GOOD FAITH AND EQUITY, OR PULLING A FAST ONE - written summer 2019
For most fans the battle that takes place on the pitch is the only one they’re interested in, and that’s mostly fair enough. No one has ever put a poster of their favourite chief executive on their bedroom wall. However, the current battle for ownership of our club is likely to prove more important than what the team achieved last season. The judgement is now expected in September but that might not be the end of it, given the likelihood of appeals. The outcome could influence this season’s prospects but also those of many seasons into the future, perhaps even decades. If I still haven’t got your attention: some say this could be the deciding factor in whether Wilder stays.
It is bewildering for fans, even those who have made an effort to read the reports and various interim judgements in a complex case. It’s easy to just block your ears up and go “lah-lah-lah.” You need a detailed understanding of company and contract law, and too much time on your hands, to understand it all. As fans we also rarely get a glimpse of what goes on behind the closed doors of the boardroom. What is clear is that it is about much more than money. It is a battle for the soul of our club – for what makes it special.
On one side are the McCabes who, for over 25 years, are estimated to have put £100 million into the club and have probably saved it from going into administration several times. A family who are as passionate about this club and about Sheffield as we all are.
On the other side is a Saudi who was only interested in owning a Premier League club, no matter which one, and who looked at Charlton, Leeds, and West Ham before settling on Sheffield United as perhaps as the cheapest route to getting his hands on one. A man who only attended a match at Bramall Lane three times in his first three years and who sees accusations of not understanding Sheffield or Sheffield United’s heritage and values as “xenophobia.”
For the anoraks who haven’t been following this case, this is what it is about: essentially Prince Abdullah saw a way to get control of Sheffield United for £5 million by pulling what any normal person would be called a “fast one.” He shifted his shares around to avoid owning 75% of the football club, which according to agreements would have meant he had to buy out the ground and academy at commercial rates. Instead he would get away with renting them off the McCabes at the advantageous rate they had set to put the interests of the football team first. This “fast one” may well be within what the law allows. What seems fair is irrelevant. The prince’s lawyer almost went as far as admitting this “fast one.” He described the prince’s actions as “acceptable.” He said that the McCabes’ claim rested “too much on good faith and equity which doesn’t get them very far.” Had good faith and equity been deployed – what would be fair play to you or I – he would have bought the football club for £5 million and then paid the market rate for the clubs assets. He launched the court case when the McCabes cried foul, and they put in counterclaims. A lot more has come out in the court case: the failure of the prince to invest as it was believed he would, that he can contemplate selling Shirecliffe for housing land, his trouble getting loans (including using his Saudi contacts such as the Bin Laden family), that he had to be taken to court to try to secure investment at the start of last season (a situation only saved by the sale of David Brooks), and just how toxic the relationship had become. It makes Wilder’s and the team’s achievements even more remarkable against such a backdrop.
I’m not saying Kevin McCabe is a saint – you don’t get to be a successful businessman without a hard edge and a certain ruthlessness, but he is a Blade and cares about the club and its fans. He has made mistakes – he will admit that – which one of us hasn’t. But it is lazy thinking to accuse him, as some fans do, of not spending money. Firstly, that is not true; secondly, have you invested anywhere near as much in United over the years? Even as a percentage of your income? No? Then you have not earned a right to criticize.
For the younger fans and those with short memories remind yourself of (or type into your search engine) “Deane and Fjortoft” to see what a shambles we were before he took over. Also, no one can deny just how unlucky we have been at times – had any one of those twists of fate gone the other way we wouldn’t be even having this debate.
With owners you have to be careful what you wish for. You could be made to pay homage to a Far Eastern king and watch cringeworthy videos before you know it. If you want a rich sugar daddy, he’ll only buy you champagne and truffles and take you on his yacht as long as it suits him. If later on he wants you to do things for him you don’t like you can’t complain, and you could end up being dumped having lost everything.
I have a test of people’s character: if I met them in a pub (or coffee bar) would they be happy to buy me a pint (or coffee), and would I be happy to sit and chat with them. Anyone who has met Kevin McCabe or his sons Scott and Simon will vouch that they would pass this test – they would also be able to sensibly discuss the merits of overlapping full-backs in the respective leagues and analyse the performance of the last game.
If anyone else wants to take me up on this test, mine’s a pint of Farmers Blonde (or an Americano). Ta.