After the last five seasons Aston Villa supporters have had to endure, it’s easy to understand that some fans want the new Tony Xia ownership narrative to run something like this:
Lerner is gone. A rich owner is in. Everything is ok now. DO NOT QUESTION THIS!
Xia Jiantong (aka Tony Xia) maybe billed as the new claret & blue messiah, but as some more cautious supporters and investigate journalists have suggested, he may also be the Wizard of Oz. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s important to look behind the curtain.
When the club announced that Tony Xia and the Chinese Recon group would be the new owners of Aston Villa, the original club statement, as well as getting giddy over the incoming owner’s financial wealth (that has since been muted and altered on the club statement), included claims of making Villa the most famous club in China and noted Xia ‘became a fan of Aston Villa many years ago’.
The ‘Villa fan’ emphasis and other subsequent statements like the aim to make Villa one of the ‘top three clubs in the world’, seemed unnecessary and unrealistic. Surely if you wanted to inspire the masses who take things at face value, just stick to the standard ‘Europe in five years’ protocol (copyright Faulkner & Fox).
Xia Jiantong (aka Tony Xia) admitted in a Chinese TV interview though, that he had been looking into eight Premier League teams to buy over the past two years, but since Villa has been up for sale publicly for two years now, if he had the wealth and was indeed a Villa fan of ‘many years’, why look elsewhere?
Until the public move for Aston Villa, Xia and his associates’ perusing of the market for Premier League clubs has largely been under the radar; no doubt aided by non-disclosure agreements.
Were they the mysterious Chinese consortium that were interested in WBA last year and granted exclusivity? One clue is that rather than paying the full amount upfront as WBA chairman Jeremy Peace had desired, the Chinese consortium sought a staggered payment schedule, which is exactly what Xia has offered to Randy Lerner. The Baggies deal is thought to have collapsed because of this, as well as not being helped by a drop in the Chinese share market at the time.
Team Xia perhaps also cast a fleeting glance at Swansea City too, who were on the market, as the public courtship by two known two American consortiums over the last year has proven. Swansea’s currently have major Chinese sponsorship connections with the Goldenway Global Group (GWFX), so you’d expect them to have been considered, although, whether the current Chinese sponsors would be a benefit or cause a conflict is unclear.
One firm previous Xia link with a club that MOMS has discovered came when looking into a Chinese Consortium interest in Everton earlier in the year. A couple of phone conversations MOMS had with a Everton source last week, confirmed that Keith Wyness himself and a Chinese consortium had been looking into Everton earlier this year.
Wyness, who is expected to take a leading position on the new Villa board, is a former Everton CEO and apparently still owns shares in Everton, so his interest in leading Xia to the Merseyside club is understandable.
Any deal to buy out the current Everton owner Bill Kenwright outright would have been in the £200m ballpark, a figure that had previously put off the US consortium headed up by John J Moores and Charles Noell (who had also been interested in Swansea City).
Interestingly, in the end, Everton favoured a longer-term staggered deal with former Arsenal shareholder Farhad Moshiri, who reportedly sold his shares in the Gunners to the tune of £200m. Up to £100m of that has been reinvested into Everton for a 49.9 per cent stake in the club. He is expected to takeover entirely from Kenwright within the next two years.
Tony Xia maybe the new claret & blue messiah, but…he may also be the Wizard of Oz.
So did Xia fall short there or did he see Villa and the growing city of Birmingham as a better value opportunity, despite the gamble of needing swift promotion from the Championship?
MOMS was informed that one of Wyness and the Chinese consortium’s specific interests regarding Everton was in the Football Quarter project in Liverpool, a regeneration space that would celebrate the city’s footballing tradition and was proposed by both the ‘Keep Everton in the City’ group and the Spirit of Shankly.
Wyness allegedly was keen to meet council officials, including the Mayor of Liverpool, to discuss the possibilities.
As we know, Xia studied design and landscape architecture at Harvard and his company Recon have a distinct interest in urban design.
There’s a distinct possibility that the concept of the Football Quarter in Liverpool sparked the idea of a similar venture in Birmingham, because packaged in the deal of buying Aston Villa, as the brochure originally selling the club (see below) details, is an additional 12 acres of land located half a mile from Villa Park.
Slightly smaller than the 16 acre site of Villa Park itself, it’s considerable real estate that would be an ideal size for such a development.
While the media has made a joke of a Villa ‘theme park’ for the sake of clicks, the venture would be a serious redevelopment programme, including local community benefits (including educational and renewable energy solutions), commercial opportunities, a football museum, improved match-day parking, fan zone potential for Villa Park events & concerts, and not forgetting more jobs in the area.
Check out the full prospectus of the Liverpool Football Quarter here to give yourself an idea of what could eventually happen in the Aston area.
Obviously, such a development fits into the long-term plans category, as does increasing the size of the stadium to 50,000 by redeveloping the North Stand. Realistically, both are a long way off though, as there are more pressing concerns.
