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Issue 18
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October 2004
   

How Many Times?

 

Some people never learn.

History is littered with those who have uttered one foolish, regrettable phrase which has come back to haunt them and ultimately led to their downfall.

Take, for instance:

“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government.” Liberal Party leader David Steel's classic declaration to his supporters in 1981.

“Read My lips. No new taxes.” George Bush Snr's pledge at the 1988 Republican Party convention.

“They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist…” The last words of General John Sedgewick at the battle of Spotsylvania, 1864.

“Premiership football at Ashton Gate within five years.” David Russe and the Reform Group shortly before taking control of Bristol City.

What makes these declarations so memorable and ludicrous is that no-one really believed them at the time. They just wanted to. As much as anyone listening might have wished such statements would come true, unless you gain nutrition by photosynthesis you realised that they were just pipe dreams dressed up as facts by desperate speakers who were merely hoping out loud and lacked any convincing evidence to back up their claims. There was no way they could live up to such promises, and when the inevitable happened they came across as laughing stocks divorced from reality who no-one could really trust or take seriously again.

The lesson is simple: Never offer anything you can't deliver.

Fast forward to 2004, and it's déjà vu all over again down Ashton Gate. Jon Maguire is trying to win the fans' support for his takeover bid with talk of Premiership in three years. Note that even the Reform Group thought it would take five, and their judgement made Baldrick look like a shrewd operator.

Mr Maguire is seeking to use Bristol City fans as leverage to get what he wants, but from what I see of his so far, he is not crediting us with even a modicum of intelligence. He seems to think all he has to do to win over the Unthinking Masses (i.e. me and you) is dangle an as-yet hypothetical carrot of £30m (only £13m of which would be new investment, incidentally, and all of which is thin air at the moment) and utter trite sound-bites in the Evening Post which will leave us nodding vacantly in agreement: “Bristol City's performance compared to clubs either in the Premiership, or capable of securing Premiership status, is dire”…”Tommy Doherty is an excellent player who needs more of that class around him”…”We have the potential to draw crowds like Norwich and Portsmouth do and more.” Really? You don't say.

Does Mr Maguire really think he can win us over that easily? Well, after the Reform Group debacle I for one am not falling for such rubbish ever again. It is easy to rattle out statements knowing every City fan in the land will agree with you. As Mr Maguire himself says: “Talk is cheap.” But none of what he says amounts to a hill of beans without a convincing blueprint to achieve it. And that is where his “proposal” so far falls flatter than the line on a brain scan monitor attached to a Gashead. Mr Maguire proposes to up the wage bill from £4m a year to £10m in the first year and £15m in the second. Of course, he knows we all dream of seeing international stars like Alan Smith or John Terry in City colours. But quite apart from the mess we got in last time we allowed salaries to bloat, he makes no mention of how much money would be available to buy players. And, of course, the only thing we know about the money that he'll be using is that it won't be his. Which means the investors will expect a financial return and will do everything they can to get it, even if the high-risk strategy to achieve top flight football fails.

I am always suspicious of wheeler-dealers willing to spend other people's money. That's ultimately what led to Scott Davidson's downfall – too many investors grew fed-up of watching someone else control their money, fritter it away and not have to suffer the financial consequences if it went tits-up. And I'm not even going to get into 1982 and all that.

Mr Maguire's document seems very amateurish, as if it was hastily thrown together without much thought by one man and his dog. If he was truly serious about making a £30m bid, he would have involved expert consultants to analyse the situation and put together a convincing, detailed business plan outlining not just what was wrong but exactly how to put it right. Instead, what we have is something that frankly you, I or any City fan who can string a sentence or two together could have drawn up on their home computer in a few days with little research. It doesn't seem as if Mr Maguire has even been willing to invest a few quid at this stage to make his ‘proposal' look convincing. So why should we take him seriously?

As some City fans have already noted, you would not expect any professional dossier demanding serious attention to start with the nonsensical sentence: “Bristol City Football Club's performance leaves little to be desired.” On the contrary, anyone believing the club has underperformed – as it undoubtedly has – should be arguing that our performance leaves a lot to be desired. It's a schoolboy error that any proof-reading should pick up. While we're at it, who are “Westham” and “West Bromich Albion” [sic] ? Mistakes like these just show a lack of care for detail and accuracy – precisely the qualities we should all be looking for in a business strategy document put forward by someone wishing to be taken seriously and control the destiny of our club. I also fail to see what point Mr Maguire is trying to make by detailing the fact that there are Easyjet flights to Bristol from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Skybus flights coming in from Newquay. Is he suggesting an appreciable number of fans would use these to get to home games? Or just attempting to prove for some reason best known to himself that Bristol has an airport?

Quite simply, Mr Maguire's unconvincing report is devoted to statistics which show what any City fan knows: That (shock, horror) Bristol City have a large catchment area yet have under-performed for years. It's all very well laying this out by showing our league position each year, league attendance and the population of various cities from the 2001 Census. That's the sort of thing any teenager could do for a GCSE project, and it amounts to stating the bleeding obvious. It's another to put forward a convincing strategy which would lead to success at a higher level.

Which leads me to my next point, which I will sum up with another famous quote taken from in a 1996 hit movie.

In the words of Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money.”

What the document singularly fails to do is explain in detail exactly who would be putting up the £30m mentioned and what they would want in return. And that makes me deeply suspicious. If Mr Maguire was coming forward as a City fan with £30m of his own lucre which he was prepared to risk in the hope of gaining prestige and glory, and an expectation that if it went awry he would take the financial hit himself for love of the club, then that would be one thing. But that's not what he is proposing. Mr Maguire is no sugar daddy like Jack Walker or John Madejski. He is talking of seeking investment from outside – from non-City fans whose motives are to make money from football.

