David Conn: Derby's fans are kept in the dark over new owners

Pride Park supporters demand to be told identities of anonymous faces behind purchase of First Division club
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The Independent Football

John Sleightholme, who announced to bemused Derby County supporters this week that he is the club's new chairman, is a barrister and the deputy coroner for North Yorkshire, and so presumably well practised at treading carefully in emotionally sensitive areas.

Football is not life and death, however, so perhaps Sleightholme can be excused for failing to realise that modern football supporters are no longer content to be told, as they were at Tuesday's press conference at Pride Park, that their club has been bought - apparently from receivers appointed by the Co-Op Bank - by "a mixture of persons, at home and abroad, who have asked to remain anonymous". Fans who continue to fork out for season tickets, having watched Derby's best players sold and the club's finances ravaged following relegation from the Premier League in 2002, immediately demanded that the new owners reveal themselves.

"Fans have stayed loyal to the club in their thousands," said Nick Sellors, a spokesman for the Supporters' Ramstrust. "We want to know who these people are, why they have taken over, and whether they have the club's long-term interests at heart."

According to Sleightholme, the 12-year regime of the local newspaper owner Lionel Pickering finally ended on Monday after the Co-Op Bank called in receivers to recover some of the near £27m the club owed to it. Sleightholme said he and the anonymous people he represents had previously talked to Pickering about a direct takeover. "We were rebuffed, but we kept on talking to the bank, and finally we did a deal with the receiver to take over the club."

The unnamed investors have lent Derby £15m, which has repaid the Co-Op around £10m and allocated £4.7m to pay off Lombard, a finance company which had a mortgage on the ground. Pickering, who lives in a manor house nearby in Ashbourne and has been a major Derbyshire business figure, has lost the £12m he paid to take over the club in 1991, and is still understood to be personally liable for £5.5m he guaranteed around the time of the club's calamitous relegation. Monday's appointment of receivers now wraps up the short-term fates of all three clubs relegated in 2002: Leicester and Ipswich rapidly dropped into administration with massive debts, leaving creditors, including the Inland Revenue, owed millions, while Derby have now been sliced off by a bank cutting its losses.

For Derby fans wondering what has motivated the investors behind Sleightholme and the two other directors named on Tuesday, Jeremy Keith and Steve Harding, Sleightholme described Derby as a club of great potential, and clarified that the new investors will be paid interest on their £15m loans. "That's the nature of loans in any business," he said. They also get a historic football club, debt-laden but boasting a new stadium, a new training ground, a renowned academy producing youngsters like 16-year-olds Tom Huddlestone and Lee Holmes who are being eyed by Premiership clubs - and 20,000 people still turning up to watch.

Supporters wanting to know more will be interested in Sleightholme's other venture, a company formed last October, based in Edinburgh: Finance for Football. The only other director is Murdo Mackay, a former Fifa-registered players' agent based in Dunfermline, who has more recently been involved in a string of companies which were struck off the official Companies House register and one, a foray into football recruitment, which launched with a fanfare at Hampden Park in May 2001 but went bust last year.

Hailed at the time as revolutionary in the "global soccer market", Inside Soccer Recruitment was to be a professional service to clubs to identify and hire players and other staff. Jonathan Barnett, an agent to top English players like Kieron Dyer and Wayne Bridge, was a joint shareholder in the company with Mackay, and the ex-England captain Terry Butcher and the former Aberdeen and Scotland striker Eric Black both took part.

Butcher told me that he and Black worked full-time for the company, mainly compiling scouting reports on players, until they left in October 2001 after being offered the manager's and assistant manager's jobs at Motherwell. Mackay was the managing director of the company, which last year failed to file its annual return, a statement of directors and shareholders required by company law. Then, in October 2002, it was put into liquidation owing a substantial tax bill to the Inland Revenue.

Butcher said he had lost close to £50,000: "It seemed a very good idea at the time, but it fell apart. I lost a substantial amount of money and it was all very disappointing."

Of the other companies of which Mackay has been a director, five have been struck off the company register and dissolved, mostly after a failure to file accounts or the annual return. His only current company is Finance for Football, formed just three days after the appointment of liquidators to Inside Soccer Recruitment, with Sleightholme as his fellow director. But Mackay said he had a good record generally in football. "I had 11 unblemished years as a Fifa-registered agent, which included several years where a £100,000 bond was required," he said. "Inside Soccer was a great idea which didn't work. These things happen and I lost more money than anyone." The other companies which fell, he said, were mostly linked to that one collapse.

Both Mackay and Sleightholme told me that Finance for Football is completely separate to the Derby takeover. Mackay said he had known Sleightholme, a barrister based in chambers in Leeds, a long time, and said the company was formed to promote a novel way to finance football clubs. It had never got off the ground because they had not secured any money for it, Sleightholme explained.

"It is a good idea," he said, "but it is in abeyance and hasn't crystallised yet because we do not have the investment. But it has nothing to do with the Derby deal, which has been financed by people who have insisted we respect their anonymity."

That, however, has led only to a sense of mystery and overheating mobile phones, as Derby football people try furiously to find out who the backers are. Mackay said he had been involved initially, by introducing Jeremy Keith, another longstanding contact of his, to the club's financial predicament. Keith, named this week as one of the new directors, was described by Sleightholme as a "company doctor", who has helped turn around other struggling businesses.

He was for three months in 1998 a director at Portsmouth Football Club when it was owned by the former chairman Jim Gregory. Pompey had run into financial trouble and owed £435,000 in tax when Keith joined in September, and the Gregory family had said they could no longer support the club financially. Keith, along with other directors, resigned in December 1998, a day before the Inland Revenue issued notice of a winding-up petition. Pompey then went into administration, were bought by Milan Mandaric, and the rest is unfolding history.

The other new Derby director, Steve Harding, was billed as a "communications and marketing entrepreneur", but he has not yet commented. Sleightholme would not give details of where he works, and the club staff, who themselves only found out about the takeover shortly before it was publicly announced on Monday, were at a loss too.

Keith and Harding have formed a company together, Sharmine Limited, registered at an address in London WC1, which appears to be their only current company directorship. No phone number is listed.

So far, so opaque. This much is clear: the takeover was a sharp move, buying a strong and well supported club, albeit with financial problems, from underneath Pickering. Some sympathy remains for him, a local man and Derby fan, who has lost many millions - although he also stood to make a fortune had the intended float in the late-1990s been achieved. Fans were dismayed when the club turned down sizeable offers on relegation for the striker Malcolm Christie and the goalkeeper Mart Poom, who were subsequently sold in cut-price sales, along with other Derby stalwarts, after the transfer market collapsed. John Gregory was hired as the manager, but left under a cloud.

One of the more appealing acts in football's circus when they built and opened Pride Park and were promoted to the Premiership in 1997, Derby now represent another victim of the financial chasm between the Premier and Nationwide Leagues, which none of the game's ringmasters is prepared to address.

Derby fans subjected to this week's half-baked press conference can only really hope for the best, and repeat their calls for a new word in the modern fans' lexicon: transparency.

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