It was the football sacking that made the supporters upset with Thaksin for the first time. The man under whose rule 2,500 people are alleged to have been slaughtered in the ‘war on drugs’, with impunity for those who did the killing, was accused of being ruthless for paying off Sven Goran Eriksson at Manchester City. For their part, the players in effect demonstrated to the owner that they did not consider his dismissal of Eriksson hugely well thought out. After a 1–0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, they went to Middlesbrough for the final game of the season and capitulated 8–1. That was the last Manchester City result before Sheikh Mansour took over Manchester City.
Thaksin returned to his personal and political nightmares. On 31 July 2008, his wife Potjaman was found guilty in Bangkok of violating the land sale laws and sentenced to three years in prison. Both she and Thaksin violated their bail conditions by flying to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in August 2008, then they fled from there to England. At that point the owner of Manchester City became officially a fugitive from justice in his home country, still facing corruption charges. His assets were frozen and it was clear that he had no money for Manchester City.
The accounts from Thaksin’s single season owning Manchester City, 2007–08, show that he did put some money into the club, but not as much as it had appeared from the numbers of players signed. In fact he had loaned City £21.3m, also taking over Wardle and Makin’s £20m loans. It was obviously true, then, what many had suspected, that Elano, Petrov and the several other signings from overseas were signed in instalments, not as the result of massive investment from Thaksin. He had charged City interest on the loans of up to 11.83 per cent, and it seemed as if most of it was at that highest rate, because the interest owed to him after just one year was £5m. A company owned by his son, Panthongtae, had been paid £47,912 by the club for, the accounts said, ‘the provision of promotional media services as part of the team’s tour to Thailand’. Manchester City, with Thaksin on the run, fell into a financial plummet. They made an enormous loss, £33m, and had to take out more loans, as well as mortgage the following season’s Premier League TV payments to Standard Bank, to get the cash in early. Yet at the same time they kept spending, signing on 2 July 2008, for £19m, a gangly Brazilian striker from CSKA Moscow, Jo. Garry Cook, who arrived at City in the summer from Nike, told me that he soon realised there was no money, and that players were being signed on deposit. ‘The fabric of the football club had been taken away,’ he said.
At that point the owner of Manchester City became officially a fugitive from justice in his home country, still facing corruption charges. His assets were frozen and it was clear that he had no money for Manchester City.
Vincent Kompany, the then 22-year-old Belgian centre half who had joined from Hamburg for 6m, said later: ‘At the time I signed, I was supposed to meet the owner, but then I was told he had to cancel it go to into hiding somewhere. It was a bit of a funny situation.’
A year after John Wardle had sold the club to Thaksin Shinawatra and said in official statements that it was the deal to bring City the money and European success the fans craved, the club did not have the money to pay its staff and was in danger of falling into insolvency.
‘We got into a position where we couldn’t pay the players,’ Cook recalled, ‘and John Wardle was asked to lend the club 2m.’ Wardle said he had ceased official involvement with the club when Eriksson was sacked; he believed Eriksson ‘did a tremendous job’ and the way Thaksin sacked him was ‘so unethical’. When City came back and asked him for a loan to pay the wages, Wardle told me:
‘I wasn’t happy; I felt I had done my part. But they asked me to put the money back in, and I was assured it would come back, which it did – eventually.’
Staff who worked there at the time have said the club was in turmoil, and they did not know when they came to work at the City of Manchester Stadium whether their jobs would still be waiting for them. Wardle was ultimately asked three times to lend his 2m to tide them over, which he did.
Vincent Kompany ‘At the time I signed, I was supposed to meet the owner, but then I was told he had to cancel it go to into hiding somewhere. It was a bit of a funny situation.’
That was the state of Manchester City when Sulaiman Al Fahim had his audience with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi. The club brought to him had by now been in the Premier League for six successive seasons, and had just finished ninth. It had a new stadium, built by its local council, which could seat 48,000 fans; that, Khaldoon Al Mubarak has always affirmed absolutely, was a crucial factor in Sheikh Mansour’s decision to buy Manchester City. Its fans had proved over forty years that they were unshakeably, bloody-mindedly loyal, addicted to the hope of seeing Manchester City successful, apparently whatever it took. And so Sheikh Mansour agreed that this would be the club to transform with his unthinkable wealth.
Abu Dhabi United did not say at the time exactly how much they had paid for Manchester City, in the deal concluded in the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, the exhibition of gold and marble, where the country’s family-run parliament meets. Then, in March 2011, a curious court case was reported to have opened in Dubai. Thaksin Shinawatra was suing his former lawyer, an emirati named as KMA, for embezzling £60m of the money Thaksin was paid for selling Manchester City. The reports from Dubai said Thaksin had allegedly been convinced to deposit the money in the name of the lawyer, who had then bought a private jet with part of the money, which the lawyer denied. The details, which emerged in the court, were that Sheikh Mansour had paid Thaksin £150m for City. Thaksin’s own costs from the City venture were the £21.6m he had paid to Wardle, Makin, Mark Boler, Francis Lee and the other former City shareholders, his loans of £21.5m, and the £17.5m he had given Wardle and Makin for theirs, £39m. In round figures, Thaksin had spent just over £60m on Manchester City. One year later, by now convicted in his absence in Thailand of the corruption offences, and with Manchester City on the brink of ruin, Thaksin was paid £150m for his shares.
Sheikh Mansour, with a club and a new stadium, could sign Robinho for £32.5m immediately as his statement of intent, appoint Al Mubarak to ensure the project was carried out expertly, and prepare to spend whatever it would take to fund a club to the top of the football podium. For Manchester City Council, which had spent £49m of council tax payers’ money providing that stadium for City, the deal included no claw back of any profit a Manchester City owner would make when selling the club with the benefit of it. Thaksin Shinawatra was on the run, determined to fight his political battles in Thailand, but he had done pretty well out of his time as the owner of Manchester City. ‘Frank’ had cleared a personal profit of £90m, in one year, from the shares John Wardle, David Makin and Manchester City’s other ‘custodians’ had sold him, and from the £127m home the council had built for the football company, in the poorest part of town.
Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up by David Conn is published by Quercus, priced £18.99 and can be bought here
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