Tag Archives: Sol Campbell

Sol Campbell, The Mystery of Munto and the Future of Notts County

Sol Campbell joins Notts County

So where's all that money, then?

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. Although 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 brought 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.
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.
Racing stripes
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.

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.

BMW Sauber

Racing stripes

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.

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

Sol Campbell: Abuse breaches our human rights

Rovers fans at Hartlepool.Do footballers have the same rights in the stadium that they have in the street? Sol Campbell argues so, as he told the BBC’s Today programme today:

If this happened on the street, you would be arrested. This is the 21st century and this is a human rights situation where sportsmen and managers are trying to do their job professionally and people are abusing them verbally. It has gone too far.

It’s not exactly clear what Campbell is suggesting should be done, when he says “another way” is needed to control fans. Laws, after all, do still apply to fans in the stadium, though arresting half of White Hart Lane when he next returns there would hardly be practical.

The bigger point is that the kind of vicious abuse Campbell receives for leaving Tottenham is culturally accepted by football fans — just as racism once was (not that this is the same at all, but changing this would be even harder).

What do you think? Where should the abuse line be drawn?

Image courtesy of i y e r s on Flickr.