There is an old witticism in the worlds of football and business that if you want to become a millionaire, you should first become a billionaire and then buy a football club. Despite the vast amount of money in the game today, only very few clubs are genuinely profitable and some lose extortionate amounts of money. Most owners have to try and satisfy supporters, employ the right people, balance the books and get the right results on the pitch, it is by no means an easy task.
Having said that, many owners and chairmen really do not help themselves. The Premier League, in particular, has become something of a rich kids playground in recent years, with most clubs owned by foreign millionaires and billionaires with little emotional attachment to the clubs, local areas and fans themselves. Some teams have profited hugely from foreign investors, such as Chelsea and Manchester City, whilst others have been left debt-ridden and faced assaults upon their clubs history and heritage.
This list includes both past and present owners who have, for one reason or another, been truly terrible owners. Some have left clubs financially devastated whilst other just managed to get on the wrong side of a great many of the club’s fans. A number of them arrived as saviors and departed as villains, whilst others still remain in charge. These are the top 20 worst football club owners ever:
20. The Venky’s
When the Venky’s bought a 99.9% stake in Blackburn Rovers, the club was in a very healthy state. Under the leadership of Sam Allardyce, the club were balancing the books and had finished in a very respectable tenth place in the previous season. The Venky’s arrived in November 2010, and after a 2-1 defeat to Bolton, they sacked Allardyce, whilst the team was in 13th place. Everyone in English football was shocked, Sir Alex Ferguson described it as “absolutely ridiculous”, and even some Blackburn players spoke out in their shock at the decision.
The $1 billion chicken processing conglomerate appointed the inexperienced Steve Kean, who had never managed a team before. The results were poor and Blackburn flirted with the relegation zone but survived. The following season was a miserable affair, dreadful results saw Rovers relegated in 19th place. Three years later, Blackburn are in the Championship with horrific debts, fans boycotting games and mass-protests against the Venkys.
19. Douglas Craig
The historic walled city of York has much to shout about, but their football team has rarely been one of them, and that is partly due to the poor owners they’ve been dealt with. Douglas Craig is the first of them. He rose to national prominence when he was the only one of the 92 Football League chairmen to refuse to sign up to the ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ campaign. His early days at York City were fairly successful, winning promotion to League One and beating Manchester United in the League Cup, but the smiles were short-lived at Bootham Crescent.
Relegation and a managerial revolving door made the club very unstable. Craig then sold the stadium to a holdings company which he owned and tried to persuade the club to buy it back from him for $9 million. Craig eventually received $100,000 for the stadium, still considerably more than he paid for the club. However, his biggest mistake was the man he sold the club to, who is still to come on this list.
18. Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley is slightly trickier to evaluate than most on this list. In many ways, he has made Newcastle United one of the most financially stable clubs in English football. Their policy of selling their best players has made the club financially sound, but prevented it from ever challenging for silverware. One of the biggest clubs in Britain, Newcastle are still England’s ninth most successful team but have won nothing since 1955 and were even relegated in 2009.
Having arrived as a savior, Ashley wrote off the club’s debt and appointed fan-favorite Kevin Keegan as the team’s manager. However, when Keegan resigned, things began to turn sour. In the same week, Ashley put the club up for sale and protests ensued. Six years later, Ashley is still Newcastle owner and the fans still hate him. He controversially renamed St. James Park as ‘sportsdirect.com @ St. James Park Stadium’, a change that was soon reversed.
17. Vincent Tan
A couple of years ago Vincent Tan was the public’s perfect archetypal comedy owner. The Malaysian businessman had written off huge debts at Cardiff City, re-invested generously and reaped the rewards as the club were promoted to the Premier League. However, when Tan announced his intentions to change the club’s historic playing colors and badge from blue to red, the tide of public opinion began to waver.
In the Premier League, Tan controversially sacked manager Malky Mackay, a decision which seems rather more reasonable with time. Yet his appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjær was a poor one, as the inexperienced coach oversaw the club’s relegation. Credit must be given to Tan who reversed the color change, and some Cardiff fans are willing to give him a second chance.
