They saw an open goal, and directors scored a million

From sheepskin coats to designer suits, Chris Horrie charts the transformed fortunes of football's top brass
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The Independent Online
Over the past decade some 30 top directors at England's Premier League football clubs have shared about pounds 600m in capital gains. Had this week's Office of Fair Trading (OFT) case against collective bargaining for TV rights been upheld, they would have been on track for even more. If the desire of many for takeover by pay-TV operators - such as BSkyB, NTL, United News & Media, and Carlton - ever gets the green light from regulators, they stand to make about pounds 1bn between them.

Rarely in business has so much been earned by so few for doing so little. It would be hard to argue that the soaring capital values of their football companies are just reward for innovation or risk-taking. Some present- day directors presided over years of decay in a football "industry" castigated as "backward" by Lord Justice Taylor after the Hillsborough tragedy. Others, such as Alan Sugar of Tottenham, cared little about football until the TV bonanza.

In each case they exploit what is in effect an unregulated monopoly, milking big price rises from a captive audience to meet high wage demands. People may switch between brands of goods, but few fans change to another "brand" of club because ticket prices are lower or the football is better.

The game's founders would not recognise today's football finances. The original turn of the century share issues were required by the Football Association so clubs could trade, but liability wouldn't fall on the FA. Such shares tended to stay in the family of the original nominal investor for generations.

Things began to change in the 1970s and 1980s when wily businessmen like Louis Edwards - the wholesale meat-trading father of the present Manchester United chairman, Martin - realised control of clubs could be secured by scouring original share registers, then buying shares cheaply and quietly. In the 1980s property developer Irving Scholar bought control of Tottenham this way. More recently Sir John Hall, according to reports, got control of Newcastle United by hiring a genealogist to hunt down shareholders as far away as Australia.

Then rights issues and stock-market floats vastly increased the value of the new directors' holdings. The Edwards family bought Man U for a few tens of thousands, plus a pounds 500,000 investment in the rights issue. The current market capitalisation is pounds 429m, but Man U may be worth as much as pounds 800m to a media firm seeking the worldwide rights to screen matches.

Irving Scholar bought 25 per cent of Tottenham Hotspur for pounds 600,000 in 1982, working with a partner to gain control. He sold his stake to Alan Sugar for pounds 2m a decade later, saying he was just getting back his original stake, inflation-adjusted. Had he hung on to his stake, he would now be sitting on a capital gain of pounds 20m to pounds 30m.

Football's self-regulatory body has been entirely unequipped to deal with these developments. It was never imagined by the FA's founders that football one day would become a branding, media and merchandising business run for profit by quoted companies with shareholders to look after. Meanwhile, for much of the 1980s the government largely ignored football, letting many stadia fall into dereliction.

In 1997 Labour offered the public a vote-catching Football Charter. But the resulting Football Taskforce is widely seen as a damp squib, focusing on side issues and not on profiteering. Tony Banks' replacement as Sports Minister by Kate Hoey last week will be read as a sign of the Taskforce's failure.

In effect, regulation has been applied to football only indirectly, via the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) that put a stop to the takeover of Man U by BSkyB earlier this year, and, last week, by the OFT and the Restrictive Practices Court. But in both cases, and with contrary results, regulators were concerned with maintaining a competitive market in broadcasting. That's why the court's decision, based on an argument about the welfare of football clubs rather than the OFT's case for a freer TV market, was met with astonishment.

Ms Hoey's appointment may signal a new determination by the Government to get tough with football "fat cats". She will have to decide quickly if she wants regulation, perhaps treating the industry as something akin to a public utility with some sort of "Offoot" looking at ticket prices and pay-TV deals. There is an economic case: the MMC accepted that the market for seeing a club's matches was in effect a monopoly as far as supporters were concerned.

Martin Edwards

Manchester United plc

Original stake: pounds 600,000, 1978

Market cap now: pounds 429m

Current stake: 14%

Value of stake: pounds 52m

Shares cashed: pounds 33m

Total gain so far: pounds 84.4m

Possible suitors: all media groups (Sky has 11%)

Value to media co: pounds 600m-pounds 800m

Martin Edwards took over as chairman in 1980 after the death of his father, who had bought control. He became chief executive the next year and has earned pounds 500,000 a year in dividends and salary since then. Had the Sky deal gone ahead he would have pocketed pounds 88m, taking his total gains to pounds 120m.

Doug Ellis

Aston Villa plc

Original stake: pounds 500,000, 1982

Market cap now: pounds 64m

Current stake: 33.6% (pounds 21.5m)

Shares cashed: pounds 4m

Total gain so far: pounds 25m

Possible suitors: Central-Carlton/ NTL/Telewest

Value to media co: pounds 100m-pounds 150m

In 1982 Mr Ellis bought control for an estimated pounds 500,000 (he won't confirm a figure) after an earlier spell as a shareholder and director. He had resigned, selling all his shares, in 1975 after a boardroom spat. Aston Villa was floated in May 1997 at the height of City football mania. He sold a tranche of shares at flotation for pounds 4m. His remaining stake was over pounds 40m after flotation, but has declined along with share price.

