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Jul 17, 2013

American custodians struggling to grasp Premier League riches

It's that word. There's something about it. It sends shivers down the spine, and summons the black memories from their hiding place in the recesses of the mind. Custodian.

You never used to hear it, not in this context, anyway: It always used to be a synonym for goalkeeper. The trusty, sure-handed custodian. This new meaning has come to football in the past few years, like the phrase "resale value," which makes signing a striker sound like buying a secondhand car.

The first to use it -- to my recollection -- were Tom Hicks and George Gillett, when those two snake-oil salesmen first slithered into Liverpool's existence. They would be suitable custodians for this great and storied club, they said, not breathing a word of leveraged debt or unfulfilled promises or spades lying redundant on the ground.

That was all it took. Now everybody uses it. Now everyone wants to be a custodian. Mohamed Al-Fayed, when he sold Fulham late last week, acknowledged that there was always going to be a time when his spell as custodian of the club came to an end. As luck would have it, though, he has found another custodian, in the form of Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I want to be clear," Khan intoned, underneath that slumbering badger of a mustache. "I do not view myself so much as the owner of Fulham, but a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans."

There is no reason to believe that Khan will turn into another Hicks and Gillett, of course. For a start, Khan actually has some money. His greatest triumphs in business did not rely on acquiring assets on the never-never. But that word is loaded. It is used because PR experts believe it will chime well with supporters, because clubs think that their fans are quite thick, because it sounds better than saying: "Do you know what, lads, I'm here because I reckon I can make a bit of money out of the television rights." It is a word designed to soothe troubled minds, but it has been used so often that it raises eyebrows.

So, too, the list of unofficial advisers Khan has sought. He has not had a chance to speak with Randy Lerner, a fellow custodian now in the Premier League and the NFL, but he did chat "at length" with Arsenal's Stan Kroenke and the Glazers, proud possessors of the overdraft facilities which own Manchester United.

That Khan has taken counsel from men of experience before acquiring a new asset is a good sign. It's proper business practice. Well done, Shahid. But quite what advice might he receive from Kroenke? "Get a manager who doesn't want to spend any money, and never, ever explain what you're doing to the fans"? Or from Lerner: "It's fun for three years, but then you'll lose interest because you keep having to pay Richard Dunne"? The Glazers? "Don't put any of your own money into it. Make sure you've got an Official Welding Partner lined up"?

It would be the same if Khan had approached Fenway Sports Group, owners of Liverpool: "Try to change your grand vision for the team two or three times a year." Or Ellis Short, of Sunderland. The track record of American owners of Premier League teams is, shall we say, chequered.

That is not because they are American. It is not because Americans "do not get" football. Football clubs should be extraordinarily simple businesses to run. That sounds trite -- and it certainly is not an expression of a desire to have a go -- but, for men experienced in the cut-throat and complex corporate world, an institution that knows almost exactly what its income is (TV rights, merchandise, tickets and the rest) and can control its outgoings as it sees fit (wages, basically, but travel and ground rent and all that) really should not be a problem. The difference between the two is your transfer budget. It is that easy.

That is why it is so baffling that so many people -- of so many nationalities -- appear to be so very bad at it.

Indeed, the only ones who are any good are those, like Roman Abramovich and the Gulf states who have snapped up Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, whose primary interest is not the business, or the football, but what they represent: publicity, protection or primacy.

None of the Premier League's six American owners -- the largest contingent of any country, Britain aside -- got involved in football for those reasons. They are here, whatever the talk of custodians, because they are attracted by the revenues on offer and the global reach of the sport. Kroenke has come closest to cracking the magic formula, but none could be accurately described as an unmitigated success.

Why that is can perhaps be best summed up by the description offered by John Henry, head honcho of FSG, as to what his early experiences in the world of football were like. The game, he said, was akin to "the Wild West," so many and varied were the number of people around whose primary reason for existence is to deprive rich people of their money.

The comparison, of course, is with the relatively ordered world of American sports he was used to. Football has no salary cap, no college draft, no regulated system of player trading. The whole edifice is constructed on euro notes and dollar bills and glinting pound coins.

That is best illustrated by the existence of relegation. In a closed system, where the teams that begin one season will definitely start the next in exactly the same league, there is no impulse to spend to survive. In football, you cannot write off one campaign safe in the knowledge that you can recover a year later. It applies at the bottom, where the race to make sure of access to the Premier League's television revenue is a desperate one, and also at the top: Nobody wants to be relegated from the Champions League. Everyone is striving for something. You have to speculate. You have to live on the edge.

The hope -- of FSG and Kroenke particularly -- is that Financial Fair Play will alleviate that. Perhaps that is what has attracted Khan to get involved now, though it is hard to believe his desire to promote the Jaguars as London's NFL franchise is not a factor. But he may be disappointed.

Look at those sides which have, thus far, benefitted most from the current transfer window: Norwich, Southampton, Sunderland and Swansea. Their U.S. equivalents would have had the option of resting on their laurels, building slowly on the modicum of success they have enjoyed. Not so in football. It is constantly moving, the horizons changing and reality shifting.

All of those clubs have been quick to lavish the fruits of the new television deal -- which has, contrary to expectation, been more significant to the smaller clubs than the larger ones -- on new signings. This is football. As soon as there is money available, the instinct is not to conserve it, but to spend it. And here is the crucial difference: with no guarantee of reward.

Norwich, in particular, have enjoyed a fruitful past few weeks. But it is a risk. What if it all goes wrong by January? There is no choice but to spend more. And then to spend again if you are relegated, to make sure you do not stay there for long. Football is a black hole. Even Wall Street's best minds have been unable to fill it. Perhaps Khan will be different. Perhaps he will be the perfect custodian for Fulham. But it is just as likely that he will be another failed alchemist from across the Atlantic, trying to turn the Premier League's gold into green.