16. Ken Bates
Ken Bates has been involved in four different English clubs, but it is his time with Chelsea and Leeds which is most notable. He owned Chelsea for 21 years, in which time he fell out with many people, including his employees and the fans themselves. In 2002 he described one supporters group as “parasites”, when threatened with legal action, Bates made an out of court settlement with the group. He also described Chelsea benefactor Matthew Harding as an “evil man” and described how much happier the club was after he had died in a helicopter crash.
Having sold Chelsea to Roman Abramovic, Bates bought Leeds United, where he became an even more unpopular figure. After two years at Leeds, the club went into administration and were relegated to League One, the lowest division the club had ever been in. Bates promised to purchase both Elland Road and Thorp Arch for the club, and achieved neither. Bates left the club in 2013.
15. Bulat Chagaev
The Chechen businessman bought Swiss Super League side Neuchatel Xmax in May 2011 and chaos ensued immediately after his purchase. He sacked four managers in seven months, cut of all ties with the club’s sponsors and sacked the club’s entire administrative staff, failing to replace them prior to the club’s first game, meaning the club were unable to print any tickets for the match.
Months later he once more sacked the entire coaching staff after a 2-0 defeat, before even more shocking reports began circulating that he did not have the correct visa and was in fact an illegal immigrant. Chagaev had a huge full out with the club’s two supporter groups, severing all ties and losing the majority of the club’s income. The club went into administration in 2012 and was relegated to the amateur leagues, forced to drop down five divisions.
14. Tom Hicks & George Gillett Jr.
Tom Hicks & George Gillet Jr. made big promises when they arrived at Anfield as the new Liverpool FC owners. They promised a new stadium and no debt for the Merseyside club. When they left, Liverpool had no new stadium and had more than quadrupled its debt. The pair were increasingly unpopular throughout their tenure, with Hicks once sending an email to a fan saying, “Blow me, f*** face. Go to hell. I’m sick of you.”
When the pair put the club up for sale in 2010, they bizarrely claimed it had tripled in value, despite having just had their worst league finish in 12 years, finishing seventh. They claimed they were after an incredible £1 billion to sell the club, but eventually sold it for around £300 million.
13. Portsmouth Owners
There are some unfortunate clubs with multiple owners on this list but with Portsmouth, they just had to be rolled into one entry. The demise of Portsmouth is one of the most rapid in the history of English football. In 2008, they finished eighth in the league, ahead of Tottenham and Man City, and won the FA Cup. In five years they were playing in the Football League’s basement division after financial collapse and three relegations.
The financial recklessness of the club is quite absurd, and there were gasps when the wages of some of the Pompey squad were revealed, showing the likes of John Utaka and Tal Ben-Haim earning Champions League wages. Those responsible include Alexandre Gaydamak, Sulaiman Al-Fahim, Ali al-Faraj, Ballam Chanrai and Vladimir Antonov. A quite incredible series of terrible owners. The club is now in the hopefully safer hands of the supporters’ trust.
12. David Lloyd
Hull City are another club who have not been so fortunate when it comes to owners. From the disinterested Christopher Needler, to the fraudsters of Stephen Hinchcliffe and Nick Buchanan, as well as the two which make this list. Failed tennis player turned entrepreneur, David Lloyd achieved a career-high of 128 in the world rankings, but has had rather more success in the business world with his company David Lloyd Leisure.
At Hull he owned both the football club and local rugby league team Hull FC, and had a number of terrible ideas, which drew criticism from the fans. The Hull City fans famously protested a game by throwing tennis balls onto the pitch, in one of the best executed protests in football history. He sold the club after just a year as owner but retained ownership of the stadium, Boothferry Park. Lloyd then locked the club out of the ground.
11. Ken Richardson
Ken Richardson’s first mistake was appointing Mark Weaver as Doncaster Rovers manager. With almost no experience, Weaver did an appalling job, once cancelling training for ‘economic reasons’. Rovers had a miserable time under Richardson in the late 90s and were relegated out of the Football League and into the Conference. Experiencing financial difficulties, Richardson orchestrated an insurance fraud scheme, hiring a former SAS man Alan Kristiansen to burn down Doncaster’s stadium. Hilariously, Kristiansen left his mobile phone at the scene of the crime. There was $200,000 worth of damage and both guilty parties were jailed.
