It wasn't quite the pre-season preparation Manchester City had in mind for the man who is supposed to be bankrolling an assault on the upper reaches of the Premier League. The club's chairman, Thaksin Shinawatra, was holed up in a London hotel yesterday after flying directly from Beijing to London to skip bail and avoid corruption charges of which he is now rumoured to be convicted in his absence over the next few months. The Premier League will then take Home Office advice before deciding whether he is a fit and proper person to own a club. He might even be removed under Britain's 103-year-old extradition treaty with Thailand, now that an elected government runs that country.
The jitters at City have not been helped by a sense that the club have problems on the playing side as well, though those are not as profound as they might seem. Stephen Ireland is not leaving and no offers have been received for him, despite the player's agent calling City's new chief executive, Paul Aldridge, and suggesting that since two clubs were interested he should perhaps be stood down for Saturday's friendly with Milan. The powers of persuasion of City's manager, Mark Hughes, have also proved critical in Vedran Corluka's U-turn on a move to Tottenham Hotspur, which has left the London club fuming.
But City could have done without the unexpected turn of events in Bangkok, which have seen the Thai judiciary prove far more obstinate than Thaksin expected when he returned to Bangkok from his last period of British exile, in February, to defend his name and reclaim £800m of frozen assets.
Rumour had been rife since the conviction last week of his wife, Potjaman, that they would flee and the ease with which the couple were granted permission to leave the country to attend the Olympic Games suggests he first cut a deal with his adversaries, who just wanted him out. Thaksin was known to have been saying goodbyes before leaving for Beijing, where he has been seeking corporate partners for City with the club's executive director, Garry Cook. The large suitcases which the couple took with them were rather a giveaway, too.
Of course, City fans just want to know whether the money has run out for their "Frank Sinatra". Thaksin remains a hugely wealthy individual; owner of the listed SC urban development company which has a large property portfolio in Bangkok and the sale of the family company in 2006 has also left him with major liquid assets. But he was first exiled in such a hurry – by telephone while at the United Nations – that there was insufficient time to clear much money out of Thailand and he has yet to dig deep for the club.
His initial purchase of the club cost him only £21.6m in equity purchase, with £60m of the £81.6m headline figure of the takeover an assumption of existing debt. There was a hint of a lack of readies when down payments on players picked up last season were small, leaving Thaksin with an estimated outstanding liability of £50m on players purchased, most of that repayable in short periods.
And on top of that, Thaksin is known to have spent heavily to rehabilitate his image since returning to the Far East. "It's a fairly mercenary system here and you always had the impression he could buy his way out of trouble," his biographer, Chris Baker said yesterday. Football club ownership seems to have been more than a means of winning publicity back in Thailand for an individual who almost bought into Liverpool. But whether he can afford to maintain his interest remains to be seen. City fans only take heart from the fact that their owner is a supreme entrepreneur. He has identified the global value of City and has been working on sponsorship and brand deals in the Far East with Cook.
The chairman's calamities have taken the club a long way from the aspirations of purchasing Ronaldinho, which now seem a distant dream. Michael Johnson, whose attitude has been a problem to the club for some months, may leave, having refused a new five-year deal which the club had hoped would quell interest from Arsenal and Everton.
The fans' jitters were not eased by a farcical sequence of events on Saturday which gave rise to rumours of Ireland's exit, too. Danny Mills, back from his latest loan spell, at Derby, declared live on Five before coverage of City's friendly against Milan that the Irishman had failed to show up and appeared to be leaving the club, but he was not furnished with some farcical pre-match events.
Hughes, it seems, had told those players not selected for his squad, named on Friday, to expect a text message on Saturday if they had been stood down from substitutes' duties. Ireland, selected in Hughes' first XI, misunderstood, expected a text message and did not turn up when it did not arrive. He was then surprised to find Mark Bowen, Hughes' deputy, on the phone asking why he had not shown.
Corluka's indecision about his future has hardly helped City, either. His Spurs medical had been completed when Hughes told Cook he intended one last attempt to talk him around. On telephoning the Croatian defender in London at the weekend, he discovered that he had a hankering to remain in Manchester despite the greater sum on offer.
Both players are key to City's attempts to progress and the form Valeri Bojinov has shown pre-season also showed why Hughes feels he has gained a free striker. He remains intent on bidding for Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz, too, though Rovers' unwillingness to sell was underlined by Paul Ince's assertion yesterday that no more players would be leaving Ewood.
Hughes' unhappiness at the way City have been cast as a troubled club before the season has even started contributed in part to his arrival over an hour late for Saturday's post-match press conference and Mills was certainly put in his place before that. But Thaksin's notion that his football club will become a challenger to their Old Trafford neighbours seemed a distant prospect last night.
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