James Shield: Sheffied United fans - and supporters in general - mustn't be kept in the takeover dark

Whatever your thoughts on Dozy Mmobuosi’s proposed takeover of Sheffield United, it’s not difficult to understand why the Nigerian businessman and entrepreneur, together with members of the current board, must curse the day his identity became public. Well, public before the whole process had been completed.
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Earlier this week, Mmobuosi felt compelled to issue a statement regarding his involvement in the aviation industry following the kind of media coverage which doubtless sent his PR advisors into a tailspin. He’s also seen his wealth, which thanks to the financial sector’s sometimes deliberately opaque structures only the guy in question and his accountants probably know, scrutinised incessantly. There’s nothing actually wrong with that. Quite the opposite in fact. Journalists, on behalf of their readers, are only doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. It’s just that, sometimes, the interests of big money and the rest of us don’t always align. Which as far as I’m concerned, and this is genuinely meant without malice or prejudice to any of the individuals involved in this instance: Tough.

Still, I get the frustration Mmobuosi and United’s present owner Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud will be feeling as they attempt to conclude a sale. The whole process would have been a lot smoother if this was happening behind closed doors, away from prying eyes and in one of those smoke-filled rooms everyone continues to talk about even though they’re impossible to actually find.

Sheffield United fans have a right to now what is happening at their club: Ryan Pierse/Getty ImagesSheffield United fans have a right to now what is happening at their club: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
Sheffield United fans have a right to now what is happening at their club: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
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However, it always makes me bloody uncomfortable whenever I hear or read folk claiming it’s always best for deals like this not to be discussed openly before they’re ratified. Because what they’re essentially saying is that you - the supporters who relatively speaking invest just as heavily in a team - don’t deserve to know what’s happening at your football club. Fans are the lifeblood of the game, the most important people in the whole shebang, whenever it suits those at the top to butter them up. But when it comes to the most important and sensitive decisions, it seems the very same people who supposedly make the sport what it is don’t deserve to have a proper breadth of information placed at their disposal. Which, unless you completely trust that those at the top are bothered about supporters as much as they are themselves, is fine. Personally, and once again speaking in broad terms rather than United specifically, I don’t. It’s important to remain suspicious of anyone who reckons it's in their gift to decide what others do or do not know.

So here’s a proposal. Not exclusively for Mmobuosi, Prince Abdullah and United. But for the sport as a whole. Before someone, some hedge fund or some company wants to purchase a club, their identity should be revealed long before they propose to seize control. Hustings, in person and via the internet, should be an obligatory part of any bid put forward to the English Football League. This would enable fans to pose questions about future plans, development strategies and spending commitments before making up their own minds about whether or not the ideas being outlined are in their respective club’s best interests.

None of this will ever happen. Not until football is properly democratised. But it should, and the very fact it isn’t being put forward as a viable framework by those in positions of power reveals plenty about how they view the likes of you and me: Agitators who should be ignored or useful idiots to pat on the head whenever they think there’s something in it for themselves.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Clubs could easily action these measures by establishing membership schemes, costing - say - £10 a year, which guarantee those who enrol either a seat around the would-be owner’s soap box or link to a Zoom conference. Enabling people to feel more involved with the governance of their particular team would surely benefit everyone concerned? If not, I’d be delighted to discover why. No one is expecting every sensitive piece of information to be placed in the public domain. But details relating to an individual’s probity, past history, successes, failures and vision should be. The same goes, in order to safeguard our game, information about how the money required to gain ownership rights is being raised. Is it being borrowed against a firm? What protections are there if everything goes bottom up?

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Clearly, United probably don’t have the time to do something like this right now. There’s a reason why they’re about to be sold, subject to EFL approval, while Paul Heckingbottom’s squad sit second in the Championship table and 10 points clear of third - eyeing the $200m prize awarded to those who reach the Premier League. For those who still can’t join the dots, the transfer embargo United were hit with midway through last month, after failing to keep up with their repayment schedules relating to previous deals, should do that for them.

Please don’t listen to those commentators trying to persuade you that the EFL’s sanction is nothing to be concerned about or simply a bump in the road. It’s serious and it’s damaging, as Heckingbottom himself has frequently acknowledged.

Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United: Michael Regan/Getty ImagesBramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United: Michael Regan/Getty Images

But as a rule, in the future, there should be much more transparency surrounding ownership proposals. Otherwise supporters can be forgiven for feeling the clubs they love have become nothing but playthings for a privileged elite. And that really isn’t healthy for anyone concerned.

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