Feta accompli

29/04/2014

greek flagIn England and Wales, fan owned clubs have a successful model that they can be set up from, created by Supporters Direct. Elsewere in Europe, different rules apply. In Germany for example, every club, by law, has to be 51% owned by the supporters. In Greece, things are a little less orthodox. Stephen Skeet takes
a look at how fan ownership from one of Greece’s biggest clubs has come under the control of a media mogul.

In October last year, just 24 hours before their Europa League clash with Spurs, Panathinaikos F.C. parted company with their talismanic captain Kostas Katsouranis by mutual consent. Chairman Yiannis Alafouzos arrived at the training ground to break the news to the club’s shocked players with local media reporting Katsouranis’ poor attitude and negative influence in the changing room.

The fact that Katsouranis was the Greek vice-Captain and holder of 98 international caps made this decision surprising enough, but it was also notable for the simple fact that since May last year Panathinaikos had been fan owned, and this decision had effectively been one ratified by the fans. This has been just one notable episode in a turbulent and challenging ten months of fan ownership, and highlights some of the perils that can be encountered when a once family run club mortgages itself chasing the dream.

Panathinaikos were founded 105 years ago last month. They are Greece’s most decorated team, and considered pioneers in the Greek game; they were the first team in Greece to boast a grass pitch and floodlights, and under the tutelage of the great Ferenc Puskas were Greece’s only ever European Cup finalists in 1971, losing to the Cruyff inspired Ajax Amsterdam.

The club was also the first club to have a supporters club in Greece; the infamous ‘GATE 13’. In 1979 Greek football went professional, and the club was taken over entirely by the Vardinogiannis family who had made their money largely through oil. Domestic trophies flowed through the 1980’s and 1990’s and there were two more European Cup semi-finals in 1985 and 1996. The early 2000’s saw some initial success but the emergence of Olympiakos as a force in domestic competition suddenly challenged the authority of the Greens as the major force in Greek football.

This heralded a change in strategic direction at the club, and in April 2008 the Vardinogiannis family decided to reduce their stake in the club from total ownership to 56%, inviting in outside investors and thus raising 80m Euros in capital stock investment. This financial investment initially seemed to have an impact and over the next two seasons big name players arrived for large wages; Gilberto Silva from Arsenal, Gabriel from Fluminese, Boumsong and Govou from Lyon and Djibril Cisse from Marseille. The club started to rent the Olympic Stadium in Athens as their new home, season tickets rocked past the 30,000 mark and in 2009-10 the club captured the domestic double.

So, how do we get from here to an effective fan bailout of the club in less than two years? In short, the European economic crisis struck exactly at the time that the club had speculated their newly acquired finance on massive wages and transfer fees. The club started to sell the players as quickly as they had arrived to reduce the wage bill, this in turn impacted upon results on the pitch and the club missed out on qualifying for the Champions League.

The financial turmoil at the club began to spiral (more on that later) and in September 2011, the Vardinogiannis family announced their intention to leave the Club. The club treaded water for six months, but after serious riots at the Panathinaikos-Olympiakos derby in March 2012 the entire Board quit. Panathinaikos would remain rudderless for the next two months.

Step forward Giannis Alafouzos, media mogul and the guy at the beginning of this article who let Katsouranis leave by Mutual Consent. He devised a plan to take the 54.7% remaining shares of the club from the Vardiogiannis family and make them available to fans around Greece so that anyone and everyone could contribute an amount to allow the club to overcome the crisis. In May 2012 the Panathinaiki Symmaxia (Panathenian Alliance) was born and a twenty member board was elected. The Vardinogiannis family agreed to transfer their 54.7% of shares to the Alliance, but It remained to be seen whether the fans would respond to the call for finance in any serious capacity.

From July 2nd 2012, fans started to contribute investment in return for shares and although the numbers of shares were linked to the level of individual investment, each investor received only one vote, irrespective of the level of their investment.

