The Investors Who Never Were
Sven-Göran Eriksson, Sol Campbell and the missing millions of Notts County
Meadow Lane is a happy place to be at the moment. Notts County are in the running for promotion back to League One and everyone is pulling in the same direction. Under Kevin Nolan their progress on the pitch has been relatively serene and, with the backing of the local businessman Alan Hardy, the club’s future seems secure. Hardy completed his takeover last January, saving Notts from potential liquidation, and has been a visible presence throughout his year in charge.
Things were rather different in 2009-10, the last time they had hopes of promotion. In the space of seven turbulent months, Notts went from believing they were one of the richest clubs in England to teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when the unpalatable truth about their shadowy billionaire owners was finally revealed. They stared out over the precipice but were pulled back at the last.
Victims of an elaborate and fantastical ruse, Notts nevertheless had an unforgettable season, which culminated in them winning the League Two title. It was a constantly evolving story of contradictions and extreme contrasts, from a fake Bahraini prince with apparently limitless wealth and a trip to North Korea to discuss trillions of dollars of mineral assets to unpaid milk bills and £1 takeovers. The Football League’s oldest club has flirted with disaster on several occasions and lived to tell the tale. This one was the most remarkable of all.
Back in 2009, Notts County were trundling along in the lower reaches of League Two before a takeover changed everything. Suddenly transformed into high rollers, they were expected to rise up the divisions unchallenged until it turned out that their new owners weren’t who they claimed to be and the money they promised to plough into the club wasn’t really there. Even now, nine years on, it seems scarcely believable that one of the most unusual and public heists in sporting history was allowed to get quite as far as it did.
Supporters, business partners, the football authorities, Notts’s existing owners, much of the media and a former England manager were amongst those taken in by the pledge of untold riches of mysterious Middle Eastern origin. The details were deliberately vague, ensuring that the key protagonists behind the deal, Russell King and Nathan Willett, were kept hidden from view. They had previously run a financial services firm called the Belgravia Group, which had tried to buy Newcastle United. The Jersey-based company collapsed after being raided by police and investors lost out on millions.
Undeterred, they had a new venture and enlisted Peter Trembling’s help to make it happen. His background was in the credit card industry. A Derby County supporter, Trembling had managed to align his business interests with a passion for football when working with MBNA in the late 1990s. He became the company’s head of sport and brokered deals with executives of leading clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool to launch credit cards with their name and branding.
Trembling then used his contacts and knowledge of the industry to set up his own company doing the same thing, which eventually led to him becoming commercial director of Everton. While there, Nathan Willett, a business associate and someone he considered a friend, got in touch.
“Nathan told me they were looking to buy a Formula One team – BMW Sauber – which was more Russell King’s passion I think. They were planning to build this sports portfolio around the world of different brands in different sports, starting with Formula One, and they wanted a football club. I was at Everton at the time and they asked me who I’d suggest,” says Trembling.
“I said, if it was me I’d start with a smaller club, particularly if you’ve got money to throw into it, and take them all the way through. If you buy a Premier League club, and even more so now, the prices are high. If you get a smaller club with a decent fan base then you can take them all the way through. They looked at a few and they asked me about Notts County.”
Growing tired of his role at Everton and looking for a new challenge, Trembling was sold the prospect of becoming chairman at Notts, a struggling club just seven miles from where he lived, that Willett and King intended to transport to the Premier League. It was an exciting project and they claimed to have some serious backing to make it happen. Trembling went down to London to discuss the idea further.
“Willett and King invited me to the Dorchester, where we found out later that King had quite a big tab that he never paid. There was supposedly, and I kick myself for not corroborating this, a member of the Bahraini royal family there. Willett said, ‘We’ve got Sven-Göran Eriksson coming in as director of football. We’ve got Sir John Walker, who was the former Chief of Defence Intelligence. We’ve got a real catalogue of individuals who are behind this whole project.’”
It sounded promising. After checking the details of what he’d been told with Eriksson, Trembling agreed to come on board. He became the frontman for Munto Finance, a subsidiary of Qadbak Investments, and contacted Notts County to alert them to the group’s interest. At that stage, the club had been owned by the supporters’ trust for five and a half years, with the lifelong fan John Armstrong-Holmes acting as chairman. Their takeover in December 2003 had spared Notts from collapse, and potential expulsion from the Football League, at the final moment.
It wasn’t enough to save them from relegation, however, and they spent the seasons that followed entrenched in the bottom half of League Two. Investment on the scale suggested by Munto could transform the club. Armstrong-Holmes and his vice-chairman Roy Parker were understandably interested. Although they had plans in place to turn Notts around and have them targeting promotion, and were keeping faith in manager Ian McParland’s ability to do so, they could only take them so far. Munto seemed to have boundless ambitions and spectacularly deep pockets.
