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Just What Is Going On At Reading FC? A Look At The Ownership

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With the season drawing to a close, Wimb gives the first comprehensive review of the ownership situation at the Madejski Stadium and what it means for Reading FC.

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It's been close to two years since a Thai consortium completed a takeover of Reading Football Club, but what progress has been made in that time and what have we learned that might help us plot where we're heading?

The ownership group is currently made up of three people, controlling four holding companies. As per the club's website, Reading FC is presently divided as thus:

25% owned by GPT Football Investment Ltd and 25% owned by GPT UK Investment Ltd, which are both 100% owned by Narin Niruttinanon.
25% owned by RFC UK Investment Co Ltd, which is 100% owned by Sasima Srivikorn.
25% owned by Universal UK Investment Co Ltd, which is 100% owned by Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth.

How did the club look before the takeover?

Let's not sugar coat this, there was a very good chance Reading FC could have ended up in administration if the takeover hadn't been completed. The club was left in a mound of debt and saddled with a raft of expensive contracts following Anton Zingarevich's devastating two-year reign.

Anton had invested little of his own money and had instead borrowed heavily against the club's future parachute payments to fund extravagant and reckless signings like Pavel Pogrebnyak and Royston Drenthe.

Sir John Madejski was back in control of the club, but his own financial situation had worsened in the intervening years. Between 2008 and 2014 Sir John was estimated to have lost over £300m, some 70% of his net worth, leaving him with an estimated total worth of around £100m.

That's a lot of money to you or I, but when you consider that Reading posted an operating loss of close to £9m before player sales in 2011/12, there's no way Sir John could afford to bankroll the club even at Championship level.

Madejski described his year back in charge after Anton's disappearance as 'ghastly' and the 'most stressful of his life'. That's not the talk of a man in charge of a thriving football club folks... So why did it take so long to find new owners? As SJM said just before the paperwork was signed...

"When push comes to shove there aren't that many people out there looking to buy football clubs.

"It's basically taken a year to find new people that tick all the boxes as far as I'm concerned."

Fans of Aston Villa, Blackburn, Cardiff and countless others can all attest to the problems of finding good, reliable new owners who have the finances and desire to bankroll a football club long-term.

So the boxes were ticked but who were the new owners and what did they see in Reading?

What did the new owners promise?

Any analysis of the current regime has to be set against the expectations set when they came in. While Madejski did suggest the group had 'extremely deep pockets' it was made clear from the start that Reading wouldn't see the spending that transformed teams like Leicester, Bournemouth and Manchester City.

Lady Sasima told the media in September 2014.

"We will spend our money wisely.

We will consult the management. It's their job to work carefully with the budget. If it is good, we will support it.

We'll just help Reading to go up as far as we can."

Thoughts that were rapidly echoed by Sir John....

"There's not going to so some sudden slam dunk and we're going to start spending millions and millions of pounds before the beginning if the season.

We're going to do it the Reading way. The new consortium is anxious that we do things in a prudent way as we always have done here."

Public comments from the ownership have been limited since, but a pre-season tour to Thailand in the summer of 2015 helped shed some light on the thoughts of majority shareholder Narin Niruttinanon.

"The objective is for the club to have more stable revenue income. It is no secret that most teams in the Championship don't make money and if the financial performance of Reading continues in the way it has been, then you are looking at a change of ownership once we feel that we can not continue to support the team.

All in all the goal of the club must be to get to the Premier League, there is nothing else."

So again, no talk of investing huge amounts of their own wealth and a fairly emphatic statement that the group isn't here to support a failing business. They have taken steps to increase revenue though, with twin shirt-sponsorship deals, selling naming rights to the South Stand and even exploring selling the whole naming rights to the ground, all of which are very sensible measures.

Reading's Chief Executive Nigel Howe (we'll have more on him later) re-affirmed the notion that the new owners wanted to shift the business model away from having the football club propped up by benefactors.

"What we've got with the Thais is they've put in place a commercially backed club. They are trying to get the income streams right to give the club stability and you can see that with the sponsors they are trying to bring through."

So that's the talk but what have they actually done?

Without an intimate knowledge of the club's finances and the day-to-day running of the football club, this one is trickier to answer.

What we do know is that financially the club hasn't gone into administration and also hasn't failed fair play rules, so at the very least, losses are under control. What's not clear is the level of debt the football club holds, or where that debt is held. Previously we had access to the accounts of the holding company run by Sir John, but that all but closed down after the takeover and the new group don't have to publish accounts until October 2016.

