Sheffield Wednesday told prospective Ukrainian buyers two years ago that they could relocate their club away from Hillsborough because the legacy of the 1989 stadium disaster had limited the appeal to supporters of staying there.
Wednesday’s then owner Milan Mandaric was interested in speaking to the Ukrainians, who made their approach through Italian agent Roberto de Fanti. A meeting was brokered through British agent Jon Smith, who led a delegation to the southern Ukraine city of Odessa, where it was suggested that a move from Hillsborough to Sheffield’s unused Don Valley Stadium may make a purchase more attractive.
Details of the £30m deal for Wednesday that the Ukrainians were offered are revealed in a book by Smith, entitled ‘The Deal, Inside the World of a Super-Agent', which outlines how Sebastian Coe, who grew up in Sheffield and has an affinity with the club, was behind the idea.
“Given the tragedy that occurred there in 1989, a prospective owner would instigate a move without many of the tribal problems that exist whenever a club leaves its spiritual home,” Smith writes. “There is usually a powerful and positive emotional legacy left behind, but I didn’t think that that would be the case with Hillsborough because so many people had died there in such awful circumstance.”
With the British contingent keen to secure a deal for Mandaric, who wanted a younger man to take over the club, the idea was that Sheffield City Council would offset some of the costs of the relocation. The Don Valley Stadium, built for the 1991 World Student Games, had cost the local authority millions of pounds to upkeep and had still fallen into a state of disrepair.
“A potential new owner, then, could take this wonderful brand and move it to a new state-of-the-art venue, while simultaneously turning Hillsborough into a property development to help the overall project,” adds Smith.
Coe, a friend of Smith’s, had joked that if he managed to get a wealthy buyer for the club that he may be willing to bring his experience of sports governance to bear by becoming chairman. “Seb had even offered to speak to Jose Mourinho to see if he might be interested,” Smith writes. “At the time, that was not as fanciful as it may sound because Jose was without a club and open to suggestion.” Coe also indicated that he would speak to local Labour MP Richard Caborn, former Minister of Sport, to test the validity of the idea.
Smith indicates that he felt the Ukrainians were looking for somewhere to put their money. “They obviously wanted to get some of their cash – wherever it had come from – out of Ukraine and thought a football club in the UK would be a good, safe home for it.”
Ultimately, the attempts to do business with the mysterious Ukrainians went sour. The contingent who went to Odessa – Smith, de Fanti, who had been Sunderland’s director of football, and consultant Peter Storrie were told they must pay the Ukrainian army 2,300 euro (£1,950) to escort them out of the country and when they returned to Britain, the ‘buyers’ made no contact. Mandaric sold Wednesday to new Thai owners in 2015. Sheffield City Council closed the Don Valley Stadium in 2013 and it has since been demolished.
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