“We sat and talked, we exchanged information and then we were invited out to Bahrain. Roy and I paid our own fares by the way,” says Armstrong-Holmes, keen to refute the suggestion that they travelled at the club’s expense. “We met with Trembling, a guy called Nathan Willett and a guy called Russell King. We also met another guy who was allegedly a prince.
“We talked and discussed things. They showed us PowerPoint presentations about what they’d like to do with the club and things they’d been involved in elsewhere. This happened over two or three days in Bahrain. Then they produced a bank guarantee, because obviously we weren’t going to do anything without a bank guarantee. So we came back to the UK and presented the package to the trust board. We checked out the guarantee with the Football League and with a bank in the UK.”
The fake £5million bank guarantee was to prove a crucial point of contention. It was the basis on which Armstrong-Holmes was prepared to proceed with a sale of the club, having had it verified by the relevant authorities. The deal was presented to the supporters’ trust as an ideal chance to accelerate the club’s progress, and they voted overwhelmingly in favour of handing over their majority shareholding for free and writing off a £170,000 loan to the club. A new era was soon being ushered in.
Trembling and Armstrong-Holmes maintain a mutual animosity relating to the events of this period and their perceptions of what happened. Armstrong-Holmes regrets ever meeting the man who went on to replace him as chairman, holding him responsible for the havoc that was wreaked at Meadow Lane that year. He admits that he and the rest of the supporters’ trust were “hoodwinked” and sold “a bum deal”. He feels he was subsequently sidelined by the new regime and treated with suspicion.
For his part, Trembling insists that he was duped just the same as everyone else and that the previous owners, Armstrong-Holmes and Roy Parker in chief, were overly keen to get rid of the club. He believes they eagerly facilitated the takeover without due diligence and legal advice. It’s difficult to disentangle the truth from their differing and somewhat acrimonious accounts but there’s little doubt as to the essential absurdity of what came next.
On 14 July 2009 the takeover was confirmed, with Munto aiming to reach the Championship within five years. There was rampant speculation about ageing superstars being lined up to join Notts but it wasn’t until a week later that anyone started to believe it might actually be true. A significant piece of the jigsaw fell into place with the appointment of Eriksson as director of football. The news of his arrival broke while the first team were taking on local non-League side Arnold Town in a pre-season friendly. Notts enjoyed a comfortable 7-0 win but events off the pitch were taking priority.
In a time before social media had truly taken off, club message boards were still the best place to go in search of news, updates and opinions on what was going on. Rumours spread like wildfire, but given that the landscape had completely shifted almost overnight for Notts, it was hard to discern fact from fiction. For Jacob Daniel, then a teenage supporter who had just become editor of the Notts County Mad message board, it was an unusual and intoxicating experience.
“It was very odd for everyone to be talking about my small club. It was the big news. It was completely out of the blue. It was one of those things where you look back on it now and wonder how more people weren’t convinced it was obviously ridiculous and some kind of sham. People just weren’t. I think the problem was, even though there were a decent number of people asking questions, in any situation like that the majority are going to be extremely excited and will shout down any attempt to look into things a bit more or think about what’s actually happening.
“The other thing is that we were a club at the time that was in the perfect position for people not to ask questions because we were going through just about the worst period in our history. We’d been a struggling League Two club for a number of years, which was kind of the lowest we’d ever gone. I think people were very immediately happy to grab onto any idea that things were going to turn around and get better, even if it was in this sort of weird, fanciful way.”
With Eriksson on the scene, Notts were linked with a host of famous internationals, including David Beckham, Luís Figo and Roberto Carlos. They were set to become the galacticos of the Football League’s basement division and just the prospect of these players joining helped to raise standards amongst the existing squad. Media interest ramped up and season ticket sales increased. It was all a far cry from the fairly low-key business that had been done already that summer. Solid, seasoned professionals like Neal Bishop and Ricky Ravenhill joined on free transfers and formed the backbone of the team, while the cultured Ben Davies brought a sprinkling of quality.
The huge transfer budget never materialised. Despite assumptions that Notts’s subsequent promotion charge was driven by players the club couldn’t otherwise have afforded, only two signings were made who hadn’t been discussed by McParland and Armstrong-Holmes prior to the takeover. They were Kasper Schmeichel and Sol Campbell. Schmeichel dropped down from Manchester City to join Eriksson, the manager who had given him his Premier League debut two years earlier. The Danish goalkeeper was an integral member of the squad throughout the whole season, whereas Campbell lasted just a few weeks before the Munto mask started to slip.
