Tag Archives: Munto Finance

Notts County: The Long View

Vic Crescit is an Arsenal fanzine writer and blogger. Here he breaks down recent events at Meadow Lane, the home of the world’s oldest professional football club.

Notts County logo

Notts County might not be a name that sets the pulses of football fans around the world racing. It doesn’t even do that for most of the city of Nottingham, never mind the rest of planet football. In recent decades County has been comprehensively outshone by its near rivals just across the River Trent at Nottingham Forest.

Any football fan who has visited Nottingham will know that Notts County’s Meadow Lane stadium is a VERY short walk from Nottingham Forest’s City Ground. They’re literally opposite each other on either bank of the River Trent in a “sports triangle” that includes Trent Bridge, home of Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club and a regular venue for international cricket matches.  One of English football’s classic trivia quiz questions is, “What is the only major professional football ground in Nottingham?” The answer is Meadow Lane. The political boundary of Nottingham City Council runs along the middle of the River Trent. The City Ground isn’t in fact in the city of Nottingham. It’s in the neighbouring  Borough of Rushcliffe.

Notts County was established in 1862, a full 24 years before my beloved Arsenal first saw the light of day in 1886 as Dial Square FC, a team of munitions workers at the Dial Square Factory, part of the state owned Woolwich Arsenal armaments complex in south-east London. Notts County is even older than the Football Association, the world’s first national football governing body, which wasn’t formed until 1863. The club was also a founder member of the Football League, the world’s first professional football league in 1888. Arsenal didn’t join the League until five seasons later in 1893, having turned professional in 1891.

Despite its long history, County has never been a member of the football elite. It has never been in the Premier League formed by a breakaway of the top clubs from the Football League in 1993, although it has had spells its immediate predecessor, Football League Division One, including a three season spell from 1981-84. This appearance in the limelight immediately followed the high water mark of local rivals Forest who, having won promotion from the old Football League Division Two in 1977 had an amazing assent to the summit of the game, becoming champions of England and Wales in 1978 and going on to win back to back European Champion Clubs’ Cups (the predecessor of the UEFA Champions League) against Malmö FF of Sweden in Munich in 1979 and Hamburger SV of West Germany in Madrid in 1980.

Forest subsequently fell upon hard times and were relegated as low as Football League One (the third tier) 2005. They’re now challenging for promotion to the top flight Premier League from the Football League Championship once again, although sill a pale shadow of their 1970s/1980s selves under the great Brian Clough.

County on the other hand haven’t won one of the game’s top prizes since their last FA Cup win in, er, 1894. Their most recent silverware was the old Football League Division Four (now Football League Two) winners’ trophy in 1998.

Meadow Lane

Meadow Lane

The recent history of Notts County off the field has also been pretty desperate. Overspending on player transfers and salaries,  along the costs of redeveloping Meadow Lane,  antiquated and unsafe,  into something more closely resembling a modern professional sports arena led the club to bump along the bottom financially for a couple of decades, keeping its financial head barely above a sea of red ink.

Finally in 2006, the Notts County Supporters’ Trust, formed in 2003, took control of a sixty percent majority stake in the club. It was always going to be a very rocky road for the fans. The debts were large and pressing. The playing side of the club was, to say the least, not promising. Just keeping the wolf from the door financially with no big money-bags backer for three seasons was a major achievement for the Trust.

Results on the field at least didn’t get any worse when the Trust took over. County finished thirteenth in Football League Two in 2006/7, then slipping back to relegation flirtation, finishing twenty-first in 2007/8 (six points above the drop to the fifth-tier Football Conference) and nineteenth in 2008/9, ten points above the drop. This might not seem much of an achievement but given they’d finished only four points above relegation in twenty-first in 2005/6 it was at least no worse on the field than previously and progress was being made in digging the club out of the financial hole into which its previous owners had dug it.

