Adrian Goldberg reports the murky background as the Championship team goes into administration in the ‘casino culture’ of the modern game.
Even by the murky standards of English football, the dizzying descent into administration of Wigan Athletic, just seven years after a famous FA Cup Final victory against Manchester City, is a disturbing turn of events.
It is a story of massive overspending, a company based in a tax haven, ‘disappearing’ owners and what the town’s MP Lisa Nandy suggests may be a “major global scandal”. Not bad for a club sitting just above the relegation zone in the Championship, the division below the Premier League.
Wigan, already battling against relegation, now faces a fight for its very existence amid calls by politicians, supporters and administrators for an overhaul of the regulations that have allowed this sorry situation to develop.
Lifelong supporter Martin Tarbuck summed up the mood in the town when he told Byline Times that putting the club into administration “has devastated a community, could cost hundreds of jobs, has undone years of progress and may well kill a football club”.
“The Football League has proved time and time again that it can not control this issue. Clubs are community assets and they need to be protected.” – Gary Sweet, chief executive of Luton Town
This is not hyperbole. Football clubs are resilient institutions but can sometimes disappear altogether, as Bury FC demonstrated last September. After being expelled from the Football League for failing to meet a series of financial deadlines, the club now exists in name only.
Fans fear that Wigan might be forced out of business too, particularly at a time when the Coronavirus is making life difficult for many entrepreneurs who might otherwise wish to get involved.
So where has it all gone wrong for a club which enjoyed eight seasons of Premier League football from 2005 to 2013?
The Owners and Directors Test
Before the game went into lockdown in March, the Latics – as the club is affectionately known – were on a good run of form and hoping to hold on to their place in the second tier of the English game.
But just as matches resumed behind closed doors, Wigan’s Hong Kong-based owner Au Yeung, who has never been seen at the club, decided to withdraw his support.
A source close to Wigan Athletic told Byline Times: “What’s amazing is the speed at which it’s all happened. A couple of weeks ago we had money in the bank. Now we’ve had the rug pulled out from underneath us.”
Until recently, Wigan’s finances were underwritten by Stanley Choi, a professional poker player based in Hong Kong, whose business interests also included a casino and hotel. Choi made an initial outlay of £17.5 million to buy the club, then invested a further £24 million in 18 months.
“The money often came at the last minute, but it always turned up,” the insider said.
“If the owners had enough money to run the club just a few weeks ago, it begs the question: why has Wigan been placed in administration now?”
Choi never attended a game – apparently regarding the club purely as an investment – but, in June, Wigan was transferred to another business in which he had a controlling interest, the New Leader Fund (NLF) registered in the Cayman Islands.
Two weeks ago, there was a further twist when control of the NLF passed to Hong Kong businessman Au Yeung, who tried forcing the club’s UK-based directors to accept responsibility for a £24 million loan used to repay Choi. When the directors refused, Yeung attempted to liquidate the club, before placing it in administration.
What grates with supporters is that these successive changes in ownership were all sanctioned by the English Football League (EFL), which has an ‘Owners and Directors Test’ that many in the game regard as worthless.
Wigan supporter Martin Tarbuck said: “To meet their regulations, it seems you have to have a copy of a bank statement showing proof of funds, but there’s no guarantee the money will remain there.”
The EFL told Byline Times: “In respect of the recent change of control at Wigan the League’s requirements were met in regard to both the Owners and Directors Test and the provision of evidence as to source and sufficiency of funding.”
However, if the owners had enough money to run the club just a few weeks ago, it begs the question: why has Wigan been placed in administration now?
There has been no shortage of conspiracy theorists on social media, including suggestions that the Latics’ problems were engineered on behalf of Far Eastern betting syndicates which have gambled large sums of money on the club getting relegated.
Since going into administration incurs a 12-point penalty, that is now a much more likely outcome – explaining why Wigan’s MP Lisa Nandy referred to a “major global scandal”.
A source close to Wigan Athletic told Byline Times it was more likely that Choi was seeking a way to “dump” the football club to protect the share price of his company in Hong Kong, but admitted: “I can’t really find a plausible explanation for what has happened.”
Choi now appears to have gone to ground and journalists have been unable to contact either him or Au Yeung.
Whatever the reason for Wigan’s financial difficulties, many in football see it as the latest episode in a long-running story of regulatory failure, with owners – often from overseas – piling in to English football attracted by the unrivalled wealth of the Premier League.
Even the club which finishes at the foot of the table earns close to £100 million from television rights, with critics arguing that this has created a “casino culture” in the Championship and lower levels of the Football League, as owners strive to reach the promised land.
The recently published Annual Review of Football Finance by accountants Deloitte recorded that, last season, for the fourth time in seven years, Championship clubs collectively spent more on wages than they earned in revenue – with Wigan amongst them.
Deloitte described the situation as “unsustainable” and has found plenty of powerful support in this belief.
Last month, Conservative backbench MP Damian Collins – a former Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee – proposed a radical Government bail-out scheme for clubs stricken by financial problems in the wake of the Coronavirus. He criticised “financial mismanagement which has not seen clubs put money by for a rainy day”.
“Many are loss-making organisations, reliant on loans and grants from their owner and that has to change,” he added. “We have to put it on a more sustainable footing.”
Under Collins’ plan, clubs which receive Government aid would have to submit to a tough new watchdog called the Football Finance Authority which would prevent the kind of over-spending which has now left Wigan Athletic so vulnerable.
His initiative has been welcomed by administrators such as Gary Sweet, chief executive of Luton Town, who told Byline Times that “football is on a precipice at the moment”.
“We have to take this opportunity to correct the madness of overspending in the Championship, and look again at our ownership model,” he said. “The Football League has proved time and time again that it can not control this issue. Clubs are community assets and they need to be protected.”