How football laughed at Sol Campbell back in September. Here, tittered the pundits, writers, experts, and fans, was a man who’d chased the money and discovered he couldn’t hack it in League Two before walking back to the comfort of a Premier League training ground. Perhaps, in light of events in the last few weeks, Campbell deserves more credit. After all, he appears to be one of the very few who quickly realised something wasn’t quite right at Meadow Lane.
Campbell quit Notts County over ‘broken promises’. Perhaps he was uncomfortable with a large portion of his wages coming from the Swiss Commodity Holdings Group. We may never know; Campbell isn’t exactly the most forthcoming of men. But his departure sparked something in the national press, who dug and dug and uncovered a tangled web of holding companies and directors.
This, in turn, led to the decision of Munto to sell. It was, we are told, blamed on jealousy, people with vendettas, and malicious journalists. Alhough this could quite easily be countered with the argument that a group of multimillionaires shouldn’t be so secretive if they have nothing to hide.
Notts County, then, are now under different, if familiar, ownership. Munto Finance, Qadbak, and the Middle Eastern investors who may or may not have existed have been bought out by Executive Chairman Peter Trembling, soon after the announcement that Munto were selling up. County have gone from moneybags of the division to a club that is again unsure of its own future – a situation familiar to many supporters of recent years, with Trembling saying in an official statement that “I will now embark upon the urgent process of securing new investment into the football club.”
Taking stock at Meadow Lane
Whichever way you look at it, Meadow Lane has had a rollercoaster six months since the mysterious Munto Finance stepped in with promises of Middle East riches that could take The Magpies into the Premier League is just over five years.
Strange enough, then, that they should rock up at one of English football’s strugglers, albeit one with a long, proud and occasionally successful history behind it. Notts County, League Two also-rans, were perhaps not the first place you would expect rich Arabs to invest in. But this is football, a sport where the odd can become the everyday. Despite a few quizzical looks, it seemed almost natural within football.
Perhaps if Munto had kept a low profile, then questions wouldn’t have been asked. County’s signings were good for League Two level, and the type of players (perhaps with the exception of Kasper Schmeichel) who you’d expect to grace a lower league team with plenty of cash.
But then came Sven Goran Eriksson, followed by Sol Campbell, before Campbell made for the exit door, closely followed by manager Ian McParland. With high-profile comings and goings it was inevitable the press would take an interest in Notts County.
So too did the Football League and the FA. With Munto staying silent on who exactly was involved at Meadow Lane, questions were raised about whether or not the new owners passed the fit and proper persons test. All Trembling, and others connected with the club, could do was assure us that those involved were honourable individuals who just wanted to stay in the background, and that we should trust them.
Yet it hardly inspired confidence that when some names, including former Pakistan Prime Minister Dr Moeen Qureshi and businessman Anwar Shafi, were put forward, these names denied involvement. Yet the League eventually ruled they were happy with County’s owners and they passed the test, even if the majority of the fans were still in the dark about who exactly owned their club.
Some of the most telling reporting, though, came from the motor racing press. Qadbak, the parent company of Munto Finance, were attempting to seal a deal for the BMW Sauber Formula One team, which had lost its place on the grid after BMW decided to withdraw from the sport.
It’s worth noting here that, to the motorsport press, Notts County were a coincidental side-issue. It is quite hard to accuse them of bias towards a football team they had little interest in. What they were interested in, though, was who Qadbak were and did they have the money to buy the BMW Sauber team.
As it turned out, they didn’t, and former owner Peter Sauber brought back his team, but not before some very interesting stories emerged, chiefly around Russell King, the controversial Jersey businessman with a fraud conviction, who was involved in the collapsed investment company, Belgravia, now wound up. Belgravia had been investigated by the police. The company had also attempted, and failed, to buy the Jordan F1 team and Newcastle United back in 2006.
This is where it starts to get complicated, linked by a chain of financial investment companies with no clear idea who was involved in each of them. In November, The Guardian revealed the guarantee that was given to the Supporters Trust when they sold Notts County came from First London, a financial services firm.
First London Holdings also purchased Bahrain Capital International in October 2008, the company that was guaranteeing Qadbak’s purchase of BMW Sauber. A year later, First London Asset Management was sold to Swiss Commodity Holdings, a global mining company with close ties to Notts County. Eriksson was promised shares in the company as part of the deal to take him to Meadow Lane, while a portion of Campbell’s wages were rumoured to be coming from SCH. The ‘H’ from SCH’s logo was also incorporated into County’s badge.
Representatives from SCH, including King, were pictured on a business trip to North Korea, while it seems that somewhere in this, either from King, SCH or A N Other, a group of British Virgin Islands shell companies, including Munto and Qadbak were ordered. First London, which shares a director with SCH, Munto, and Qadbak have denied repeatedly that King has any involvement with them.
Planning for the future
Ultimately, unless somebody close to this myriad of investment vehicles decides to tell all, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly who exactly owned Notts County, how much money they had, if any, and where that money came from.
Campbell was quick to want out of the club, and there have been rumours than Eriksson has been unsure if he will see the money promised to him by SCH. Meanwhile, there are a queue of people lining up to claim that Munto hookwinked them when purchasing the club.
Trembling is one of those, despite offering countless reassurances over the previous months that the level of investment was secure from Munto. He has since said that the due diligence done by Munto was not as thorough as it should have been, which may explain why County’s parent company, Blenheim 1862, was issued with a winding up order over a £400,000 unpaid tax bill, something that many parties have pointed out was not exactly hidden.
John Armstrong-Holmes, the former chair of the Supporters’ Trust, County’s previous owners, has also denounced Munto. But, as Tom noted here a few days ago, back in the summer Armstrong-Holmes told journalists that Munto’s guarantee was “cast iron” and they were “the most honourable people I have ever met.”
Soundbites and past quotations aside, though, it’s easy to see how supporters were led astray. Can any supporter of a struggling League Two team say they wouldn’t have reacted with joy to the news that a rich consortium from the Middle East was purchasing their club? With money talk around, and initial success on the pitch, it’s not hard to see how awkward questions were put to one side at first.
But now the club faces an uncertain future. Trembling has completed his buyout and has said that money will be available for manager Hans Bakke to strengthen in January, but the Magpies currently have several expensive players on their books with high wages and long-term deals. Top scorer Lee Hughes is on a two-year deal, ex-Manchester City keeper Schmeichel is rumoured to be on a five-year deal. Honouring these contracts will not come cheap.
In times of financial unease, many clubs would turn to the Supporters’ Trust, but this is unlikely to be an option for County. With little progress made on the pitch during their time in charge, the Trust were no longer the great white knights when they sold up to Munto. Fans and members accused it of lacking the transparency it promised, while the organisation itself seemed paralysed, with rumours of infighting. It may be some time before the Trust is ready to retake control, assuming it wants to.
Perhaps they should think back to the days of 2003 when the club was facing bankruptcy and closure after the disastrous chairmanship of Alberto Scardino. Back then the club rallied and raised £170,000 through donations and managed to keep County alive. Something similar may need to happen if Trembling’s takeover isn’t able to sort out the mess in the boardroom.