FA INQUIRY INTO FINANCES STILL OPEN
FA inquiry into Stags still open
The FA have confirmed their inquiry into finances at Mansfield Town will stay open while the future of the club remains in doubt.
Stags chairman Keith Haslam has come under fire from fans after taking out a series of personal loans from club coffers.
But last month Haslam, who took charge in 1993, declared all loans had been repaid and offered to sell the club to supporters' pressure group Team Mansfield.
An FA spokesman said: "We have an open inquiry into the structure of financial affairs at Mansfield.
"And we continue to monitor the situation, considering there are proposals to change the structure of the club."
Meanwhile, manager Peter Shirtliff has declined to comment on reports out-of-favour Manchester City goalkeeper Nicky Weaver could be poised for return to Field Mill, where his professional career began in 1994.
Wednesday March 29, 2006
History lesson repeats warning for Oxford dreamers
Former owner has no time for footballing romance as United's tenants begin new era in the Kassam Stadium
Over the years businessmen have rolled up to buy lower division football clubs, sketched wondrous visions for fans hungry to believe then left not long afterwards, the dreams dead, their fingers badly burned. Firoz Kassam, who has sold Oxford United after a fans' campaign to get him out, is no such failed romantic.
Kassam's six-and-a-half years as the owner of United, which ended last week with its sale to the United States-based businessman Nick Merry for £1, have left him with a shrewd profit banked from the sale of the old Manor Ground, and a £50m hotel, cinema and leisure development around the new, humbly named Kassam Stadium which he, not the club, owns. What has most miffed the protesting fans is that while Kassam pounded on with all that commercial investment, the club itself was relegated twice on a threadbare budget and is bobbing just above the relegation basement to the Conference. From his home in the tax haven of Monaco, however, Kassam this week robustly defended his record.
"I saved the club, which had huge debts when I took over, and built a £15m stadium," he told me. "The fans have short memories - they want success on the pitch, but I was not prepared to throw millions at it."
Merry, who owns a dental diagnostics company in Fort Myers, Florida, hails originally from Woodstock, Oxfordshire, was an England schoolboy international and signed for the club before injury wrecked his footballing prospects. He is steeped enough in the U's history to understand the two words which could instantly delight the fans: Jim Smith. The Bald Eagle, who returned to inspire the side on Saturday to a 1-0 victory over Peterborough, brought back memories of his great 1980s spell, when he managed United to successive promotions to the old First Division with a famously flowing side spearheaded by John Aldridge.
Not all fans who followed that rise fully realised how far it was down to the money of Robert Maxwell. When Maxwell slipped off his yacht with the Mirror pension funds raided in November 1991, Oxford United washed up in his insolvent personal estate. The club bobbed about looking for a buyer for some time before it passed to Robin Herd, the co-founder of the March motor racing team, and an Oxford fan.
Herd began to build the club a new stadium at Minchery Farm, just outside Oxford. But he became deadlocked trying to buy land around the site from the local council, so struggled to raise finance for the new ground, and ultimately the builders, Taylor Woodrow, stopped work with the stadium half built and bills unpaid. The fans, alarmed at the stagnation, called for Herd to get out and bring a richer man in to finish the stadium, and so Firoz Kassam entered their history.
"We were planning to develop the land commercially," Herd told me, "and all the profits were to go to the club. But a vocal minority of fans were impatient, so I sold before we could do a deal with the council. I lost several million, but I still look for the club's results first every Saturday. You can't help it."
Kassam grew up in the Indian community in Tanzania in the 1950s, left for this country aged 19 and eventually built a business predominantly in hotels. He paid £1 to take over Oxford United via one of his companies, Firoka (London Park) Limited, which is registered in Jersey, another tax haven. The club was crippled by massive debts, including £8.4m owed to Taylor Woodrow, and Kassam immediately took it into a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA), by which all unsecured creditors owed over £1,000 were paid 10p in the pound. It cost Kassam £900,000, therefore, to pay off creditors owed £9m.
Oxford city council quickly moved from stalemate with Herd to selling Kassam 10 acres of prime development land around the stadium for just £1.3m. That is still a controversial deal, which a district auditor, Andy Burns, is investigating to see whether the council obtained full value. Kassam says he paid market price for the land - he paid what the council asked for - but others close to the deal say the council sold the land at that price because Kassam promised to finish the new stadium as part of his grander commercial development.
Within two years, the ground - or three sides of it - was complete, and it was named after the man who found the £15m he says it cost. It has never been owned by the club; instead Kassam owns the ground via another of his companies; the club has a 25-year lease, paying rent, £278,000, and overheads, £122,000 last year. He also owns all the commercial development around the stadium, which he said cost £50m. None of the income goes to the club.
Kassam said it was "normal practice" in football to own the stadium separately and make the club a tenant. "The club could not build it because it could not borrow money from a bank. I had to give personal guarantees. The rent I receive is a small return on what I borrowed to build the stadium."
The beloved Manor Ground provided the next controversy. Kassam transferred it to one of his companies, paying off secured creditors, then sold it in 2002, with planning permission, to the Nuffield hospital group for a reported £12m. The profit, a few million after planning costs, went to Kassam. Many Oxford fans feel bitter about the club's only asset being lost, but Kassam is impatient with that. "I took a great risk, and I made money - I'm a businessman and proud of what I did."
Kassam was not prepared, however, to plunge money into the club to buy players and footballing success, although he did lend around £1.6m to cover losses. He said he has had no return yet from the commercial developments, and the club had to stand or fall on its own. Through a parade of managers, it mostly fell.
"I accept, football is not my expertise," Kassam told me. "However I was not prepared to throw millions in when there are many poor people in the world; I prefer to give my money to charities such as water projects in the developing world and the Pakistan earthquake appeal. I have nothing to apologise for."
Merry, glowing after last week's takeover, has lived in the US for nearly 20 years and made his money via the dental diagnostics firm Microdentex and mining interests in Guinea, west Africa. He has not bought the stadium, only the club - years on, the price of Oxford United is still £1 - and has also repaid Kassam's loan.
On Saturday, the fans could forget momentarily the hard-headed era of Kassam and bask instead in the shine of the Bald Eagle. Oxford walk on, through the rain, with another businessman in the boardroom, weaving dreams.
From Maxwell's house to Merry men
Oxford United joined the Football League in 1962. Their captain was Ron Atkinson, who played 426 games between 1959 and 1971
The publisher Robert Maxwell took over Oxford in 1982 and appointed as manager Jim Smith, who took the club to promotions in 1984 and 1985
Three seasons in old First Division with a team including Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. Won the League Cup in 1986 under Maurice Evans
After Maxwell died in 1991, the club suffered severe financial problems which were never resolved until Firoz Kassam took over in 1999
Monaco-based Kassam's hotels and other businesses are said to be worth over £90m. Oxford United's turnover last year was £2.4m and the club finished 15th in League Two
Last week Kassam sold the club for £1 to Nick Merry. Kassam still owns the stadium and commercial development around it.
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