Throughout everything, Eriksson was the main attraction and even the players couldn’t quite believe he was there. “It was a little bit surreal,” says Mike Edwards, a Notts County stalwart who was then entering his sixth season at the club. “We’d always get changed at the stadium and go off to the training ground and then we’d come back. There was a lot of talk and speculation but I just remember this one time when we’d come back to the ground to have lunch upstairs before doing a gym session or something afterwards. I was just sat there with a couple of the boys and Sven came and sat opposite me eating his lunch as well, amongst all the lads. It felt surreal. You don’t really get to see someone of that presence at our level.”
Eriksson had been promised millions by Munto, but contrary to the sense that he had little interest in the project other than his own personal enrichment, Edwards remembers him as an almost constant presence on the training ground, utterly committed to his role. Known for carousing and being something of a tabloid staple, Eriksson took his work at Notts seriously. “Maybe at first people were a little bit sceptical about his reasons for being there but I can honestly say that he must have come to 90% of training sessions, which a lot of people didn’t expect. You could chat to him. I’d speak to him a lot because he was there all the time.
“After training I’d always stay behind with Neal Bishop and he’d just be stood five yards away watching us play two-touch or daft little games like that. I’ll always remember as well, it was absolutely blizzarding down with snow one day and we were training on the astroturf not too far from the ground. We were just out there doing what we could and about ten minutes into the session two little shadows came wandering over – it was Sven and Tord [Grip]. They’d even come and watch us in those kinds of conditions. From speaking to him you could tell he just loved football and he was great with the lads all the time. He was great from the start right through to the difficult times when we weren’t sure what was happening off the field.”
The sense that this could all be a mirage, a confidence trick that would all come crashing down once exposed to the harsh light of public scrutiny, was far from everyone’s minds as the season kicked off. Hope springs eternal on opening day and, for once, Notts’ supporters had good reason to believe that this would be their year. Meadow Lane was fuller than it had been for any game during the previous season, as a crowd of 9,369 came along to see what all the fuss was about.
On a bright, warm day in early August, Notts romped to a 5-0 win over Bradford City. Eight new signings were in the starting line-up and one of them, Lee Hughes, scored a hat-trick on his debut. With Eriksson watching on alongside chairman Peter Trembling in the directors’ box, Notts shot straight to the top of the table. There was an air of jubilation and palpable excitement about the place. A 4-0 thrashing of Macclesfield Town a week later reasserted their superiority.
A patchy spell followed, during which Schmeichel and Campbell signed, dramatically increasing the club’s wage bill. It rose from £2.3million to £3.2million a year with all the new players accounted for. According to Trembling, Campbell was on a quarter of the £40,000 a week that was widely reported, although he did have a separate agreement to take on an ambassadorial role with Qadbak Investments. Schmeichel’s was the more expensive deal, as he agreed a five-year contract on £15,000 a week, an unprecedented outlay on a single player for a fourth tier club.
Schmeichel was straight into the team but Campbell was struggling for fitness having missed out on pre-season after leaving Portsmouth. There were eerie parallels between the two clubs, as the centre back abandoned one impenetrable financial disaster in favour of another. When Campbell finally got up to speed he made his debut away to Morecambe. Mike Edwards, who’d played in a convincing win over Northampton Town the previous week, was dropped for the former England international.
Elegant and composed at the height of his career, a 34-year-old Campbell seemed lost in the muck and mire of Christie Park. The game ended in a 2-1 defeat and he walked out on the club days later, agreeing to have his contract cancelled. The new owners hadn’t kept some of their promises and he could see no sign of the proposed investment in infrastructure. Before leaving, Campbell spoke to the squad and warned them of his fears. Things soon started to unravel.
“Within two or three months the money that King and Willett were supposed to be putting in wasn’t coming in. The club was running itself on the hype of this takeover. Hence we were getting good crowds, like 10,000 for the first game against Bradford, and 10,000 for a pre-season game with Forest. There were also merchandise sales. Commercially I’d got an idea of how to make the most of that but the money wasn’t coming in,” said Trembling.
“And what I found out was that they were actually taking money out of the club. They owned the club, so to an extent they had a right to do that, but I was the director who was actually putting signatures on the page for these signings. So I said, ‘If you’re not putting money in then I can’t justify signing anybody else.’ Sven and I had several long conversations into the night about this because he had a list of players that he wanted to bring in.”
