Saturday, February 27, 2010

David Gill replies to my letter

So, somewhat to my surprise, I received a reply from David Gill to my open letter in the post this morning.  I have to thank David for replying, which he did very promptly after I had sent an email on Monday night giving him my full name and address (having concluded that I would not receive I reply writing under a pseudonym).

Here is the reply:

The letter seems to suggest that:
  1. Publishing my questions (and his reply) in public means he is not prepared to answer them (would he answer them privately?); and
  2. That all important issues relating to United’s finances and the Glazers were covered in David’s interview on BBC 5Live on 31st January. 
I wrote an open letter because I believe there are fundamental financial problems with the Glazers’ ownership of United that need to be aired in public.  The supporters have not had any adequate justification from David Gill or the family itself for the pillaging of their football club which is described so clearly in the bond prospectus.  The club will not engage with any of the democratically elected supporters groups, despite the government expressly asking clubs to do so.  I believe David Gill has a responsibility to communicate with the supporters on major issues concerning the club.  A club is nothing without the supporters, they deserve to know the truth.

Turning to the content of the 5Live interview, I can only reiterate what I said at the time.  None of the major financial issues were raised in the interview by Garry Richardson.  Areas not covered included: 
  • The scale of the cash costs of interest, financing fees, derivative losses, “management fees” and loans to the family since 2005.  The fact that none of these costs would have been incurred if the Glazers had not taken over the club.
  • The huge increase in ticket prices imposed to pay these costs with no other benefit to the club.
  • The inconsistency in David describing the PIKS as “not the club’s responsibility” when the bond prospectus clearly outlines the intention to use the club’s cash balance and profits to repay them.
  • The Glazer family’s inability / unwillingness to pay down the PIKS in the last four years and the questions this raises about their financial position.
  • The justification for replacing bank debt with more expensive bond debt, other than to permit the payment of dividends to the Glazers.       

I'll say it again, NONE of the key financial issues were covered in the 5Live interview.

At a time of enormous concern among United supporters about the financial position of the club under the Glazers, demonstrated in spectacular style by the huge number of fans wearing green and gold at every game, the Chief Executive of Manchester United does not want any detailed public discussion of the issues.  Supporters will have to draw their own conclusion from his unwillingness to enter into such a discussion.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Out of control

So today Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to go into administration.  Of course more than 50 professional clubs have gone down this route over the years, some more than once.  The infamous “football creditor” rule kicks in and the taxpayer and local supplier gets screwed at the expense of other clubs and (in Portsmouth’s case at least) multi-millionaire players.

This may all seem a long way from United as we prepare for another trip to the Wembley, but the same madness that drives clubs to the wall impacts the biggest clubs too.  One of the most pressing issues, and a central feature of UEFA’s report on club finances this week, is the endemic inflation in costs.

The Glazers have always described themselves as being experts in managing sports clubs (although I imagine a few Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans would beg to differ).  Unfortunately, the reality is that they too have fundamentally underestimated the cost pressures running through football.

The bond prospectus is not the only financing document Red Football Ltd has published since the takeover.  In July 2006, the Glazers published an “Investment Memorandum” when they were raising the bank debt for their first refinancing (you can download it here).  The section entitled “Key wins under the Glazer reign” makes particularly galling reading for supporters (and not just because of the title).  Their three “key wins” are a) building the quadrants (where their only role was to say “carry on lads” to the builders), b) winning the AIG sponsorship (that “brand association” worked out well) and c) putting up ticket prices (no comment required).