Around 3000 fans invested 1.8m Euros in the initial month, including former players such as Cisse and Gilberto Silva, and current playing staff agreed to delay their salary payments, meaning that the immediate future of the club at last looked secure. Alafouzos announced the transfer of shares to the Alliance on July 18th 2012 by stating “Panathinaikos belongs to its people…the Alliance represents the fans.”
So what of this turbulent ten months of fan ownership I referred to right back at the beginning? Well, on the field the club began to struggle. We already know what happened to the Captain in October. The Alliance began to find out the extent of the economic turmoil at the club; it was left with 35m Euros of debt to be financed (largely to the Vardinogiannis family) from whom they also rented their training facilities.

The club was also tied into renting the Olympic Stadium for ridiculous sums from the state (also in economic turmoil), and in November last year the stadium management wrote to the Greek FA stating that the club had not been able to meet its electric bills. Its solution was to offer to play games in daylight hours, but this was deemed impossible as Greek broadcaster Nova had many of the Greens match scheduled for prime time evening viewing.

Also in November, after a run of just 2 wins in 14 matches, Coach Ferreira was sacked. (He was the first donor to the Alliance for shares). Former Panathinaikos icon Juan Ramon Rocha replaced Ferreira, only to be sacked by the Alliance in January this year. Fabri Gonzalez (of no real managerial pedigree) was plucked from Spain by the Alliance to be the third Coach in as many months.

And what of the way forwards economically? The club has been courted for a number of years by Middle Eastern investment, and in January this year Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia pulled out of a takeover bid in which he planned to invest hundreds of millions of Euros in exchange for a 67.5% share in the club, due to being continually rejected by the club’s shareholders (The fans). Alafouzos was reported as saying he was “allergic” to the idea of the takeover. Meanwhile the club has negotiated a leaving date from the Olympic Stadium and will be returning to their spiritual home on The Avenue in Athens. The Avenue is a modest 15000 capacity stadium currently in disrepair built across from the refugee housing put up to receive Greek refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920’s. Attendances have dropped to 3000, but the supporters club has hired a clubhouse close to The Avenue and is engaged in the process of moving. A recent article in The New Athenian interviewed fans in the clubhouse who were prepared to give the Alliance a chance, but felt that until the Vardinogiannis family assume the 35m Euro debt the club couldn’t move forwards. The general consensus seemed that although 9000 fans had invested anyone who did so now that the details of the finances have become clearer were foolish.
It seems a long way away, and perhaps a bit melodramatic to look at this in the context of ITFC, but I for one will be following the story of Panathinaikos and the Alliance closely to see how they progress together. I have great respect for those engaged in trying to keep their club afloat in Athens. One could cite the above highlights issues with fan ownership and management of personnel, although coaching staff turnover is a characteristic of Greek football generally.

Conversely, one could also cite the fans have had a real say in who should be investing in their club. What it highlights for me, however, is just how vulnerable a club like ITFC may be whilst in the control of one man and his business empire (of whom we know little or indeed their intentions) who has spent millions chasing a dream, and who has continued to accrue a debt at the club of which we know little in terms of construct, conditions, and liability. Should he walk away it’s not entirely inconceivable that the club could face a similar set of issues to those in Athens.

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A light that never goes out

29/04/2014

 

FA Youth Cup Final 2005

As issue 5 of Turnstile Blues is coming out very soon – and is on sale at Portman Road on Saturday, 3rd May 2014 – I’m posting some of my favourite pieces from the previous four issues in an effort to show you what we’re about. First, a particular favourite from our first issue, by Gavin Barber.

A few years ago, Heinz announced that they might have to stop making salad cream because everyone was buying mayonnaise instead. “Imagine that!” exclaimed a woman I worked with at the time, “no salad cream in the shops!”. “But hardly anyone’s buying it”, I replied, “do you actually buy it yourself?”. “Well, no”, she admitted, “but it’s nice to know it’s there”.

