Sheffield United, a Nigerian businessman and the mysterious case of the disappearing airline

Ian King
Sheffield United stadium at Bramall Lane

Sheffield United may be heading for promotion back to the Premier League but they’re also under a transfer embargo and subject to a mysterious takeover bid.

 

The last few seasons have been a rollercoaster ride for Sheffield United. Promoted to the Premier League as runners-up behind Norwich City in 2019, they defied expectations to finish their first top-flight season since 2007 in ninth place in the Premier League. Relegation followed behind closed doors in 2021 and they had a slow start to life back in the Championship.

But since the appointment of Paul Heckingbottom at the end of November 2021, the Blades have been flying. On the day that Heckingbottom was brought in to replace Slavisa Jokanovic, they were in 16th place in the Championship table, but by the end of the season they were in fifth place and narrowly beaten by Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals of the play-offs.

And that upward curve has continued throughout this season. United led the Championship table throughout September before having a bit of a wobble, but a run of just one defeat in 14 games has kept them in second place in the table behind runaway leaders Burnley and with a ten-point gap of their own to third-placed Middlesbrough, over whom they also have a game in hand. A return to the Premier League isn’t guaranteed – this is the Championship, after all – but Heckingbottom has put his team in an excellent position.

But this progress on the pitch has not been matched away from it. Sheffield United have been under a transfer embargo since the middle of January, meaning that Heckingbottom was unable to strengthen his squad ahead of the second half of a gruelling season, while some very serious questions now have to asked about a takeover of the club which should have lifted the club from the financial difficulties in which they’ve found themselves.

Prince Abdullah has been involved at Bramall Lane for almost a decade. He became co-owner of the club in 2013 and took sole ownership six years later after winning a High Court case against former co-owner Kevin McCabe. But Sheffield United have been up for sale for some time. It had been reported that the club was on the brink of being sold to the American businessman Henry Mauriss last year, but this failed after Mauriss failed to persuade the EFL that he had the available funds because he was using bonds rather than loans to fund the purchase. It was reported at the time that Prince Abdullah wanted £115m for the club. 

With the Mauriss deal falling through, the news of a transfer embargo only added to the sense of uncertainty surrounding the club’s financial position. It has been reported that the reason for the embargo was a failure to make at least one recent payment for players signed in the past.

The details of said transfer has not been disclosed, but the Daily Mail has reported that it may concern payment to Liverpool for the signing of Rhian Brewster, who joined in October 2020 for £23.5m, while there are also understood to have been issues concerning the transfer of Bosnian defender Anel Ahmedhodzic, who arrived from Malmo last summer.

Against such a background, news that the club has another suitor might have been most welcome. But these things are rarely simple.

It is now reported that the Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi is pursuing a purchase of the club, but investigation into Mmobuosi’s business dealings have raised considerable questions about whether he’s been playing with a straight bat after it was revealed that the value of his company Tingo has fallen precipitously by around $8bn (£6.7bn – a somewhat jaw-dropping 94%) in the last two years.

And it doesn’t end there, either, with further questions now being asked about one of his other business ventures. Tingo Airlines Limited was incorporated in August 2019, with one shareholder – Mr Mmobuosi – listed and a declared share capital of £1bn, made up of a billion pound shares at a pound each. But does this airline actually even exist, and did it ever exist?

As of January 31 2023, the company has a proposal to strike it off the register after it failed to report any basic financial accounts, while even the incorporation details at Companies House have the curious note, that ‘The director’s service address was removed from the public register on 19/12/2019 as it was invalid or ineffective and was forged’. A quick check confirms that the address given in the small Hertfordshire town of Harpenden is legitimate, so exactly what happened here is something of a mystery. 

But somehow, this isn’t even the biggest mystery surrounding Tingo Airlines. The Athletic (£) has reported that:

‘An Instagram page for Tingo Airlines links to a website that does not exist. It also shares images of an Airbus A321 that appears to be digitally doctored to apply the ‘Tingo Airlines’ livery, removing a door and adding too many windows in the process.’

There doesn’t seem to be any solid material evidence that Tingo Airlines actually even exists, still less that anyone has ever flown with them. In an interview with another director in November 2019, it was claimed that they were, “in the process of obtaining our UK Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC)”, but there is nothing to suggest that this has ever been granted.

So, what’s going on here? Well, Sheffield United supporters may be waiting a while for an explanation, as both Mmobuosi and the club have both declined to comment to The Athletic.

There may well be legitimate explanations for these questions concerning Tingo Airlines and the Tingo group of companies more generally, but stonewalling genuine queries for information doesn’t inspire huge confidence, and considering that United have already had one attempted takeover flounder because Henry Mauriss couldn’t satisfy the EFL over funding, how likely is it that they will just wave this straight through? 

Of course, the Championship is littered with basket cases spending more money than they can afford on new players, but for this to be happening at Sheffield United is especially concerning. Based on figures to the end of the 2020/21 season, they were one of just three profitable clubs in the entire division, but with this coming as the team tumbled down from the Premier League, it seems unlikely that this will be repeated in the figures to the end of June 2022.

Those are unlikely to be published for at least a couple more months, but falling revenues following relegation will affect the figures for 2022, while a failure to get back at the first attempt coupled with a reduced parachute payment may do likewise for 2023.

All of this leads to two conclusions. Firstly, Paul Heckingbottom is doing a brilliant job at Bramall Lane. Indeed the team that he has built is Sheffield United’s best chance of a painless route out of their current difficulties. A return to the Premier League might not completely extinguish the club’s financial concerns – the lack of accounts for 2022 means that we can’t say how much worse they might have got following relegation – but the vast increase in television revenues may cover the worst of them.

But even this raises questions of its own. They’re not there yet, but Sheffield United are currently in an excellent position to return to the Premier League. So why is the selling price £90m, an amount that is less than would be received from one year’s worth of television and prize money? And why has the price that Prince Abdullah wants for the club dropped from a reported £115m less than a year ago to £90m now?

The other conclusion has broader implications than just Sheffield United. It is critical that the EFL pays particular attention to these details. No-one should be using this story to push lazy agendas about ‘Nigerian scammers’, but there are clear gaps in the narrative concerning Dozy Mmobuosi, and if these can’t be convincingly answered by those concerned then, for the good of Sheffield United Football Club and the game in a broader sense, this takeover should be blocked until they have been.

After all, this isn’t even the only EFL club at which there are question marks hanging over the reported wealth of someone seeking to buy their way in. Sheffield United deserve better than this murkiness and obfuscation. The whole of the EFL does.