The first rule in dealing with any crisis is when you’re in a hole, stop digging. The Trust did that at Meadow Lane. There will always be siren voices calling for a sugar daddy to make life sweat again though. Cue the entrance of Munto Finance, fronting for a group of allegedly money-bags Middle Eastern investors with offers to take Notts County to new and dizzy heights of fame and fortune. A group of foreign owners appeared to want to carpet-bomb Meadow Lane with ready cash.

Here’s a quote from the brief history of Notts County from the club’s official website:

On 14 July 2009, Notts County moved into a new and exciting era after the Munto Finance, following successful due diligence, completed the acquisition of the Football Club. The previous month Supporters’ Trust members voted overwhelmingly to gift their shares to Munto to take the club forwards. Peter Trembling became executive chairman with immediate effect following the takeover. Less than two weeks later, Munto signalled their intent with the appointment of former England and Mexico Manager Sven-Goran Eriksson as the Director of Football at Meadow Lane.

As the Magpies moved into 2010 a lack of funds from Munto Finance led to the management buy-out of the club by Trembling. His search for new investors came to an end when Ray Trew agreed to purchase the club for £1, taking up the majority shareholding and full control. Trembling, along with CEO Gary Townsend and Eriksson stepped down from their positions.

Sven Goran-Erikkson

As these things tend to be, the statements above are anodyne in the extreme. They conceal an absolute tragedy. It quickly appeared that majority sentiment amongst Notts County Supporters’ Trust members was in favour of taking the money. Passions ran high on both sides of the debate with allegations of lack of accountability, secrecy and underhand tactics filling cyberspace. The argument for mutual fan ownership appeared lost. The majority of Trust members did indeed vote to give the Trust’s majority shareholding away free, gratis and for nothing to the new owners.

Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson was installed as director of football. His previous gigs included stellar periods as coach of  Sweden’s IFK Gothenburg, Benfica of Portugal, Fiorentina of Florence, both Rome clubs AS Roma and Lazio (with whom he won the very last edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, after which national knock-out cup winners entered the UEFA Cup, known from this current season as the Europa League, and, most famously Lazio’s second ever Serie A title). Less successfully Eriksson had spells in charge of the England national team -  where his bedroom antics received as much attention as his work on the field – and the Mexico national team, becoming the first-ever non-Hispanic to take charge of los tricolores.

What the hell is going on here, wonders Sol?

Former England, Spurs, Arsenal and Portsmouth central defender Sol Campbell was also signed in a blaze of publicity, along with Manchester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of former Hvidovre, Brøndby IF, Manchester United, Sporting Lisbon, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Denmark goalie Peter Schmeichel. Although Schmeichel the younger was on Manchester City’s books he only played eight times in the League for them, playing most of his football on loan at Darlington, Bury,  Falkirk up in Scotland, Cardiff City and Coventry City. That didn’t stop County splashing out for a hugely lucrative contract for the 23 year old, despite having never established himself at the top level.

Likewise Campbell was showered with £50 notes, or at least the contractual promise of them. Money was splashed in every direction for almost an entire team of new signings. The cracks in the superficially shiny new edifice began to show very early on however. Sol Campbell played one competative game for his new club, a loss away to Morecambe up on the Lancashire coast before deciding to “have it away on his dancers” as they say in London. He proved to be very astute. It wouldn’t be too much longer before it became apparent that the promised millions were just that – promises – empty  ones.

Fast forward a few months and it’s a sad, sorry tale of broken promises, unpaid bills and a fire-sale of the club, now saddled with debts of around £6 million. Eriksson has de-camped. Sol Campbell is now back on a short-term contract at Arsenal. New owner and chairman Ray Trew is left trying to right the listing ship. He’s just avoided a winding up order sought by the tax authorities for unpaid taxes of £324,000 (US$502,000). He’s threatening to sue Munto Finance if he can find them. Good luck with that. Nobody else has managed to contact them.

