No one is losing their heads at Northampton Town but ambition, if not expectation, has gone through the roof. “There’s no ceiling in football,” says the club’s chairman, Kelvin Thomas. “There used to be but I think that’s gone away.
“If you look at the Swanseas, Bournemouths and Huddersfields of the world and how these clubs with the right decisions and the right investment can make inroads into Premier League and the Championship, then you’re absolutely not going to pin me down into saying where we can go. We’re just trying to kick on and win football matches.”
Thomas spoke to the Guardian after announcing that a Chinese company, 5USport, has bought a 60% stake in Northampton Town, who finished 16th in League One last season. Neither party is willing to disclose the financial terms of the transaction nor reveal how much money is now available to the club but it is clear that the Cobblers are entering a new era. Transformation might be overstating it but an intriguing change is certainly afoot.
“John Terry has already signed, hasn’t he?” quips Thomas. That is a light-hearted reference to the woozy rumours that engulfed social media after the announcement on Monday about the investment by 5Usport, a “sports development and education firm” whose main previous involvement in English football consisted of inviting the Chelsea captain to tour Guangzhou in 2015 as an “ambassador of football”. The company also owns the sports memorabilia website icons.com and used to have a holding in Talksport. Its investment in Northampton represents the first time the company has ventured into club management.
Thomas, who spent the last seven months in secret discussions with the company before taking most of the club’s staff and supporters by surprise with Monday’s announcement points out that the new investors are keen to build – gradually – on what the club have already achieved in the past two years, which is why Thomas will stay on as chairman.
“We have a serious and professional club here and it would be silly to try to change that,” he says. “That happens far too much in football, where you have something that’s working and you come in and change everything, it doesn’t make much sense. Structurally we carry on as usual. What we’re looking for with 5USport is some strategic direction and help in what we’re doing.”
Thomas is no stranger to exotic partnerships. The business interests of the former chairman of Oxford United include joint-ownership of an internet radio station with Shaquille O’Neal. His record at Northampton is impressive. He took over the club two years ago when it was close to being wound up over unpaid debts and the alleged misappropriation of a loan from the local council and since then the club have gained stability off the pitch and enjoyed success on it, winning promotion from League Two in 2016.
“We’ve done well,” says Thomas. “The club had debts of almost £18m, we managed to take it over and invest in the right areas and managed to secure the future, I would say. Getting promotion was obviously massive and this [investment by 5USport] is the chance to really put the club on the map and really take the club forward in a lot of different areas.”
Putting the club on the map in England apparently entails boosting its profile in China, too. “I don’t know exactly what that means because I’m not as experienced in China but talking to 5USport, a lot of it is going to be about using the education opportunities over there and using Northampton Town FC as a brand to sell services into the education facilities,” says Thomas. “One thing we do have is a lot of good minds here in terms of coaching and development of players so it’s about offering those sort of services out in China, where it’s an emerging market and there is not the same knowledge.
“It’s a really good thing for Northampton Town because it has the ability to increase revenue and build a good profile for the club. I’ve already seen some of the market material that 5USport are going to put in place in China. [Northampton’s 34-year-old striker] Marc Richards is going to be on the side of a building probably, so I’ll probably have to talk to him abut image rights!
“But it’s more education. We’ve got two coaches going over there next week to see what the environment is like and it might be working with some of existing clubs in China, working with schools and universities, maybe even some transfer with English-language students over here in Northampton.”
The most exciting thing as far as Northampton might be concerned is that 5USport believes that in order to boost its education business in China, Northampton have to progress on the pitch. “I think that’s where the real opportunity for the club is,” says Thomas. “It’s important for 5USport that together we’re all successful. So it’s a mutually beneficial partnership.”
Which brings us back to the question of transfer policy and the calibre of player that the manager, Justin Edinburgh, can look forward to working with from now on. Thomas suggests the club are not about to launch into an extravagant shopping spree. “There is money available and we’ve been talking about our playing budget but we’re not going to say how much because all of a sudden wage demand go up, etc,” says Thomas.
“We’ve got some targets in mind but we have to be careful that we don’t rush out and start spending a bunch of money on players. They’ve still got to be the right player. We probably expect a centre-half here and there and another good goalkeeper but I think our squad is already good. This investment just give us a little bit more flexibility in some of our decisions.”
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