We do know that the majority of Sir John's very club friendly loans were paid back to him to the tune of £12m or so, but how the rest of the club's debts stand we have little to no idea. One debt that was paid off was a loan from Vibrac, taken out by Zingarevich, which ended up costing the club close to £18m pounds and a fine from the Football League.

The overall debt for Reading had stood at £66m in 2013/14, so how much of that now remains and what it will cost the club if the current group leave remains a mystery.

On the positive front and infrastructure wise, the club has pressed ahead with plans for a new training ground at the site of the former Bearwood Golf Club. Elsewhere and investment has been noticeable at Madejski Stadium where the corporate areas have been re-vamped and a new scoreboard installed.

What about on the pitch?

Again it's tricky to know just how much has been invested in the playing staff until we see the accounts from the 2015/16 campaign. What has become apparent, either due to the group's frugal nature, or FFP restrictions, is that very few players have been signed for transfer fees or on significant long-term deals.

The loan market has been used extensively, which has provided short-term cost certainty at the probable expense of morale, enthusiasm and long-term squad cohesion. Jamie Mackie, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Ake, Lucas Piazon, Alex Fernandez, Matej Vydra, Michael Hector, Andrew Taylor and Ola John have all been added on loan, and to this point not one has been converted into a permanent transfer.

Likewise the group signed several on short-term deals including Zak Knight, Jure Travner and Yakubu, again, none of whom were offered a stay beyond last summer.

In terms of those added on multi-year contracts or for transfer fees, the list does seem rather slim right now. If you include Oliver Norwood, Anton Ferdinand and Simon Cox who were signed just before the takeover was completed, we've since added Paolo Hurtato, Orlando Sa, Ali Al-Habsi, Jonathan Bond, Paul McShane, Stephen Quinn, George Evans, Yann Kermorgant and Deniss Rakels for roughly £3m-£4m depending on which versions of transfer fees you believe and Sa has already been shifted on for seemingly a small loss.

On the other side, since the summer of 2014 we've seen Jobi McAnuff,  Mikele Leigertwood, Adam Le Fondre, Sean Morrison, Alex McCarthy, Danny Guthrie, Alex Pearce, Stephen Kelly, Shaun Cummings, Kaspars Gorkss, Jem Karacan, Mikkel Andersen, Adam Federici, Royston Drenthe, Jake Taylor, Hope Akpan, Ryan Edwards, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Nick Blackman and Sa all leave the football club, with revenue probably around the £13m mark. Throw in the expected departures of at least Hal Robson-Kanu, Simon Cox and Anton Ferdinand this summer, and the decline on the pitch seems a lot easier to understand.

Wage costs mean the bottom line profit/loss from those deals is a smaller factor than 10/15 years ago, but it's still a rather huge turnover of players, many of whom had spent long and successful spells at the football club. The big issue is that those players to this point have yet to be replaced.

You can dismiss many of the names above, but losing proven talent like Federici, McCarthy, Le Fondre, Morrison, Pearce and Karacan has been tough to watch, and even this season's hero in Nick Blackman walked away (albeit for a hefty fee) in January.

The signings of McShane and Quinn were good building blocks, but there's still been an unbalanced drain of talent out of the football club, and as of yet the loanees and Academy products, while sometimes promising, have failed to fill the void.

New ownership or not, Reading haven't changed their approach from before the Zingarevich era, in that there's been minimal attempts to retain our best players. Let's hope Brian can work some magic this summer.

So what do the owners expect?

Depends who you believe, but when you consider the fact that both Steve Clarke and Nigel Adkins have been sacked with the club far from in dire situations, the Premier League certainly seems the expectation.

Nigel Howe suggested that Adkins was expected to make a play-off charge in 2014/15 and that's why he lost his job. Speaking in February 2015, Howe told Get Reading...

"They definitely don't see Reading, with its potential, staying out of the Premier League very long.

I think they did feel with the squad we have that potentially would get into a play-off position this year.

It's probably one of the reasons Nigel Adkins was asked to leave his post, because they felt we were underachieving."

Clarke himself spoke just last week on what the owners wanted...

"When I got in there it was quite a difficult situation, the club had frittered their money away under the Russian owner [Anton Zingaretwatvich) and the club had been sold to a Thai consortium which had enough money to buy the club but didn't have enough to put into the club, to develop it.

[The Thais] wanted promotion to the Premier League. When you add all that together, it was quite a difficult job."

In just 19 months we're now on to the club's third permanent manager, so this group aren't afraid to make changes, and their expectations do seem clearer.

What's just as clear is that the team has gone from 7th in 2014 to 19th and now 15th.

So just who is in charge here?

Good question... I'd like to know as much as you.