The only people to emerge with credit from this sad tale are those sensible voices in the Notts County Supporters’ Trust who argued that to give away the club with no guarantees or conditions was foolish; and Guardian journalist Matt Scott who stuck to the story of farce and tragedy at Meadow Lane like a dog with a bone. He was denounced for conducting a “vendetta” against the club for his troubles. He was proved to be absolutely spot on in pointing out that the new emperor had not a stitch of clothing.

It’s easy to understand why Notts County fans could be persuaded to vote for a bright, shiny new future after so many years of bumping along the bottom. Their experience should be instructive to supporters of other clubs who find themselves in the same position in the future. Not that that will be much comfort to the Meadow Lane faithful. I have absolutely no doubt that if the club had remained in the hands of the Notts County Supporters’ Trust it would be making slow, gradual progress towards a better, more stable and sustainable future for the club and its supporters.

The Trust accepted the challenge of a leg-breaking “hospital pass” when it took on the responsibility for the club’s debts after it took over in 2006. Keeping the club stable on the field in terms of results whilst addressing the big financial mess off it might not have been sexy but it was real – unlike the promised phantom millions of the chancers who made so many promises they didn’t have close to the necessary cash to keep.

The real culprits for me though are the football authorities. The Football Association and the Football League were asleep at the wheel – again. As were the Premier League and the FA in the case of Portsmouth. As are the Football Association of Wales and the Football League in the case of Cardiff City. As are the FA and the Football League in the case of Southend United.  As are the FA,  the Football League and the Football Conference in the case of Chester City. Chester was a financial and management basket case before the season even began; owned by a man banned by the British government from being a company director for a record ELEVEN years for a major tax fraud. The Conference didn’t want to accept the club, relegated from Football League Two at the end of last season. The Football League threatened to remove one of two promotion places for Conference teams if it didn’t. The Conference bent if not broke its rules to allow Chester City in.

The chances of them finishing the season were always slim. They’ve now been kicked out the Conference. Football in Britain simply has to stop hoping it’ll be alright on the night. New, robust rules, properly enforced need to be introduced as soon as possible consistent with getting it right and not introducing too many loopholes for lawyers to exploit.

The game is too important to too many people to leave things as they are. Just ask the supporters of Notts County if better rules adequately enforced on who can own clubs and what they have to prove BEFORE they’re allowed to take over are needed. Just ask how many members of the Notts County Supporters’ Trust who voted in favour of giving the club away to new owners think they voted the right way now.

Notts County Supporters’ Trust: Told You So.

notts-county

It’s mean to say “I told you so”, I know, but it’s difficult to resist in the case of Notts County, as we learn that owners Munto Finance have put the club up for sale, with Sven Goran-Eriksson’s future at the club in doubt (Eriksson and executive chairman Peter Trembling are also reported to be leading a buyout bid).

This comes just over a week after the Football League renewed its inquiry into the still-mysterious backing of Munto Finance, and the Guardian also reported that the money Munto promised to pump into the club might not be coming after all.

doubts have also emerged about the terms of the £5m guarantee of funds that Munto Finance produced that persuaded the Notts County supporters trust to sign over control of the club for a nominal consideration of £1. That guarantee, produced in May of this year, came from a company belonging to First London, a financial services firm.
The letter of guarantee is drafted in an unconventional fashion and may not easily be enforceable. An expert in contract law has raised doubts about the document. A corporate law partner at Olswang said: “The letter of guarantee is quite imprecise and confusing. It refers to the guarantee being able to be invoked if Munto does not make “investments” in Blenheim 1862 [the club's holding company that was majority owned by the supporters' trust] but it does not define when and how such investments must be made.

Doubts have also emerged about the terms of the £5m guarantee of funds that Munto Finance produced that persuaded the Notts County supporters trust to sign over control of the club for a nominal consideration of £1. That guarantee, produced in May of this year, came from a company belonging to First London, a financial services firm.

The letter of guarantee is drafted in an unconventional fashion and may not easily be enforceable. An expert in contract law has raised doubts about the document. A corporate law partner at Olswang said: “The letter of guarantee is quite imprecise and confusing. It refers to the guarantee being able to be invoked if Munto does not make “investments” in Blenheim 1862 [the club's holding company that was majority owned by the supporters' trust] but it does not define when and how such investments must be made.

