French outlet Mediapart claim that Premier League side Manchester City formulated a project titled “Project Longbow” as a scheme to make costs disappear in the face of Financial Fair Play restrictions.
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Football Leaks obtained by Mediapart claim that Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano once wrote that they need “to fight” against Financial Fair Play but “in the least visible way possible, otherwise the finger will pointed at us as an enemy of football.”
Simon Cliff, General Secretary at Manchester City had a plan – named Project Longbow because such a weapon was used “by the English to beat the French at Crecy and Agincourt” – in an apparent attempt to be funny, the French that City had to beat in this instance was UEFA President Michel Platini.
Mediapart claim that Project Longbow’s objective was to remove costs from Manchester City’s balance sheet. A 2012 PowerPoint presentation details “costs to be shifted either fully or partially away from the Clubs.” How did they allegedly achieve this? By using parallel companies – such as Fordham, which allows Manchester City to outsource the cost of image rights – i.e. what is paid to its players to use their image in advertising and marketing.
Fordham was allegedly responsible for remunerating players and E-Sports gamers nearly €30m a year, but their accounts suggest they don’t make a penny, according to Mediapart, a veritable magic trick.
Jorge Chumillas, Manchester City’s Director of Finance, is said to have wrote that Fordham “is an integral part of our project Longbow”.
Fordham is run by a father-son double-act, David and Jonathan Rowland. David is a prominent Conservative party donor and was due to become the political group’s Treasurer in 2010, before he was forced to back down after the Daily Mail revealed his former status as a tax exile. Mediapart understand that he is close with the prince of Abu Dhabi.
The scheme is alleged to have proceeded as follows: on the 13th May 2013, Manchester City sold the image rights of its best players to a company called “Manchester City Football Club (Image Rights) Ltd” – on the same day, the company was sold to Havilland bank for £24.5m.
2 months later, in July 2013, the company is renamed Fordham Sports Image Rights Ltd, belonging to an English company that is attached to another company installed in the British Virgin Islands, which belongs to the Rowland Family Trust. Mediapart argue that such precautions were taken because Fordham was merely a front to hide money that was injected by Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), Sheikh Mansour’s holding company, transferred money to Rowland to buy the image rights and pay the players.
Simon Pearce, now a non-executive director at Manchester City is alleged to have cooled fears from Rowland junior about the scheme: “You will have the money before distributing it… For your operational costs, we will send an advance sum of about £11m.”
In order for Abu Dhabi United Group to release the funds to Fordham, Pearce needed the go ahead from President Khaldoon al Mubarak, but that was merely a formality. Pearce is alleged to have written jokingly to a colleague: “I have become the de facto director general of the Abu Dhabi United Group.”
A year later, and accountancy firm PwC, under the instruction of UEFA, investigated Manchester City’s accounts and had concerns relating to the Fordham arrangement claiming “it is difficult to understand how Fordham could get anything out of this”. This was because officially, Fordham paid players without receiving anything themselves.
Mediapart state that City claimed to have no knowledge, as Fordham was an independent company and they did not know their business plan. City claimed to have accepted the deal because “it came at a good price” – even though it is Manchester City themselves who are alleged to have fixed the whole deal.
The Havilland bank denied any involvement in a response to a comment from Mediapart.
Mediapart claim that Manchester City have since ceased the practice of selling the image rights of its players to other companies, but Fordham still exists, and in June 2017 it posted total losses of £75m.