Because it was sent to banks interested in lending to Red Football, the document differs from the bond prospectus in the level of detail it provides and crucially, includes forecasts for the club from 2006-2011.  It is here that we can see how naïve they are about costs.  The following table shows what they expected operating costs to be and what they actually have been in the subsequent years:

Actual 2005
Glazer plan 2006
Actual costs

Cost overrun

% of plan


As you can see, by the end of last season, costs were almost a third above budget.  Rather than growing by 6.2% pa from 2005 to 2009, costs have actually risen by a staggering 13.8% pa, almost twice as fast.  Some of the big leap in costs in 2008 relates to winning the Champions League, but sadly in 2009 we got taught a lesson by Barcelona and no such bonuses were paid.  The wage bill went up 31.2% in 2008 and rose again in 2009, even though we lost the Champions League final.

In the bond prospectus, the club identifies the problem (my emphasis):

“This increase [in 2008] was largely due to significant increases in players’ compensation resulting from performance bonuses as a result of winning the Premier League and Champions League and a very competitive open market for players as a result of the announced increase in the contract value for Premier League media rights.”

So as the new TV contract kicked in, United were forced to follow the market and pay ever higher salaries.  Of course in 2008 and 2009 we did exceptionally well on the pitch, which pushed up TV revenues; in any sport such success can’t be guaranteed (just look at 2006).

So what is more worrying here, the fact that the Glazers totally underestimated the cost pressures in football to the tune of £113m since 2006, or the fact that extra media money is making the problem worse not better?  For United fans, the fact our owners appear to understand nothing about our “industry” should be of enormous concern given the debts they have burdened the club with.  For football as a whole, the worm has turned as the TV “bonanza” is beginning to work against clubs not for them.  Quite soon Richard “£866k a year” Scudamore will be triumphantly announcing his “success” in selling the Premier League’s overseas TV rights for over £1bn, but injecting yet more money into the system he may just be accelerating the arrival of the next Portsmouth.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finding a level

MU Finance's bonds have stopped their collapse in price and appear to have (for the moment) "found a level". For those who don't have access to Bloomberg or Reuters, here are the figures at today's close (all figures are from Reuters).

You can see what has happened to the price and yield since the offer in these two charts:

So still a pretty lousy performance and a yield still above 10% is not a vote of confidence in the business model. One bond manager was quoted as saying the weakness of United's bonds had made it harder for other companies to issue "unrated" bonds.

But the price has levelled out and we shouldn't ignore that.  Yielding almost 11% a week ago, that's 7.5% more than gilts (UK government bonds), they did look pretty cheap.

Of course the bonds have to be redeemed at 101% of par in the event that the Glazers sell United.  Keep an eye on the price, because if it carries on rising from here, it could be because there are some Red Knights riding over the hill.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

A tale of two rulebooks

Yesterday was a bad day for United on the pitch at Everton, but United supporters, and indeed all football supporters should spare a thought for Portsmouth fans this weekend.  The defeat against Stoke at Fratton Park could, if things go wrong in court on 1st March, prove to be Portsmouth Football Club’s last ever league game.

Portsmouth’s financial problems are so hugely complex that they make the Glazers’ murky affairs look like a GCSE maths problem (if you want a decent insight into what’s going on I’d recommend Matt Slater’s excellent blog on the BBC website).  The common thread running through both United and Portsmouth’s problems as well as those of West Ham, Hull, Crystal Palace, Notts County, Chester (and I could go on and on) is the total unwillingness of the Premier League, Football League, Football Conference or the Football Association to take any action to prevent these situations arising in the first place.

There are a huge number of ways that football’s regulatory bodies could change their rules to prevent the game’s financial crisis.  One of the most often mentioned areas is the “fit and proper person” test for owners (which I couldn’t help thinking of when I heard Peter Risdale, now Chairman of Cardiff City, on 5Live on Saturday).  Assessing individuals is however, inherently subjective and thus open to legal challenge.  By contrast, adding certain financial requirements to league or FA rules is very, very easy.  To see how easy, we just need to look at the US’ National Football League (“NFL”) and its limits on debt.

