by Tony Attwood
Remember Portsmouth. Cup winning team with a long proud history?
Remember Leeds being torn to shreds? Or Cardiff? Or if you really keep your eyes on such things, and to prove it is not just Britain, remember Malaga?
Or if you really, really follow football how about Chester City, Darlington, Hereford Utd., Maidstone Utd. The list of clubs that went bankrupt is astonishing: Chelsea, Coventry City, Rangers, Leeds… and again to show it’s not just the UK – think of Parma if you want another one overseas.
Of course a club can get into financial trouble not just because it is run by loonies or crooks, but more often than not the owners are in one of those two categories – including the “trust me – I know how to do this” category of crook.
Sadly, quite often memories fade and history gets re-written. Ask 99% of Arsenal fans for the names of the club’s greatest benefactors and they won’t be able to tell you. Most of the names will be unknown unless they have studied the history of Woolwich Arsenal – although due to a range of negative publicity from rivals our greatest benefactor of all time is considered by some Arsenal fans who haven’t read their history to be a crook! In fact he risked his fortune for the club, and when he left the club, left them as the greatest club in England.
And unless you have read the Woolwich Arsenal book I often mention, you won’t know how a bunch of 19th century toffs tried to oust the working men who set up and ran Arsenal in its early league days, seemingly on the basis that working men had no idea how to run a football club properly.
But returning to the present day, never ever has there been a case like that of Millwall in the past year – a case in which what appears to be at best a group of people who by their own admission were very lax in correcting errors and false impressions or at worst were an absolute collection of crooks and raketeers, nearly got away with persuading the local council to issue a compulsory order on Millwall’s ground. Indeed a most senior member of the government seems to be implicated. If nothing else many of the people involved failed to ask reasonable questions and failed to consider, “is this real, or is it just fake news?”
I come back to this topic not just because I have often covered issues on corruption and crooks in football on Untold, but because there are people who claim to be Arsenal supporters who without evidence suggest there is skulduggery going on in the Arsenal finances today. For anyone who has eyes to read, this is what skulduggery and scheming really looks like. And yes, it might all be just a set of mistakes and failing to correct misunderstandings, but the consequences could have been huge.
My topic is (as you will know if you have been following the tale) the Compulsory Purchase Order served on Millwall in which an offshore registered company Renewal attempted to persuade the local council to make the purchase order on Millwall’s ground – a 20,000 seater stadium in Bermondsey, south-east London. (Millwall used to play north of the Thames but moved south in 1910 to a new ground, three years before Arsenal moved in the opposite direction. The current ground was built in 1993).
The whole £1bn (yes one billion pound) project took the concept of either fake news or “lack of attention to detail” and turned it into a corrupt money making scheme.
Throughout the whole affair Renewal made a series of at best “not quite accurate” and at worst “totally fake and false” claims on funding pledges for their scheme, in order to get Boris Johnson, then the Mayor of London, now the UK’s foreign secretary and a man centrally involved in negotiating the UK’s departure from the EU, to give a £20m grant so what the Guardian calls, the “land-grab scheme” could go ahead. The loan gave what turned out to be the fake project a vast amount of tax payers’ money and what the Guardian calls the “rubber stamp of authenticity.”
Now, at last, Sir Steve Bullock, head of the local council that was on the edge of approving the whole scheme and kicking Millwall out, has finally quit as a director of the sporting foundation at the heart of the scheme. But that does not let him off the charge that he should never, ever have been in both camps.
It is easy to see all this as a little local difficulty – nothing to do with Arsenal etc – but given the odd way some people see Arsenal’s finances, and because I do care about football as a vibrant living entity, from grassroots to the Premier League, I think it is important.
We talk a lot about fake news but the whole housing zone bid application was nothing but fake news taken up (in my opinion, and of course it is only that) to a level previously only known by the government of North Korea. It even goes beyond “£350m a week for the NHS if we leave the EU” and other similar fake news tales of the last few years.
There was the endless, endless fake news story that Sport England had awarded £2m funding. This was a perfect example of fake news in the sense that when repeated often enough people believe it no matter how much it is denied. It is on the same plain as “change managers and everything will be better”. The trick was the real fake news trick: Sport England was mentioned 31 times in reports as having “significant financial involvement” which it didn’t. Fake news merchants surrounding Arsenal say, “Wenger out!” at the behest of TalkSport often enough and people believe it is obviously needed.
