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Saturday, January 12, 2013
A journey into the unknown

John Duerden

The world watched in May 2012, transfixed, as Sergio Aguero shot home to give Manchester City a first top-flight league title for over 40 years. At the same moment, 200 miles to the south east, few noticed as Blackburn Rovers players exited Chelsea's pitch bound for the Championship and an uncertain future. The respective success and failure were the direct result of the two clubs becoming Asian-owned. Owners from anywhere, even those born within sight of the stadium, can be disastrous or delightful and everything in between - but if the new guys or girls are riding in from the east, you know that it is never going to be boring. Cardiff City fans can attest to that. Fans of the Bluebirds have recently been wrestling with a shirt change from blue to red, on the behest of Malaysian owners who argued that Asian fans find the colour more appealing. That may be but English Premier League status is an infinitely more powerful attraction. That seems to be case in South Wales too as the shedding of misgivings about the shirt situation seems to progress at roughly the same rate as the collection of points. At the moment, Cardiff are looking good for a long-awaited return to the top tier. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if all is well on the pitch then fans will overlook almost any issue off it. A controversial former Prime Minister of Thailand accused of human rights abuses? No problem as long as he splashes the cash. Generalisations are dangerous but if the new people are from the western side of Asia then fans can usually breathe a little easier, even if followers of Malaga would argue the point. In nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, local benefactors are accustomed to bankrolling clubs and expecting little in return. Qatari involvement in Paris Saint-Germain certainly has not harmed the chances of that club winning honours at home and abroad. Manchester City are where they are at the moment because of Sheikh Mansour's money. He also has a UAE league team Al Jazira, one of the best run in the Middle East but not one about to turn a profit anytime soon. The Abu Dhabi outfit are also, unusually for the region, patient with their coaches and don't fire at the drop of a couple of points. Coaches come and go at a dizzying rate in much of the Middle East and now the East Midlands. Nottingham Forest have seen two bosses fired since their Kuwaiti takeover last summer. The recent sacking of Sean O'Driscoll after a 4-2 win over Leeds (recently taken over themselves by Dubai-based GFH Capital) struck worried Forest fans as almost Venkyesque. If 'omnishambles' was named the word of 2012 by the Oxford English Dictionary then Venkyesque - a byword for mysterious incompetence - was its football equivalent. Perhaps it is karma for Blackburn fans. If they had probably the best ever backer in Jack Walker in the 90s, a rich fan who just wanted to see the club he loved at the top of the tree, then Venky's seem to be the flip side of that coin. The disastrous decisions have been detailed elsewhere but suffice to say that Rovers were a solid Premier League team just over two years ago when the poultry producers from Pune arrived. Now, they are drifting in the Championship without a manager, without a growing number of disillusioned fans and without the close link that once existed between the club and the town. The Indian owners even appointed an Asian 'global advisor' to oversee affairs at the club. Shebby Singh, well-known in South East Asia for his punditry on ESPN STAR Sports, was briefly popular with fans for seeming to hasten the departure of the hated Steve Kean. He also pleased bosses in India by ensuring that the pesky protests have stopped, partly by holding regular meetings, and providing a hint of behind-the-scenes-knowledge to a starry-eyed supporter group. But as listeners to a recent, and surreal, BBC interview now know, the ex-Malaysia international has the gift of being able to talk and talk while leaving the listener none the wiser. South East Asian owners tend to be a little more hands-on as the Cardiff shirt saga showed. During his short spell in charge in Manchester, former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra actively tried to cement ties between Eastlands and the corner of the Far East he had found himself exiled from. Malaysia's Tony Fernandes at QPR has endeared himself to fans by open communication on Twitter and, more importantly, providing significant funds for new players, even if that has not translated to results on the pitch. There are ambitions at Loftus Road, or wherever the new stadium may be, to make the team something of an Asian institution though it goes without saying that Premier League survival is necessary. That is where Leicester City, under Thai ownership, are desperate to get. The Foxes are sitting fifth in the Championship with the scent of the top tier in their nostrils. East Asia has not been so active despite the local history of widespread corporate involvement in domestic football. In the middle of the previous decade, one major Korean conglomerate looked at an English Premier League team before quickly concluding that the K-League's ownership model was one thing that the country could not export. The big Japanese and Korean companies also know that owning teams is not a way to make money  it's much easier and cheaper to sponsor a European shirt. There has been the occasional foray. A Japanese-led consortium did run English lower league club Plymouth Argyle, taking majority control in 2009. At that time the Pilgrims were in the Championship. Now they are in League Two with just one team below them in the entire English Football League. Japanese involvement with Grenoble in France, which started in 2005, was not exactly win-win either. Seen as a place to bring talent to Europe before the time that talent was so clear it needed no such introduction, the club has slipped down the divisions. Staying in East Asia, Carson Yeung is the owner of Birmingham City and awaiting trial in Hong Kong on charges of money laundering. The moral of this little story? You never know what you are going to get. For every City, there is a Rovers and every level in between. The only thing can be predicted with reasonable certainty is that as Europe's economy continues to stutter and Asia continues not to, it is only going to become more common.


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