He talks about bringing in £30m, but in fact, if you examine his words closely, you'll see he's not even promising that. He is actually just saying that if Steve agrees to sell the club, he'll ask everyone he knows whether they'd be willing to buy. Well, whoopee. He says: “If they were to put the ‘for sale' signs up, I would be prepared to sit and work with them and help them recruit a buyer.” In fact the only promise he makes is that he'll ask everyone he can think of within six weeks. Well, that's very generous of him. I don't doubt that his former job as an investment development director at a building society means he is well connected in that department. But frankly, his promise doesn't seem to add up to much when it's weighed against all his highfalutin showboating and the unsettling effect it is bound to have on this club until the matter is resolved.

Which leads me neatly onto my next point. What possible good could be achieved by talking to the Evening Post about this before talking to the directors, or even handing them his report? Steve Lansdown publicly responded, as all City fans have come to expect, with the kind of respect and decency that Mr Maguire had not granted him. But even our chairman noted: “I am surprised that he has chosen to debate the issue through the press.” Quite apart from common courtesy, it is surely in the interests of the club that such a possible venture is discussed and explored in private to see how viable it is before it is made public, given the unsettling effect the speculation will have on players, investors and fans alike? The last thing we need at this club is an unnecessary long-running battle that splits fans, players or investors. It's taken us years to attain a degree of stability from which we can build. Yes, last season was a bitter disappointment, but we need to be pulling in the same direction if we are to achieve things this time around, not trying to pull fast ones to win instant fan popularity. It seems to me that going public before even giving the board time to examine and discuss his report, let alone talk to him about it, is an extremely aggressive move aimed at swaying the fans in his favour and turning them against the board, thus forcing their hand. It's not in the interests of the club, it's in the interests of Mr Maguire.

As far as I can see, his whole plan smacks of someone hoping to cash in on the desperation of fans for success. Sure, we all want it. But not at any cost. I do not want to gamble my club's entire future. Mr Maguire's loosely-formulated plan seems to rely on getting us very rapidly into the Premiership. If we fail – and we must always contemplate that, unless we want to sound like David Steel in his delusional speech mentioned above – then at what cost? If the backers are not City fans, and are investing purely for gain, then they will naturally want to recoup as much of their money as they can, and we stand to lose everything. If they are in control, they could sell the ground, auction off the players (or those few good enough to attract decent bids) and strip our assets entirely to recoup part of their money. They don't care about the club, just their own bottom line. I have detailed in the past why I believe our club MUST own its own ground. Selling off the land for flats or retail development and moving to a council-owned ground would leave us as squatters with no appreciable asset to fall back on in hard times. If we had not owned Ashton Gate in 1982 there would be no Bristol City today. And look at what happened to the Gas when their directors were stupid and greedy enough to sell off Eastville. If you own your own ground, you control your destiny. If not, you are reliant on others whose over-riding concern and obligation is not the welfare of Bristol City Football Club. The club could wind up bankrupt and there would no longer be a Bristol City.

Bringing in huge sums of outside money out of all proportion with the club's current business situation, or the amount it could afford to pay back, amounts to taking all the club's assets to a casino, sidling up to a roulette table and plonking them all on “red”. And clubs do not prosper that way. Just ask Leeds Utd fans, or Bradford City supporters. Or any number of other clubs. Or anyone who was supporting the Robins in 1982, come to that.

With what threatens to be a long and possibly divisive period ahead, and with the club's future direction for possibly decades to come hanging on the outcome, I believe the one thing we can rely on is the current board. Regardless of how well we think they have performed, or how well the club has done on the pitch with them in charge, we all know the devotion of the directors have to The Cause. They have pumped millions of their own money in, both as gifts and as loans. Money, as they say, speaks louder than words. But more importantly, they have striven to get BCFC back onto an even keel where it can support itself. We are still losing money each year, but the losses are getting lower and under strict stewardship we are working towards a point at which Bristol City will be self-supporting. That stands in stark contrast to upping the wage bill to a £15m a year unsustainable outside of the Premiership and gambling on getting into the top flight.

Ultimately, I believe Steve Lansdown has our club's best interests at heart. He has put in money for the love of the club. Maybe not £30m – I don't know the exact figure - but enough to keep City going and pushing for football at a higher level without the risk that it will all fall apart and we'll wind up bankrupt. Unlike faceless corporations who see football as an opportunity to make money, I do not believe our Chairman would asset-strip to recoup his money or pull his investment out if it meant bringing the club to its knees. He is a City fan, and he knows that while he would like to make money (and if success brings it, he'll deserve every penny), his is ultimately to some degree an emotional investment. He has made his money in finance and, much like buying a new car, he is spending it on something he loves rather than something he expects to reap a high financial reward. His return is not just measured in sterling. It's measured in prestige, in joy at seeing the club progress and satisfaction in knowing that he is ploughing his expertise, money and time into something that he and his family love. Mr Maguire says he is a loyal City fan. If he is, it's time to prove it by either conducting himself with integrity and dealing with the board rather than just the media, and by demonstrating rapidly that this is not pie in the sky rather than simply destabilising the club for nothing.

Steve Lansdown has always said that if someone came forward with the necessary wonga and ability to propel Bristol City to greatness, he would welcome it. However, I don't think he would ever sell the club to anyone unless he believed they had not only the money but the necessary talent, trustworthiness and convincing business plan to take this club forward. So far, Mr Maguire's behaviour and amateurish document bewailing the standard of football at Ashton Gate has done nothing to convince me he possesses any of these qualities. He'll have to do far better than spouting truisms like “Bristol deserves Premiership football” to persuade me. And unless he is capable of proving himself a worthy successor, I hope Mr Lansdown will keep the keys to the boardroom stashed firmly in his pocket.

 

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