So the one guarantee supporters had managed to wrangle out of Munto might not materialise into anything. This was a club where supporters had the say in the direction of the club, as the Supporters’ Trust owned a 60% share of it: when the mysterious Munto Finance came along promising to throw cash at the club, they could hardly throw themselves at the feet of…well…they didn’t really know who Munto were actually backed by at all.

The Supporters’ Trust voted 93% in favour of the takeover and handed over their share for free, apparently only extracting what may now be a meaningless guarantee of investment from Munto. And for good measure, they also wrote-off £170,000 that they had painstakingly raised themselves and loaned to the club.

After the vote, Trust chairman Glenn Rolley said that “The Trust membership have exercised their democratic right and it is very clear where the overwhelming majority stand on the issue. They recognise that it is a magnificent opportunity to put Notts County back on the football map after so many years in the doldrums and have decided to give their full backing to Munto Finance. Time will tell whether the decision is the right one. But like everyone who cares about the future of Notts County, I’m genuinely excited about the way forward.”

The Supporters’ Trust had certainly had problems running the club, and apparently they saw no future if they did not take Munto’s offer, but after all the work they had done to save the club, was it really wise to hand over the club to the first bunch of bullshitters to come along offering a golden future? At least when the Trust ran the club, the supporters could vote bullshitters out. Now they’re owned by them, and can do nothing about it.

So hell, here’s my “I told you so” moment from this July, when I was still trying too hard to be kind and understanding of it all:

The club’s long decline began in the 1990s, before the Trust assumed control, but it’s clear Trust management did not find a way to move the club forward on or off the pitch. All the same, it’s a surprise supporters didn’t demand to at least know more about the backing of Munto before handing over control — they seem to have snatched off Munto’s hand out of fear they’d be left penniless without them. It’s understandable that years of frustration left supporters desperate for a fairy godmother, but we’ve seen too often these stories rarely end in fairytales; and perhaps the Trust could have played hardball to ensure the club’s future had more guarantees.

Either way, welcome to the rollercoaster. How long will Sven last?

Notts County fans are still holding out hope Sven himself is the white knight to the rescue. Unfortunately, they no longer have any say over the rollercoaster ride they put their club on. I hope it’s at least exciting.

The Story Behind Sol Campbell’s Departure

Sol Campbell

Perhaps it was the joys of Christie Park, perhaps he didn’t fancy Port Vale at home, or perhaps he genuinely did have concerns over the future of Notts County. Whatever his reasons, Sol Campbell’s departure from the League’s oldest club has thrown the Magpies and their ‘project’ back into the limelight, with sports journalists across the county digging into the reasons for his departure.

Given Campbell’s previous of walking out of an Arsenal game at half-time, plus the mystery surrounding County’s owners, it’s easy enough to paint this story with broad strokes – ex-Premier League star flounces out of club that the league are suspicious about. Job done. But, as with most issues surrounding football and ownership, it’s probably a little more complicated than that.

The situation isn’t helped by Munto Finance, the owners of Notts County, maintaining anonymity and silence, while Campbell is notoriously reticent as well, meaning there’s plenty of speculation and not nearly as much substance. Nevertheless, we can try and hazard a few guesses about what’s going on at Meadow Lane.

Financial Troubles

Before leaping headfirst into the current goings on, it’s worth giving a bit of context to how County reached this situation in the first place. As well as being the oldest club in the football league, the Magpies also hold the dubious honour of spending the longest time in administration of any football club: 18 months to be precise.

Notts had been one of those clubs that would occasionally make it to the top flight, before relegation and consolidation as the team made another attempt. They were in the old First Division for a season back in 1991-92, missing out by a season on the Premier League experience and all that entailed.

In 1999, chairman Derek Pavis decided he wanted to sell up and started looking for a buyer. He eventually settled on Albert Scardino, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist looking to get into football. Scardino had first looked at neighbours Nottingham Forest before settling on County.

