Football clubs aim to relegate owners' rules

Football clubs outside the elite Premier League are mounting a campaign to relax archaic ownership rules they say favour the bigger teams.

If successful, the move will make it easier for institutional investors to take greater advantage of the recent crop of football flotations by spreading their risk and taking sizeable stakes in more than one club.

At the moment Football League rules bar an investor who owns more than 1 per cent of a club outside the Premiership from holding more than 1 per cent of another team. A less restrictive 10 per cent rule operates for Premier League clubs but both are under review.

The campaign to change the Football League's rules is being spearheaded by Sheffield United of the Nationwide First Division, which became a quoted company in January via a reverse takeover of the Conrad leisure group.

"You can own 5 per cent of ICI and Courtaulds but not 5 per cent of Sheffield United and Manchester United. That's a nonsense," said Charles Green, the club's chief executive.

Three directors of Manchester United, including Sir Bobby Charlton, still own shares in Sheffield United as a legacy of the Conrad deal, though none breaches the 1 per cent rule. Following the reverse takeover Mike Edelson, a Manchester United director who ran Conrad, resigned as a director of Sheffield United to avoid a conflict of interest.

Mr Green claimed the Football League's ownership rules were based on the "Dickensian theory" that the outcome of a match could be influenced if an individual owned more than 1 per cent of more than one club.

"There is an acceptance that rules drawn up 150 years ago are not relevant now," he said.

His comments were backed by Tony Fraher, chief executive of Singer & Friedlander Investment Funds, which invests in football clubs. "With the likes of Birmingham City and Charlton Athletic coming to the market it means they cannot be supported if an investor has a stake in a Premier League club. The rule continues to assist the Premier League clubs and widens the gulf that already exists between them and the rest of football."

Sheffield United is pressing for the ownership rules to be changed at the League's annual meeting in July.

The Premier League is in talks with the Department of Trade and Industry about agreeing a higher ownership limit before its annual meeting in June.

Mike Lee, a spokesman, said the review was aimed at preserving the integrity of the game and governing the changing pattern of investment.

Comment, page 19

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