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.
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.
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