Even Thaksin Shinawatra’s ego wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim himself the Messiah, yet for a brief period he was held in such regard at Eastlands.
His takeover of the club last summer, coupled with a supposedly huge cash injection and the installation of Sven-Goran Eriksson as coach led many City fans to start dreaming of gatecrashing the big four. Early season results did little to dispel the giddy times in one part of Manchester.
Sure, the former Thai Prime Minister had a dodgy past, but to success-starved fans his £100m plus shopping spree was enough to dispel any doubts, even though he was the first Premier League owner to be subjected to the fit and proper person test.
In stark contrast to the Glazer family’s takeover of neighbours Manchester United, there were no protests, burnt effigies or breakaway clubs formed. Thaksin had assumed control with nothing more than a small murmur about his past and then the football got underway and all was forgotten.
Fast-forward a year and many of those slightly irritating Thai politicical issues that dogged Shinawatra when he first started sniffing around for a Premier League club have become major headaches for all involved. Mark Hughes, Manchester City FC, the Premier League and the fans may all be forgiven for feeling slightly hot under the collar, but it’s difficult to have sympathy for any of them.
The alarm bells should have started ringing at Eastlands when Shinawatra’s name was first mooted as a potential buyer for chairman John Wardle. The former Thai prime minister had already made an abortive attempt to buy Liverpool, making it clear he wanted a Premier League club, preferably a reasonably successful one, without being too fussy which one ended up under his control.
At this point a cynic may have pointed out that Thaksin was experiencing a little local difficulty back home and buying a Premier League club would be the perfect way to deflect attention from domestic problems by tapping into the almost insatiable Thai demand for English football.
Shinawatra was deposed in 2006 by the military after a series of corruption scandals that saw the then-Prime Minister and his family pocket a tidy profit from both land and telecommunication sales, much of which was used to buy Manchester City. Thaksin may have been popular with the poor in Thailand, and the coup that deposed a democratically elected leader may have been widely condemned, but his government was hardly whiter than white.
Corruption, crackdowns and torture
In 2006, a report by anti-corruption agency Transparency International noted: “Corrupt activities have become highly sophisticated, including conflicts of interest and policy-based corruption. Despite some successes, Thaksin was alleged of having absolute power, corruption, conflicts of interest, violation of human rights and using inappropriate populist policies to win the rural poor.”
Then there was the small matter of human rights abuses under his government. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have regularly condemned his regime and both wrote to the Premier League and FA during Thaksin’s takeover of Manchester City asking them to consider rejecting his bid on the basis he wasn’t a fit and proper person to run a football club.
As Human Rights Watch noted: “Our research and that of other credible organisations shows that Mr Thaksin’s time in office from 2001 to 2006 was characterized by numerous extrajudicial executions, ‘disappearances’, illegal abductions, arbitrary detentions, torture and other mistreatment of persons in detention, and attacks on media freedoms.”
That the fit and proper persons test was even mentioned at all should have been a cause for concern. So far only Denis Coleman of Rotherham has failed this because he was unfortunate enough to preside over two slides into administration, the first when he’d only been at the helm a few weeks. Compared to having large amounts of your assets frozen pending a full-blown corruption trial, not to mention having torture and state-sponsored murder attached to your name, it seems somehow insignificant.
But Shinawatra sailed through because, although pending trial for corruption, he had yet to be convicted of any crime. Despite a small pocket of resistance from some fan sites and publications, these swiftly evaporated when it looked, for a brief period, as if City might actually challenge for a Champions League squad.
Those who raised issue with Thaksin’s ownership were swiftly pointed to his huge outlay on new signings such as Martin Petrov and Elano, notwithstanding that very few of these fees were paid up front and City still owe millions in transfer money.
Suddenly the warrant for Shinawatra’s arrest and the £800m of his personal fortune that remains frozen in a Thai bank seems a lot more pressing to Manchester City fans, not to mention the very strange situation surrounding defender Vedran Corluka’s on-off move to Spurs and the uncertainty surrounding manager Mark Hughes before the Premier League 08/09 season has actually started.
Fit and proper people
The Premier League, meanwhile, will face a serious test of their credentials if Thaksin is found guilty, as it’s highly likely he would subsequently fail the fit and proper person test and be forced to sell up, assuming he isn’t already looking for a buyer for the debt-ridden cub. The Premier League’s Chief Executive Richard Scudamore may sound like he’s talking tough, but all his statements so far have been full of ifs, buts and maybes.
“If we feel the rule has been breached, we will invoke it. We will not turn a blind eye to issues of a serious nature but it is quite a complex matter and we can’t just make a judgment on the spot,” Scudamore said, ensuring he was a long distance away from whatever spot that judgment would have to be issued from, adding that Thaksin has yet to be convicted of any crime.
Should Shinawatra somehow be successful in avoiding a guilty verdict and his money were to be suddenly unfrozen it would come as a surprise to absolutely no one if the Premier League decides the matter to be a lot less complex than first thought, and one that certainly doesn’t require the fit and proper person’s test. If he’s found guilty, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen.
It’s a situation which nobody comes out of any credit with. Hughes may have been tempted by lures of riches at Eastlands but should have been intelligent enough to realise that, should Thaksin run into difficulties, the whole club would be in trouble.
Meanwhile, the former owners who sold up should have been well aware of exactly the type of person they were selling to and must bear a high level of responsibility for the current situation, while the Premier League had the opportunity to head off any problems over Thaksin’s ownership when the takeover was first going through.
And ultimately the fans must also take responsibility for rolling over, bellies collectively waiting to be tickled, at the first sign of a significant chunk of cash, no matter where it came from and any strings it may have had attached.
Modern-day football may have greatly reduced fan power but it can still be heard, from the pitches in Kingston where AFC Wimbledon currently play, to FC United of Manchester, formed in protest over a foreign takeover. Even the usually mild mannered heated seats of the Emirates have seen protests against would-be owner Alisher Usmanov.
But rather than force the issues around Shinawatra’s takeover into the public eye, the majority of Manchester City fans proved themselves to be far more concerned about the potential appointment of Eriksson and the amount of money he’d get to spend in the transfer window. To the supporters, Premier League, and City’s previous owners, money certainly talked.
Of course, Eriksson is now gone – sacked after achieving Thaksin’s target of a top-ten finish. Dr Shinawatra himself may soon follow Sven out of Eastlands, along with Hughes and many of the team’s more valuable assets. Whether the club itself also disappears in its current guise is unlucky but not entirely improbable.
And while nobody likes to utter the words ‘I told you so’, it’s a phrase Manchester City fans may become accustomed to hearing over the coming weeks.