The Chinese Way: West Midlands football following the Far East invasion

Guochuan Lai and his Albion entourage
Chinese entrepreneur Guochuan Lai (centre) is the leader of the investment group that has bought West Brom

So it's official. The Far East influx that had already swept through the West Midlands this summer has now reached West Bromwich.

Following the purchase of Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers by new Chinese owners, to follow the lead of Birmingham City, the deal has at last been completed for West Bromwich Albion chairman Jeremy Peace's sale to Guochuan Lai.

The Baggies, like Villa and Wolves one of the founder members of the original Football League in 1888, are now in the hands of Yunyi Guokai Sports Development Limited, based almost 6,000 miles from the Black Country in Shanghai.

And, although the Premier League side might currently be first in the pecking order of West Midlands football clubs, they were fourth in the race to get their hands on Chinese money.

Following Birmingham's lead

It is now approaching seven years since Birmingham City become the first British football club to come under Chinese ownership.

Following a two-year courtship, David Sullivan and the Gold brothers sold up at St Andrew's on 6 October 2009, allowing Carson Yeung's Grandtop International Holdings Limited to take over.

Yeung, from Hong Kong, had grand plans to crack the Asian market. "I'm the first man from mainland China, to get involved, and that will give me a head start," he told the Independent.

Within two years, he was arrested for money laundering and in March 2014 was sentenced to six years' imprisonment, which has not helped the club's cause.

But their failure to return to the top flight has not put off other would-be Far East investors.

Birmingham City takeover 2009
Carson Yeung took control of Birmingham City in 2009

Encouraged by the Conservative government's willingness to trade with China, others have spotted opportunities. Chinese Media Capital acquired a 13% stake in Manchester City late in 2015 while there has been speculation about both Liverpool and Hull City being targeted.

And this summer, one small area of central England has become the new home of wealthy Chinese football fans. Former European champions Villa were bought in June, Wolves a month later. Now Albion too, the West Midlands' only top-flight club.

Next month Blues will again make history by becoming the first British club to have a second Chinese owner, when Trillion Trophy Asia Ltd completes its takeover.

The role of the British government

But what significance is there in east Asian interest in the West Midlands?

The Chinese have also gone into Slavia Prague, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Sochaux, not to mention the investment in Manchester City.

Villa, admittedly, had already developed Far East connections, after previous shirt sponsorship deals with businesses in Malaysia and the Philippines, and have played annually in the Hong Kong Soccer Sevens for the past two decades.

But BBC sports reporter Pat Murphy, who has covered Midlands football since Villa were a Third Division club in the early 1970s, points to the simple economic marriage of "the Chinese government encouraging its big economic players to get involved in European football and the stagnant state of the top West Midlands clubs".

High speed rail travel has played its part in attracting Chinese investment to Britain
High-speed rail travel has played its part in attracting Chinese investment to Britain

Professor Simon Chadwick, a business of sport specialist at the University of Salford, highlights the proposed, partly Chinese-funded, high-speed HS2 rail project as a further specific factor.

"The current spate of interest in English football clubs by prospective Chinese buyers should be no surprise," he said. "Football has been used by the British government to lure Chinese investors.

"Over the last six years, former British Chancellor George Osborne actively courted Chinese investment. One of the key enablers for this was Osborne's HS2 rail project, which is planned to run from London to Birmingham and on to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and beyond.

"It is no surprise that the three clubs acquired by Chinese investors - Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers - are all located along the proposed HS2 rail link. Follow the railway line up to Merseyside, and there are rumours too of Chinese interest in acquiring Liverpool. Then on to Leeds, and the story is the same. And in Sheffield. And in Hull."

And is that the end of it?

After taking 10 months to sell the club, former Wolves owner Steve Morgan finally handed over to the Fosun Group in July - and is convinced there will be more Chinese investment to follow.

"I think they've been inspired by the Chinese president, who I believe is a big football fan - and a fan of English football in particular," Morgan told BBC Radio 5 live.

"He's given the green light for Chinese investors to come over to the UK and buy up as many clubs as possible.

"Fosun are a very good company, with very deep pockets. And I'm really hopeful they'll take the club forward."