The NFL’s rulebook (or to give it its full name, “The Constitution and Bylaws of the National Football League”) came into force in 1970 and has been amended by 106 resolutions since.  The rulebook covers a myriad of topics, including “unsportsmanlike conduct”, Superbowl tickets and the coaches’ pension plan.  Club debt, is covered by various resolutions which set a “debt ceiling” (formerly called a “debt limitation”) for each member franchise.  The first ceiling was set in 1988, with all clubs being limited to $35m of debt (other than trade creditors).  The 1998 resolution put in place a provision for the limit to be re-examined every year.

Fast forward to the most recent resolution on the subject (in 2005, page 264 of the pdf version) and the limit today is $150m, with provision that within this sum, only $25m of the owners’ liabilities could be secured on club assets.  There is also the following, relating to borrowing incurred when buying a franchise (my emphasis):

“…in connection with any acquisitions of a member club or any controlling interest therein, the principal and/or controlling owner shall be required to invest equity (cash on hand or funds borrowed against other current or determinable futures assets of such owner) in a minimum amount to be determined by the Finance Committee, and no acquisition transaction that the Finance Committee finds to be excessively leveraged shall be recommended by the Finance Committee for membership approval. 

So if you want to buy an NFL franchise, you need your financial structure approved by league’s Finance Committee, with the additional warning that anything “excessively leveraged” won’t be approved. It almost goes without saying, but if the Premier League had the same rules, the Glazers’ takeover of United and the Hicks / Gillett takeover of Liverpool would have been forbidden.

I’m not advocating for one moment that English football becomes like American “football”, but the NFL debt rules are almost breathtakingly simple and show how easy it is to impose financial discipline.  In the Premier League, a debt limit based on a single number for all clubs would be madness of course.  Wigan Athletic has a turnover of around £50m and United has a turnover of around £280m, so to set them both the same limit would make no sense.  Tough though it is to admit it, Dave Whelan of Wigan probably had it about right last week when he suggested a debt limit of 25% of turnover for Premier League clubs.  Any new rule would probably need additional limits relating to borrowing to build or enhance grounds, nobody would want a system that prevented Arsenal building the Emirates.  The principle remains however that it is extremely simple, if a sporting league chooses to do so, to impose rules restricting member organisations debts for the good of the sport.

All this is obviously an anathema to not only the Glazers, Hicks and Gillett but also to Richard “860k a year” Scudamore, the self styled football “traditionalist” and Premier League Chief Executive.  Scudamore, who must drive his in-house PR people insane with his constant forays into the media has several objections to limiting football debt, each more perverse than the last.  The weirdest I have read is his suggestion that debt is too hard to define, yet the NFL rules manage it in forty-five words.

A current favourite, pedalled in the News of the World recently under the optimistic (or fatalistic depending on where you place the emphasis) headline “We Haven’t Lost Any Clubs Yet” was the argument that clubs should run their own affairs.  To quote the great man:

“……I'm sure you don't want the Premier League running your club. Club directors have the opportunity to run their clubs how they see fit - all the ones I meet want what every fan wants; success on the pitch.

Now of course nobody wants the Premier League to run anything important, given its lack of action at Portsmouth, you wouldn’t let it look after your cat whilst you went on holiday.  But Scudamore’s is of course a specious argument.  Some sort of NFL style “debt ceiling” does not mean the league “runs” clubs, it is a criteria for allowing a club into the league.  The Premier League’s rulebook (a lot glossier than the NFL’s) is full of requirements for clubs (such as the away dressing room having to exceed 30m2 for example or more importantly the collective negotiation and sharing of media revenues).  It is in the nature of sports leagues that they have rules, and a debt ceiling would just be another rule (albeit an important one).

The problem with Scudamore of course is that he is one of the last true believers in capitalism in football.  In a Telegraph interview last week (imagine those Premier League PR people crying themselves to sleep again) he came out with this:

“There is some emotiveness about leveraged debt. I understand that. We go through this constant struggle between people saying 'clubs should be more professional and businesslike’ but actually a lot of people don’t like some of the business methods brought into the game — like leveraged debt.’’

