Game for vultures

EVEN before a ball is kicked in a much-anticipated season, football is facing familiar foes: an owner and an agent, both of whom are trying to steal the spoils and the show from two of English football's most famous clubs.

Stan Kroenke and Mino Raiola are chalk and cheese as characters but what they have in common is their greed and chosen prey. 'Silent' Stan is the big cat who gobbles up sporting institutions; Raiola the vulture who picks them clean.

This week, Kroenke bought 100% of Arsenal, a move that the respected Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) described as "a dreadful day for the club".

Raiola, meanwhile, tried to sell Manchester United's most expensive player Paul Pogba to Barcelona – without the club's permission.

Although a section of United's support might be wishing Raiola had succeeded(!), it does not diminish the effrontery of the man in attempting to pull off such a deal against the club's wishes.

It is only two years since Raiola helped himself to the scarcely-credible chunk of £41 million (RM205m) out of £89 million (RM445m) for bringing Pogba to Old Trafford in the first place. And to do so at a time when their manager Jose Mourinho is crying out for players to come in, not stars to leave, is provocation on an epic scale.

In highlighting the game's major problems and the need for clubs to wrest control back from these ruthless predators, two celebrated quotes from two celebrated old men come to mind.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal's then Old Etonian chairman Peter Hill-Wood are as different as Kroenke and Raiola, but both recognised an enemy of the game when they saw one.

In his autobiography, Fergie said he took an instant dislike to the Dutch-Italian former small-time player and said they were like "oil and water". He reaffirmed his view in a 2015 speech when he called him "a s***bag".

It was the sheer impossibility of dealing with Raiola that led to Fergie allowing Pogba, then just a promising youngster, to leave for a pittance. And only the lack of an available Hazmat suit can explain why no one has dared ask him about the agent's portion of the subsequent pie when he returned.

When Kroenke first loomed on the scene in 2007, Hill-Wood took one look and spat: "Call me old-fashioned, but we don't need his money and we don't want his sort …"

The old buffer was ridiculed for being an upper-class dinosaur but critics should have heeded the warning. He added: "Americans are buying up chunks of the Premiership football clubs and not because of their love of football but because they see an opportunity to make money."

Hill-Wood eventually made an unlikely peace with Kroenke, being impressed by the American's businesslike demeanour and profitable stewardship. Right now, though, you wonder if he thinks he was right the first time.

Kroenke has form in seeing "an opportunity to make money". His success in seizing them has led to him being voted US sports entrepreneur of the year and his piece de resistance was when he relocated the St Louis Rams.

The NFL franchise was the biggest sporting institution in that mid-west city and in Missouri (Kroenke's home state). But that didn't stop him shifting it, lock, stock and two smoking barrels, to Los Angeles, some 2,000km away. After promising not to do so, of course.

It ripped the heart and soul out of the city which is taking a class action against him.

There were demonstrations as you'd expect from a place which mustered some 40,000 to support the Rams on a regular basis.

He has been the most hated man in his home state for years but the Missouri boy is enjoying the fruits of even bigger gates at his LA franchise.

No one is fearing he is about to relocate Arsenal to the north of England or Costa Brava, but it is a perfect example of what Hill-Wood meant when he said: "not because of their love of football but because they see an opportunity to make money". Kroenke seldom even watches Arsenal.

It has to be said that not all American owners have been bad for their clubs – look at Liverpool who have experienced both extremes: the contemptible worst in Hicks and Gillett before enjoying a resurgence under Fenway Sports Group.

Yes, we know about the Glazers but what of Fulham who have bounced back under the enlightened Shahid Khan? Perhaps the best owner of this ilk was Randy Lerner at Aston Villa – at least before the 2008 Crash.

When Lerner had to trim his largesse and eventually became a hated figure at Villa, he noted: "It's a cautionary tale: English football is not philanthropy."
No, it never was. But nor is it a plaything for venture capitalists to rape and pillage on borrowed money. Kroenke has taken a 90% loan from Deutsche Bank to finance his purchase of Alisher Usmanov's shares.

Now, he won't take the Gunners out of the Emirates but he might just relocate to a European Super League along with other like-minded owners. That is the game's biggest fear and another story for another day.

Football really has to get a grip and protect the goose that laid its golden egg.