Skip to content

Trouble at the Top: what kind of person would buy a football club?

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, the target of a recent fan boycott.

Neutral fans who tuned in to watch Newcastle take on Tottenham this weekend would be forgiven for thinking that the Tyneside club’s fans passionate reputation was undeserved.

Attendances were at a record low for the season, with rows of empty seats on all four sides of the stadium. But the problem was not in the stands: it was in the board room.

The lack of passion at St. James Park is the responsibility of Newcastle’s owner, Mike Ashley. The fan absence was a boycott, a protest designed to hurt Mike Ashley in the one place he seems to care about: his balance sheet. Whilst the official attendance (which includes season ticket seats, vacant or not) was not significantly lower than any other games, the reality was clear from the footage. The protest was a major success.

Magpies fans have grown tired of Ashley’s chronic lack of ambition and incessant focus on the bottom line, which they say – despite record profits – have sucked the soul from the club.

Example of this tension between the desires of owners and the passion of fans have become increasingly common in English football. Karl Oyston, owner of Blackpool, is allegedly engaged in nothing short of a war with fans of the seaside club. 

Elsewhere, Massimo Cellino is serving a ban from his leadership role at Leeds United due to an ongoing fraud investigation in his native Italy, which places him the wrong side of the League’s fit and proper persons test. He has been accused of a great deal of shady dealings by fans and the media, including pressuring beleaguered manager Neil Redfearn to drop Mirco Antenucci from the team incase he were to score and activate his goal bonus. Antenucci was one of six players to suspiciously disappear from the line-up this weekend, with aspersions - that he emphatically denied - cast once again on Cellino himself.

Despite the mixed response Cellino’s arrival and controversial tenure has received, he clearly feels at home at Leeds.

“From day one I felt I was at the right club, because I am more f***ed up than the fans.” - Massimo Cellino, Leeds United owner. 
Massimo Cellino.

Rogue owners are not only to be found in English football. Perhaps the most obvious example internationally is Silvio Berlusconi: the politician and media tycoon's debauchery is infamous, and fans of Milan complain that his reputation has thrown their previously respectable club into a different light.

Gigi Becali, the controversial Romanian politician, businessman and owner of Steaua București has faced allegations of homophobia, racism, misogyny and even kidnapping. Russian side Anzi Mkhachkala’s playboy sugar daddy Suleyman Kermiov recently totalled his Ferrari enzo with a glamorous Russian TV personality in the passenger seat.

This is not to say that all owners are up to no good. But there is definitely a remarkable pattern of debauchery, scandal and recklessness in the upper echelons of the game that we see in the behavior of agents, owners and of course, in FIFA themselves. Is it that the business of football, with the ludicrous volumes of cash and the inherent risk - alongside the potential for underhanded deals - attracts the wrong type of people?

Whatever the cause, it is beyond doubt that the problems we so often associate with the modern game – hyperinflation of ticket prices, cyclical and short-term staffing, the disenfranchisement of fooball fans – can all be traced back to irresponsible and dispassionate management.

Are you happy with your club’s owner? Do you agree with our view? Leave your answers in the comments below.