It’s a confusing time to be a Reading supporter. In terms of what’s officially come out of Reading FC, we’ve had two very brief statements on the website and an on-pitch announcement from Sir John Madejski over the MadStad PA system. Apart from that, all other tangible information seems to be coming out of the pages of the Daily Mail.
Of course, speculation is rife, with a million theories in circulation, and many supporters also believing they have the body-language interpretation skills of Dr Cal Lightman from “Lie To Me”, micro-analysing Brian McDermott’s post-match interview with BBC Radio Berkshire and coming to their own varying range of conclusions.
Because the simple fact is that we still know very little. We do know that Sir John has reached an initial agreement with a new private-investment company called Thames Sports Investments, who will be buying a share in the club. Sir John will remain as Chairman until at least 2014, and “limited investment” will be made available immediately in order to strengthen the team this January. Via the on-pitch microphone, Sir John also stated that the way the club is currently run – it’s “ethos” – will remain.
And that, essentially, is the sum of what we know right now.
Predictably, reactions are mixed. A great many supporters seem to be focussed on the short-term, rejoicing in what this means immediately for the team – and I don’t think I’d be going out on too much of a limb if I speculated that these are predominantly younger supporters, the “Premier League, Championship Manager generation”, if you like.
But there’s also a significant sense of unease from many other supporters, who, like me, want to know a lot more about the actual details of this deal before they decide whether it’s a good thing or not. Because there is genuine concern amongst many – concern about how this will change the club, the way it does things, its relationship with its supporters and above all its long-term future. Because, sadly, the recent history of football finance is littered with far too many examples of takeovers which have gone horribly wrong, with promises from new owners turning out to be worthless and unfulfilled.
Don’t get me wrong, this takeover may well genuinely be the best thing to ever happen to Reading FC, and if so I’ll be as enthusiastic about it as many already seem to be. But I don’t have enough information yet to be able to make any such informed judgement, so I’ll hold fire on making my mind up until I know a lot more.
Because although the questions outlined in May’s “Open Letter to Sir John Madejski” still very much stand and need answers, there are a couple of other things that I think need immediate answers.
Firstly, who actually will be Reading FC’s owner – or owners? I’m not quite sure why this is classified information, and I can’t see any legitimate reason for keeping this confidential. What’s worrying me is that, although Football League regulations require that any shareholding in excess of 10% must be made public, Leeds United supporters went several years not knowing who owned their football club, when it wasn’t owned by Ken Bates, but instead was instead owned by a number of overseas-registered investment trusts, each of which had a 9.9% stake and unknown ownership. So not only do I want to know who will be Reading’s owner or owners, I want to know where Thames Sports Investments will be registered and incorporated.
The second question I want to know the answer to is where this “limited finance” will be coming from – and what form will it take. Specifically, is it going to be effectively a donation – a sum of money given to the club for them to spend or bank as they like, or will it be a loan, appearing on the balance sheet as a liability, and potentially hanging over the club forever?
Because if it is just a loan – and that has been the preferred method of cash injection in many football club takeovers – then in many ways that would be an immediate change of “ethos”, of the “Reading Way” of prudently doing things without building up debt. Because any money coming in that stays on the balance sheet is still “debt”, no matter what words may be used in public to dress it up. And what happens if this deal all falls through during the due diligence process, or the new owners fail the Football League’s “Owners and Directors Test”?
And that leads onto the third worry, and an apparent paradox. Sir John tells us that nothing will change in the Reading “ethos” and that he’ll still be Chairman. That’s fine and will be good news, but how can he be quite so sure that the club will be run in the same way when, by all accounts, he will only have a minority shareholding – the Mail reports he is selling a 51% stake in the club. And just why would anyone buy a controlling interest in a football club and not want to be able to do things exactly their own way? It can’t be to make any money – as Sir John says, the only way to make small fortune from owning a football club is to start with a large one. So what exactly are the new owner - or owners’ – motivations and plans for the future?
So again, more information needed – by everyone, I think. Because Reading supporters are crying out for hard and fast facts, as well as guarantees that safeguards are in place – and we’re just supporters! I wonder what the uncertainty must be like for those employed by the club, those whose futures and livelihoods depend upon it. Perhaps this uncertainty might be linked to such an uninspired and lacklustre performance at home to Hull. Just a thought …..