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Southampton’s new investors: How Chinese ownership has been for Aston Villa, West Brom & AC Milan

St. Mary’s Musings asked around to get a view of what Southampton fans can expect with new Chinese investors owning an 80% stake in the club.

Olympics - Opening Ceremony Photo by Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

When news broke of an 80% stake in Southampton Football Club being bought by Chinese investors on Monday, it was hard to know how to feel as a lifelong fan and season ticket holder. Elation? Caution? Fear? Perhaps it’s best to feel a mixture of those emotions.

The St. Mary’s Musings community seems to be in the same boat following the Gao Family’s reported £210million investment for 80% of the club. But, as SMM follower Andreas Sjöström rightly said, “[it] depends on what happens, naturally. I’m more concerned about what it means for direction [of the club going forward] rather than I care about potential money.”

We don’t have a crystal ball or the ability to see into the future like the Three-Eyed Raven, but there a number of clubs which have been bought and subsequently run by uber-rich Chinese business people over the last couple of years—including Italian giants AC Milan and nearby clubs in West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa.

It’s not a foolproof case study, but we spoke to supporters of those three aforementioned clubs to get a better view of what may be in store for Southampton fans in the not-so-distant future.

James Rushton: Editor of Villa and AC Milan blogs 7500 to Holte and AC Milan Offside

“The funny thing about how public the Chinese takeovers are is within the irony of how secret some of the facts are kept. We usually don't know about the exact cash figures being deployed, and who is involved, or even who they are!

Mainly, this is because we shouldn't know. Because we can't. Cultural differences in language and, well, culture mean we aren't going to be able to find anything from googling.

In Aston Villa's case, we are pretty much owned by Recon. Recon are a Chinese conglomerate with fingers in many pies. They also own Millennium Films. They have heavily invested in Villa to this point through Tony Xia. Are we sure where the money comes from? No. Will we ever know? It's not likely, due to the fact that it'd be almost impossible to get through to any kind of relevant information. All we know is that Xia is the real deal and was trusted to take this role up. He's been very public about his dealings and genuinely loves the Villa. It's a bit more English fronted because Keith Wyness seems to be the main man.

What's odd about the Milan takeover is how much it seems like a genuine gamble. Even our Tony Xia expressed his concerns.

Li Yonghong headed up a group to buy Milan, but the takeover collapsed twice. It was only when he partnered with the venture capitalists Elliott Management that the deal got done. However, there is risk. If Li can't pay his debts, he will lose control of Milan. He does have some senior figures on board, Marco Fassone being one, so it's not really a shot in the dark and more of a estimated guess that with funds, Milan will be able to qualify for Europe again. We will see what happens if it doesn't work out, but I doubt it will be a true disaster.”

St. Mary’s Musings: What were your first impressions once Villa/Milan were bought out?

James Rushton: Cautiously optimistic. Both clubs were refreshed after a period of stagnation. There seemed to be no true reason to be alarmed. The Milan takeover seemed to be a bit more risky than the Villa one though.

SMM: How has your opinion shifted since, if at all?

JR: I'm more hopeful about Milan now because there has been serious investment. Villa have just splurged and are paying the price right now, so it's slightly worrying to see.

SMM: What are the perks of having a Chinese owner?

JR: Both the owners seemed to know the right people to hire from the get go. They seem willing to invest. It's not really different from having an English owner in reality.

SMM: What are the drawbacks of having a Chinese owner?

JR: Again, information. We can't dig or find things out simply because the information is deep within a country with strict regulations.

SMM: What can Southampton fans expect now 80% has been purchased by a Chinese family?

JR: I'd be optimistic, I'd also be cautious. The thing is with Southampton is that the FFP regulations won't strangle investment, so you're good to go. Just hope that your owners build on the foundation that you have rather than shooting for the stars.

Simon Bradbury: West Brom fan and long-time season ticket holder

SMM: What were your first impressions once West Brom were bought out by Guochuan Lai?

Simon Bradbury: There was a bit of excitement as we were always very financially cautious under our previous owner. With proposed billionaire ownership, it was hoped West Brom would invest more money in players, though there was also a slight nervousness about why Chinese investors would take an interest in our club. Why West Brom?

SMM: How has your opinion shifted since, if at all?

SB: Yes. The owners soon stated they were going to run things pretty much as before—ie a tight ship. Subsequent transfer windows have proved this much to everyone's frustration. There still also appears no clear long term reason or plan behind the investment which a few fans think is suspicious.

SMM: What are the perks of having a Chinese owner?

SB: Perks? We had a free scarf on the first ever game under the new owners, along with a couple of free drinks at home games and a pre-season tour of Hong Kong—during which the 50 or so fans who went were looked after by the hierarchy for the day. I would see a long term perk as increasing our global appeal but only time will tell with that. In short, there have been no major perks nor changes thus far.

SMM: What are the drawbacks of having a Chinese owner?

SB: A drawback is the suspicion that hangs over the question I posed before: Why would you invest in West Brom and what do you really want from your investment? What do you want to do with the club longer term? There is little said to the fans from inside the club to appease any of these suspicions among fans.

SMM: What can Southampton fans expect now 80% has been purchased by a Chinese family?

SB: It’s difficult to say. If the owners invest heavily and make their intentions clear, it should be exciting. If they purely want their name above the door as it's now fashionable to own a Premier League club, then it’s likely very little will change. Us West Brom fans have certainly only seen the latter side of this so far.