Sir John Hall

(ex) Newcastle United plc

Original stake: pounds 3m, 1992

Market cap now:pounds 109m

Shares cashed:pounds 102m

Total gain:pounds 99m

Possible suitors: NTL/Tyne-Tees/United News & Media (NTL has 6.3%)

Value to media co: pounds 200m-pounds 250m

John Hall began as a coal board surveyor, coming to appreciate the value locked up in the industry's land holdings. In the 1980s he acquired a disused ash-pit in Gateshead and built the Metro Centre, Europe's largest retail centre. In 1992 he spent pounds 3m buying Newcastle United, then on the point of liquidation. He also took on debt of pounds 6m. A float followed, netting Sir John pounds 100m. Last year, cable company NTL bought a 6.3 per cent stake for pounds 10m, valuing Newcastle at pounds 160m.

Ken Bates

Chelsea (Village) plc

Original stake: Nominal pounds 1 plus assigned debt, 1982

Market cap now: pounds 113m (1997 peak pounds 172m)

Current stake: 23.5%

Value of stake: pounds 26.6m

Total gain so far: pounds 26.6m

Possible suitors: Sky/Telewest/ NTL/Carlton/LWT-Granada

Value to media co: pounds 250-pounds 300m

Ken Bates, a dairy farmer used to herding cows, was once notorious for installing a 12v electric fence to cage supporters at Chelsea's stadium. Local authorities would not let him turn it on. He's since led the way in importing foreign stars on vast salaries.

Sam Hammam

Wimbledon FC (unlisted)

Original stake: pounds 100,000 to buy control of private firm, 1981

Market cap now: unfloated firm, valued at around pounds 35m, 1997

Current stake: 20%

Value of stake: pounds 5m (est)

Shares cashed: pounds 30m (est)

Total gain so far: pounds 34.9m

Possible suitors: Regional ITV and cable operators

Value to media co: pounds 50-pounds 75m

Sam Hamman is one of a clutch of businessmen at smaller clubs - including Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion - who've scooped millions from flotations or sales of stakes.

David Dein, Danny Fiszman, Richard Carr

Arsenal plc (Ofex listed)

Original stake: around pounds 10m as a group by 1996

Market cap now: pounds 156.8m

Current stake: 70% (combined holding by all three, plus board)

Value of stake: around pounds 110m

Total gain so far: pounds 30-pounds 35m each

Possible suitors: Recent talks with both Carlton and United News & Media

Value to media co: pounds 275-pounds 300m

David Dein, who made a fortune in wholesale fruit, bought 1,161 unissued Arsenal shares for pounds 300,000 in 1983, giving him a 16.6 per cent stake. Arsenal's chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, said he was "mad". But by 1991, ahead of the Premier League launch and the Sky rights deal, Mr Dein had upped this to 42 per cent - for under pounds 10m. If he'd been able to hold on to this stake, it would be worth at least pounds 60m. But in the early 1990s he sold shares to an old business associate, Danny Fiszman, to bail out his other businesses.

A South African-born diamond dealer with an estimated pounds 100m fortune, excluding his Arsenal stake, Mr Fiszman holds a string of directorships and a pounds 20m stake in Psion. He became an Arsenal director in 1992, when the club was set to boom, upped his stake in 1996, and last year sold a block of Psion shares for pounds 14m - using part of the cash to raise his holding in the club to 29 per cent.

When Sky was bidding for Man U, Carlton opened negotiations to take a big stake in Arsenal, based on a rumoured pounds 275m valuation. Mr Fiszman stood to gain pounds 75m; Mr Dein, pounds 55m. Talks collapsed after the MMC ruled against Sky.

Peter Johnson

Everton FC (unlisted)

Original stake: pounds 20m, 1994-1997, including rights issue

Market cap now: unlisted, but estimated about pounds 80m

Current stake: 66%

Value of stake: pounds 52m (est)

Total gain so far: pounds 32m (in 3 yrs)

Possible suitors: Granada recently bought 10% stake in Liverpool valuing it at pounds 200m .

Value to media co: pounds 125m-pounds 150m

Peter Johnson, life-long Liverpool supporter and a late arrival on the gravy train, made his fortune selling mail-order Christmas hampers. Everton is ripe for development and Mr Johnson may now be grooming the club for a possible pounds 100m flotation.

Alan Sugar

Tottenham Hotspur plc

Original stake: controlling 47.5% bought for pounds 8m in 1992

Market cap now: pounds 65m (1996 peak pounds 100m)

Current stake: 40%

Value of stake: pounds 26m

Shares cashed: pounds 7m

Total gain so far: pounds 25m

Possible suitors: LWT/Carlton/ NTL/Telewest/United News & Media

Value to media co: pounds 120-pounds 150m

Bought into Tottenham in 1992 partly as a negative play to stop a Robert Maxwell takeover. Mr Sugar and others feared Maxwell, as owner of Tottenham, would veto Sky's bid for Premier League football and swing other chairmen behind a close rival bid from ITV. Mr Sugar's vote was critical to Sky winning the rights - fortunate for Mr Sugar as the main supplier of satellite dishes to ailing pre-football Sky. Mr Sugar would be unlikely to turn down a takeover bid from a media suitor valuing Tottenham at about pounds 120m, giving him a personal profit of pounds 50m.