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

LEICESTER CITY football club's official merchandise outlet offers for sale a contemporary chronicle of achievements, which mentions "the traditional view" that its directors "have always been tighter than a camel's arse in a sandstorm". If once true, this seems no longer so. For at an extraordinary general meeting of the shareholders on Wednesday, the board of directors will be viewed as alarmingly loose and hopelessly unsphinctered.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living