David Owen: Blade runner

Sheffield United

Mr Justice Fancourt’s 138-page judgment in the recent High Court battle over Sheffield United offers a fascinating insight into the business affairs of a venerable but otherwise fairly ordinary English professional club over a six-year period in the early part of the 21st century. I would recommend any serious student of the football industry taking an hour or two to skim through it.

The overall impression painted is of the old and new worlds of the planet’s biggest sport collaborating and eventually colliding in the control room of a modest English third-tier club, which is what Sheffield United was for much of the period covered.

The old world is represented by Kevin McCabe. A Sheffield-born businessman in the construction and property sectors and life-long fan of the Blades, McCabe seems cut from the same cloth as the local industrialists and business leaders who backed so many English clubs while the sport was on the rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “He is a self-made man and entitled to feel proud of his achievements,” Fancourt writes, summarising the impression McCabe made in the witness box. “He plainly believes that his way is the only proper way of doing things.”

Football’s new reality is represented by Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a Saudi tissue-paper magnate and grandson of the late King Abdulaziz. That such a figure might wish to become involved with a third-division football team in the north of England would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But with the top European leagues now firmly entrenched as global juggernauts, such investments have become the norm.

After setting out the terms under which Prince Abdullah agreed in 2013 to invest £10 million in the Sheffield United group, Fancourt’s judgment offers a succinct summary of the club’s business affairs as it battled, at first with notable lack of success, to return to the promised land of the Premier League.

As the narrative unfolds, with something of the pace of a paperback thriller, other colourful potential deals come in and out of view. (It is worth pointing out that, based on financial statements filed at Companies House, The Sheffield United Football Club Limited did not once manage to turn an annual operating profit between the year ended 30 June 2012 and that ended 30 June 2018, and that cumulative operating losses over this period totalled well over £50 million.)

In 2016, a possible investment by the Qatari Investment Authority, “Project Beta”, was discussed, but came to nothing, perhaps not surprisingly given the recent state of Saudi-Qatari relations. Soon afterwards, another potential investor, Sela Sport, a Saudi sports media company, emerged. A £3 million loan agreement with an investment company, Charwell Investments, was eventually reached. “In fact,” states the judgment, “the ultimate beneficial owner of Charwell was not Sela Sport but the bin Laden family”.

Some of the settings – Paris, Dubai, Los Angeles, Riyadh, the Grand Resort, Bad Ragaz, Switzerland – are also worthy of a paperback thriller. On 24 May 2016 – just 12 days after Chris Wilder arrived as manager, in what has proved to be probably the best bit of business conducted by the club in the period covered by the judgment – a Sheffield United board meeting was even held at Paris’s famous George V hotel.

With the club having now made a creditable and workmanlike start to the new Premier League campaign, the reputation of Wilder, a Sheffield United man through and through as much as McCabe, has never been higher.

Fancourt’s judgment will do nothing to change this. Paragraph 132 asserts: “On any view, SUFC was clearly surviving on a tight budget, with both shareholders unwilling to invest or lend more than was necessary to keep the Club afloat. In those circumstances, it is remarkable – and likely to be to the credit of the Club manager and the independent executive team…that the Club secured automatic promotion to the Premier League in April 2019.”

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.