by Richard Brook
I wonder how Milan Mandaric feels. With every new media mention of a takeover at Sheffield Wednesday, and there have been plenty, the frenzy that is whipped up amongst their fan base is palpable. You could not blame the Serbian-American businessman if he felt the supporters cannot wait to see the back of him. That is not the case.
No Wednesday fan has such a short memory as to have forgotten the struggles of the second half of 2010; the prelude to Mandaric’s own takeover. The South Yorkshire side’s grip on solvency appeared perilous. Every month brought another new tax bill and another day lost to monitoring all possible news sources, to keep abreast of developments in the Owls’ latest High Court appearance.
Mandaric stepped in late in proceedings, but not so late to have let the club slip into administration, to arrange a deal which had hitherto looked impossible due to the fragmentation of Sheffield Wednesday’s ownership and their mountainous debts. Mandaric succeeded in progressing Wednesday year on year: from ensuring the club did not unthinkably drop into League Two for the first time ever, during his first season, through the dramatic final day promotion in the following season and two years of Championship consolidation thereafter.
It would be fickle, even by the supposed notorious level of football fans, if the Hillsborough club’s supporters were in a rush to see Mandaric leave, given where he found the club and where they are today. It would be hyper-critical to talk of Mandaric’s reliance on loans and free transfers, with the effects of spending that cannot sustain failure so recent in the club’s history.
The only reason that takeover speculation is met with such glee by Sheffield Wednesday fans is Mandaric’s two-fold position on the matter. Mandaric has openly and honestly told the supporters that he is willing to listen to offers for the club, for a considerable time. More importantly he has said he would only sell to someone who he feels can help Sheffield Wednesday regain their Premier League status faster than he could himself, stating he was neither desperate nor under pressure and that he wanted to do the right thing for the club. With this in mind there can be little wonder that any whiff of news that Mandaric might be taking an offer seriously set Wednesday hearts racing.
The latest news on the issue of the Owls ownership is that, this week, reports from France indicate that Hafiz Mammadov is in advanced talks with Mandaric taking over the fallen Yorkshire giants. Mammadov is a wealthy businessman from Azerbaijan who has made his money, as founder and chairman of the Baghlan Group, in the fields of oil, transportation and construction.
Wednesday would not represent Mammadov’s first steps in football. In 2004 Mammadov acquired his local team, FC Baku. Since this investment, Baku have won both the Azerbaijan domestic league and cup competitions. The club have also become the nation’s first side to reach the third qualifying round of the Champions League. The businessman also has financial interests in clubs whose names will be more familiar to most English football fans, Porto and Atletico Madrid. It is however in France, the country where the speculation linking Mammadov to the Owls originated, where Azerbaijani businessman has displayed the form that will interest Wednesday fans the most.
Having been a dominant force of English football in the early 1990’s the Owls’ fortunes tailed off throughout that decade and they slipped out of the Premier League without a whimper in 2000. Amidst the financial issues that ultimately led to Mandaric’s takeover, they have failed in their efforts to return and have endured two brief detours to League One along the way.
It is as RC Lens owner, that Mammadov has made a name that makes his being linked with Wednesday such a thrilling prospect for their fans. He made an initial investment of €20m into Lens, and got them promoted to their perceived rightful place, Ligue 1, at the first attempt. Between this and Mandaric’s description of who he will sell to, fans of the Owls, who are approaching their longest spell away from the top flight in their history, could be forgiven for wondering if Mammadov might herald their own return to the promised land if indeed a deal can be struck.
Aside from his on the field achievements at Lens, Mammadov has cultivated a reputation as a good owner in his time at the French club. Foreign ownership of clubs is less common in France than in England, and as such is greeted with arguably a higher degree of suspicion than exists in this country. Mammadov has turned that opinion around with prudent spending the catalyst behind realised ambitions. He has reportedly been interested in purchasing an English club for some time, and is believed to put importance in the right club for him having a wealth of history and tradition. Wednesday appear a good match in all regards.
Of course this takeover remains pure speculation at this point. Speculation that Sheffield Wednesday fans became battle hardened towards over many years. Wednesday fans have become very familiar with Mandaric’s well rehearsed dismissal speech, regarding “tyre kickers”, “interested parties”, “nothing tangible” and “when something happens you’ll hear it from [Mandaric himself]”. This time the dismissal is notable by its absence.
If Mammadov has made the reported €50 million offer for Sheffield Wednesday, and the club are in the process of a change of ownership, then the associated excitement should not be interpreted as the fans being eager to part ways with current chairman. If there is nothing in the rumours, which appears ever less likely, or should any potential deal stumble then the club will still have a leader who delivered them from the jaws of financial oblivion and the lower reaches of League One to a much more stable platform coupled with steady progress in terms of league position.
The clamour for a takeover is not inspired by the anticipation of Milan Mandaric’s departure, but by the prospect that someone who has delivered so much to Sheffield Wednesday Football Club in just four years, and who promises to be such a diligent custodian as regards to whom he hands the reins, might think he has found someone who can deliver greater progress faster still.