I think this could have been the best Scudamorism yet.  Putting aside which “people” are saying that clubs should be more “businesslike”, why on earth should particular “business methods” be brought into football if they add nothing?  Certain very common “business methods”, such as clubs being able to takeover their competitors for example, are banned already and I don’t hear a clamour for this to change.  Supporters of Liverpool and United aren’t “emotive” about leveraged debt, they are rightly appalled by it.  Leveraged buyouts have some limited value in commercial life, I’ve invested in some over the years, but their principle positive, driving efficiency in companies, has operated in a perverse way at England’s two most successful clubs.  Neither United nor Liverpool were “inefficient” operationally, in United’s case it was the most efficient football club in the world.  The Glazers have “improved” United financially in only one way, they have tested the supply/demand balance for tickets by raising prices.  At Liverpool, the owners have blown a hole in the balance sheet that has hugely delayed (at best) the one “efficiency” the club needed, a new stadium.  So, zero out of ten for this particular “business method”.

Scudamore and his trappist equivalents at the Football Association (you’d almost think it was World Cup bidding year) are the King Canutes of the modern game, shouting at the tide of debt  as it begins to seep under their toes.  Football might be a business (a strange one where the vast majority of companies make no money), but it is first and foremost a sport and sports can have rules, sports DO have rules.  Big bad capitalist American sport has rules.  If the NFL can limit debt in its clubs with one page of A4, there is room in the Premier League’s 165 page rulebook too.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

An open letter to David Gill with 10 key financial questions

Following David Gill's somewhat unsatisfactory radio interview with Garry Richardson on 31st January (his only formal statements about United's finances since the bond issue) and the emotional exchange of views he had with two supporters at Birmingham University last week, I am today sending David an open letter with ten key financial questions about the Glazers' stewardship of the club.

The full text is set out below and the letter can be downloaded in pdf form here.

I have a lot of time for David who is clearly an excellent administrator in an "industry" lacking in such people.  In the plc days I met him on several occasions.  I do however think he is not being straight with the media or supporters about key aspects of the club's financial position and my questions attempt to get to these aspects.

The amount of interest costs and fees imposed by the Glazers on the club (including monies taken for the Glazer family's personal benefit) since the takeover compared to exactly zero the family have invested in the club (rather than in buying it).  Without these costs, ticket prices could have been frozen at pre-takeover levels and the club would still be worse off.

David's dismissal of a potential sale of Carrington, a prize footballing asset built by the club entirely from its own resources.  Such a sale is definitely envisaged by the bond document and would be another direct transfer of value from the club to the Glazer family.

Of most importance, the crystal clear mechanisms put in place by the bond covenants to allow club profits to be used to pay down the PIKS, which totally refute David's many statements that this debt is not Manchester United's "problem".  These mechanisms are the only "benefit" the bonds provide.

I don't know whether David will reply to my letter, but in any case I believe (from a professional point of view as well as that of a supporter) that my 10 questions represent the subjects on which the United management and the Glazers must be challenged.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Today United v AC Milan on the Champions League

Today is THE BIG GAME against AC Milan. It will be GREAT to win at San Siro so that we're playing in a calm way at Old Trafford. So, don't miss it!  Your friend and writer of this blog. So long!

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, February 14, 2010


United 2-1 Milan, 08.05.58, European Cup semi-final 1st leg
A patched-up XI - including four survivors of February’s Munich air crash - gave a spirited display, winning with goals from Dennis Viollet and Ernie Taylor (pen).

Milan 4-0 United, 14.05.58, European Cup semi-final 2nd leg
An arduous trek – the Reds arrived just 25 minutes before kick-off – and a hostile reception teed up a torrid test. Harry Gregg admitted, “Milan were a class above us.”

