Saturday 4 July 2020

Wigan Athletic’s Administration – (Further) Exposing The Weakness In Football

Football is exciting because we’re aware that a single swing of a boot can change the outcome of a match – we accept this, it’s why we buy a ticket and get so involved in the narrative playing out on the pitch. What we don’t expect to change in an instant is the status, nay the future of our clubs.

Just a matter of hours after a fantastic performance against Stoke City – a 3-0 win that put them eight points clear of the Championship relegation zone – my club, Wigan Athletic, were put into administration. There was no warning, no build-up – this wasn’t the result of months of uncertainty or because of mountains upon mountains of debt – it was a calculated move by the club’s new owner who had only got involved four weeks prior. He has effectively booted the club into uncertainty and it seems that the English Football League (EFL) has a lot of questions to answer.

When Dave Whelan, the man who had transformed a struggling fourth-tier club into one that graced the top tier for eight years and won the FA Cup, sold Wigan Athletic to Hong Kong-based International Entertainment Corporation (IEC) in 2018, we were told that the club had a bright future. Initially, it was going okay – the team flirted with relegation but this wasn’t overly unexpected in The Championship where the financial gap between clubs is becoming ever-wider. IEC sanctioned investments into the infrastructure of the club – the Academy was expanded to meet Category 2 grading, the stadium got a touch-up in places and we even got a big telly put in the corner of one of the stands. It was starting to go well on the pitch too – despite a difficult start to this season, the team has been one of the best performers in the division since the turn of 2020. So what happened?

In June, IEC sold the club to a company called ‘Next Leader Fund’ (NLF). Both of these companies are headed by Stanley Choi, a professional poker player who through IEC, has an interest in a casino in The Philippines. Prior to the sale going through, the consensus was that Choi was taking the club from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange-listed IEC to NLF, a private company based in the Cayman Islands, so that ‘decisions could be made quicker’ (any changes to IEC would have to be announced on the HK Stock Exchange).

NLF was only set up in January 2020 and it borrowed £28million from IEC to fund the takeover. The terms of the loan raised eyebrows when announced on the HK Stock Exchange – the interest rate was 8% rising to 20% if it wasn’t paid back within the first year. This amounts to roughly £100,000-a-week in repayments that Wigan would not be able to afford – the EFL approved the takeover. NLF was announced as being 51%-owned by Stanley Choi, with the remaining shares being held by one Au Yeung Wai Kay. On the 24th June, Au Yeung took a majority shareholding in NLF (believed to be 75%), paid off the loan owed to IEC and immediately put the club in administration – despite there not being a single creditor.

Why? Why would Au Yeung invest so much money to buy the club only to put it at risk with less than a month to go until the season is completed? It makes no sense on the face of it – if he found that he had got over his head, he could have got the club through the season and put a Championship club on the market. Instead, he called his lawyers who notified the administrators and the club’s future – both in the short and long-term – was put at risk.

Obviously I need to be careful here as any theory is unsubstantiated – there is no clear reason why Au Yeung has done this. A young Wigan supporter, who happens to live in the same area as EFL chairman, Ricky Parry, chatted to the man about it – and he mentioned a rumour about bets being placed in The Philippines on Wigan being relegated. Almost immediately after it was announced that the club was in administration, the EFL sanctioned a 12-point dedication – which would put Wigan at the bottom of the league. The theory is that seeing the team perform well, Au Yeung moved quickly to gain control of the club and place it in administration. You can, by now, imagine why he might do that.

It seems nuts to even suggest that anyone would go to such great lengths to do this – I’ve heard about how crazy Asian betting markets are but do they really take bets with the equivalent worth of tens-of-millions of pounds at stake? Without any other clear thread to pick on, this is the only theory that makes a modicum of sense. The only other theory that I’ve seen is that IEC wanted to dump the club because it was costing them too much – the loan repayments saw them make a small profit. But again, why would Choi not seek to sell the club externally (rather than to himself) and why did Au Yeung effectively write off his investment?

This is a world away from what supporters should be worrying about – we should be looking forward to the match against Brentford today; the two in-form sides in the division going head-to-head but it has now been tempered with an urgency of we need to win to claw back the points that the EFL may end up taking away. Whilst relegation is only a setback (when compared to the club going out of existence!) it will thin-out the field of investors and may even lead to the club being asset-stripped. I know I’m a supporter and therefore liable to be biased, but purely through their performances, the players don’t deserve being relegated – it isn’t their fault that some shady Far East character plunged the club into the mire mere hours after taking charge.

It’s important to get one thing straight – Wigan Athletic’s administration has got nothing to do with the Coronavirus pandemic. The club was ticking along (as well as what can be expected during a pandemic, anyway) and had even agreed contracts and signed up players for next season. This isn’t a result of a club spending beyond its means – it’s something far more sinister, which is why it needs investigating by the EFL, the government, perhaps even Interpol.

What has been pleasing, is seeing Wiganers and football supporters of all clubs come together on this – everyone sees that the EFL’s checks and balances simply aren’t fit for purpose. A great example of this can be seen through Wigan's supporters – in a couple of days they have found out more information on Choi and Au Yeung than the EFL ever did. I say that because I refuse to believe that the EFL let the takeover pass if they had access to all the information that’s floating about on Twitter right now – if they did, then the governance of football in this country is rotten.

Hopefully, this will be the tipping point for the government to reign in the powers that run football – Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy, has spoken brilliantly about the issue, lobbying the Sports Minister and doing the press rounds. Having worked closely with the club’s Community Trust – a charity that has spent the last three months delivering essentials to people on lockdown, ringing them up and seeing how they’re doing – she understands, like us, that football clubs are about more than what goes on, on the pitch. They are the beating heart of our communities in most cases.

As for the players, to a man they have come out and shown defiance – the captain, Sam Morsy, typifies this. Just a day before the club went into admin, he paid tribute to the cardboard cut-out of the son of a Latics supporter, who lost her baby at just five-months-old, by placing his shirt over him. Like many of our players who have been and gone, he understands that the club is a family – it isn’t the biggest club around, but it doesn’t want to be. We all want to feel part of our clubs and Wigan Athletic, with its community outreach, harnesses that brilliantly. It was no surprise to see Sam was the first to come out and say that the players were going to fight to keep the club going (though knowing the combative style of his play, I hope he doesn’t mean it literally!)

It’s difficult, to sum up my feelings right now because I’m still trying to come to terms with what’s happened. So whilst I spend the next few days trying to collect them, cheering on the lads from my television screen as I do, I would heartily recommend you read this blog by Sam Whyte – though obviously Wigan-centric, any supporter of any club can transfer their own experiences to the spirit of this piece. It beautifully sums up why football is important to us all and why it needs protecting from the characters outlined here.

Finally, I would like to mention that the Wigan Athletic Supporters Club have set up a fundraising page to see the club through the season – the staff at the club were not paid and there are other costs that need to be paid to host/get to the remaining games, so if you would like to help out, please visit the crowdfunding page. Also, if you could share information about what’s happened (including this Tweet that sums everything up brilliantly) or contact your local MP; the more people with influence that can be made aware of what’s happened, the better. It isn’t just the future of Wigan Athletic that’s at stake here now – our game MUST change.


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