New Den in jeopardy as Millwall are gripped by boardroom strife

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The Independent Football

English football attracts the most improbable investors, from a deposed Thai prime minister at Manchester City to a former safe-breaker at Darlington. While neither Thaksin Shinawatra nor George Reynolds seemed to be ideal purchasers both were motivated by a desire to boost their own prestige, which meant seeking success on the pitch.

More problematic is the white knight who is revealed to be more interested in the land than the team playing on it. The developers who threatened the existence of Chelsea, Fulham, QPR and Charlton in the 1980s drifted away following the property collapse, and the realisation that money could be made from football clubs. Now, however, Millwall appear to be in peril.

This morning, at the New Den, an emergency general meeting will rule on two resolutions proposed by a controversial, dissident shareholder. The club argue that, if they are passed, day-to-day management will be impossible. The current chairman, who has sunk £8m into Millwall, could walk away. Looming over the meeting is the knowledge that the club has been pursuing a regeneration scheme with Lewisham Council, who own the freehold, which will involve some land being sold for housing. The doomsday scenario being invoked at Millwall is that, should the result go against the incumbent board, the New Den may follow the old Den in becoming a housing estate.

The main protagonists are John Berylson, a Boston-based American businessman who became chairman last March, and Graham Ferguson Lacey, an Isle of Man-domiciled Briton with a reputation as a corporate raider.

Lacey made the lower rankings of this year's Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated worth of £90m. The 59-year-old ex-wallpaper salesman left London a quarter of a century ago when Birmingham and Midland Counties Trust, his private holding company, collapsed. At some stage he found God, adding Graham to his name, it is said, in homage to the evangelist Billy Graham. Over the years he has been involved in negotiations to free then-hostage Terry Waite, has bought the world's largest tyrannosaurus rex skull, and various golf resorts and hotels.

He also owns Land's End and John O'Groats, buying both from former Charterhouse school chum Peter de Savary, a previous Millwall chairman who introduced Lacey to the club last year. Around the same time Berylson, whose sporting links include an investment in the Philadelphia Eagles gridiron team, became involved.

By March the deals had been struck and Berylson told fans at the EGM which confirmed the pair's involvement that Lacey "will be an invaluable ally in the future of the club". This enabled Nick Hart, chairman of the Lions Trust, the supporters' group, to state in his annual report a month later that, "The prospects for the future of the club look brighter than they have for some years now."

As Liverpool have found, two successful individuals rarely make successful joint-owners. The cracks began to appear at the December AGM when Lacey objected to a proposal to dilute the share issue to plough cash into player purchases. In spring, with the team embroiled in a relegation battle, he began moves that led to today's EGM.

The club claimed on their website that Lacey's move is "distracting and disruptive", revealing his "lack of commitment and concern for the club". If passed, the club claim the resolutions will force an EGM on any significant decision, including buying players, at a cost of £50,000-£100,000 per meeting. "We could buy a player for that," said chief executive Heather Rabatts.

Lacey, who has revealed little of his plans, has claimed the resolutions will not affect the day-to-day running of the club. The Independent has been unable to contact Lacey.

De Savary last week announced he will vote with Lacey today, giving the latter around 37 per cent. Berylson and his allies own a similar stake. The balance is held by the 40,000 small shareholders, most of them Millwall fans who bought for sentimental reasons. This means that, unusually, the fans of an English club hold genuine power.

Does the result matter to non-Millwall fans? This, after all, is the club whose self-styled anthem is "No one like us. We don't care." Neutrals should care. Thanks to decades of weak administration by the authorities clubs are vulnerable to predators of every hue. This could happen to your club.

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