As any Villa fan will know, promotion is vital for any of the incoming Chinese owners long-term plans. When you compare the potential purchase of Everton to his eventual purchase of Villa, Xia’s getting a historical club of a similar size and standing at half the price due to its current Championship status. Plus, with the added bonuses of extra land and a stadium that can be expanded on its current site (while Everton perhaps needs a relocation).
Every season out the Premier League though for Xia, means a loss of major TV revenue and TV exposure of the club to the key Chinese market.
It could be viewed, that the cost of purchasing Villa for any new owner was always going to be largely covered by the parachute payments over three years (in the region of £85m), but what happens if there is no sign of promotion after that period?
No matter how wealthy Xia is, Villa’s kudos and status would suffer considerably after three seasons in the Championship, interest from Chinese fans would be minimal and the financial gap between Premier League teams and Villa will have widened considerably. Xia’s long-term plans would frustratingly also be on ice.
This is why the next managerial appointment is one of the most important in Villa’s history.
Failure will not likely be tolerated and considering it would save Xia paying Lerner a further £30m odd, if Villa were promoted, in terms of cutting his losses, would the three-year mark be time for Swiss-based Christopher Samuelson, who has helped broker the money side of the Villa deal for Xia, to prepare an exit plan for Xia?
If Wyness with his interest in Villa has been described to MOMS by our Everton source, as an “opportunist” – principally due to him backing the ’39th Game’ and his role in the attempted relocation of Everton to Kirkby, to a stadium that would have incorporated a Tesco supermarket – the former Everton CEO is at least regarded as a solid football man.
Samuelson’s mere presence in the Villa deal though, raises understandable alarm bells.
Cautionary Tale Reading
Samuelson has already been involved in a swift club exodus when promotion went begging, and there’s every chance that the ‘Fit and Proper’ tests will have their eyes firmly on him due to this fact and his previous connections.
As many Villa supporters will have read already, he’s previously been investigated for money laundering by the FBI and has been described as being in ‘the business of mass-production of offshore and dummy companies for his wealthy and super-wealthy clients looking to disguise the identities and secrete assets’.
Judging by this Guardian article his talents were very much applied in gaining Anton Zingarevich a controlling stake in Reading. Samuelson had previously failed in brokering a similar deal for Zingarevich with Everton in 2004. The Everton CEO at the time Keith Wyness.
The Swiss based financier Samuelson was then head of a body called the Fortress Sports Fund, which reportedly promised to invest £12.8m into Everton but failed to deliver.
As the Liverpool Echo wrote:
‘Paraded at an Everton AGM and introduced as a lifelong Evertonian, one doubting fan declared: “Who scored the winning goal in the 1966 FA Cup final?”
Clearly stumped, Samuelson stuttered: “Errr, I was a student in Munich in 1966.”
The promised investment proved equally as vague.
On December 22 2004, Samuelson said: “Cash transfers can take three or four days and I hope it is with Everton by Christmas.”
However the money had not materialised by January, and in February 2005, then chief executive Keith Wyness stated that the club had begun to look for other potential investors.’
Yes, Wyness and Samuelson go back a few years.
It’s what Samuelson and Zingarevich did at Reading that remains a cautionary tale for Villa.
After Reading failed to gain promotion in the 2013/14, missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the season, Zingarevich put his 51% share up for sale for just £1. The big catch was the new owner would have to address the £38m debt the club had racked up in recent years. Zingarevich himself had reportedly injected £25m up until that point and was obviously relying on promotion to access the Premier League TV revenue.
What happens if Xia spends big but Villa fail to get promoted within three years and the parachute payments run out along with his interest? It’s a question that should be asked of any new owner due to Villa’s new precarious position.
THE NEXT MANAGERIAL APPOINTMENT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT IN VILLA’S HISTORY.
While as supporters we only want to think about promotion, nothing in football is guaranteed (see Nottingham Forest, see Leeds), so it would be good to have reassurances from the owner he’ll stick with us through thick and thin, at least in the short-term.
Lerner failed to have a proper contingency plan for not making the Champions League in his first few seasons, from which the club has suffered ever since. The stakes would be higher this time for the club when you see how the likes of Bolton, Portsmouth and Bradford have all free-fallen down the leagues from the Premier League (hence the need for Villa supporters to lock down Villa Park as an asset of community value) .
Xia proclaimed in his latest interview with CNN, that the ‘Aston Villa deal is pure business’. The question is – what kind of business?
If Villa don’t achieve the required success on the pitch, expect it to be brutal business, but if promotion is gained sharpish, with Xia’s takeover motivated by Chinese expansion into global football and coinciding with the current growth and modernisation of the city of Birmingham, it could be BIG business that is transformative for both the club and the area.
Also, if it all goes well, Villa will have saved Tony Xia from pretending he was an Everton fan for many years.
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Thanks to Conor Wright for the Xia Wizard of Oz picture.