The incarceration of Carson Yeung, former chairman of Birmingham City, will raise fresh questions about the rules governing the ownership of English clubs.
The 55-year-old businessman, a former hair stylist to some of Hong Kong’s social elite, has been sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of five counts of money laundering by a Hong Kong court on Monday. Yeung was found to have illegally passed U$93 million between five bank accounts from January 2001 to December 2007.
Yeung led a group of investors in the purchase of Championship side Birmingham City – then playing in the Premier League – in 2009, having earlier secured a 29 per cent stake from David Sullivan and David Gold, who now own West Ham United. The source of Yeung’s rapidly accrued wealth was barely explained in public at the time, though Yeung has repeatedly claimed it came from a combination of hairdressing, share-trading, property purchases, and high-stakes gambling in Macau. In light of this week’s events, his intentions for the club must be viewed with similar suspicion.
The Football League has insisted that it is now satisfied that Yeung’s stake in the club has been relinquished – though close associate Peter Pannu retains a powerful seat on a board also occupied by Yeung’s 20-year-old Ryan as well as a current and a future brother-in-law. Perhaps more concerning is the lack of transparency in the process by which Yeung came to own the club in the first place.
Yeung is by no means the only individual of dubious substance to pass the ‘fit and proper persons’ test of the Premier League and Football League. Most notoriously, former Thai president and telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s sale of Manchester City to members of the Abu Dhabi was preceded by a freezing of his assets in his homeland. He remains in self-imposed exile in Dubai, evading corruption charges.
Beyond the moral difficulty of allowing such figures a place in the game, there is also the material threat that might result from the sudden evaporation of large quantities of promised cash. Further down the pyramid, the risk to clubs of being misled by unscrupulous owners is more profound. The likes of Chesterfield FC have been taken to the point of extinction in the past but today, as owners gamble on finding a route to the Premier League, there is far more money to be lost.
Several clubs, including Leicester City, Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers, have reportedly instructed firm Brabners to investigate the possibility of a legal action against the Football League’s Financial Fair Play rules. All three posted high eight-figure losses in recent accounts – QPR lost over UK£65 million playing in the Premier League in 2012/13. It is fair to assume the era of heavy speculation may not be nearing its end.
If a club owner is willing to continually stake his or her own money in the pursuit of a dream, that may be his or her concern. If a club’s finances are wrung dry by an unscrupulous individual, or a steady stream of funds turns out to have been illusory, that is a different matter entirely.
As David Conn writes in today’s edition of The Guardian, ‘It remains unclear how this will impact on Birmingham City, besides the shame and indignity.’ English football, however, needs to decide what unfettered investment is really worth.
Eoin Connolly, Features Editor, SportsPro