There was, of course, a subsequent mad rush on the purchase of salad cream and the product was saved. The whole thing was probably just a clever marketing ruse by Heinz, tapping into a basic truth: there are some things that comfort us simply by their continued existence in the background of our lives, whether it’s the presence of a condiment on the supermarket shelves, the smell of the coffee stall we pass on the way to work or the continued international career of Dennis Rommedahl. They don’t make much real difference to us, but we’d miss them if they weren’t there.

Does Ipswich Town fall into this category? I started thinking this when I was challenging myself to work out exactly why the bloody hell I had been so determined to pass the Portman Road habit on to my son. Was I handing down a precious gift, a timeless expression of parental love with value beyond measure? Or was it more like one of those irritating hereditary quirks such as premature baldness or eczema?

My Dad was a much better and more responsible parent than I am. He followed Ipswich himself and would respond cheerfully to all my questions about them, but never made any particular effort to foster my interest, perhaps sensibly deciding that if I wanted to open myself up to the same lifetime of frustration as he’d had, then it was my own lookout. Of course, it wasn’t long before I was pleading with him to take me along: the idea of actually going to Portman Road held the sort of allure for me that Disneyland had for other kids. Even then, I think Dad was a bit surprised, and not really convinced that I’d like it as much as I thought I would, but of course, when I eventually did make it through the turnstiles I was irretrievably hooked.

I wasn’t allowed to go every week but I’d mark on the fixture list the games that Dad had said I could go along to (this being the early 80s, these were mostly determined on the basis of having the lowest hooligan risk) and these, like Prufrock’s coffee spoons, would become the punctuation marks of my young life, each one as eagerly and as long anticipated as the last, regardless of how Town were playing at the time. Often we’d go with my extended family – my Grandpa, who always seemed to think it was cold and who judged each new signing according to whether or not they were as good as Tommy Parker (they never were), and my Uncle, who loved the Dutch players and whose own moustache I imagined to be his personal tribute to Frans Thijssen. I could disappear at this point into a quicksand of clichéd reverie, but I’m sure you get the picture: the boy in a man’s world; the always-lingering cigarette smoke; above all, the excitement of Christmas fixtures and the massed ranks of pocketed hands afterwards as the crowd shuffled, heads bowed against the biting winter wind, towards their trains and buses and cars and the New Year.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m faced with the chubby cheeks and enquiring mind of my own progeny. By now I am located far from Portman Road, living in Oxford. Do I take my Dad’s wise, calm, dignified approach, allowing my son to plough his own footballing furrow and hope it leads him to the same field? Of
course not. The poor child has ITFC-branded tat shoved in his face from day one. Babygros, teddies, woolly hats, the lot. His baby bouncer pointed towards the screen for televised Ipswich games, in the hope that some formative connection will be made. Ostentatious attempts at bonding, even while the child is still in nappies: “Daddy’s off to football now! At Ipswich! I expect you’ll be wanting to come with me soon? Won’t you? Won’t you? Won’t you?” It was the sort of evangelistic approach that the Jesuits might regard as being a bit extreme.

In any case, it worked: he did start wanting to come along and now, at the age of 8, he’s a season ticket holder with me in the West Stand. We make the long journey by train, we have fun on the way, meet up with friends for lunch, watch the game, and then relax again on the train home. By that stage, the effects of a long day’s travelling and socialising can be taking their toll, but he usually wakes me up when we get to Liverpool Street.

But – that question again – why? Why was I so determined to bring another sacrificial lamb to the altar of underachievement? Is Ipswich the background music to my life, a comfort blanket that I wanted my offspring to grasp so that he can carry it for me when I’m too old and bewildered to remember the full name of Eric
Lazenby-Gates? Is it something that provides reassurances just because it’s there? If so, all well and good, but couldn’t I have kept it to myself?

I think the answer is that it’s more. It’s about maintaining a family tradition, but not just for it’s own sake – it’s because there is something about Ipswich Town as a club, as an entity, that can – in amongst all the frustration – bring moments of great joy and community. One of the things that always impressed me as a child about matchdays was that, no matter how mundane the fixture, the game was always, unquestionably, the most exciting and important thing happening in Ipswich that day. And in that way it brought people together and was a force for good.