There was the infamous milk bill that went unpaid, alerting Eriksson to Munto’s empty promises, and talk of incoming funds that were permanently delayed. Armstrong-Holmes was hearing some worrying stories from those who still worked for the club about what was going on. He took his concerns, and all the information he had, to the Guardian’s Matt Scott. He was the first reporter to suggest that things weren’t quite as they seemed, although plenty weren’t prepared to listen.
“The supporters were on the crest of a wave. We started the season, we were winning games and riding high at the top of the league. Things were good. I think it was probably about September time when HMRC started rattling Notts’s cage because they hadn’t been paying them,” said Armstrong-Holmes.
“I worked with Matt Scott and I fed him information so he could go in-depth to investigate these people. He was the one who started asking a lot of questions and obviously that’s when it all started to blow. That would have been around October. At that time the supporters were vilifying Matt Scott because he was coming out with all of this.”
A winding-up petition arrived over a six-figure tax bill that had gone unpaid. Trembling was out in Taiwan when he received a call alerting him to the issue. He was looking to arrange a deal with the Taiwanese government for their national team captain to join Notts County, helping to boost the profile of the club and increase football’s popularity over there. It never came to pass but something more significant did.
In a bizarre twist to an already outlandish tale, King and Willett had taken Eriksson on a trip to North Korea to discuss one of their many shell companies, Swiss Commodity Holding, taking on responsibility for extracting the country’s mineral assets. King and Willett couldn’t be reached to address the outstanding tax bill and so Trembling was forced to do so out of his own account before attempting to recover the money. Alarms bells were ringing and his faith in the duo was being severely tested. Before long it had completely evaporated.
“As soon as the article appeared in the Sun that King was a fraudster he ran off to Bahrain and I never saw him again. Willett kept saying, ‘No, it’s the wrong person. They’ve got it wrong. We’re paying lawyers to rectify this.’ Willett kept hanging on for a few weeks with that. Bear in mind that his father had actually come in then as a director of the club.
“When Willett could defend King no more, and I’d met him in London, he’d come up with this fantastical idea. He said, ‘Look, I’ve found three people in Pakistan and they want to buy the club,’” Trembling laughs at the shamelessness of it all. “I said, ‘Let’s finish with this here. That isn’t going to happen. They might be very reputable but given what’s happened previously you can tell how that’s going to be received by the public and the press.’ I said, ‘I’ll buy the club. I’ll give you £1 for it. Let’s draw up the paperwork and go our separate ways.’ That was it. I never saw him again. I never heard from him again.”
Up until then, Willett had been relentless. He never seemed to know when he was beaten. Trembling had first met him in Dubai years before when Willett worked for the Jumeirah Group. He was always prone to gross exaggerations and convinced he was going to conquer the world. He’d boast about having dinner with Jack Nicholson and other stars. Trembling admits that Willett was good company but “a bit of a Walter Mitty character. Whatever you’ve done, he’s done it bigger and better and faster.”
King, meanwhile, was a curious, shapeshifting figure. Portly and evasive, he seemed to thrive on secrecy and took to using the alias of Lord Voldemort – the evil wizard from the Harry Potter franchise often fearfully referred to as “He Who Must Not be Named”. The nickname was supposedly coined by Trembling. A convicted fraudster, King was involved in every aspect of the Notts County deal but he was strangely absent from all official documentation.
Under investigation for his role in this scam, and others, he has always denied any wrongdoing in relation to the takeover, casting himself as a consultant or advisor rather than anyone integral to the plan or who stood to gain from its execution. His constant refrain, in response to a 2011 Panorama investigation, was that “I have never been a shareholder, trustee, director or beneficiary” of any of the myriad organisations involved. There was no paper trail that could conclusively lead back to him.
After a steady drip-feed of information, and mounting concerns from those both inside and outside of Notts, the horrible truth finally came out. It was all a charade. The billionaire owners were anything but. King and Willett were chancers who had been taking money out of the club and invested nothing in return. The whole thing was an empire of the imagination. They had spoken to members of the Bahraini royal family but nothing more. A club believed to be rich beyond its wildest dreams was, in reality, on the verge of going bust.
Once King and Willett had been decisively rumbled and had disappeared, Trembling was left behind to clear up the mess. He spent the winter frantically searching for outside investment. Normally a smooth operator, he recalls the sense of fear and desperation this period of uncertainty inspired in him. He remembers waking up, seized by panic, with his bedsheets drenched in sweat. Nobody knew where to turn next.
While all this intrigue had been going on behind the scenes, the club had lost its way a little on the pitch. Ian McParland was sacked in October after a 2-2 draw with Torquay United which left them in fifth position. Hans Backe, who had been assistant to Eriksson in his previous two managerial roles, took over. He resigned seven weeks later following a dispute about unpaid wages, having just overseen their first and only home defeat of the season. Notts were still in the play-offs but starting to waver.
