The millionaire game-makers who run Yorkshire’s footballing empire

Hull City chairman Dr Assem Allam
Hull City chairman Dr Assem Allam
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With the owners of Yorkshire’s 11 league clubs estimated to be worth over £1.5bn, Leon Wobschall looks at the changing landscape of football - and increased foreign ownership.

OVERSEAS ownership at clubs across the Broad Acres may have been slow to take hold, but times are certainly changing.

Yorkshire’s big-city clubs of Leeds United, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday and the county’s current sole Premier League representative in Hull City are now owned – or equally owned in the Blades’ case – by foreigners.

The Yorkshire Post estimates the collective wealth of the owners of the county’s 11 Football League clubs to be £1.5bn, according to financial figures, with a significant proportion of that coming from foreign-born or based owners.

The county’s other major city, in terms of population, is Bradford, whose Football League club are co-owned by joint-chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes.

Their stewardship has seen two lifelong supporters paying the bills and showing financial benevolence during some lean years in the basement at Valley Parade – something some foreign owners might not find so easy to to ‘buy’ into.

Half of the 44 clubs in the Premier League and Championship have foreign owners, but Bradford – who reached a major domestic cup final in February and were promoted out of League Two in 2012-13 after six seasons in the doldrums – have not as yet been the subject of interest from abroad.

The international influence permeated through to one of Bradford’s League One rivals last week with the acquisition of a 50 per cent stake in the Blades by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz al Saud, whose personal wealth is estimated by the respected Forbes Rich List at $144.5m (£93.5m).

Bradford supporters were entitled to look on enviously at developments at Bramall Lane and Lawn admits he has been surprised that City have not attracted interest from overseas.

Aside from Prince Abdullah, there are several other significant foreign owners involved at Yorkshire clubs, most notably Hull’s Egyptian-born owner Assem Allam, worth £317m, according to the Sunday Times Rich List for 2013.

In the same set of figures, Sheffield Wednesday’s Serbian-born owner Milan Mandaric was listed as being worth £100m, while the individual owner at a Yorkshire club worth the most, according to the yearly statistics, is British construction magnate Terry Bramall (£425m) – one of three major shareholders at Doncaster Rovers along with Dick Watson and John Ryan.

Other Yorkshire owners worth comfortably over £100m in the rich list are Huddersfield Town owner Dean Hoyle (£154m) and Middlesbrough supremo Steve Gibson (£135m), with Blades’ co-owner Kevin McCabe worth £90m.

The overwhelming trend in terms of ownership, certainly in the top two divisions, is global, with Rovers themselves linked with a summer takeover by an Irish consortium, reportedly fronting a bid from a Belize-based tycoon.

Sheffield Wednesday have been involved with takeover talks in the summer with a Chinese consortium headed by Sammy Yu, the one-time Birmingham City vice-chairman.

Going foreign is something not to be scared of, in the view of Lawn, if prospective buyers embrace every aspect of a club, much in the way Prince Abdullah has at Bramall Lane, striking a chord not just with his promise of investing millions in the club’s pursuit of returning to the Premier League in five years, but with his references to safeguarding the history and tradition of the club.

Lawn said: “I’m surprised we (Bradford) haven’t attracted someone, to be fair, with the debts we’ve cleared and our fanbase.

“Football is global and the Prince is a big player and I am sure he will do well for Sheffield United.

“Good luck to them, Kevin (McCabe) is a nice fellow and has put a lot of money into Sheffield United. I think he deserves to get some success there, as long – as they finish one place below us.”

On the involvement of foreign owners in English football, most famously manifested when Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea for £140 in July 2003 – followed five years later by the Abu Dhabi United group’s record take-over at Manchester City – he added: “My worry for the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City would be if any of the foreign investors got bored, then there could be big problems.

“We have seen things happen at the likes of Portsmouth and Hearts where they (owners) have taken players on big contracts and they suddenly get fed up. It can ruin a club.

“That’s the only concerning part, if I was a fan. But if the foreign owners are in it for the long haul then fine. It would be nice to see another Yorkshire club in the Premier League.

“Julian and myself just look as ourselves as custodians of the club which is what we have got to pass on. This club will go on beyond us and no one is bigger than the football club – and that includes the owners.

“We would do due diligence on any foreign owners and, being a large company, we’d make sure they were 100 per cent committed and what they said they were going to do, they’d do.

“They would also have to make sure they understand a lot about Bradford City and,fundamentally, they would (need to) be familiar with the history of the club in particular.

“The club are close to the fans and the fans are close to the club. There are certain owners of football clubs – I don’t want to mention names – who have distanced themselves from fans.

“I don’t think an owner could do that at Bradford City.

“There are lots of people around trying to buy football clubs who aren’t the right type of people.

“But if you get a good one, like they have got at Manchester City, Chelsea and Sheffield United, all well and good for the fans.

“It will bring them success that probably no other chairman could give them.”

The man who has sparked renewed debate among Yorkshire football fans about foreign ownership, Prince Abdullah, is conscious overseas owners will initially be regarded with a degree of suspicion, but is confident he will show Blades’ fans he is ‘one of them’.

He said: “Some foreign investors have done stupid things, but some have been good. You can’t judge or paint all of them the same way. I am used to, because I’m a Saudi Prince, fighting perception that you have £18bn (estimated family wealth), that you don’t care about money, that you live lavishly. It’s not true.

“The more people get to know me, they will see that. We respect the traditions, we want to do it the right way and we want to be successful – it’s no fun to lose.”

leon.wobschall@ypn.co.uk