It’s fair to say Scardino’s time in charge was not a success. County already had debts when he took over, plus Scardino had an arrangement in place to pay back Pavis loans that totalled around £2m.

What Scardino didn’t have, though, was the capital or cash to back this up. Relying on loan guarantees that never came through with a high wage bill led to the inevitability of administration. In the summer of 2002, the Magpies were insolvent and the long process of finding a new owner began.

Over the next 18 months rescue packages came and fell through, and deadlines to come out of administration were missed. December 2003 was to be the ultimate final deadline that a buyer needed to be found by. Failure to do so would result in expulsion from the league.

What happened next was one of those all-to-rare touching moments in football. As it was clear the club was getting ever closer to extinction, the fans and the Supporters’ Trust rallied and raised £170,000 through donations as they looked to take some form of control.

Loans were also forthcoming from local businessmen, but the saviour was one Hadyn Green – season ticket holder and millionaire. Green brought a 49% stake in County, as well as Meadow Lane. The Magpies future had been saved.

Notts County still struggled on around the bottom of League Two. In 2006 they only avoided relegation to the Conference on the last day of the season, but at least the club was still playing, an achievement in itself. In 2007, Green gave his shares to the Supporters’ Trust on the agreement that they paid £75,000 to him if the shares were subsequently sold on. Four months later, Green died.

Still County were unable to push on, with relegation battles now becoming commonplace, while the Trust dream turned slightly sour. Fans complained that the club was not being run in an open and transparent manner, while the Trust itself appear to be paralysed, with rumours of infighting.

Which is where Munto Finance come in.

Mysterious Munto Arrives

At the start of this summer, with County again having survived relegation by finishing 19th, the club got an interesting approach. Chair Jonathan Armstrong-Holmes had just survived a vote of no confidence and, afterwards, talked about how his removal might jeopardise potential investment in the club. The Trust had previously stated that if the club was to progress, outside investment would be necessary.

Enter, a few months later, Munto Finance, a Middle-East backed consortium, with the promise of untold riches and talk of establishing the club first as a Championship proposition, then pushing on to the Premiership. Spurred on by the Trust board, 93% of members voted to hand the shares over to these mysterious investors.

And mysterious they certainly were. Peter Trembling, a former Everton employee, became the club’s chief executive and chairman of the club, and is the public face of Munto, an investment vehicle registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Munto Finance, though, is owned by the QADBAK consortium, whose members remain a mystery, other than being from Switzerland and the Middle East. The Guardian have said that Nathan Willett, an advisor to Notts County and son of County director Peter Willett is a director of QADBAK, but it’s unclear and unlikely that the Willetts are the sole controllers of the consortium.

Indeed, Sven-Goran Eriksson, the former England manager who was appointed director of football shortly after the takeover, has admitted he has not yet met with the owners. Post-takeover, QADBAK have got on with the business of buying up the BMW-Sauber F1 team, again with no clues as to who they are.

The takeover has still to be rubber-stamped by the League, but that doesn’t mean anything should necessarily be read into the recent press cries that the takeover may yet fall through or the owners could yet fail the fit and proper persons test.

The League have made it clear that any ratification will take place at the board meeting on October 8th. Until then, there’s very little the League can say, other than discussions are still ongoing. Meanwhile, four of the directors have already submitted themselves to the fit and proper persons test, and passed, although have yet to register themselves at Companies House.

The fit and proper person’s test, though, is notoriously difficult to fail. Criminal records, bankruptcy, bans from other sporting bodies and overseeing two football insolvencies are the only major barriers to passing and even the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra made it through the process (and left Manchester City before further investigation following his convictions in Thailand).

The real test will come with QADBAK, and whether the League views these anonymous investors as fit and proper. Even with the anonymity issue – and assuming the League don’t simply accept the Willetts as the main men at QADBAK – it would come as more of a surprise if the investors failed the test.