There are many other football clubs whose fans would say exactly the same, and they’d be right too. Change, like death, taxes and the UK’s annual poor showing at Eurovision, is inevitable. Over time, players, managers, kits and even the physical structure of the ground itself are altered until they’re almost unrecognisable from those you grew up with. But something remains at the heart of the club that transcends all this. It’s the fans, basically – the togetherness, the humour, even the traditional Portman Road moaning – that make our club a special one: and that’s why we want to hand it on to our kids. We’re not only giving them a gift, we’re preparing the way for them to take their own turns at its stewardship, just by being there.

I’m not at all sure that Marcus Evans and Simon Clegg [This was first published a couple of years ago. – Ed.] get this. Their approach seems distant, a sort of “you let us get on with running the football club and we’ll paint the turnstiles occasionally so that you know we haven’t forgotten about you”, missing the point that we – like our parents and grandparents before us, and hopefully our children after us – are the football club. Clegg and Evans are people who happen to have functional roles for the moment, but one day they’ll be gone and we, the fans, will still be here.

But I think I can still justify my zealous approach to my son’s upbringing. That stuff that made me want to share it with him in the first place – the spirit of community – is still there. These days it’s not just in the pre-match pubs and in the ground itself, but it’s on Twitter and the message boards too, and is all the more fun for that.

This isn’t, then, about tradition for its own sake. It’s not like the outraged howls of protest at proposed changes to the Radio 4 schedule, made by people who never listen to Radio 4. It’s not just sitting in your favourite seat on the bus to work. It’s worth preserving because Ipswich Town stands for something. It’s up to us to do that preservation and right now it feels like we’re doing it in spite of the owner and the Chief Exec, rather than with them.

My uncle remained a season ticket holder in the West Stand until he died last November. On the day after his funeral, Town threw away their game against Reading in spectacularly slack and incompetent style, turning a 2-1 injury-time lead into a 2-3 defeat. Leaving the ground, my mind still laden with the grief of the previous day’s events, I was furious, feeling an irrational but unavoidable sense of affront at what I’d just seen from Town, in addition to the obvious annoyance that we all shared. Muttering to myself in fury, I heard my son’s voice cutting
through the discontented hubbub. “Never mind, Dad”, he said. “It was good to see Josh Carson score for us, wasn’t it?”

Without meaning to, he’d pulled me round in an instant, from a rapidly darkening mental state to a realisation that actually, yes, if we can only see the world through a child’s eyes then there is always something to take comfort in, whether it’s seeing your favourite player scoring or simply that there’s another game next week. When it comes to ITFC I’ve got big concerns about the present, but I’m learning to put my faith in the future.


Warren United

22/04/2014

In which our admirably-but-frankly-rather-surprisingly-uncorrupted-by-vast-amounts-of-free-beer-man-on-the-red-carpet, Gavin Barber, reviews ITV’s new animated football comedy, Warren United.

redcarpet

 I don’t know if “attend a West End premiere as an invited guest and get plied with free booze” is on any “things to do before you’re 40” bucket lists, but if it is then I managed it with hours to spare. My last few hours as a 39-year-old were spent, courtesy of the marvellous Socrates football bloggers’ collective and Baby Cow Productions, at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, for a preview screening of a new ITV4 show called Warren United. And some free booze.

Such an event wouldn’t be cause for comment in the life of Mark Kermode or Grace Dent, but for someone whose previous nearest brush with media glamour had been an awkward conversation with Timmy Mallett at an Oxford United testimonial dinner in 1998, the idea that someone might care sufficiently about what the likes of me would think of their new TV show that they were prepared to shove Budweiser in my face for as long as I could stand up caused more than a frisson of excitement. In fact, when I arrived in Leicester Square I was greeted by a fleet of blacked-out limos, a screaming crowd and a red carpet, though it turned out they were for the Spider-Man 2 premiere at the nearby Odeon. Bet our seats were more comfortable though. I find those Odeon seats a bit scratchy.

