Birmingham City kept right on to the end of the road; now for a better future
Few other clubs have had such a miserable time for such a long time as Birmingham City, but new ownership may finally be signalling a brighter future.
They may have finished their Championship season with three defeats and 17th place, but Birmingham City supporters have been surprisingly sanguine nevertheless. A 2-1 home defeat on the last day of the season against Premier League-bound Sheffield United was to be expected, but Blues supporters had something else on their mind, namely a takeover announcement which might finally put an end to a miserable last few years which have even threatened the ongoing viability of the club.
And while it’s absolutely clear that other clubs have had a worse time of things on a day-to-day basis, very few have had such a drip, drip, drip of foreboding that something considerably worse is about to happen. Over the last 11 seasons they’ve finished above halfway in the Championship table twice, both times in 10th place, the last of which came seven years ago.
And since then, their record has been that of a club which has no imagination beyond not getting relegated from the second tier: 19th, 19th, 17th, 20th, 18th, 20th and 17th. And considering their prognosis for this season, even 17th feels like something of an achievement.
Few supporters outside of those who pledge their allegiance to the richest can reasonably expect success on the pitch every season, but Birmingham’s record has been particularly gruelling, the sort of run that tests the patience of all bar the most loyal, and it’s been matched by difficulties off the pitch, which have included an owner who ended up in prison after being convicted of money laundering, a stadium so unsafe that it’s been part-closed for the last three years, and a failed takeover which resulted in those behind the plan receiving a slap on the wrists from the EFL.
The owner was Carson Yeung. When Yeung finally bought Birmingham City in July 2009 after a protracted battle for control, they’d just been promoted to the Premier League as runners-up behind Wolverhampton Wanderers. They finished ninth the following season, and won the League Cup in 2011. But relegation followed at the end of the 2010/11 season. The club haven’t returned since.
And in the background, cracks were starting to show in Yeung’s business empire. His real estate business in China was in millions of dollars of debt, and in June 2011 he was arrested on money laundering charges. In March 2014 he was found guilty on five counts of money laundering a total of HK$720 million (£55m at the time) and was sentenced to six years in prison.
The mysteries surrounding Yeung were numerous. How had he made enough money to be able to spend £81.5m on a Premier League football club? What about those two criminal convictions in Hong Kong from 2004 and 2010, for failing to disclose shareholdings in listed companies? Birmingham notified the Premier League, but the league deemed Yeung still “fit and proper” because such an offence would not be considered criminal under UK law. Yeung resigned all his positions at Birmingham shortly before the conviction.
Ownership of the club eventually passed into the hands Birmingham Sports Holdings Limited, a Hong-Kong Stock Exchange-listed front for a fragmented collection of associated companies, headed by Cambodian businessman Vong Pech.
The club’s decline under the stewardship of chief executive Xuandong Ren was striking. Birmingham started to slide towards the relegation places, seemingly perfecting the art of doing just enough to avoid relegation each season. They were spending lavishly on huge contracts, but at the same time the actual infrastructure of the club was rotting under their feet. Indeed, things reached such a point that the lower tier of the Kop and Tilton Road End were closed and have remained so since the issue first arose in December 2020. In December 2022, they claimed that it would be open as of the end of this season. By April, this date had been moved back to the middle of September.
And this season alone, the club had already been the subject of further scrutiny following the failed takeover from the EFL, who last charged former Barcelona striker Maxi Lopez, British businessman Paul Richardson and former Charlton Athletic chief executive Matt Southall with alleged breaches of its owners’ and directors’ test (ODT) in February over effectively running the club without formal approval. The punishments turned out to be fairly mild because the League accepted that this had been “non intentional” and hadn’t been concealed from them. Southall was banned from football for three months, meaning that he will be available for work again before the start of next season, if anyone will hire him. Lopez, formerly of Barcelona, accepted a month-long ban from involvement with any EFL club, suspended until the end of the 20232/4 season. The takeover itself collapsed in December 2022.
That Birmingham City supporters should be ending this season with smiles on their faces is down to takeover news they have been waiting to hear for a very long time indeed. Throughout the Yeung and BHSL eras, the club has been kicked from pillar to post, surrounded by intrigue, and close to both insolvency and dropping into the lower divisions, but last month it emerged that the club had entered into a period of exclusivity with a UK subsidiary of Knighthood Capital Management, an investment firm formed by Tom Wagner, an American businessman with links to the recently retired American footballer Tom Brady. Whether the club will be able to benefit from this extremely high-profile connection remains unclear.
What sort of owners will Wagner’s group be? Well, who knows? It will take a while to complete. The group has purchased a 45% shareholding, which is expected to turn into a full purchase, and there are various regulatory bodies through which it all needs to pass. There are reported plans to convert St Andrews into social housing and build a new stadium on a 40-acre piece of derelict land that used to be a go-karting track nearby. Significantly, the new guys’ first message to fans placed St Andrews at the front of their statement to the fans: “The first step in the transition is to ensure St. Andrew’s is fit for purpose.”
Of course, the fact that an American hedge fund owner wishes to buy a club in the Championship, where owners are considerably more likely to lose considerable sums of money than turn a profit, raises questions in itself and protecting the club is better served by treating any new investor with a degree of healthy scepticism than by treating them as messiahs. But they’re saying the right things and sending the right messages, and after 14 years of Carson Yeung and BHSL at St Andrews, even that feels like a very solid start indeed.
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