x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The curious case of Notts County

Amid a wall of silence, Euan Megson separates fact from fiction after Munto Finance's takeover of the historic club.

Notts County's new director of football Sven Goran Eriksson at the club's ground.
Notts County's new director of football Sven Goran Eriksson at the club's ground.

To borrow a term from the American military phrase book, Sven Goran Eriksson's arrival as Notts County's director of football, has been met with equal measures of "shock and awe". The former England manager, calling the County post the "most difficult challenge" in his career, is tasked with revitalising the fortunes of the world's oldest football league club. However, County's new owners - Munto Finance Limited, English football's latest "Middle East-based consortium" - and their financial resources should make the Swede's mission more palpable.

Indeed, Munto's luring of Eriksson is a strategic opening strike for County's new two-man board - chief executive Peter Trembling and director Peter Willett. Apart from the "two Peters", precious little is known about Munto. Although undoubted connections to the Middle East - specifically Dubai and Qatar - exist, a veil of silence has fallen over the historic club. The previous board have been universally hushed, and Tom Loakes - the club's press secretary - empties his desk, for unconfirmed reasons, in a fortnight.

With so few answers and sources, only solid facts can unravel the ownership mystery. Before the takeover, 60 per cent of County were owned by their Supporters' Trust, a rare fan-based ownership facilitated by the generosity of deceased millionaire benefactor, Haydn Green. Having originally saved the club from extinction in 2003, Green died suddenly four years later, his will handing the trust the money needed to buy his shares and take control.

In the spirit of Green's remarkable gesture, the trust "gifted" its majority share to Munto in return for the new owners' promises to release substantial funds - the exact figure remains unknown - during a five-year investment plan. Any failure on Munto's side to invest this money will see the Merchant Bank pay County the difference as part of their guarantee. Registered in the tax-haven British Virgin Islands, it is also true that Munto - a "special acquisition vehicle" - has bought County from their own resources. No loans or debt have been incurred.

Eriksson's high-profile arrival is simply the first "re-instalment" of Munto's investment promise to the Supporters' Trust. Another fact is that Munto are operated by QADBAK, a Swiss-based consortium acting as "Trustees of the Investment Fund". Despite several other factual links, it is here where things get confusing. British media first reported that Dubai-based Al Thani Investment Group were County's new owners, due to links between Willett - the group's vice president for development - and the Al Thani name. The group's chairman, Abdullah bin Saeed al Thani, has rubbished speculation. "Neither Mr Abdulla Al Thani, nor any of his companies, have any links to Notts County," said an Al Thani spokesman.

Looking across the Gulf, Qatar's ruling Al Thani family's associations with the QADBAK fund appear significant, but no one foresees them admitting to owning County. Something which doesn't bother Glenn Rolley, chairman of the now powerless, at board level anyway, Supporters' Trust. "They promised they would blow a gust of fresh air through the club. It's turned out to be a hurricane," said Rolley, who, hinting at the owners' extreme wealth, added: "They looked at Premier League clubs, but the finances and culture of the consortium meant taking the oldest Football League club in the world and building them up is seen differently from buying your way into Champions League football."

County celebrate their 150th anniversary in 2012, time enough for them to reach the Premier League. However, Trembling insists County's new owners are not glamour investors, saying the club's uniqueness provided the main stimulant. "The new owners were attracted to County because of their status as the oldest league club in the world," he said. "There is a lot of romance attached to that and it is something we want to build on."

Now suspiciously quiet, expect County's boardroom - and owners box - to fill quickly if Eriksson and manager Ian McParland deliver Premier League football in time for County's milestone in 2012. emegson@thenational.ae