Former Wolves owner and Liverpool fan Steve Morgan has just revealed a third successive year of record profits with housing giants Redrow
Steve Morgan bought Wolves from Sir Jack Hayward in August 2007

But, wherever the next investment comes, Stoke City chairman Peter Coates insists it will not be in the north Midlands.

"Theresa May will be pleased the West Midlands has done its best for good relations with China," Coates told BBC Midlands Today. "But we're not in the market, or on the market. We have no plans to sell. We want to take the club forward."

How things look now for the West Midlands' big four


New Aston Villa owner Dr Tony Xia
Dr Tony Xia first became aware of Aston Villa while studying at Oxford University

Owned by: Recon Group, Beijing

Chairman: Dr Tony Xia

Deal completed: 14 June 2016

Analysis - BBC WM's Richard Wilford: "While the colourful social media musings of owner Dr Tony Xia have charmed some and bewildered others, he and chief executive Keith Wyness produced the transfer window revolution the club needed.

"A new spine of keeper Pierluigi Gollini, centre-back and skipper Tommy Elphick, midfielders Mile Jedinak and Aaron Tshibola and striker Jonathan Kodjia is geared towards a Championship campaign. That ensemble is backed up by new boys Richie de Laet, James Chester and Ross McCormack - all of whom have real pedigree at this level.

"With the necessary exodus largely achieved too, with one or two notable exceptions, Villa's first summer under Chinese ownership has created a positive vibe in B6."


Wolves boardroom representative Jeff Shi
Wolves boardroom representative Jeff Shi has so far overseen 11 new signings at Molineux

Owned by: Fosun International, Shanghai

Director: Jeff Shi

Deal completed: 21 July 2016

Analysis - BBC WM's Mike Taylor: "It's far too early to tell whether the plans of Wolves' new Chinese owners will work in the first season, over a longer period, or at all.

"What can be said with confidence is their arrival, and the resulting shake-up of the coaching staff, squad and overall club administration, initially invigorated many supporters.

"The changes and spending have raised expectations, so there will be pressure in the coming weeks for Wolves to show that the reshaped squad can challenge.

"Patience is often in short supply at Molineux - as it often is everywhere these days - but the sense of excitement was the biggest plus from the first few post-takeover weeks."


Birmingham City director Panos Pavlakis
Panos Pavlakis has been Birmingham International Holdings' man on the ground for over two years

Owned by: Birmingham International Holdings Ltd, Hong Kong

Director: Panos Pavlakis

Deal to be completed: October 2016 (with Trillion Trophy Asia)

Analysis - BBC WM's Richard Wilford: "Blues' transfer window business was seriously tempered by their long-running ownership saga.

"The EGM of parent company Birmingham International Holdings drew them significantly closer to the end of their ill-fated stewardship by imprisoned Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung - and Trillion Trophy Asia wait in the wings to assume control.

"With funds still restricted, manager Gary Rowett will be pleased to have added six senior players this summer. The known quantities Ryan Shotton and Robert Tesche were acquired after successful loan spells, Che Adams and Greg Stewart were added to increase attacking threat, then on deadline day striker Lukas Jutkiewicz and left-back Rhoys Wiggins came in until January in areas that needed strengthening."


New West Bromwich Albion owner Guochuan Lai
Guochuan Lai was first enchanted by stories of West Bromwich Albion's celebrated tour to China in 1978

Owned by: Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Limited

Chairman: Guochuan Lai

Deal completed: 15 September 2016

Analysis - BBC WM's Richard Wilford: "A transfer window that promised so much but delivered relatively little left Baggies fans somewhere between bemused and genuinely angry. While the transition between long-time chairman Jeremy Peace and new Chinese owner Guochuan Lai is still ongoing, it is believed there was significant cash available to be spent before the deadline.

"On the surface the addition of wingers Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli, right-back Allan Nyom and striker Hal Robson-Kanu is not too bad, but the reality is that expectations were driven up by reports of offers for players of greater pedigree for big money.

"What came of the deal to sign Ignacio Camacho from Malaga? What became of interest in Leonardo Ulloa, William Carvalho and the about-turn on West Ham's Diafra Sakho? The first summer under Lai's ownership (mid-handover) has supporters restless. How big a hole they have dug themselves will be more evident by January."

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