Never mind the footsie, here's the footie

Football may not have quite come home after Euro 96, but the game did leave an indelible impression on investors and on the stockmarket, writes Richard Phillips.

Of the top dozen best performing shares of the year, three of them were football stocks.

The upsurge in the popularity of football among investors marks the huge changes in the game played among the elite clubs over the last few years.

Five years ago, most of them were small businesses being run by local businessmen and enthusiasts, often with the intention to no more than break-even.

But the creation of the Premier League in 1992, and most challengingly, the impact of BSkyB and Sky Sports on the game, has transformed its prospects.

There has also been the phenomenon of wealthy patrons, who have injected huge sums of money into their chosen club from their personal fortunes, with the desire to restore their team to former glory.

The best such example is Newcastle United, which is expected to be valued at a remarkable pounds 150m when it joins the stock market early in the New Year. Wealthy businessman Sir John Hall has pumped millions from his personal fortune into the club, and has succeeded in taking it back to near the top of the table - although there is no silverware to show for his millions.

Of the quoted clubs, the best performer was Celtic, whose shares rose 380 per cent, to close the year at pounds 315. The shares, quoted on AIM, doubtless enjoyed some of their strength from the support of their diehard fans. But the theme of football mania is more than just the fans. Manchester United is now seen as a bona fide stock market investment.

Greg Dyke, of Pearson, the media conglomerate, reportedly approached his board to suggest that the company should acquire a stake in a major football club, not for the value of the players, but to obtain a slice of the digital TV pie. The next best performing football share was Caspian Group, which bought Leeds United earlier this year. Manchester United was the twelfth best performing, with its shares more than doubling to 650p.

The figures, from the best and worst performing shares of the year, also indicate Blacks Leisure, the sports retailer, as another beneficiary of the football mania covering the country. It was the stock market's best performing share of the year. Investors who bought the shares on 1 January would have seen a 589 per cent rise in their value.

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