After almost two hours being interrogated on everything from the details of Sam Allardyce’s contract to homophobia at October’s culture, media and sport select committee inquiry, question 90 was the curveball the Football Association chairman Greg Clarke certainly wasn’t expecting.
Switching his attention to ownership of football clubs, Chris Matheson, the MP for Chester and an Everton season ticket holder, asked Clarke if he had ever heard of Vibrac Corporation. Between 2011 and 2013 the company described by Bloomberg as a “closely held lender” based in the British Virgin Islands was allowed to make millions of pounds in loans to Everton, West Ham, Fulham, Reading and Southampton despite the mystery surrounding who actually owned the company.
Admitting he had not heard of Vibrac or BCR Sports – another company registered at the same address, Vanterpool Plaza, Wickhams Cay 1, Road Town, Tortola, as entities linked to José Mourinho and Cristiano Ronaldo, and owned by the former Everton director Robert Earl – Clarke could not confirm the estimation that 57% of English league clubs are owned or receive finance from offshore entities. But he did acknowledge “we need to make sure we know who they are, that they are people of standing and do not have disproportionate influence over football clubs”.
Matheson then attempted to find out whether rumours that have been swirling around the blue half of Merseyside for more than a decade were actually true.
“I understand that Sir Philip Green had something of a role as a shadow director at Everton, including having [the accountancy firm] PWC conducting an audit of the club and summoning the chief exec and the team manager to BHS headquarters to discuss transfer budgets,” he said. “Now, if somebody has paid for some shares through somebody else and through an entity in the British Virgin Islands but is not declared as a director, would that be a problem?”
Shuffling in his chair, Clarke acknowledged he was “no expert” on the Premier League and said he “would be happy to have that debate with them”. The man who was Football League chairman from 2010 to 2016 having previously served in the same role at Leicester City did not waste any time – last month, the Premier League confirmed that from the 2018–19 season that “any assignments of central funds can be made only to FCA registered lenders”, although, according to sources with knowledge of Vibrac and other similar companies, the process had been in the pipeline for much longer.
The news may not have made many headlines ahead of another busy weekend of action on the pitch but it was the culmination of a long story that has been chronicled in minute detail by a disaffected group of Everton fans.
Green’s alleged links to Everton stretch back to 1999, when Bill Kenwright successfully bought the club from Peter Johnson. According to an interview with the Observer in 2003, the multi-billionaire “wrote a £30m letter” for Kenwright to help secure funding from The Bank of Scotland because “I like him”.
Last September, an article with the headline, “Who is the main player in the Everton show?” was published on the website Everton Viral. Written by an anonymous author, @watchedtoffee, it described the complicated process that saw Kenwright’s consortium, True Blue Holdings, purchase a majority shareholding that year thanks to a substantial loan from BCR Sports – a family investment set up by Earl, the founder of Planet Hollywood and a long-term friend and business associate of Green.
According to the Telegraph, Kenwright was given advice from the owner of BHS and Arcadia “by telephone on an hourly basis” as they sought to see off a challenge from Paul Gregg – an entertainment impresario known for establishing Apollo Leisure Group who had formed the original consortium with Kenwright, his interest being the proposed stadium move to King’s Dock.
The same 23% stake sold by Gregg to BCR Sports was part of the deal that brought the new majority owner Farhad Moshiri to the club in March. According to @watchedtoffee, that was the culmination of more than 15 years in which Green has exerted his influence over the club via a series of mysterious offshore companies.
In 2008, the CEO Keith Wyness resigned from Everton on a matter of principal, reportedly citing Sir Philip Green’s control over the club.
“After Wyness submitted employment tribunal papers, it was reported in The Times that Sir Philip Green and Robert Earl raced across the Mediterranean in Green’s powerful yacht, Lionheart, to meet with Wyness and reach a mutually agreeable compensation package,” claimed @watchedtoffee. “This included the signing of a confidentiality agreement, one which has been adhered to by Wyness.”
Despite Everton Viral’s attempts to link Green to the club, Everton have always strenuously denied he has any financial involvement at Goodison Park. “He’s not interested,” Kenwright told the Guardian in 2011. “He would say to me [adopts a mockney accent]: ‘Bill, Bill, Bill, if I put facking money into Everton Football Club you think Liverpool fans would buy from Topshop?’ He’s not interested. He’s a total genius when it comes to money, he’s like Mozart is to music. He’s an adviser.”
However, the plot was about to thicken significantly. By the start of the 2011–12 season, Everton had debts of more than £40m and faced the prospect of having to sell some of their better players to balance the books. With banks unwilling to lend in the wake of the financial crash, Kenwright turned to Vibrac to arrange a deal worth £14m a year, although they were to take out more than £80m in loans over the next four years. Fulham also borrowed £16m, while Reading took out a £11.7m loan for which they were later fined £30,000 for contravening Football League rules.