Without a permanent manager, first team coaches Dave Kevan and Tommy Johnson were left holding the fort. Throughout the many changes that occurred that season, Ian McParland’s coaching team remained constant. This continuity and clear direction was vitally important. The brand of passing football that they’d worked hard to implement over the previous two years never altered, no matter who was in charge.
“They set the blueprint and throughout that season we didn’t really change our style of play that much. The managers tinkered a little bit but generally left Dave Kevan and Tommy Johnson to it in terms of the coaching side of things and our philosophy,” said Mike Edwards. “They all did their bit but Steve Cotterill kind of grabbed the bull by the horns when he came in, which we needed at the time. I think that was the most crucial one for me.”
With the appointment of Cotterill on 23 February 2010, everything settled down once more. Ownership and managerial issues were resolved. Former Lincoln City chairman Ray Trew had bought the club from Peter Trembling earlier in the month, taking on its debts and stabilising a perilous financial situation. Sven-Göran Eriksson and Trembling left and the last vestiges of the Munto era were all but gone. For now, just Kasper Schmeichel remained. The whole saga had played out in seven extraordinary months but there were still 18 games left to play and a title up for grabs.
As Edwards recalls, the new manager wouldn’t accept anything less. “I remember when Steve Cotterill first came in he pulled us all in for a chat at the training ground and said, ‘Just to let you know, we’re going to win the league.’ We were all thinking we’d be happy to just take promotion and he could read our faces. He said, ‘No, no, no. I can see what you’re all thinking. We’ll just get promoted. No. We’re going to win the league.’
“He instilled that in us from the start. It galvanised us. We were drifting a little bit and he kind of grabbed the steering wheel and drove us on to win it. He grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and took us forward. Without him coming in and doing that we might have just scraped by or ended up in the play-offs, but he pushed us on.”
Notts hadn’t won for three games but Cotterill’s reign started with a 5-0 thrashing of Hereford United. They went 14 games unbeaten, drawing with their title rivals Bournemouth and beating Rochdale in a grudge match to open up a gap at the top. Their manager, Keith Hill, had been outspoken in his criticism of Notts’s methods. Momentum was building. Schmeichel came into his own during that run, making some splendid saves and keeping 11 clean sheets. At the end of the season he agreed to be released from his contract, forgoing the remaining four years’ wages he was owed.
The only blemish on Cotterill’s record came four games from the end of the season, in a 2-1 loss away to Port Vale. The frustration was soon forgotten as an already promoted Notts sealed the title with a thumping 5-0 win three days later. The unusual setting of an all but empty Reynolds Arena, a monument to the Darlington owner’s vanity and wayward ambition, was somehow fitting for this strangest of seasons.
“It was quite a nice new stadium with about eighteen hundred people there. It’s always a memorable one for me because I scored the second goal with an overhead kick which unfortunately the cameras missed,” laughs Edwards. “There aren’t many centre-halves who score an overhead kick so I was gutted the next day when I saw Sky Sports had missed it. We had a great party on the way back to celebrate what we’d done.”
Notts’s final home game drew Meadow Lane’s biggest crowd of the season to witness another 5-0 victory. Cheltenham Town were swatted aside as Lee Hughes grabbed another brace, taking his total to 33 goals in all competitions. The players celebrated on the pitch with their families as the club returned to the third tier six years on from relegation and being bailed out by the supporters.
It was a moment of immense satisfaction and although plenty of the story’s key figures – King, Willett, Trembling and Eriksson – had come and gone by that point, the supporters were still around to savour the achievement. There were more than 11,000 in attendance to witness their triumph and Jacob Daniel was one of them. Despite the difficulties, he still looks back fondly on an unforgettable year of high farce and some excellent football.
“It’s a difficult season for Notts fans,” he said. “Everyone knows that what happened was kind of ridiculous and absurd and should never have been allowed to go through in the first place, but at the same time it remains the one genuinely successful season, until this one, that we’ve had this century. So it’s a bittersweet memory for most people, particularly those who are slightly younger, like me, who can’t remember back when we were actually a good team. It’s easily the most fun anyone younger than 30 will have had supporting Notts.
“As a season, in a purely footballing sense, the team was really enjoyable to watch and have represent Notts as a club. I think the natural assumption is that people look back on it with more annoyance than they actually do. It was a bit like a TV show. Now I know what’s happened, I wouldn’t change it. It was a very weird year, it has to be said. But it’s nice to be able to look back at it and laugh because it all turned out ok in the end.”