Faraj kidding if he thinks he can secure two years' worth of TV money the club might not get? If the club goes down this season, that's a big debt they're saddled with in the Championship, on top of having to financially restructure due to the drop in income generally.

How can a multi-millionaire businessman owner like al-Faraj need to take out a bank loan or two to pay a club's wages for a month? And what about his friend al-Fahim, who still has a 10 percent stake in the club.

Al-Fahim is supposedly the fourth most influential Arab in the world, and a board member of the Abu Dhabi United Group that owns Manchester City. It's not like he's short of contacts to raise some cash.

Al-Fahim paid Gaydamak a reported £60million for the club back in August, while a month later, al-Faraj paid a reported £70m for a 90 percent stake.

Assuming he invested minimally in the club during his 40-day tenure, he made a £10m profit when he sold, and could still sell the remaining 10 percent.

Al-Faraj is a property tycoon, and has holdings in petrochemical company Saudi Basic Industries Corp (SABIC), admittedly 70 percent of this is owned by the Saudi government, but it had an annual revenue of over £20bn in 2008. The al-Faraj family must get a hefty slice of that pie. That's without his other company investments.

That alone, should mean they can scrape the money together to pay the wages of the hard-working people who run the club day-to-day.

The players, most of them will have enough to survive a week or two, and wouldn't struggle anywhere near as much. Indeed, some players might even be able to pay the general staff's wages, not that I expect they would.

Clearly there should be some money floating about between the two of them, although not going into Portsmouth FC.

It is increasingly a concern for anyone associated with the club when you consider there is a transfer embargo in place by the Premier League for unpaid transfer fees to other clubs including Arsenal for the purchase of Lassana Diarra for around £5.5m and Chelsea for Glen Johnson for £4m—not massive prices by current fees.

Both players have subsequently left the club with Diarra joining Real Madrid for around £18.8m, and Johnson moving to Liverpool for around £18m.

That's £36m that could easily have paid both off the fees for both of those players, with plenty to spare for new signings, or paying off other debts. Where has that money gone?

What about the money gained from selling high-earning stars Peter Crouch, Jermaine Defoe, Nico Krancjar, and the money saved when Sol Campbell left the wage bill?

Add in the winding-up petition from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for unpaid tax and national insurance contributions last month, and it's difficult to see the club surviving to the end of the season.

Whoever "owns" the club owes a lot of money to a lot of people. If they didn't have the money in the first place, why were they allowed to take over the club, and plunge it into further problems?

That is a serious question that needs to be answered by the Premier League, and representatives at Portsmouth FC.

There is a process of due diligence that prospective owners undergo prior to purchase completion, but what about due diligence as far as the new owner is concerned?

Surely independent accountants should be brought in to examine the finances of that person, if the Premier League are happy everything else checks out with their "test."

Where is their business plan, and where is the proof of equity to be able to not just buy a club, but also to inherit and manage any existing debt where the club is not operating within its means?

A problem with foreign investors is that we have little idea where their money comes from or if it even exists. Even if you go to the holding bank of the potential owner, how do we know that the manager there isn't related to them, or on the payroll of that person or an associate or friend, or otherwise instructed to confirm everything is okay?

It is a ridiculous situation, and the Premier League still have some way to go to ensure that the clubs are better protected. Yes, the new measures were an improvement, but they simply have not gone far enough.

More and more clubs are owned by "wealthy" foreign investors in the Premier League, yet many now have increased levels of debt as they try to compete for instant success.

As well as re-evaluating their Fit and Proper Persons Test, the Premier League should now move to restrict any payouts to Portsmouth FC as a shareholder of the league other than to directly pay off debts owed to other clubs, and to safeguard the future of the club by settling the bill with HMRC, dispute or no dispute.

And by this I mean, the payments are made directly from the account of the Premier League to the creditors to ensure the money is not swallowed up by the owners.

The next time the clubs meet with the Premier League, the financial state of the league has to be addressed with reform for the future. This has to be done sooner rather than later before the declivity becomes so disastrous following the fall out from the financial failings of foreign owners that satisfactory recovery will take decades.

If Formula One teams can agree to curb their spending and bring it back down to 1990s levels, then why not the Premier League? If that means introducing formal wage caps, so be it.

As much as any of us would love nothing better than for our own team to be successful, I hope I speak for the majority of football fans when I say that a better level of competition in the league would be better for the league.

We have seen this season that the league is more competitive than it has been for years, with the top sides losing on a number of occasions, despite the money pumped into them from abroad, but why can't they be self-reliant on their own revenue, and still compete?

Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Fulham, Birmingham City, and West Ham are all foreign owned.

Two of them are already in severe financial problems, with a number of others propped up bank loans secured against club assets with the sky seemingly the limit for many. It's boom or bust, and sadly, the bust is already hitting some of them hard.

A cap would go some way to readdressing this, but it would have to be implemented across an area larger than just England or even Europe, otherwise we'll see an exodus akin to the southern hemisphere rugby union players moving to the north to earn more money, and even British players moving to France because they can earn even more there.

For the Premier League and our clubs to survive we need reform, before it's too late.


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