The £5.14bn deal for domestic television rights and more favorable relations with regulated lenders have reduced the Premier League clubs’ reliance on mysterious offshore funding in recent years. Yet Everton and West Ham – who took out a £27.8m loan with Vibrac in 2013 – borrowed an as yet unspecified amount from a company called JG Funding in August 2015. A few days earlier, in an article for The Sun, the club’s vice-chairman Karren Brady had defended Kenwright, who she met at a dinner party at the home of the former prime minister Gordon Brown, against criticism from Everton fans. Brady is also listed as a director of Taveta Investments, ranked as the second-largest operator in the UK clothing retail market, and registered in Monaco under the name of Green’s wife, Tina.
As well as Green, two other names are consistently linked to the complicated web of companies. The first – Graham Shear, a lawyer at the London-based Berwin Leighton Paisner who was involved in Carlos Tevez’s move to Manchester United from West Ham in 2007 and was also briefly a vice-president of the mysterious Uruguayan Second Division club Deportivo Maldonado – acted for Vibrac, JG Funding and a number of Isle of Man investment vehicles. When contacted by the Guardian, he denied previously representing Green but welcomed the introduction of the new Premier League regulations.
The other is Simon Groom, a British lawyer based in Monaco who represented offshore companies registered in Panama, Geneva, Monaco, British Virgin Islands and the Isle of Man. He previously was a director of a company called Balzane Services SA, which was used by Vibrac as a vehicle to transfer “movable assets” through Switzerland between 2011 and 2014 before making loans to football clubs. Balzane was also the intermediary in the buyout of substantial blocks of shares in the pub company Mitchells & Butlers in 2009, which involved the racehorse magnates Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, JP McManus and John Magnier, as well as the Tottenham owner Joe Lewis.
Groom also signed off loans from two entities based in the Isle of Man to Rights and Media Funds Limited on the same days as the loans with West Ham (10 August 2015) and Everton (14 August 2015) were charged. Kirkton Investments and Carroch Holdings both give the same London address as Shear’s law firm, Berwin Leighton Paisner, while documents show that they and JG Funding listed the same permitted third party security: another entity registered in the British Virgin Islands called Mousehole Limited.
That has previously funded Atlético Madrid, Espanyol, Getafe and Valencia, among others, and is also registered at Vanterpool Plaza, as is Powsfield Limited, a company dissolved in 2009 that held 95% of the shares of Selkan Limited – owned by Gareth Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett – which appointed Simon Groom as company secretary on 26 July 2005. Selkan were involved in the purchasing of players’ economic rights, including the former Brazil striker Luís Fabiano, and receiving a percentage of the transfer fee when the players were sold.
At Everton’s AGM in November 2015, the CEO Robert Elstone castigated shareholders who asked questions about Green’s potential involvement before revealing that the club’s net debt had increased from £28.1m in 2013–14 to £31.3m in 2014–15, despite announcing a record turnover and bumper new TV deal. “We have three sources of lending,” he said. “We have a long-term loan with the Prudential that expires in 2026, an overdraft with Barclays that is not enough to manage the day-to-day cash flow of the football club and, to address that, we borrow from JG Funding (a private company) against the TV money. It is all fully disclosed in our accounts, is approved by the Premier League and paid back at the end of the year.”
Less than six months after the loan with JG Funding was taken out, Moshiri paid £87.5m for his 49.9% share, valuing the club at £175m. The publication of Everton’s 2015-16 accounts last week revealed the Iranian businessman has also provided an interest-free loan of £80m “with no agreed repayment date. This funding has been used post year-end to reduce the club’s long-term debt by repaying the entire other loans balance of £54.8m at 31 May 2016.”
Despite that, Everton’s accounts show that another loan was taken out on 26 August 2016. This time, it was registered to a company called Rights and Media Funding Limited, which had changed its name from JG Funding at the end of 2015, and, just as before, the company’s only listed director was Jonathan McMorrow. Born in Sligo, Ireland, he is now a registered accountant married to Claire Usher, who he met while dancing in Riverdance on Broadway. According to McMorrow’s Linkedin page, he joined the James Grant Group – a management agency described as a “one-stop talent shop” – in 2008 before becoming director of its subsidiary JG Funding.
The only other name on the charge documents is Fiona McPadden, who is also listed as an accountant and has signed off the loan on behalf of JG Funding. After digging a little deeper, @watchedtoffee claims she is the sister of McMorrow and works at a BMW dealership in Sligo, having married a local builder, Vincent McPadden.
“A multi-million pound loan has been taken out by Everton Football Club and has been signed off by an ex-Riverdance dancer and his sister, who is an office worker at a BMW dealership in Sligo,” he wrote. “Unbelievable isn’t it?”
The Premier League has insisted it is aware of the identity of the investor behind Vibrac and its associated companies. But as the riches associated with modern football continue to increase, it appears the murky world of offshore funding in the game is still alive and well.