Milan 2-0 United, 23.04.69, European Cup semi-final 1st leg
The Reds’ cause was hit by Nobby Stiles limping off and John Fitzpatrick’s sending off. “Some of the decisions were absolutely disgraceful,” complained Paddy Crerand.

United 1-0 Milan, 15.05.69, European Cup semi-final 2nd leg
Bobby Charlton broke through in the 70th minute but despite besieging the Milan goal, the Reds couldn’t equalise on aggregate - although a clear Denis Law goal was disallowed.

United 0-1 Milan, 23.02.05, Champions League 2nd round 1st leg
The Italians gained their first win on English soil when Hernan Crespo punished an error by Reds keeper Roy Carroll in the 78th minute. Sir Alex said: “The opportunities we had in the first half were rushed.”

Milan 1-0 United, 08.03.05, Champions League 2nd round 2nd leg
The Rossoneri gave the perfect lesson in how to defend a slender advantage. Crespo scored the only goal again, cleverly looping a header over Tim Howard to seal the tie and book a final place opposite Liverpool.

United 3-2 Milan, 24.04.07, Champions League semi-final 1st leg
Ronaldo drew first blood, only for Kaka to strike twice. Rooney converted a sumptuous Paul Scholes pass to equalise on the hour – and then lashed his second goal past Dida to win the home leg in injury time.

Milan 3-0 United, 02.05.07, Champions League semi-final 2nd leg
Carlo Ancelotti’s side proved too strong as Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi completed a comprehensive win. Milan went on to be worthy champions of Europe, beating Liverpool in the final.

Source: RedView
Thanks for reading!

Gardening Leave

There are already many good reasons to love Tuscany: the delightfully sensual landscape, the magnificent architecture, the glorious food and the ravishing women (or is it ravishing food and glorious women?), but we can now happily add another one to the long list: Mark Mills’ second novel, “The Savage Garden”, which is a haunting tale of murder, love, divided loyalties and innocence lost set in post-war Italy. It’s a beautifully evocative story of a “long hot summer”, as far removed from “Chiantishire” as you could imagine, though Mills does describe the cities of Florence and Siena with much affection, while perfectly capturing the mysterious atmosphere of the eponymous garden.

Mark Mills is a British author, who has lived in both Italy and France. Like the hero in “The Savage Garden”, he also graduated from Cambridge University. To date, he has only published three novels, though his first book “Amagansett” won the 2004 award for Best Crime Novel by a Debut Author from the prestigious Crime Writers Association. Subsequently re-titled the somewhat less cryptic “The Whaleboat House”, Mills’ debut immediately exhibited his brand of elegant, stylish writing, but also established his trademark themes of time and place, namely setting his stories in the period after World War II in exotic locations (in this case, Long Island). In the same vein, his third novel “The Information Officer” is located in Malta, though this time the story actually takes place during the Second World War.

"This Charming Man"

In “The Savage Garden”, an indolent student, Adam Strickland, follows up a suggestion by his tutor, the learned Professor Crispin Leonard, to travel to the Villa Docci in Tuscany to study the architecture for his thesis. Although the professor offers muted praise for the house itself, “An impressive, if somewhat pedestrian, example of High Renaissance Tuscan vernacular”, he is more effusive about the stunning garden, where “art and nature come together to create a whole new entity”. During his studies, Adam finds himself drawn towards two possible murders and the (family) ties that bind them together, even though they are separated by four hundred years. The first secret is uncovered via a series of clues in the 16th century garden, while the second mystery is altogether closer to home, just after the Nazi occupation of Italy came to a violent end. Solving the first puzzle turns Adam into something of an academic hero, but speculating on the latter places his life in danger.

