Mention Malcolm Glazer and his takeover of Man U, and it will get most Mancusian’s gritting their teeth in disgust and despair. Vituperative is a mild description of the average Mancs reaction to the greedy overlords across the pond. More gallingly, is that the Glazers took a club that was doing well financially, with solid albeit modest gains, and more importantly, no outstanding dues. With his takeover, Man U became an Argentinian bail out situation with massive debt borrowing. Even the World Bank would have been chagrined at this deal and washed their hands off the whole thing. Man U now has to rake in gate recepits at a clip that will just about make it solvent with the hope that wealthier donors will write off their debt in a Paris Club like situation.
Mention Chelsea and you will find out that many Premiership fans get their knickers in a twist. In their eyes, the Blues have bought their way to the Premiership titles twice in a row, and when you hear that the total amount in players fees is larger than the New York Yankees roster, it is hard to argue against such a perception. When you have someone like Roman Abramovich willing to underwrite every folly that Chelsea commits, some of which would have landed other successful clubs on the financial ropes, we are seeing nothing but soccer as a commodity.
It is easy to see why these two clubs engender such strongly negative reactions to most in the soccer world unless of course you are a debt collector or a Blues fan who suffered the comatose teams of the 70's, 80's, and the 90's. The last time the Blues won a league title before they won in 2005 was in 1955, a full half century ago. To put this in context, this was before Ghana got its independence. Chelsea was before Abramovich and Mourinho, in every sense a middling club. The takeover of Manchester United is even more inexplicable. Clearly, it was a club that did not really need any financial help and was doing swimmingly well in almost every facet of the soccer world. Glazer's takeover also does not seem to have brought any tangible success in soccer performance but that maybe because Man U had already set the bar so high.
So why is it that Portsmouth's takeover by another whimsical Russian businessman, Alexandre Gaydamak, this season, bring out the feel good vibes? Who can explain the relief felt by Aston Villa fans, when their club was bought out by Randy Lerner, an American businessman, and the CEO of a credit card company, that makes millions of dollars in atrociously high late fees. His takeover was greeted by grateful Villa fans, who see him as a saviour.
The reason is simple. In these clubs there is an element of control that is retained with the fans, the real patrons of the game of soccer. They are the ones that give soccer its canvas, so that the players and managers can play the game with bold strokes, Portsmouth is a small club, that never made it to the Premiership till the year 2004, a dozen years after the EPL's inception. The story of how it got there is the big story, because Portsmouth is a twice bought over club. The club was in financial ruin and was at best a first division club constantly battling relegation. In 1999, Milan Mandaric, a self made Serbian American millionaire bought out the club and saved it from bankruptcy. The climb back in league ranking was fairly rapid but it still took them 4 years to get to the Premiership stage, in 2003 with Harry Redknapp at the helm, a year that saw them finish a very respectable 13th with an excellent home record. However, Harry Redknapp, resigned the next year because of differences with Mandarich, but Portsmouth still made it to the Premiership, under interim coach, Velimir Zajec and then Alan Perrin. On May 15, 2005, the last day of the Premiership, West Bromwich Albion’s 2-0 win in their final game over Portsmouth meant WBA and Portsmouth escaped relegation at the expense of arch rival, Southampton. Redknapp was installed again in late 2005 after a stint as manager of arch rivals Southampton, when Portsmouth went into a mid season swoon before pulling out of relegation under him. This transfer season was busy with many rumours, from Gianluca Zambrotta to David Trezeguet, joining Pompey with the tabloids agog that under Gaydamak, Portsmouth was going to become another globalization venture, like Chelsea. Instead, Pompey hired the services of time tested veterans David James, Andy Cole, Sol Campbell, and Nwankwo Kanu. English soccer fans are familiar with these players, many who have played for their clubs. Portsmouth also played their nucleus of players that had got them thus far to the Premiership. Pablo Mendes and Svetoslav Todorov, without jettisoning them as has beens. The result is that Portsmouth, although very early in the season, is sitting in 5th place after pasting, Blackburn Rovers and their tough defence, 3-0 in their opening game. They managed to draw Manchester City, 0-0 inspite Ben Thatcher's hit job on Pablo Mendes.