Anyway, if the producers thought that by schmoozing the egos of easily-flattered geeks like me, they might get themselves some attention in the football blogosphere, they were of course absolutely right. So here goes with a review. Warren United is a perfectly decent and promising new animated sitcom. It has an impressive cast of voice performers, including Darren Boyd, Nitan Ganatra, Morgana Robinson and Johnny Vegas, and a fine comedic pedigree (Steve Coogan’s long-time collaborator Henry Normal is co-producer). It shows signs that it can survive the inevitable Simpsons comparisons to carve out its own niche in the annals of British TV comedy [note to self – can annals have niches? Check with Mark Kermode]. It has several good bits. On the basis of the preview screening, almost none of those good bits are about football.

The premise of Warren United is that the eponymous central character, voiced by Darren Boyd, is a well-meaning but hapless individual whose childlike self-centeredness leads him into trouble and brings frustration to his family and colleagues. This is all fine. The centre of Warren’s universe is his football team, Brainsford United. Of all Warren’s Achilles heels [note to self – can you have more than one Achilles heel? Check with one of the kids’ teachers], devotion to Brainsford is his most vulnerable. He neglects his family, his job and his health in pursuit of this addiction. Scrapes ensue. You get the picture.

Unfortunately, it’s the depiction of Warren as a man obsessed with football above all else that is the weakest element of the show. Particularly unfortunate because it’s being marketed as a football programme. The first episode is being shown immediately after a Champions League game on ITV, in the hope that viewers will switch straight over to ITV4 to see it. They may well do so, and they’ll be rewarded with some decent comedy – but not much in the way of football-related observation.

The opening episode, “July”, sees Warren reach the end of a season and determine that it’s his last as a Brainsford fan. He gives up his season ticket and devotes himself to healthier pursuits. He sees a psychiatrist. He attempts DIY. He spends time with his children. All of these are, of course, spectacularly (and amusingly) unsuccessful. You can guess where the story ends up. It’s Warren’s time away from football that provides the laughs.

The first and third episodes of the series are penned by Simon Nye. Nye is best known as the writer of Men Behaving Badly, a show about laddish wackiness which very sensibly kept football firmly out of its central characters’ world, despite what must have been strong temptation to include it. Men Behaving Badly had its good and its bad points, but when it worked it worked because it struck the right balance between outrage and pity at the actions of its knowingly inadequate central characters. When Warren United succeeds, it does so on the same basis, i.e. a well-observed comedy about a deeply flawed middle-aged man. It’s when the show tries to be hilarious about being a football fan that things become a bit one-dimensional.

Warren United has an admirably quirky ensemble of characters, including Warren’s co-worker Dillip (who’s bemused by football and tries to get Warren into cricket), his sex-obsessed mother and her smooth-talking boyfriend, and some talking police horses. Talking police horses might not sound funny, but they are funny in this. Certainly the funniest talking police horses I can recall seeing in a British animated sitcom. [Note to self- are there any other sitcoms with talking police horses? Google it later].

Context is everything. If Warren United was being presented as a new sitcom which happened to have a football strand to it, there would be no problems. It’s the fact that it’s being presented as a football programme – through its marketing and scheduling – which gets things off on the wrong foot. As a new piece of British animation, it’s fine – a nice combination of characters, scripts and sight gags. As something which purports to portray something that a football fan might find self-referentially amusing, it doesn’t quite work.

You can see why it’s tempting to present a programme which has football in it as a “football programme”. The game has blanket media coverage and a prominent place in the consciousness of the nation. Here’s the thing though: you can’t possibly make being a football fan funnier than it actually is. From the bloke behind you yelling incomprehensible abuse at the opposing full-back, to a striker missing an open goal, to a linesman falling over – none of these things can possibly be as funny in fiction as they are in reality. As it establishes itself, Warren United may well succeed as a sitcom, and I hope it does. The richer comedy in fiction will come from the characters and the scripts – the richer comedy in football comes from real life.