Built by a banker as a memorial to his wife, who died in 1548 at the tender age of 25, the striking, but disquieting, garden becomes truly enchanted for Adam. A dazzling vision of wooded glades, grottoes, temples, reflecting pools and classical statues of “petrified gods, goddesses and nymphs playing out their troubled stories on this leafy stage”, it seems to give the habitual slacker a sense of purpose for the first time in his young life. The fascinating garden is used as a plot vehicle to introduce us to Italian history and culture, as well as the Doccis’ family background, but is described in loving detail, “Having laid out this new kingdom, Federico had then dedicated it to Flora, goddess of flowers, and populated it with the characters from ancient mythology over whom she held sway: Hyacinth, Narcissus and Adonis. All had died tragically, and all lived on in the flowers that burst from the earth where their blood had spilled - the same flowers that still enameled the ground in their respective areas of the garden every springtime”. Little wonder that Adam takes time to smell the flowers, so to speak.

"Until I learn to accept my reward"

Everyone believes that the grieving husband had designed the garden as a spectacular homage to his dead wife, emphasised by carving her name into the triumphal arch over the splendid amphitheatre, but Adam senses that something is not quite right about the place. He is struck by certain discordant elements in the garden’s symmetry with the placement of the statues and their expressions oddly dissonant and even unsettling, especially a rather provocative marble statue of the banker’s wife. He begins to suspect that the garden’s iconography contains a far more sinister message, representing the late Signor Docci’s confession that he murdered his wife, but also explaining the motive for his crime. The cuckolded husband had actually poisoned his spouse to avenge her adulterous ways. A savage garden indeed.

Ignoring any statu(t)e of limitations, Adam makes use of classical Italian literature to piece together the clues. He first consults Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, a volume given to him by his professor, in an attempt to discern the meaning of the different statues and whom they might represent, but he eventually realises that this is a false trail. However, his literary approach is still valid and a careful reading of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” enables him to decipher the husband’s intentions, as the nine-tiered garden is clearly modeled on the nine circles of hell.

The story parallels a more recent killing, when Emilio, the eldest son of Signora Francesca Docci, the imperious, but frail matriarch of the Villa, was shot by German soldiers as they retreated. However, Adam discovers that there are several versions of this death and he cannot understand why Francesca has sealed off the floor where Emilio was murdered, as this obliges the family to live forever with this painful memory. Just as he did in “The Whaleboat House”, Mills uses a suspicious death as a way to examine the scars from war that have never quite healed in a tight-knit community. The German occupation devastated the village with understandable tensions still present between the families of collaborators and partisans. The Docci family had come to an understanding with the culture-loving Nazi officer, so that the Villa’s works of art and historical gardens were maintained, but this arrangement was unexpectedly terminated in a disastrous, drunken night of violence, leaving dark secrets hidden within the family domain.

Having said that this is a book about two mysteries, it’s not really a traditional whodunit, but more of an intriguing puzzle – a genuine literary thriller. You will have to look elsewhere for blood, gore, forensics and a high body count, though Mills skillfully creates a growing air of menace with the relative lack of action only increasing the suspense. No, this is a novel of detection, reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, at one stage Adam shares a private joke with his brother Harry that references Arthur Conan Doyle’s finest creation. However, don’t expect a neat dénouement in the style of Agatha Christie, where the culprit is dramatically unveiled before the assembled guests. Mills is much more restrained and understated than that.

"Hold your head high"

At its heart, the book is really about Adam’s development, his coming of age, where he starts to use his brain, rather than always taking the easy option. Like his namesake in the Garden of Eden (don’t tell me that’s a coincidence), Adam rises to the challenge – in both senses. We first encounter him as a rather lazy student, before accompanying him in the guise of innocent abroad, though there is a mounting sense of a loss of innocence in our hero, like Michael Frayn’s nostalgic “Spies”. Initially a reluctant detective (“This means nothing to me/Oh, Siena”), he slowly becomes an obsessive investigator, as he is profoundly affected by his environment. In Cambridge Adam was unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend, but in the warmth of Italy he transforms into Mr. Loverman, bedding not one, but two Latin lovelies. In the end, the youthful scholar comes away with much more than a thesis, “barely recognising himself”.

