Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dave, David, Hibs and politics

So David Cameron endured the "exquisite agony" of watching England crash out of the World Cup in the company of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Any football fan who supports Aston Villa because their grandfather was once the chairman will know exactly how he feels.

He’s also in favour of goalline technology. Because it works in cricket and tennis. That’s me sold.

As the Prime Minister showed solidarity with football fans in defeat Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, was opening up old wounds with a misinformed comment about Hillsborough.

He’s apologised. But he either has a worrying lack of knowledge or he retains a particularly old Tory view of the game. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Should we be surprised?
The Conservatives launched a manifesto for sport before the election. They seemed keen to offer football fans a reassuring hug:

Enabling football fans to get involved in running their clubs

We support the moves towards fan ownership that have been made at clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, Brentford and Exeter City and on a more limited scale at countless other clubs.

This model allows fans to invest in ownership stakes in their clubs, giving supporters more influence over clubs’ activities, while in turn allowing clubs to attract equity to raise capital rather than relying on debt. This helps to create a more sustainable financial footing and to prevent some of the severe debt problems some clubs have faced.

In recognition of the benefits of this approach, we will:

Reform the football governance arrangements so co-operative ownership models can be established by supporters, as part of a wider package of reform of football finance and governance.
It is certainly symbolic of the strange relationship between football and politics that a Conservative manifesto pledges a commitment to "co-operative ownership models."

Time will judge their dedication to this pledge.

But the past few days might offer some evidence that this is not much more than window dressing.

It’s not often that an internal Conservative Party appointment piques the interest of football fans.

But eyebrows were raised at Easter Road when David Rowland was announced as the new party treasurer.

Could David "Spotty" Rowland, former tax exile and son of a scrap metal dealer, be the same David “Spotty” Rowland, Monaco resident and son of a scrap metal dealer, who came so close to selling Hibs into oblivion?

It appears so.

Rowland's involvement in the deal that installed David Duff - then a shady businessman, now a convicted fraudster - as chairman of Hibs brought the club to the brink of oblivion:
[David Duff] also talks freely about the links between him and Monaco-based multi-millionaire Mr David Rowland, who lent him the necessary further £800,000 to finance the buyout of Hibs, and who later received a gift of 30% of Hibs from Mr Duff in return for his ''expertise''.

This was transferred via a Panamanian-registered company owned by Mr Rowland and his family, and was worth about £1.2m as the club was then valued at £4m, Mr Duff tells reporter George Hume, of BBC Scotland's investigative programme Focal Point.

It was another of Mr Rowland's companies, Monaco, that lent Mr Duff's Highmace Ltd the original £800,000. This was paid back, with interest at commercial rates, when Hibs plc went public.

Fans bought 62.5% of the available shares at that time, and £2m was raised for the new company. Since then, Hibs - who were looking for new investments in the leisure business - had the "great good fortune" to hear about a chain of hotels and wine bars in the South-west of England.

They bought the company, Avon Inns, for £4m in cash and about #1.6m worth of Hibs shares. The money was raised by a rights issue and Avon Inns were on the books of one of Mr Rowland's companies, Inoco, as a non-performing loan.
Rowland’s willingness to sell that 30% stake to Wallace Mercer gave the Hearts chairman the incentive he needed to pursue his ultimately doomed takeover bid in 1990.

Despite the vociferous and emotional Hands Off Hibs campaign Rowland could not be persuaded of the historical and emotional resonance of Hibs’ place in Scottish football.

Other board members, Rowland’s wife Sheila among them, conceded that the display of spirit from the Hibs fans, the mobilisation of the Hibs community in Leith and beyond, persuaded them to vote against Mercer's bid. But Rowland wouldn’t budge.

Even a year later, with Hibs £7 million in debt, he refused to cede control to Tom Farmer. Only when the club went into receivership was Rowland finally ousted.

What was that pledge?

"Giving supporters more influence over clubs’ activities, while in turn allowing clubs to attract equity to raise capital rather than relying on debt."

If we’re to judge David Cameron by the company he keeps I suspect we shouldn't hold our breath.

David Rowland is not unknown to politics. Here's an Early Day Motion from 1991:

That this House is concerned that Hibs, the famous Scottish football team, is in difficulties; notes that lawyer David Duff and shady financier David Rowland involved the club in loss-making deals, although they made millions; realises that the Hibs shares are virtually worthless, despite substantial backing from the working-class community in Leith and Edinburgh; believes that the fans should conduct their own inquiry into recent wheeling and dealing; and supports a rescue plan which recognises that football is a sport and not a plaything of big business.

Tory Party Treasurer isn't a job you really apply for. Details of Mr Rowland's position clinching, and eye watering, donations to the party here.

I got the heads up on this from Hibs.net