[Note to self – should probably email the producers and thank them for the free beer].

 

Warren United starts on 22nd April at 10pm on ITV4.


IP1: A Matter of Crust

03/04/2014

Narrator: There’s smog in the busy town of Ipswich this morning and the football club’s joint Bespoke Global Deliverance Provider, John Fletcher, has gratefully accepted a lift in David Hitchins’ Alfa Romeo Moltotraballante 4Ci. They’re off to a meeting with Rachel Tesco, entrepreneur and the brains behind one of Ipswich’s most exciting new businesses, Life of Pie, an artisan bakery, just relocated from London’s fashionable Haggerston district. Joining them to sample Rachel’s pastries is Head of Brand Experience, Graham Bobbins. Wendy Ramsey, Lead Business Logic Analyst and Mick Mack, Head of Performance have both sent their apologies.

John [striding into the bakery and vigorously shaking Rachel’s hand]: Rachel! Good to see you again. I think you’ve met David.

Rachel: Yes, indeed. [Laughs] Well, you’ve been my best customer since I moved here, haven’t you, David?

John: And this is – er – Graham, Head of Marketing.

Graham [sulkily]: Head of Brand Experience, actually.

John: Good. … Anyway, let’s get on. I have to say I can’t wait to taste the product, Rachel.

Rachel: Well, no need to wait. Here you are… the Portman Pasty!

[She offers a plate of small pieces of pasty around and everyone tries them. Murmurs of approval.]

Rachel: So this is a hand-raised artisan-baked Suffolk pasty containing only traditional organic ingredients.

John: Oh, good. It’s a local dish. I hadn’t realised the pasty was an East Anglian delicacy.

Rachel: Oh yes. The recipe is absolutely traditional. It was the way that Suffolk tin miners were able to take their meals underground.

John: Fantastic. I didn’t know that. … And Graham, you have a rather – um – innovative idea for sales, don’t you?

Graham: That’s right, John. It’s called the Portman Pasty Promotion Pledge.

John: Good.

Graham: Every supporter who bought a season ticket pledged to pay the cost of a Portman Pasty at every game and… wait for it… the pasty will be delivered to that supporter’s seat for no extra charge!

David: Wow! Lucky supporters!

John: Good. So, how many season ticket customers do we have?

David: 12,000. Ish.

John: And they’ll all get a pasty delivered to their seat? Sounds a bit tricky logistically, Graham.

Graham: Well…

John: Keeping them hot, that might pose a problem?

Graham: Hot? Oh no, they won’t be hot.

Rachel: They’re supposed to be hot.

Graham: Oh yes. Totally.

David: And not everyone will want a pasty, obviously, so we’ll have to look at numbers…

John: Good point. No point in supplying pasties where they’re not wanted! Could be a lot fewer… Did they get a choice of whether they wanted to sign up to the Pasty Pledge when the money was taken, Graham?

Graham: [looking bewildered] Choice? We didn’t tell them about it.

John: Didn’t tell them?

Graham: I thought it would be a nice surprise.

John: So what happens if they don’t want a pasty?

Graham: Well … they have to opt out.

John: Sorry?

Graham: They’ll have to opt out. We’ve already taken the money, so they’ll have to apply for a refund. Otherwise… well, they get a pasty.

[John’s mobile rings.]

John: Hello? Wendy. … Yes…. Yes. Good? … No, no, not good. OK, we’re on our way back to the office. Could you put an Out of Order sign on the vending machine? … Yup. Thanks.

[He ends the call.]

John: I think we need to look at this again. That was Wendy. It’s total pasty meltdown out there. We need to do some fire-fighting. … Rachel, we’ll get back to you.

David: Great pasties though, Rachel. Great!

Rachel: But the contract…!

[The soft sound of a very expensive car engine fades into the distance.]