10. Assem Allam
The second entry from the East Yorkshire club, Assem Allam is the current Hull City owner and continues to divide opinion. The Egyptian-born businessman made his fortune selling generators, and saved Hull City from sure financial meltdown in 2010 following relegation from the Premier League and another useless owner in the form of Russell Bartlett. The Allams, Assem and Ehab, paid off the debt in the form of a ‘gift’ or loan, charging 5% interest on their financial commitment.
Like many others, the Allams arrived as saviors, and furthered that image with promotion, and FA Cup final and, albeit brief, a European campaign. The 75-year-old earned himself some criticism for the manner in which he dismissed club legend Nick Barmby, but it was his plan to re-name the club ‘Hull Tigers’ that really irked. Assem Allam has since been involved in a series of laughable and bizarre interviews, and once said of those that oppose him, that they “can die as soon as they want to”. The owners claim that Hull City is up for sale but have shown little interest in selling the club and continue in their lackluster attempts to re-name the club.
9. Peter Ridsdale
Peter Ridsdale was actually only a chairmen at three of the four clubs he has been involved with, owning only one, but simply had to be included on this list. It was largely because of Ridsdale that Leeds went from a Champions League team to a League One side in six seasons. Ridsdale took the decision to borrow £60 million against gate receipts and in doing so, was essentially gambling the future of the club on the expectation that the club would qualify for the Champions League season on season.
When Leeds failed to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition, financial meltdown began. Ridsdale left the club to spiral down the divisions in 2003, briefly owning Barnsley, before becoming chairman at Cardiff City in 2006. When he left four years later, the club was in around £20 million of debt and facing a winding up order, but was ‘saved’ by 17th place on this list, Vincent Tan.
8. John Batchelor
Well we promised you a worse York City owner than Douglas Craig, and it would be difficult to disagree that John Batchelor was just that. This is a man who made a public racist seem not that bad. Batchelor began by changing York’s official name from ‘York City Football Club’ to ‘York City Soccer Club’, in an attempt to draw American support for the fourth division club, the move was unsurprisingly wholly unsuccessful.
Batchelor was no stranger to name changes, having previously changed his own name, by deed poll to ‘John B&Q’ and ‘John Top-Gear’ in endorsement deals. His re-brand went further as he changed the club’s kit and logo to incorporate checkered flags to promote his racing team. He took $60,000 from the club to invest in his racing team and when pressed by one client he replied by saying, “this is what I do for a living: I f*** companies”. After leaving York he made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Mansfield Town, who he wanted to re-name ‘Harchester United’ after a fictional British TV team.
7. Željko Ražnatović
Commonly-known as ‘Arko’, Željko Ražnatović is in a slightly separate category to the others on this list. Whilst some may have been involved in fraud scams and the like, Ražnatović was a career criminal, and a notorious one at that. He was for a long time the most powerful militia leader in the Balkans, featured on Interpol’s ‘Most Wanted’ throughout the 1970s and 1980s for multiple murders and robberies and was later indicted by the UN for crimes against humanity.
Ražnatović purchased Serbian second division team FK Obilic in 1996 and the club began on a meteoric rise. Promoted in their first year, they won the Serbian championship for the first time in their history in the second. One cannot question Ražnatović’s results, but his methods earn him a place on this list. Threats were made to opposing players throughout the season, and Ražnatović employed army veterans to sit in the stands, occasionally pointing pistols at opposing players. One star player was locked in a garage when his team played Obilik. Ražnatović was assassinated shortly before his trial in 2000, and Obilic have been relegated seven times since, becoming an amateur club.
6. Luciano Gaucci
Luciano Gaucci has been involved with five different clubs, namely; Perugia, Viterbese, Sambenedettese, Catania and Roma. Gaucci received huge press attention during the 2002 World Cup after South Korea knocked out Italy. The winner was scored by Ahn Jung-hwan, who was on-loan at Gaucci’s club Perugia at the time. Gaucci told the press, “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football.” Gaucci was largely ridiculed for his absurd comments, but Jung-hwan and Perugia parted companies.
When Perugia fell into bankruptcy in 2005, the Italian magistrates began investigating Gaucci and his two sons. As the investigations began, Gaucci fled Italy and headed to the Dominican Republic, rarely the actions of an innocent man. He and his family lived in the Dominican Republic, in hiding, for four years. When he returned to Italy in 2009, he was given a three year jail sentence.
