West Bromwich Albion have undergone a transformation since the arrival of Carlos Corberan, but the club has questions to answer over its financial position.
West Bromwich Albion were always going to be playing second fiddle on their pre-Christmas trip to Coventry City. Terry Hall, a Manchester United supporter but still one of Coventry’s most celebrated sons, had died a couple of days earlier, and the home side laid on a touching tribute to the singer which the team followed up by winning the game 1-0.
This result ended a run of wins that had breathed a little bit of life back into Albion’s season. A home defeat by Sheffield United at the end of October had dropped them to the bottom of the Championship, two and a half weeks after the almost completely unsurprising departure of Steve Bruce. The team had reacted fairly positively to Bruce’s absence, picking up a win in their first match under caretaker Richard Beale, but the Sheffield United game – the first match in charge for new permanent manager Carlos Corberan – had given an indication of how much work the new manager had to do.
But since then, Corberan has started to get a tune out of this hitherto malfunctioning squad of players. Between the Sheffield United game and the Coventry City game Albion won five in a row, scoring nine goals and conceding just one. Those five wins more than doubled the team’s points tally for the season, taking them from 14 to 29 in just six weeks, a figure all the more remarkable when we consider that they didn’t even play any league games between the 12th November and the 12th December. The run lifted them the giddy heights to 16th place in the table.
There have been clouds over the The Hawthorns over much of 2022. On the 11th December 2021 they were in third place in the Championship table, a position they’d been more or less occupying since the very start of the season. By the middle of March they were in 14th, a quick return to the Premier League following relegation at the end of the previous season. They recovered to 10th place in the table, but this had not been the return to the Championship that many had been expecting. Steve Bruce had been appointed as manager at the start of February, replacing Valerien Ismael amid many online warnings from Newcastle United supporters over what they might expect. Those warnings, it turned out, were not without merit.
But if the departure of Bruce from The Hawthorns lifted one cloud that had been hanging over the club, others have remained stubbornly in place. Questions had been raised for some considerable time over the way in which the club has been run in recent years, and at the centre of these concerns has been loans granted by the club to both current and former owners. The club had previously denied any investigation into how this loan came about – a general meeting had previously seen the leader of the consortium which owns the club Guochuan Lai use his vote to block it.
Club CEO Ron Gourlay had agreed to investigate a £3.7m loan to former owner Jeremy Peace at the start of May, but there was further strife with the publication of the club’s accounts to the end of June 2021 showed that a further loan of £4.95m had been made to the Wisdom Smart Corporation Limited, another company owned by Lai, to help his company through the Covid pandemic. Lai promised to repay this amount – plus £50,000 in interest – by middle of September. This was subsequently extended to the end of December, but will this deadline now be met?
There is an obvious significance to the matter of the club having money in the bank by the end of the calendar year. The transfer window opens again soon, and with Carlos Corberan having made significant progress with this group of players since his arrival at The Hawthorns, the club already seems to understand the value of giving him some money to spend on strengthening the team during this time.
After all, the team has been heading in the right direction again and such is the nature of the Championship that even though Albion’s 16th place in the table sounds modest, they are just five points from a play-off place. Furthermore, Albion’s Premier League parachute money runs out at the end of this season. Should they not get promoted this season, they will be considerably financially worse off next season. Lai is believed to owe the club around £10m in total.
Gourlay has already stated that he has ‘been assured by Guochuan Lai that the £4.95m loan owed to the football club by Wisdom Smart will be repaid by the revised deadline of December 31, 2022’. But this raises one further question: if this money is guaranteed to be received by New Year’s Eve, then why have West Bromwich Albion been considering a loan from MSD Holdings, the serial lenders of money to football clubs owned by Michael Dell? Specific details of this loan have been hard to come by. It’s been suggested that this loan could be for up to £25m, with the interest rate a mystery.
So many questions, so few answers. What happens if Lai doesn’t repay his loan and the club doesn’t get promoted come the end of this season? Because that’s £30m in loans that have been lumped onto the club in addition to the historical loan to Jeremy Peace, and with parachute payments coming to an end borrowing £25m to spend in the January transfer window starts to look like a bit of a gamble that the club cannot afford to lose.
A worst case scenario sees these loans piling up on the company accounts, adding a layer of completely unnecessary uncertainty to the club’s financial wellbeing, and that’s before we get onto the small matter of why a football club should be handing out loans to prop up the club owner’s other companies in the first place. Should West Bromwich Albion fail to get promoted at the end of this season, it will be the first since Lai’s consortium took the club over in 2016 that there has been no Premier League money whatsoever flowing through the club.
Whatever else may or may not happen throughout 2023 at The Hawthorns, what exactly has been going on behind the scenes there needs to be laid out and fixed. The obfuscation and delaying over these loans has to stop, and the promised investigation has be given the power to unearth whatever the truth might actually be regarding how the club has been run these last few years. Because the stakes may well rise throughout next year, and the EFL is already littered with the bodies of clubs that fell from the Premier League and mismanaged their way away from returning. West Bromwich Albion cannot afford to join that unhappy club.