Fear and loathing in Filbert Street
It's vicious: fouls, dirty tackles and knees in the groin - and that's just in the Leicester City boardroom. Cal McCrystal on the financial war ripping apart the Premiership club
The shareholders will meet at Donington exhibition centre at East Midlands Airport, just off the M1 between Leicester and Nottingham. Catering has been laid on for approximately 1,000 of the club's 3,000 shareholders. Appetites are unpredictable, though careers may be consumed. The spectacle promises to be one of the most remarkable in the history of British football, with players, fans, manager, financial institutions and the Stock Exchange all rancorously involved.
The meeting has been called to vote on resolutions from Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of Leicester City plc, and John Elsom, chairman of Leicester City football club, confirming them as "plc directors" and removing a so-called "Gang of Four" - chief executive Barrie Pierpoint, Philip Smith, Roy Parker and Gilbert Kinch - from the board. The original cause of the acrimony - alleged improprieties in the distribution of tickets - has been eclipsed by a furore that has seen the banning of Sir Rodney from the director's box of Leicester's stadium, a Stock Exchange investigation, suggestions that the club's manager, Martin O'Neill, may decamp in disgust, and fans chanting "Pierpoint Out!" and "Gang of Four Out!"
Corporate power struggles seldom receive the public attention that has been accorded this one. It demonstrates how sorely British football has become afflicted with the tribulations of the marketplace; how the pace of human leisure is being set to the exacting tune of big business and how boardroom concerns can transform what primarily is an entertaining spectacle into a furnace of resentments and jealousies punctuated by caustic and over-exalted phrases conceived in a bilious ferment of ill- will.
At a petrol station on Leicester's Narborough Road I chatted to customers about their football club. Eyes blazed, jaws jutted, mouths twitched. Words normally associated with the soccer terrace issued forth - "Bastards," "f****ers", "wankers", "c**ts", "plonkers" - in a high-octane stream. I was encouraged to imagine a game run by odious rascals and shady adventurers where squalid egotism, opportunism, indiscretion and greed are rampant, where turnstile loyalty is trampled underfoot, and the words, "mutual interests", no longer carry discernible meaning.
Outside the stadium entrance on Filbert Street John Flynn, 40-year-old heating engineer and a fan since he was four, said: "What's going on in the board room could lose them a lot of business. The club is millions in debt. This row has meant dropping plans for a new stadium, and that has lost them a small fortune too. The club should never have become a plc, with its shareholder block votes and the directors ignoring the fans. You never get to know what's going on. The game is being ruined."
Warren Jones, 32, who owns a textile business, felt that if Martin O'Neill left, "that would be the end of the club, and maybe the end of us. It's always the fans who pay. There's too much money at the top. I think even the players get paid too much. It's just one big rip-off." A spluttering fan in a boiler-suit called for the "castration" of the "Gang of Four". His girlfriend hissed: "String them up!"
But the local evening paper, the Leicester Mercury, has urged restraint. Acknowledging that the club's good name had been "dragged through the mire by open warfare in the boardroom", the newspaper declared: "Now is the time for peace to break out, for the directors to sort out their differences in private."
Leicester City, a Premiership club, was floated on the Stock Exchange in October 1997. Few outsiders were aware of seething tensions until last year when it emerged that Martin O'Neill was unhappy with what he felt was the plc's encroachment on team management matters. He was dissuaded from resigning only after the intervention of Sir Rodney Walker at a rendezvous in Paris. A boardroom truce followed.
More recently, the Football Association charged 27 players and backroom staff at Leicester in connection with the ticket scandal, which allowed soccer hooligans access to black market tickets for last season's Worthington Cup Final at Wembley. The FA told the club it required players and officials to fill in a form explaining how they had disposed of their tickets, and gave them two days to reply. A fax to the players containing this instruction got lost. Consequently, the players failed to respond. Hence the charges of misconduct and the renewed hostilities.
The blunder led to Walker's and Elsom's acrimonious clash with the "Gang of Four" and fresh speculation about O'Neill's future. In September, Walker stomped out of a board meeting, followed by Elsom. They were deemed to have resigned and an announcement to this effect was made. But they denied having done anything of the sort, and the Stock Exchange launched an investigation into the corporate contradiction. The club's stockbrokers, Wise Speak, resigned. Fear of an O'Neill departure stirred fans to fever pitch.
"It's driving me crazy. Pierpoint won't reach 50 [He is 48] if he f***s up the club," snarled Harold, a computer salesman outside the John Doran gas museum.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Pierpoint sounded a bit low for someone exceeding 6ft 5in when I finally reached him. "Oh! When I first came to Leicester a few years ago it was to build a business, build a new stand, get into the community; be commercially driven and grow and make profit. That's my job."
He claims never to have interfered with Martin O'Neill's managerial role. "But the problem is that some managers cannot grasp that football is big business. When you become a plc, you have got corporate governance responsibility, responsibility to shareholders. What's obviously happening to the big wide world of football in the UK is that teams, managers, clubs don't sit comfortable with plcs above them. Some managers don't like the idea of accountability."
Mr Pierpoint hasn't "let my heart rule my head. I'm big and strong, clean minded, very determined. But Leicester has ruined my domestic life. I was living with a girl for a long time, and when I came to Leicester and worked 19 hours a day, seven days a week, she dumped me and got married to somebody else. So my social life, my personal life, my family life and everything around me have suffered because I've lived and died and breathed that football club to get it to where it is today."
He was a bit put out to learn that two of his "Gang of Four" - Mr Kinch and Mr Parker - had just been in contact with the enemy without his knowledge. It is said that Sir Rodney has responded to this "peace approach" politely. He and Mr Elsom are confident of a majority vote on Wednesday.
"But if the vote is in their favour," Mr Pierpoint said, "that only means I am no longer a director. I'll still be chief executive."
Leaving the scene of this unedifying conflict, a non-soccer fan might conclude that football is no longer simply a sport, but a chimera - a grotesque beast composed of genetically different tissues, formed by grafting, mutation and the like, and capable of creating dyspepsia, bewilderment, distraction, wretched garrulity, strange shouts, vapours, intoxication, frenzies of misapprehension, hypochondriac self-commiseration, melancholia, undefinable distempers and phantom-agonies, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But Lina Verma, a pretty woman in her thirties, dispelled such thoughts. Standing in the cold among the Porsches and Audis at Leicester's training ground, she hunted players' autographs. She said: "My three brothers and I never lost faith in Leicester City. My son is a keen player. If he gets picked maybe I can retire. Because of its commercialisation, people forget what football is all about. But it's only about enjoying yourself."
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