There are romantic diversions aplenty in this novel with love (and lust) playing a large role throughout. Adam finds the Docci family, their house and unique garden equally seductive, but he is also captivated by the more earthy pleasures offered by the gorgeous widow Signora Fanelli, the sexually frustrated owner of the local pensione, who is described as a “stringier version of Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze”. Good enough for Adam – and for most red-blooded males, I would have thought.

"Storm in a teacup"

In the course of his investigations, Adam also has a fling with Antonella, the scarred, but alluring, granddaughter of Signora Docci. He is even more entranced by her feminine charms than the mystifying garden, though her valuable insight helps him to penetrate its hidden meaning. Ultimately he is only fixated on solving the puzzle at the cost of their relationship, which almost brings to life the description of the garden’s temple, “The building was dedicated to Echo, the unfortunate nymph who fell hard for Narcissus. He, too preoccupied with his own beauty, spurned her attentions, whereupon Echo, heartbroken, faded away until only her voice remained.”

Moving stuff, but the beautiful Antonella may not be everything she appears to be. Has she in fact been deceiving Adam? He begins to suspect that his summer project is an elaborate set-up, where he is not proceeding of his own volition, but is being used as a pawn in Signora Docci’s Machiavellian schemes to uncover the truth behind the Villa’s two suspicious deaths. Professor Leonard had warned Adam not to under-estimate his hostess, even though she might be old and frail. The Docci’s have some murky skeletons hidden away in their “History of Violence”.

In fact, everyone appears to have something to hide in this novel about the art of duplicity – about young love, betrayal and sibling rivalry. Adam’s older, roguish brother Harry turns up out of the blue, ostensibly to provide some light relief in his role as a scrounging raconteur, but he also highlights Adam’s lack of perception about their own family secrets, when he informs him that their father has been playing away with his secretary. Similar to the poignant “The Whaleboat House”, which served as a lyrical lament to the fishing community whose traditional way of life was threatened by the arrival of wealthy New Yorkers, a keen sense of loss and longing also suffuses Mills’ second novel, affecting all those we encounter.

One of the author’s great strengths is to draw a cast of credible characters with the appropriate shades of light and dark. Mills himself has said, “There is an old adage in scriptwriting circles which goes ‘character is action’. The plot can only do a certain amount. If the characters don't hold the attention of the reader, then you are fighting an uphill battle”, which is difficult to contradict. In this book, the individuals are all solid, charming, likable people, and it is all too easy to see how Adam believes them. Fausto, a surprisingly well read, but cynical, former soldier actually warns him of the dangers of getting too close to the family, “Be careful up there at the Villa Docci. It’s a bad place and people have a tendency to die there”. Then there is Maria, the unfriendly housekeeper, who acts as Signora Docci’s eyes and ears, appraising Adam “as if he were a horse she was thinking of betting on (and leaving him with the distinct impression that she wouldn’t be reaching for her purse anytime soon)”.

"Mystery man"

This is a good example of Mills’ crisp, elegant prose, but other instances abound. During a storm, “The treetops swayed like drunken lovers on a dance floor”. A work of art is not considered a masterpiece, “but it was distinctive, an unsettling blend of innocence and intensity - like the gaze of a child staring at you from the rear window of the car in front”. His very pleasing writing style is erudite and intelligent, without ever being pretentious or condescending. There are many literary pleasures to be found here: rich imagery, lush characterisations and wonderfully comprehensive research. Its beauty lies in its subtlety, as his knowledge of art, history, literature and nature is worn lightly, yet convincingly, providing far more depth than you would expect in most crime novels. Not only does he manage to artfully weave his way through a multi-layered narrative, seamlessly switching between three time periods, but his plot is deftly paced, taking its time, while still managing to be totally gripping.

