The man who lost pounds 20m in one year

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The Independent Online
ON MOST normal match days Mark Goldberg would turn up to watch his football team in a white stretch limousine. Not tasteful, perhaps, but typical of the man's in-your-face style.

Today, if he goes to Bury in Lancashire, Mr Goldberg, the chairman of Crystal Palace, is unlikely to travel so ostentatiously. He has become known as the man who gambled pounds 20m on the team he has supported since his schooldays - and lost.

Indeed if he shows up today he is sure to be greeted more as a joke or a villain rather than as a saviour. He might also have to explain how someone can lose such a large sum so quickly. To some who know him, however, it is no surprise.

"There is a swagger about the man. The way he walks reminds you of the bear Hofmeister used to advertise their lager," said a former associate. "You'd think Hofmeister based the bear on him."

Mr Goldberg, 35, a millionaire several times over who still loves high street Indian restaurants, made his money in recruitment, setting up a firm specialising in providing companies with computer experts. It is said that his business really took off once people started getting interested in the year 2000 computer bug and realised they faced IT meltdown.

Last year he sold the agency, MSB International, retaining pounds 1m of shares, and made quite a tidy profit. In those lists that detail the affairs of the wealthy he was listed as the 617th richest man in Britain. Not in the Sultan of Brunei league, perhaps, but nice all the same.

The fact that he was able to make such a profit surprised some observers. In 1991 his entrepreneurial fortunes were quite different when his Brighton- based hotel business, Aquamarine, and MSB Appointments - the company that would be transformed into MSB International - were put into voluntary liquidation. He later said: "I was too busy winning businesses and didn't pay attention to the money side."

Indeed deep down, while Mr Goldberg might be fond of pin-stripe suits with big lapels and braces, his real love is not for business but for football. Since schooldays he has been a Crystal Palace fan. It had always been his dream to own the club.

"The trouble is he is star-struck. I think he was taken in by the thought of rubbing shoulders with the stars," said one supporter.

From his comfortable home in Beckenham, Kent, where he lives with his wife, Mia, and their young children, a Range Rover parked in the drive, Mr Goldberg's plan began to take shape. Believing he had the necessary capital to buy the club, Mr Goldberg phoned Ron Noades, then chairman of Crystal Palace, and arranged a meeting. Mr Noades did not know the caller but soon they were talking of a deal.

Mr Goldberg first became a director and invested pounds 3m in the club, but by the time the two had thrashed out the deal Mr Goldberg was more than pounds 4m short of the full price of pounds 22.8m. Mr Noades agreed to make up the shortfall through a loan. Under the terms of the deal, Mr Noades retained ownership of the ground, Selhurst Park, and the club shop. In essence, all Mr Goldberg was to get was the name Crystal Palace and the contracts of 40 or more players. Even Mr Noades admitted that Mr Goldberg had paid above the odds and had not left himself enough capital.

It was this that was to cause the problems for Palace. While Mr Goldberg told friends he was determined to make the club more efficient and run the business on a more sensible footing, he still made a number of deals whose value for money was questionable. "Make no mistake, and let no one tell you any different - he is a buffoon," said one lifelong fan and Palace season-ticket holder.

Last week the administrators were called in to try to sort out the finances of the club, currently up to pounds 20m in debt. It is understood that pounds 5m of this relates to unpaid transfer fees.

Yesterday's revelation about the size of the package offered last year to secure the services of Terry Venables, the former England coach who resigned from Crystal Palace last month, will only add to fans' anger.

A leaked letter from Jim McAvoy, the club's former chief executive, to other directors revealed that the package Mr Venables received included a tax-free salary of pounds 750,000, a pounds 650,000 house and a one-off payment of pounds 135,000 just for entering talks.

"It's astonishing, although I don't think Goldberg is totally to blame," said Laurie Dahl, editor of the club fanzine Palace Echo. "Of course he is to blame to an extent but I think he also suffered as a result of Terry Venables. Fans are very angry - things are as bleak as they have ever been."

Fans remember when things were very different. In 1990 the team reached the FA Cup final. The following year they finished third in what was then the First Division, today the FA Carling Premiership.

Now, languishing in 14th place in the First Division sandwiched ingloriously between Barnsley and Tranmere, the team has as much chance of winning the FA Cup as Rushden and Diamonds.

Mr Goldberg himself, still personally worth an estimated pounds 7m, lives in some style. A few miles up the road from his Kent home sits Holwood Place, a crumbling pile once owned by William Pitt, for which Mr Goldberg is seeking planning permission to transform into a golf and leisure club.

Despite such grand ambitions, Mr Goldberg is a man of simple tastes. "His idea of a perfect evening would be a night at the local curry house with copious amounts of lager," said an acquaintance.

But Mr Goldberg may also be in trouble individually. He is being personally sued by his former solicitors and by the PR agency that once spoke on his behalf. It may be a bad time to lose such friends.

t The former owner of Doncaster Rovers Football Club, Ken Richardson, 61, was jailed for four years yesterday for plotting to burn down the main stand of the club's ground.

Richardson, of Douglas, Isle of Man, was convicted of conspiracy to commit arson after a two-week trial in January. Sheffield Crown Court was told that the wealthy businessman offered pounds 10,000 to a former SAS soldier to start the fire in 1995 at the club's Belle Vue ground.