The Pompey fans loved Mike Mandarich and they see him as the architect of their recent fortunes. When he stepped down, they kept him on as a co-owner of Portsmouth. What is equally important is that Portsmouth has gone about rebuilding their team with talented players, who have been top of the rung, but not neccessarily superstars. Unlike Chelsea, if Alexandre Gaydamak, can quietly build Portsmouth with quality players without the pressure of a price tag, and an emphasis on English players, with a necessary amount of faith in their skills, even through indifferent spells, a different sort of takeover model could be created, more acceptable to larger group of English fans, perhaps feeling rightly cynical about the way English clubs seem to be taken over by merchants expert at commodification, with no clue and very little knowledge about soccer.
Aston Villa was a club that was undergoing severe financial stress, under an unpopular owner, Doug Ellis, and an even more unpopular manager, David O'Leary. When buy out talks began, there were four consortiums mentioned including the bid of Athole Still, who represented Sven Goran Erickson. In an infamous set up Erickson was caught on tape relishing the prospect of managing Aston Villa, after its reported buyout by oil rich Arab sheikhs. He went onto suggest that he could do this while also managing England. Even the bid by a bonafide longtime supporter of Aston Villa, Michael Neville, was supported somewhat lukewarmly by Villa fans. That is because Neville had to come up with the money through a consortium of other interested parties. Villa fans had probably seen enough damage done to Manchester United, with an owner who had to mortagage everything and anything to own the club leaving it to happenstance for its future development, because the interest itself eats away into any profit that the club makes. When Randy Lerner came knocking the second time around to acquire Villa with his own money, Villa fans knew it was the real deal. Lerner did not have to go to the World Bank, to any bank, or to any money lender, to borrow to buyout Villa. Equally important was that his bid was very closely tied to Martin O'Neill, Villa's new coach continuing on in his new job. Ask any soccer pundit and he is most likely to say that O'Neill is probably the best coach in England today. O'Neill's forte is that he can take emerging talent and make them play to their potential. In that, Villa can transfer untested players who have great talent and come relatively cheap, but in the process develop under O'Neill's tutelage, to make stellar contributions to the club. Randy Lerner, unlike many of the new overseas owners (read Yanks) knows his soccer and unlike Malcolm Glazer, has already become a familiar figure to Villa fans, who hail him boisterously, when he visits. Aston Villa is already reaping the rewards and is currently second in the league. Is anyone grinding their teeth and cussing out Villa? No. Maybe it is too early, but even if Villa finishes as strong as it started the season, it would be difficult to begrudge them their success. Unlike the Mancs, whose opposition to the Glazer takeover was voted down by the governing board, and led to thousands disenchanted by the new club, the Villa fans see this change as neccessary to revive the fortunes of their long suffering club. The enchantment is that the fans themselves have been responsible for the change in their club.
A testimonial to Milan Mandaric
"Gaydamak may now be the sole owner of Pompey, but the name of Milan Mandaric will go down in history. He had his tantrums, he had his ego, but where would Portsmouth Football Club be without Milan Mandaric.
Milan - I salute you. Thank you for putting us where we are today - the Pompey spirit lives on, in the Premiership."
Aston Villa's checklist with Randy Lerner and they like what they are getting.
Will our history be honoured? Yes.
Will we be taken forward? Yes.
Will the team of 82 be included? Yes.
Will people who need honouring be embraced? Yes.
Will money be spent on the team? Yes.
Will Bodymoor Heath be made state of the art? Yes.
Will they plan to re-establish us as a global brand? Yes.
Will they sign Martin O'Neill up long term? Yes.
Will the fans be brought back into the fold? Yes.
Will the fans have representatives? Yes
Update: Corrections made. Thanks David Kavanagh for drawing my attention to those goof ups. I hope you agree with the spirit of the post, though.