The writer is a former editor of the Financial Times
As a diehard Tottenham Hotspur fan, I’m inured to disappointment. The team I’ve supported for 60 years has seen managers come and go like recent UK prime ministers. Most of the players are not a patch on Jimmy Greaves, Martin Peters and Ossie Ardiles, who set White Hart Lane alight in the 1960s and 70s. As for silverware, nada — apart from the odd triumph in cup competitions.
However, the news this week that Spurs could be flogged off to a US billionaire with a stake in the Phoenix Suns basketball team marked a new low. Jahm Najafi, the Iranian-American private equity mogul from Arizona, is Harvard-educated, knows his classical music and is vice-chair of McLaren Racing, a Formula 1 team. But what does he know about football?
Call me a little Englander, but Spurs are the last of the top clubs in the money-mad Premier League to be English-owned. What Hunter Davies, in his account of a season spent with Tottenham in the early 70s, called the “glory game” has become a playpen for American plutocrats (Chelsea, Liverpool) and Gulf petrostates (Manchester City and Newcastle), with the Qataris knocking on the door at Manchester United, whose present owners are based in Florida.
This is not the “Wimbledon effect”, where a powerful brand draws the world’s top talent to, say, the City of London. It’s the Wild West.
In the January transfer window alone, the top clubs splurged £815mn on new players, double the previous record. Chelsea spent more than all the top tier clubs in Italy, Spain, Germany and France combined. Jealous European rivals have accused the Premier League of “doping” the transfer markets.
When it comes to “light touch” regulation, the Premier League is, well, in a league of its own. Only this month, after a four-year investigation, it quietly accused star-studded Manchester City of 100 breaches of financial regulations. The club denies the charges.
One man, Daniel Levy, the hard-nosed Spurs chair, has consistently warned that the amount of money spent on players is unsustainable. Levy has ruled the roost at Spurs since 2001, the longest executive stint in the Premier League.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful football manager in history during his 26 seasons at Manchester United, once complained that negotiating with Levy was more painful than his hip replacement.
When I interviewed Fergie at the Barbican in 2013 in front of 500 United fans, I identified myself as a Tottenham supporter going back to 1961. “No problem,” he retorted, “that was the last time Spurs won the League, right?”
Levy has been a brilliant businessman, though less successful on the pitch. He masterminded a glittering new stadium which houses 62,850 fans and doubles up as a boxing venue and concert arena. Spurs also sponsors the London Academy of Excellence at Tottenham, an academically selective 16-19 free school. But the club’s last trophy was the League Cup in 2008.
Essex-born Levy is a Cambridge graduate who understands how education can level up and cares about the club’s roots and commercial development in one of the most deprived areas of London. He is tight with the club’s owner Joe Lewis, the 86-year-old East End billionaire who lives on Aviva III, a 223ft super yacht in the Bahamas. A tax exile, Lewis left school at 15 to work at his family’s café, developed a string of successful restaurants and made a fortune betting against the pound on Black Wednesday when sterling crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.
Spurs fans are certainly agitating for change, siding with the coach, serial winner and ex-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, a grumpy Italian who spends every other post-match press conference musing aloud about Tottenham’s ambition as a super-club.
This must drive Levy half-crazy because he has paid out £500mn on players since the new stadium opened. The trouble is that too many have failed to live up to their inflated price tags. Only Harry Kane, the very local boy from Walthamstow who this month eclipsed Greaves as the club’s all-time record scorer with 267 goals, has truly excelled this season.
The fans are looking enviously at their North London rivals Arsenal, restored to their fluent best under Spanish manager Mikel Arteta. Maybe Conte’s system is too rigid, relying too much on the counter? Maybe he should leave when his contract runs out at the end of the season?
That’s above my pay grade. But here’s my five cents’ worth: Levy (and Lewis) should stick with Tottenham and not sell off yet another great English brand to the highest bidder. Keep it real. Keep it local.