And, as with all things related to Notts County and ownership, it’s difficult to tell exactly who or what the intentions are. It may well be that QADBAK is in for the long haul and prepared to fund County’s rise through the pyramid, but just wish to stay in the background. But this secrecy also arouses suspicion and until the owners are revealed, assuming this ever happens, concerns will remain.

Sven

Sven

On the pitch, matters are at least a little clearer, if no less bizarre. Regardless of the confusion surrounding the club’s backers, County had the type of money that, if spent wisely and on the right players, would be enough to secure promotion to League One.

This seemed to be the route County were going down, with the likes of Lee Hughes, ex-Spurs man Johnnie Jackson, and veteran full-back Jamie Clapham all putting pen to paper. All could have found a club at a higher level, but it wasn’t a huge surprise to see them drop down to League Two to a club with potential.

But the arrival of Sven added an extra, stranger, dimension to the squad building. Notts County’s new director of football arrived after a failed spell in charge of Mexico. There’s no doubt Sven could have still comfortably walked into another high-profile top job, and it wasn’t exactly as if he needed the money, but the Swede chose Meadow Lane and a decent salary.

What Sven brings to Notts County isn’t exactly clear, and you suspect that what he initially knew about League Two and below could have been written on the back of Christian Gross’ used bus ticket.

But it still adds pressure onto manager Ian McParland, who, despite taking County up further than they’ve been in the League for some time, finds his job under threat following some indifferent performances that have left the Magpies eighth. McParland probably feels like he can’t win – when County get a victory, it’s Sven who hogs the headlines; lose and the focus is on McParland.

Nonetheless, from a long term point of view, it could be said that, assuming County climb up the Leagues, Sven would make it easier to attract talent, both young and old, who may not have wanted to play for the club, plus a marquee signing in the early days at the lower levels. Nobody quite expected how this would turn out.

The luring of Kasper Schmeichel was impressive, given the young keeper could have easily found a club in the Championship or for a top flight foreign team. The signing of Sol Campbell turned County from a club quietly building an impressive team to one that was opening itself up to ridicule.

We also know that Sven tried to lure Andy Cole out of retirement, while a list of aging superstars, including Henrik Larsson, Christian Vieri, Roberto Carlos, and Freddie Ljundberg, have all been linked with Meadow Lane. Whether or not there was any truth in these rumours is a moot point. The perception is now these are the type of players County are trying to sign.

These type of players, though, do not come cheap and Campbell’s £40,000-a-week wages were not only astronomical for League Two level, they also would have pushed County beyond the wage cap, designed to ensure clubs live within their means.

Campbell’s wages were largely coming from outside the club to circumnavigate the salary-cost protocol. The Guardian has revealed that the majority of this was coming from the Swiss Commodity Holding AG company. The League will be looking into this, as contracts from outside the balance sheet have the potential to be used for money laundering, although there’s absolutely no suggestion this was the case with Campbell’s contract.

So far, the former England defender hasn’t exactly provided value for money. His debut was delayed while he attempted to get match-fit and when he finally did play, the County defence got pulled all over the park by Morecambe’s journeymen Paul Mullin and Ian Craney. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest the money for Campbell’s wages could have been better spent on a younger, cheaper defender more familiar with the lower leagues.

Quite why Campbell decided to walk away isn’t exactly known, with Andy Cole suggesting it was because he felt let down by promises and investment in the club. As Sven himself has noted, you can’t build new facilities overnight, and it may be this is just a convenient excuse to get out of a situation the player decided he didn’t want to be in.

Yet Campbell is unlikely to be able to sign for another club until January, due to transfer rules, so walking out of County is a big decision for the centre-half. The Independent suggests Campbell was worried about Munto’s purchase of the BMW Sauber F1 team, while questions remain over his wages.

Ultimately, unless he proves a catalyst for the Notts County project to collapse, Campbell’s departure is likely to be a curious footnote in a saga that is proving to be as interesting off the pitch as it is on it.

Gary Andrews is a freelance football writer and host of the twofootedtackle podcast