5. Alex Hamilton
Alex Hamilton purchased Wrexham FC in 2002 and the fact that he had no interest in bettering the football club became immediately obvious. Hamilton was already in talks with B&Q regarding the construction of a store on the grounds where the current stadium lay. Having played at the Racehourse Ground since 1872, Wrexham were told they had 12 months to relocate or would be evicted. Thankfully, the courts ruled in favor of the historic ground and Hamilton never got his way. When talking about his clash with the club’s fans, Hamilton described the incident as “the most fun I’ve had with my trousers up.”
4. Peter Winkelman
Most terrible owners and chairmen are disliked by the club in which they are involved in, few have harbored the mutual hatred of a nation’s football fans as Peter Winkelman has. Currently MK Dons chairman, Winkelman played a major role in the relocation of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes, a decision which caused controversy among many and a similar deal is unlikely to ever be sanctioned by the FA following the backlash in 2004.
Winkelman’s actions are so terrible because he consciously stripped a local community of its proud football club. He left people who had followed the club for a lifetime with the dilemma of either embarking upon a 120-mile round trip for every game or supporting a new club. Wimbledon supporters in fact chose to start their own club, in the basement division of English football. Not content with robbing them of their place in the Football League, Winkelman claimed the rights to the former clubs badge and honors, including a famous FA Cup win. Now in League Two, thankfully AFC Wimbledon have won their history from Winkelman.
3. Stuart Lovering
Like so many others, Stuart Lovering arrived at Barry Town as a ‘savior’, writing off the club’s debts and making grand promises. Traditionally one of Wales’ top teams, Barry have played at the modest 2,000 capacity Jenner Park since 1913. Upon arrival, Lovering stated his intentions to build a 40,000 seater stadium, an idea which is at best ludicrous and at worst, clinically insane. Insanity is perhaps the word which best describes Lovering’s entire reign as Barry owner.
He actually tried to play for the club in their final game of the season, which saw them relegated. He put Barry Town’s ticket prices up to two times any other Welsh league club. Demanded that the team be re-instated to the top flight with a rule introduced that they could not be relegated – yes, seriously. Lovering even re-located the team in Port Talbot, 45 miles outside of Barry and at one point withdrew the club from the league altogether.
2. Craig Whyte
Rangers are historically one of Europe’s great club with huge domestic success, mild European success and a tremendous fan base. In the entire 121 years of league football in Scotland, Rangers had never left the top flight, yet after finishing second in 2012, they found themselves relegated to the fourth division of Scottish football due to financial collapse. Whyte had effectively bought the club with the fans’ money, investing none of his own personal fortune.
Celtic and Rangers had dominated Scottish football for over a century, winning 100 of the 119 league championships on offer between them. Some felt that the stronghold that the pair had damaged the league but Rangers’ departure has only served to harm the SPL further. There is no now competition for the title and the loss of both Rangers and the Old Firm derby has meant a loss of interest and revenue for the league. Whyte not only ruined Rangers but also Scottish football in many respects.
1. George Reynolds
George Reynolds early years were a story of petty crimes which grew until he began embarking on serious robberies and safe-cracking. After a four year jail sentence he was said to have straightened his act and began a very successful business career, amassing a fortune close to $500 milion. In 1999 he purchased fourth division side Darlington FC, with the plan of turning the minnows into a Premier League club.
Reynolds constructed a $40 million, 25,000 seater stadium for the bottom tier club, which he modestly named the ‘Reynolds Arena’. Building a new stadium can give a club a huge lift, but a 25,000 capacity stadium was simply ridiculous for a club of Darlington’s size, and the club averaged crowds of around 2,000, leaving the ground looking essentially empty.
Reynolds was arrested in 2004 and jailed in 2005 having been convicted of money laundering. Darlington were relegated to the Conference and went into administration once more, another relegation made the situation unmanageable. They left the ‘Reynolds Arena’, moving to a 2,000 capacity stadium and were automatically relegated four times and forced to start a new club under a new name. The new club, ‘Darlington 1883′ began life in the eight tier, and have since been promoted once, still feeling the devastation of Reynolds’ stupidity.
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