On paper it's Nurin as he's got 50% of the shares. At the same time it's Lady Sassima who's been the public face of the group as Co-Chairman, while the most recent of the three to visit was 'Tiger' Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth.

To top that confusing mess, Nigel Howe has openly spoken of the fact that it's he who's running the club day-to-day and not the other Co-Chairman Sir John Madejski, who also remains at the club.

On his role, Howe stated...

"The Thais have now come in and they've said to me that the shareholders can watch all the games, they can ring me on the telephone, but they are not going to come here every week.

"They have all got huge businesses back in Thailand and we're talking serious businesses. So they have said you are the frontman and we've got advisors around the place that are based in London.

"They will talk to you, they will talk to us, but you are the person that effectively fronts the club. And if there is a decision to be made, you tell us what you think that decision has to be."

The pitfalls of this confusing clustermuck of an ownership situation were evident last summer when Clarke was left hanging around for most of the summer before the owners would green light any spending. With such a huge rebuild on the cards again you'd have hoped we'd avoid a repeat of that situation, but less than two weeks ago Brian McDermott was forced to admit he'd not held direct talks about his summer budget, even with Tiger in the same room.

So Howe's running the day-to-day stuff and Brian's running the team right?

Well... No, not really as the Deniss Rakels transfer demonstrated.

McDermott openly admitted to the media that he wasn't the one who signed Rakels, although he was happy with his arrival.

"Let me tell you how it is in 2016. Managers can say whatever they like, but I know the real story.

Scouts bring players in, owners bring them in, committees bring them in and managers bring them in. That's how it works.

We all have to work together. If an owner fancies a player, then great. It's not a problem for me."

And to top it all off, we've just seen Nick Hammond leave after 16 years at the club as a part of a backroom staff, taking away the previous bridge between manager and owners....

Neymar gif

(Via Giphy)

Right we've just read all of that so what's going to happen from here?

If you believe the public statements from Lady S, they're here to stay for the long-term. She told Sky Sports on camera in September 2015 that this wasn't a group doing a hit and run, or simply in it for a property deal.

"We have a big vision. A big dream that Reading would be a second London.

We will not just make a success and pack our bag and leave for home.

We are going to be here and see to it that the money is ploughed back into the town, to the people of Reading and to the club as well."

She also wrote a song about us, so she must be legit and here to stay right?

What is clear is that Royal Elm Park remains a big priority for the group. Such a priority that it has been reported that the design images are dated from September 2014, the same month the Thai consortium finalised their takeover of the club. The owners always stated an interest in developing the land, but it’s noteworthy that the plans for Royal Elm Park were on the drawing board almost from day one.

Plans are being pushed hard despite concerns from both fans of the club and those in the local area. The land was 'purchased' by the group for £11m yet there's potential for huge profits down the line. 630 homes are planned and with the average flat in Reading going for around £250,000, a rough estimate that would generate over £157m in revenue. Throw in the potential money to be made long-term from things like the conference centre and retail units, and this could be a massive cash cow for the Thai group.

Worryingly there's been no confirmed talk of how much, if any we can expect to see poured back into the football club. In fact, long-term the development could end up hurting the Royals, as they stand to lose parking revenue and suffer drops in food and drink sales if fans decide to spend their cash inside REP, rather than on the Madejski concourses. Plus, with the land sold for good, it makes the club even less appealing to a new perspective owner.

Rumours have been swirling that the club are looking for outside investment and while nothing has been confirmed in public, we've had several sources of varying reliability report similar stories over the past year or so. The phrase, 'there's no smoke without fire' comes to mind, although in truth every club is likely exploring every way to increase the money in the business, so it shouldn't be necessarily seen as a sign that the club are strapped for cash.

So.....

Even after all of the above I still don't know what to think.

All I can do is look at the overall picture of the football club, and while there have been some nice little upgrades in the business model and to the club's infrastructure, ultimately on the pitch things have been uncontrollably heading one way.

The owners aren't solely to blame, but there just seems no central direction the club is heading in despite the stated and unstated ambitions of the owners.

One of the very first articles on this website was from John Keen explaining that there are very few ways to make money from a football club. What Jon couldn't foresee five years ago was a cross-rail fueled ever growing property boom around Reading and the fact that the club would ever sell land around the Madejski to build on.

I don't want to call it an asset strip because we don't know where the money will go, but ten years from now we could be looking at Reading giving away potentially hundreds of million pounds in revenue simply because they had nowhere else to turn and were on their knees because of Zingarevich.

In my humble opinion, the Thai owners may have kept the club afloat, but so far all they've done is given us a lifeboat and we're yet to see if we'll ever get back to shore.