‘Our goal is crystal clear: we will do our very best to help take Wolves back to the Premier League as soon as possible and to stay there. We believe the Club and the fans belong at the top of English football and getting there is our first and top priority.’
That particular message came from the Fosun Group in July, as they announced their takeover of Wolverhampton Wanderers, but it could so easily have been taken verbatim from any number of similar scenarios at English clubs. Talk up the supporters? Check. ‘We belong’ higher up the league? Check. ‘Do our very best’? Check. Capitalisation of the ‘C’ of ‘club’ for effect. Check, check, check.
The riches of the Premier League, coupled with its ubiquitous brand and following in every corner of the globe, have made Championship clubs the new playthings of the vastly wealthy. Eleven of the division’s 24 clubs are now owned by foreign investors, with nine of those majority-owned by Asian corporations or businessmen.
The supposed pathway is obvious. Football constantly reinforces the message that money drives success, and potential investors believe that there has never been a better time to take their slice of the pie. UEFA’s Champions League proposals may be the first time a governing body has explicitly ring-fenced its elite clubs, but it’s merely reflecting the general trend.
Every good news story now needs its fairy godmother, and she arrives dressed in all her finery. Arriving to a cacophony of noise, new owners typically embark on a period of spending on the playing staff, change the manager and attempt to enter the top flight via a shortcut. What could be simpler?
Except that it isn’t quite that easy, as reflected by the current Championship table. There are Leeds United, still largely owned by Massimo Cellino (estimated wealth of £750m). There are Nottingham Forest, still living under the cloud of Fawaz Al-Hasawi’s reign (£1,400m). There are Cardiff City, with Vincent Tan still in charge (£1,045m). There are Blackburn Rovers (Venkys – £500m), Aston Villa (Tony Xia – £920m) and QPR (Tony Fernandes – £650m and Lakshmi Mittal – £15,800m). All but one of those clubs sit outside the top half.
Of that group, only Xia (2015) and Cellino (2014) took over fewer than four years ago and all oversee a club that is lower in the league ladder then when they took over. The bottom half of the Championship is the graveyard of the fantastically wealthy and ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful. They are often hamstrung by Football League rules that attempt to curb a social institution’s reliance on one person’s bank balance; the Championship’s crisis clubs are often also its richest.
The mistake made by each member of this club, to greater and lesser degrees, was to assume that money was the solution to their objective rather than a component. They made the incorrect assumption that supporters would be sated by shiny new signings and big screens in the corners of the stadium, and their clubs improved by both. They made the emphatic miscalculation that to delegate was to admit weakness, rather than accept reality. These are the three commandments of stagnation, not promotion.
And so to Wolves. Guo Guangchang, the chairman of Fosun Group, is worth an estimated £4.1 billion and is the least guilty of the group having only taken over in this summer. Yet supporters at Molineux on Saturday would agree that the signs don’t look good. Four months on from that talk of promotion being the first priority, Wolves sit 19th in the Championship table. Paul Lambert is this week expected to become Fosun’s third manager of their tenure, having sacked Kenny Jackett and given Walter Zenga 87 days before pulling the plug on a reign that was doomed from the start.
Elsewhere, Fosun have forged a relationship with super agent Jorge Mendes that resulted in three loan arrivals from Benfica and the £6.8m signing of Ivan Cavaleiro from Monaco. The club’s four other permanent signings cost a combined £6.5m; none have Championship experience. Not all will be failures, but most are young and will take time to settle into the Championship. Almost half of the club’s signings are Mendes clients, an arrangement that I’ll euphemistically label as very ‘modern’.
Against Derby, Wolves were appalling. The first-half display was shambolic, Rob Edwards’ team conceding twice and deserving of an even greater thrashing. Boos rang out at the half-time whistle, but only made a change from the groans that had greeted each misplaced pass and missed tackle. João Teixeira, one of Mendes’ merry men, was substituted after 31 minutes. As with every team that looks half-broken, ill-discipline soon followed incompetence. Even a late rally could not stave off a run of two points from seven games.
This is no anti-capitalist call-to-arms. Financial might is still an effective ingredient in achieving promotion, perhaps even the most important. But we must also also acknowledge that, in the wrong hands, economic strength can cause impatience, unrealistic ambition and a loss of connection between supporters and their club. For every rise, a sleeping giant is forced further into dormancy.
Whereas owners at Forest, Blackburn, Leeds and QPR have travelled too far down the path of un-enlightenment to resolve their collective messes, Fosun are new to this game. Wolves supporters will hope that, rather than follow the lead of their uninspiring peers, their owners can plot a different course. Money may make football’s world turn round but, in the Championship at least, it can blind a sustainable vision for progress.