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Monday, September 28, 2020

How to sell the soul of a football club: Wigan Athletic’s fate

Despite finishing 13th in Championship, Wigan were relegated by EFL to League One last week, which served as the final blow for a team blighted by a dodgy sale, cash crunch, and financial misstep.

Written by Sriram Veera | Mumbai | Updated: August 11, 2020 3:01:04 pm
Gerald Krasner of Begbies Traynor was appointed as joint administrators of the Latics in July.

Wigan Athletic finished 13th in the English League Championship this season. They lost just one of their last 15 games. However, last week, for no fault of theirs, they were relegated to League One. The decision was made by an independent arbitration panel that upheld the English Football League’s action to dock 12 points from Wigan’s tally because of the club’s decision to go into “administration”, a financial insolvency process where the ownership passes to a specialised team of accountants. Instead of 13th, the club ended up 23rd, second from bottom, after the penalty.

This has been a saga of a dodgy non-British owner discrediting a legacy English football club founded in 1932, which has passionate fans and whose academy was considered a hotbed for local talent. For every Manchester City-like solid and mutually beneficial investment in English football, there are several Wigan-like misadventures.

Barry Worthington, a long-time fan who runs a podcast centred around the football club, remembers a sombre meeting with the club’s chief executive Jonathan Jackson by the gates of the DW Stadium, their home venue. “All he could say was ‘I am sorry, I am sorry, I had no idea’,” Worthington told The Indian Express.

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Ex-fireman Worthington is 61, Jackson is in his late 50s. “We were sobbing over football,” he says. For the two grown up men, it wasn’t just melancholic fear of losing something precious in their lives; they felt duped by a mysterious series of events.

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On May 29, Stanley Choi, a Hong Kong-based owner of International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) and a high-stakes poker player who won HK$ 50 million at a tournament in 2012, announced that he had sold Wigan for 17 million pounds to Next Leader Fund (NLF). Dig deeper and there is intrigue. In May, Choi owned more than 50 per cent stake in NLF but by end June, it emerged that another Hong Kong businessman Au Yeung Wei Kay now held more than 75 per cent share. On June 24, Yeung took over control and his first decision that day was to stop funding the club. Allegations of round-tripping (defined by The Wall Street Journal as a form of barter that involves a company selling “an unused asset to another company, while at the same time agreeing to buy back the same or similar assets at about the same price”) and insider trading flew thick and fast.

“Who pays that kind of money and generously pays out the money incurred as wages and losses incurred in running a club in these times of pandemic?” says Kieran Maguire, a specialist in accountancy of association football. “The IEC is a Hong Kong-based, Cayman Islands-registered company and a casino and hotel operator. It’s very odd that the IEC share price tripled in June just after the sale of Wigan Athletic. The number of shares bought and sold went from around 75,000 a day to 35 million! For sure, someone has made a huge killing.”

Wigan Athletic were relegated to the League One because of a penalty adjudged to them for going into financial administration. (Source: Reuters)

Even as the fans tried to understand the ‘sale’, more rumours swirled around, this time courtesy English Football League (EFL) chairman Rick Parry. In a secretly-shot viral video by a Wigan fan, Parry, unaware that he was being filmed, spoke about gambling interests. “There’s rumours that there is a bet in the Philippines on them being relegated because the previous owner has got gambling interests in the Philippines,” Parry said.

Even though the gambling theory didn’t stay alive for long, media reports claimed that not much was known about the mystery owner Yeung. Some even questioned his existence as internet trails ran out rather quickly. Does he really exist?

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“Yeung exists, all right,” says insolvency expert Gerald Krasner, 71, the administrator sent by the High Court. “I spoke to him for over an hour recently on a Zoom call. Some of the speculations going around are wrong. I have seen his passport. He isn’t a fictional character,” Krasner tells The Indian Express.

“I work like a surgeon or an undertaker. You can’t invest emotion in this work. We either bury or save them. Sometimes, I bury the same person twice,” Krasner says about his line of work. In the early 2000s, he was part of a consortium that ultimately bought Leeds United that was on the verge of being shut down. This could be his last job, he says. His wife, who had kept him calm in this high-pressure job, died three years ago and he feels this is probably the time to call it a day.

On the day he took over the Wigan job, Krasner found that the treasury was empty. “No money at all. The club still had to be run.” He called Caroline Molyneux, the chairperson of the supporter’s club, for a surreal experience of her life. He asked the fans to rally around with funds to run the club while he hunted for a new owner. The fans dived right in with crowdfunded fund-raisers and raffles. T-shirts and posters of “Let’s Hang on Appeal” went for sale.

Wigan were taken over by a Hong Kong-based consortium headed by Au Yeung in June. (Source: Reuters)

They have already raised nearly 200,000 pounds and helped run the club since it plunged into administration.

On July 12, Jack Green, whose father was a long-time Wigan fan who took his own life after a battle with depression, decided to cycle from Wembley to DW Stadium. It was an act of gratitude that raised 4634 pounds. A week after his father’s death in 2012, he had received a sympathy card from the team’s then manager Roberto Martinez. “As an 18-year old boy who had just lost his dad, this really meant a lot to me,” Green wrote in his fundraiser appeal. “Over the past few days, I have seen countless stories where the club has helped fans in need or dealing with grief.”

Krasner’s success in his last job could well make a huge difference to the lives of thousands of fans. Those like Worthington, who have laughed and wept while following Wigan. “The night at Wembley when we won the FA Cup was the best moment of my life,” Worthington says of the 2013 title. “Before the game started, I looked around, so many of us were in tears. I couldn’t believe that we, from Wigan, were there against the might of Manchester City. And when we won, I was stunned. You know, I have children and seven grandchildren – but that FA Cup night was the happiest day of my life.”

He dreads the possibility of the administrator failing to find a new owner though he still hasn’t lost his sense of humour. He asks if you know any good owners. “There are a couple of potential buyers in Hong Kong,” you deadpan. Worthington cackles, “No, no, no, not them again. Why were they so callous, heartless? I wonder if we will ever know the truth.”

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