Next, Onside Youth, a young person’s charity of considerable repute, was called a “key stakeholder” and an organisation that was committed to funding. This was yet another fake news story, put out as a press release and repeated over and over with many newspapers willingly and happily re-printing the tale without checking.
Of course both Onside Youth and Sport England wrote again and again to demand that the charity Renewal had set up as its front organisation, (Surrey Canal Sports Foundation), should stop this. Yet a subsequent letter from Surrey Canal Sports Foundation stated “the foundation already has £12m in commitments from Sport England and the developer”. Utter total fake news which was lapped up by the local media without checking.
Next, Renewal built another fake news story: that former javelin world-record holder Steve Backley MBE was a director of the Surrey Canal charity. He was not.
In short it was all fake, or perhaps all said in error – I obviously don’t know which since I wasn’t there. And yet Lewisham Council were ready to go with the scheme, and the £20m grant to the scheme was approved by Boris Johnson while Mayor of London. All done without checking.
If you know your English fairy stories this is the Emperor’s New Clothes writ big. Only one councillor, Alan Hall, played the part of the credulous child and refused to believe.
Sport England, the body that had enough wits about it to withdraw funding from the FA when their own fake news department made up tales about working on 3G pitches for local communities, have and have never had involvement in the scheme. Of course they don’t. They deal with the real world.
OK, I suspect very few readers of Untold have much of a warm word to say about Millwall FC but Millwall, almost totally on its own has suggested over and over that it was insane to have an inexperienced developer like Renewal take on such a scheme as this. As a club committed to the area they have been in for over 100 years they expressed their willingness to be involved in a serious development scheme.
And yet deputy mayor Alan Smith ignored Millwall FC and signed off the housing bid document in March 2015, without even checking with Sport England and others that all the claims were true.
All everyone, the council, the Mayor of London etc etc, joined in for the obvious reason: in the age of fake news, everyone believes a story if it is told often enough.
Worse Lewisham Council prepared a “due diligence” report. Due diligence now means, therefore, accepting what is said and not even checking on Google. Apparently they did this because they knew Mushtaq Malik, CEO of Renewal, of old and thought he was a good bloke. PricewaterhouseCoopers prepared the report. They didn’t check either although I must be cautious here since I don’t know if it was part of their remit to check. Maybe it was agreed they would just write up what they were told. If so, I’d have thought that’s not really the best use of their esteemed name.
A statement recently issued says,
“At no stage has Renewal nor the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation suggested to any third party that a legally binding funding agreement was in place with Sport England. It has always been the case that numerous hurdles would need to be jumped and boxes ticked in order to turn the Sport England support into a concrete funding obligation. To that extent, neither Renewal nor the Surrey Canal Sports Foundation has had any intention to mislead anyone.
“However, Renewal acknowledges that it jumped the gun in referring to the clear support of Sport England in correspondence between 2011 and 2013 as a “pledge”. That was done in good faith, as that is how Renewal genuinely categorised the Sport England commitment – just like the £500K commitment from Lewisham, which is openly referred to as “a pledge”, but is equally subject to numerous hurdles, box ticking and full Mayor & Cabinet approval before turning into a binding commitment. In September 2014 Sport England emailed Renewal asking for the reference to “pledge” in an Energize brochure to be changed. Renewal accepts that it was slow out of the blocks in removing references to ‘pledge’ from the Sports Foundation website and ensuring that it was not repeated elsewhere, and Renewal apologises to Sport England for that.”
Remember the old phrase about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty. Seems it might also be the price of keeping your football club.
Whatever the story, these days it pays to check. Just in case anyone else has been slow off the blocks.
Arsenal History Books on Kindle
The novel “Making the Arsenal” by Tony Attwood which describes the events of 1910, which created the modern Arsenal FC, is now available for the first time on Kindle. Full details are here.
Also available on Kindle, “Woolwich Arsenal: the club that changed football” the only comprehensive history of the rise of Arsenal as a league club, and the attempts to destroy the club, from within and without. For full details please see here.