Obvious comparisons would include Iain Pears for his blend of crime and history, though his novels are set in a much earlier era, and EM Forster, whose “A Room with a View” was memorably located in Florence. However, John Fowles’ “The Magus” is possibly more apposite, as it also features a seductive young girl leading a perplexed protagonist into a secret world. In terms of the psychological suspense, fans of PD James would surely not be disappointed in Mills’ work.

"Bound for glory"

“The Savage Garden” will appeal to those who love a good mystery (or two). As one of the novel’s characters says, “Things can make sense at the time, but as you get older those consolations no longer help you sleep. It's the only thing I've learned. We all think we know the answer, and we're all wrong. Shit, I'm not sure we even know what the question is”. By the end of the story, it’s not only Adam who has fallen under the spell of the garden. And, by the way, you don’t need to like gardening to enjoy this book.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Politicians watch no.3

Who are you going to vote for in the forthcoming general election (apologies to those too young or too foreign or too incarcerated to vote in this exciting poll)?

Many people say the big parties are all the same with pretty similar plans for cuts, tax rises and promises to clamp down on bankers.

But what if politicians started taking a look at that other example of get rich quick capitalism gone mad, English football?

Sounds fanciful?  Well yes and no.  The Taylor Report led to legislation that governs aspects of the game so the precedent is there.  The Labour government has considered regulating football in the past but was convinced by the Football authorities that "self regulation" worked.  Now we know it really doesn't.

Take the travails of United, Liverpool, Pompey, West Ham and Hull (just to focus on the Premier League) and that's a lot of unhappy voters looking for something to be done.

So I was pleasantly surprised by this article in the Telegraph suggesting a football regulator is being discussed in Whitehall.  To quote the Telegraph:
"In what would be one of the most controversial political interventions into sport in history, football could effectively lose the right to run its own affairs in the wake of a string of financial crises that have hit a number of leading clubs.
Instead the game would be effectively run under licence from a regulator similar to watchdogs which currently oversee the communications industries and privatised utilities."

Now with an election coming, thoughts being mulled in Whitehall now will probably be of no relevance in the summer, but the subject is something for politicians and voters to consider.

This is our national sport, it is a disgrace and its administrators and owners have proved themselves incapable of reforming it.

If I was a parliamentary candidate I'd be wondering why my party didn't adopt such a popular and cheap policy. And as a voter, maybe it would become harder to dismiss them as "all the same".


Friday, February 12, 2010


I'd like to share with all my fans of this blog this fantastic picture that I saw on RedView. (1280×960)

Thanks for watching!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mortgages, filings and security

There's been some excitement in the last day or so about the filing of two security documents by Manchester United Limited relating to the recent bond issue. Bloomberg covered the story here:

and various wire services and blogs have now run with it.

You can download the two documents here:

MU Ltd mortgage
MU Ltd debenture

The first thing to say about this is that there is nothing really new in this. All the club's property was mortgaged after the takeover (with these arrangements amended after the August 2006 refinancing). The new documents are merely the latest arrangements now the bonds are in place. Bloomberg say:

"Manchester United, the 18-time English soccer champion, included its stadium and training ground as security in its 504 million-pound ($785 million) bond sale, according to documents filed with U.K. regulators."

This is wrong because Carrington is actually explicitly excluded from the mortgage. As I described here, Carrington is not part of the security because the Glazers want the ability to take it from the club (for no cost) and then sell it. Ironically, it would be better for the club if it was part of the mortgage security as it would be more protected from such an action. I say more protected because Old Trafford itself can be sold under certain circumstances. I don't for a minute think this is their "Plan A", its more a fallback arrangement if things go wrong, but its instructive that provisions to do a sale and leaseback (where its called a "Specified Asset Sale and Leaseback") were included in the bond document - it shows what sort of "custodians" of our club they really are.

In the centenary year of our stadium (which the club are actively promoting of course), the news is not that the Glazers have mortgaged our heritage, they did that five years ago, its that they have deliberately reserved the right to sell Old Trafford if things don't go their way....