Chairman Thomas says Northampton Town is in the safest of hands
Kelvin Thomas has reassured Cobblers fans their club is in the safest of hands after the announcement that Chinese company 5USports have purchased a 60 per cent stake in the Sixfields outfit.
Thomas has been at the helm at Northampton along with fellow directors David Bower and Mike Wailing since buying the debt-ravaged club from David Cardoza in November, 2015.
In the space of 18 months, Thomas has overseen the club’s rescue from near extinction, to the Sky Bet League Two title success and promotion to league one, with the team maintaining their third tier status last season.
He has now, after seven months of talks and deliberation, opted to sell more than half of the club to 5USport, a sports development and education company based in the city of Guangzhou in China.
But, crucially, Thomas will remain chairman and the current structure at the club will stay the same.
5USport’s CEO Tom Auyeung was at Sixfields on Monday afternoon as the deal was announced, and although he didn’t speak to the press, he was happy to shake hands with everybody and have his picture taken.
He was very relaxed, as was Thomas, who believes this deal is the best thing for the Cobblers.
With the problems suffered by a clutch of other English league clubs who have gone down the foreign investment route, there is bound to be concern among some supporters.
But Thomas has been quick to reassure everybody that forming a partnership with 5USport is in the best interests of Northampton Town Football Club.
“I think we have shown over the course of the past 18 months that we are pretty serious about what we are doing, and we tend to know what we are doing,” said Thomas.
“We have shown a level of professionalism, and hopefully that trust is there (with the fans) with the decisions we have made.”
So how did this partnership come about?
“We got some contact about seven months ago, just before Christmas,” said Thomas.
“We started conversations, and it has gone in different directions in terms of education, partnerships and investment, etc, but we feel that we have found a good partner, and we are excited about that.”
One of the key parts of the deal’s success was the fact that 5USport wanted things to carry on as you were at Sixfields despite their substantial injection of cash, so was that a stipulation for things going through?
“It wasn’t necessarily a stipulation, but I think the motivation for this has always been what is in the best interests of the club,” said Thomas.
“I think you can get carried away, and think what is in the best interest of yourself, but this was more about what was in the best interest of the club.
“We would have been concerned with somebody that said ‘we want to come in and take over, and everybody’s out’.
“I understand from the ownership perspective, but if people had started talking about getting staff out and things like that then it wouldn’t have sat right.
“So this deal was very attractive in terms of 5USport wanting to invest, but wanting to keep everything the same.
“5USport have invested in a stable club, so it wouldn’t be overly sensible business to come in and try and make as many changes as they can.”
When the announcement about the investment was made, the club said 5USport had purchased a ‘major stake’ in the club, which turned out to be 60 per cent.
So isn’t that really a takeover? Thomas says not.
When asked if it was a takeover, the chairman said: “No, it is an investment into the football club.
“5USport have bought an investment into Northampton Town Ventures, who own the majority stake in Northampton Town Football Club, and it is a 60 per cent stake.
“They do have the majority share, and you can call it investment or you can call it a takeover, I wouldn’t necessarily understand the difference.
“But a takeover would suggest that 5USport are coming in and taking over, and the clue is a little bit in the name, but they are not.
“We are working as partners, and the structure of the club is staying the same. I am staying on as chairman, and the directors are staying.
“There is always scope in any conversation that things can increase or decrease, but in reality it is an investment into the football club.
“Everything is staying the same, and that is what was attractive about Northampton Town for 5USport.
“There is the educational links, but also very importantly there is the structure of the club.
“We have a serious club here, we have a professional club, and that was an attraction, so it would be silly to look to change that.
“I think that happens way too much in football, where you have something that tends to be working, then you come in and invest and change everything and that doesn’t make much sense.
“What we are looking for 5USport is some strategic direction and help in what we are doing.
“We will sit down and have honest conversations about things, and progress from there.”
Talking to Thomas about the investment, and about 5USport, the word education crops up again and again, and that is the key factor for the Chinese company.
“Originally, I believe they started as a media company and they had the rights to TalkSport in China, and they have the rights to Icons.com in China, which is a memorabilia site, selling signed stuff from sport stars,” said Thomas.
“They have developed an education/football division recently, and that is what the investment is here, in terms of them looking at the way we can educate in China, and use Northampton Town as possible a brand in China.
“There is an emerging market there, we all know that, and it is about how do we, Northampton Town, develop that.”
And he added: “I think what’s in it for them, and I think this is a really big advantage for Northampton Town Football Club, is the education market in China. That’s what they see.
“They now have a brand that they can take into China and sell their educational services, which is important.
“What that means in not such an obvious way, is that Northampton Town Football Club has to be successful, for them to be able to push their services in China.
“I think that is a massive positive for the club, and it will be good. That is what their investment is for, to ensure we are successful as a club.”
Thomas also revealed 5USport weren’t the only party interested in buying a slice of the Cobblers.
“There is a lot of interest in football at the moment, and there were a lot of enquries into the club,” said the chairman.
“As 5USport know, we weren’t definitely looking for investors or partners, it was a case of us saying we would have conversations.
“I did an interview at the end of last season where I said we would have conversations if it was serious and it was felt there was the right investment partner for the club.
“I think the time it has taken, and the professionalism we and 5USport have shown in that, because (seven months) it is a long time to go in football without people finding out about this sort of deal.
“So we are very proud of that, and it shows the integrity and professionalism here at the moment.”