City's billionaires can steal march on big four
Take one American family, add in a pair of Americans who don't get on, a Russian oligarch and yet another American businessman who may or may not be in a power struggle with an Russo-Uzbek and you have the owners of the Premier League's biggest four clubs. And there is a threat from the east to their supremacy. Add in the likes of new arrivals like Sulaiman al-Fahim at Portsmouth (should the takeover ever be completed) and Ellis Short at Sunderland, ownership in England's top division is one big melting pot, as Blue Mink might have it.
Sheikh Al-Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United group are one of the latest additions to the league of nations that control English football's biggest hitters. Crude oil riches have suddenly caused Manchester City, a one-time "theatre of base comedy", as loquacious BBC doyen Stuart Hall would have it, to become a serious threat to a status quo the leading quartet's owners bought into. Season 2009-10 is the Arabian cabal's first full season in charge of their "project". In an economic climate that is sluggish at best, City's pockets being deep as Abu Dhabi's oil wells has caught the usual suspects cold.
The spending of £100m on playing talent over a summer best compares to the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea in 2003, when under Claudio Ranieri, London's Blues came second in the league. Their presence edged Newcastle, the previous season's third best team, into fifth place, a position they can only dream about now. The foibles of the Freddy Shepherd and Mike Ashley regimes show that strong leadership in the boardroom becomes ever more a necessity if clubs are to prosper, rather than fail. Having billions of pounds helps too.
At Manchester United, the failure to spend anything more than a fraction of the £80m they received for Cristiano Ronaldo has been taken to signify that the "Glazer-nomics" employed to buy the club in 2005 have finally begun to damage the club's playing fortunes. Loans raised on the club's value were recently quoted as having reached a demonic £666m while United's exit from the battle for Karim Benzema and subsequent signing of free transfer Michael Owen have lent sway to an image of a club cutting its threadbare cloth accordingly.
United have taken gambles on Owen and Antonio Valencia, their only summer arrivals of note, while losing the services of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. In the past, their rivals would be expected to sense a weakness and strengthen accordingly. Yet the other three of the incumbent quartet have not done so, largely because of the circumstances of their owners.
For Liverpool, the team that ran United closest last season, the problems of George Gillett and Tom Hicks have meant that Rafael Benitez has not been granted the funds he would like to attempt to bridge the gap with United. The American co-owners may have refinanced their debt but the raising of £60m to do so proved difficult and the deal with Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia only papered over the cracks for a year. Benitez has had to sell to buy while his prime target of the previous summer, Gareth Barry, joined City when it became clear that Liverpool would not be able to pay Aston Villa the money they required. Or, indeed, match the wages on offer at Eastlands.
Money may have been banked for Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa but a significant sum was paid out for Glen Johnson. Rafael Benitez may have won his battle to oust Rick Parry from the position of chief executive and gain a fuller role in transfer business but his hands are still tied by the problems of his paymasters. The American pair formed a detente in extending their credit yet relations remain frosty and their stated aim of a new stadium not so much on the back-burner as having dropped off the schedule.
Ground development has proved the undoing of Arsenal's on-pitch efforts, with their own ownership mired in confusion. Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov are at loggerheads, with the Uzbek being frustrated in his attempts to raise transfer cash in a rights issue while the American has purchased close to a 30% of shares threshold that would demand he made an offer on the other 70%. Moving to the Emirates cost £430m, with £260m owed to a banking consortium, and the property slump means the estimated £110m bounty from the renovation of the old Highbury stadium is yet to yield the projected injection.
Arsenal have seen two players depart to Manchester City, the team that would seem to pose the biggest threat to them in the top four, while Arsene Wenger has seemed reluctant to part with much beyond an eventual £10m for Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax. Wenger, yet again, must rely on a group of coltish players while an interloper can wield a hefty cheque-book. Finishing outside the Champions League qualification places would be troublesome for the club's finances yet there seems little intention of spending to gain from the Arsenal hierachy.
As for Chelsea, their fans are perhaps casting wistful glances at City and being reminded of the halcyon summers of 2003 and 2004 when they could blow anyone out of the water when talent became available. Reports of Roman Abramovich's dwindling fortune in the face of the crash of the Russian stock market have been strongly denied. Carlo Ancelotti was lured to Stamford Bridge at considerable cost but the Italian is yet to make the marquee signings that his predecessors were granted.
A lack of a big signing was said to be the sticking point in John Terry's delayed declaration of intent about his Chelsea future. His potential suitors were, of course, Manchester City, whose owners were said to be keen on the prestige of luring the England captain to be part of their grand plan. They failed this time to land their target, but that money should eventually tell. With UK tax income rates soon to be increased to 50% on earnings over £150,000 per anuum, then English teams are finding it hard to compete with Spanish counterparts able to invoke a 23% rate. Andrei Arshavin recently expressed his amazement that his wages were paid gross before tax and not at net and this is causing clubs further problems in attracting foreign signings. Only City can and will pay the type of net income players can earn on the continent.
The arrival on the scene of a big spender in a time of recession looks likely to upset the security the big four clubs have felt in the last four years. With the dark clouds on all four's economic horizons some way from clearing, this is the time for Manchester City to strike.