Why a former bankrupt Watford owner is in position to buy Bolton Wanderers | David Conn

One of many sad elements in Bolton’s financial crisis and other current indignities is that for years they were supported by an owner most clubs would consider ideal. Eddie Davies, originally a Bolton lad, made a fortune marketing the heating elements in kettles and he brewed up £185.5m in loans to Wanderers before pulling the plug in November 2015.

By then Bolton were falling to a hard landing without the parachute payments from their second stint in the Premier League between 2001 and 2012, with players to pay and making heavy losses. In September, just days before he died, aged 72, Davies made one last loan of £5m, to the current owner, Ken Anderson.

Yet for the Bolton supporters anxious and embarrassed about pending winding-up petitions, the squad not yet paid for March and difficulties keeping the stadium open, the news that Anderson is selling to Laurence Bassini is not greatly reassuring.

Bassini has form as a football club owner, having been in charge of Watford from April 2011 to June 2012, and his record does not need forensic investigation to assess: it was all very public. Having previously been bankrupt, Bassini, who stated his business then as property development, borrowed a total of £4.6m from two brothers, Giacomo and Vincent Russo, to help him finance the Hornets.

The accounts for his year in charge, 2011-12, stated that Watford had made a £7m operating loss; and the club was in financial difficulties before the current owners, the Pozzo family, bought it for £550,000 and set the club on its arc of revival, promotion and this season’s FA Cup final.

In March 2013 a Football League independent disciplinary commission of three QCs found Bassini guilty of dishonesty and deception and banned him for three years from being involved in a position of authority at any Football League club. It followed an inquiry into loans he took out of £2.6m. Made to alleviate the cashflow problems at Vicarage Road, the loans were effectively secured on future transfer fees from the sale of the striker Danny Graham to Swansea, and on future league TV income. Such “forward funding” arrangements were permitted but clubs had to inform the league first.

The commission accepted Bassini did not profit personally from the loans and was trying to get money into Watford but stated he had been “dishonest in his dealings with the league and with his fellow directors”, and “practised secrecy and deception” when he failed to tell the league or the Watford board about the loans.

By June 2012 the Russo brothers were complaining they had received no money back from the loans they had made to Bassini, and they sued him in the high court, then in December 2012 obtained a freezing order on his assets. In March 2014 the Russos, represented by Nicholas Stewart QC, won a judgment in that case, which ordered Bassini to repay £4.2m, the loans plus interest, following £959,000 he had been ordered to pay a year earlier.

The Watford Observer, which covered the case and Bassini’s tenure at the club in detail, reported that Bassini’s barrister, Jonathan Crystal, informed the judge that Bassini would take personal insolvency advice following the judgment.

Watford have been reinvented under the Pozzos, winning promotion to the Premier League in 2015, with sustained shrewd player recruitment, initially with eight players on loan from the family’s Serie A club, Udinese, including the Czech striker Matej Vydra. Throughout these years the companies Bassini used for his ownership of the club, Watford Leisure Ltd and Watford FC Ltd, have been grinding through a liquidation process, having gone bust in July 2013 and December 2014 respectively. The most recent liquidators’ report of Watford FC Ltd, dated 28 February 2018, stated that Bassini was bankrupt at that time.

Bolton’s plight since Davies staunched his funding, under Anderson, who was disqualified in September 2005 from being a company director for eight years, has been similarly played out in public view. A winding-up petition led by HMRC has been adjourned to 8 May, while another winding-up petition, against the club’s hotel on the stadium site, was adjourned on Wednesday, the same day Anderson announced the deal to sell the club to Bassini.

In a brief conversation with the Guardian on Thursday, Bassini said he was “sitting on £20m cash” to save Bolton, and has an alternative story to tell about his time at Watford. He said the three-year ban imposed by the commission was “being overturned at the moment”.

Asked whether that was the case, an EFL spokesman said: “The position on this is the ban imposed by the disciplinary commission in 2013 is now time served. We have nothing further to add on this matter.”

Bassini said the commission had been wrong to accuse him of being dishonest. “I’ve never done a dishonest thing in my life,” he said.

If Anderson does proceed to sell Bolton – the 145-year-old Football League founder member club – to Bassini the EFL is likely to find he passes its owners and directors “fit and proper persons” test because he has served his ban and has no criminal convictions.

Bassini would then have to show he has the money to keep the club, who could be relegated to Division One on Friday, going and nothing would then stand in his way.


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