Before the billionaires and oligarchs, the unlikely story of football's first foreign owner

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Prenton Park, home of Tranmere Rovers.

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Among the superrich, a high-profile sports team is a must-have accessory. Charming English soccer clubs are a prime target for Russian oligarchs, Qatari princes and American entertainment empires. But when the first foreign owner stepped into English football 37 years ago, he didn’t just bring his checkbook. He brought his shoes.

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In recent years, Only three or four of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League Supported by British owners. The rest are the property of megarich supporters from the Americas, Asia and the Middle East. Legendary clubs such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United, which have been family-owned for generations, are now just one more asset in the portfolio of the NFL, NBA and even franchises. their profit motive was made clear Highly Controversial Proposal for a “Super League” in early 2021, while Newcastle United has been accused of tarnishing the reputation of a violent and repressive Saudi Arabian regime,

This international spending spree began when the Russian elite Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea FC in 2003, but the largely forgotten first step towards today’s globalized era took place in 1984. Soccer clubs were traditionally owned by local businessmen until bought by California attorney Bruce Osterman. Tranmere Rovers, a proud but poor team battling unemployment in the north of England. It was the beginning of a new era – but you might not have known it at the time.

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“The game as a whole was at its nadir,” recalls Mark Palios, a former footballer-turned-businessman who played for Tranmere in the dark days of the 1980s. “The gates were few, there was hooliganism, there was a complete lack of investment. It was a sick industry.”

What happened next is much more than a bizarre footnote in the history of the sport – it’s a story of a struggle between passion and business that any fan of any team in any country would recognize. Palios took on an unexpected covert role in the upcoming drama, only to face a terrible familiarity crisis for the club three decades later.

Boreham Wood vs Tranmere Rovers - Wanrama National League Play-off Final

Mark Palios played for Tranmere in the 1970s and 1980s, taking an unlikely role in behind-the-scenes drama – before returning to the club after 30 years.

We all live in a deadly submarine

former tranmere player Ken Bracewell He was coaching a professional team in San Francisco in the early 1980s when lawyer and keen amateur goalkeeper Bruce Osterman approached him. The glamor of The National American Soccer League had faded by the 1970s, so Bracewell was surprised when Osterman wanted more than a chat about football teams—he wanted to buy one.

Why would a Californian lawyer want to invest in a poor sports team on the far side of the Atlantic?

“I was young and it seemed like a good idea,” says Osterman, who is now in his late 70s. “I had some extra money because I did well in my law practice,” he recalls from his home near San Francisco over the phone at his unannounced California draw. “Tranmere was in real trouble so it was a number one buy to a team that I could afford.”

tranmere-bruce-osterman-screen-shot-2019-07-30-at-22-16-56

Tranmere president Bruce Osterman filmed in Prenton Park for a TV documentary.

Tranmere’s stadium Prenton Park is only a short ferry ride away from football giants Liverpool and Everton, but in 1984 it may have been on a different planet as well. Barely clinging to professional status at the wrong end of the English league, without money and with dwindling attendance, Tranmere had special permission to hold matches on Friday evening instead of Saturday afternoon, so that locals could see the team’s more glamorous neighbours. Don’t go missing.

“Tranmere will never compete with Liverpool and Everton,” one of the club’s managers later said. “They’re big liners like the Queen Mary, but I see Tranmere as a deadly submarine.”

In 1984 Tranmere was about to emulate a submarine in its worst possible way: going down.

Ostermann took advantage of the struggling and disastrously weak pound to buy the club, with Ken Bracewell in charge. “I depended on Kenny for day-to-day things,” Osterman recalls, “because clearly what did I know?”

Liverpool Echo Staff

Bruce Osterman (wearing glasses, leaning third from left), lines up with a team of sports journalists playing a friendly game at Prenton Park in August 1986. Eagle-eyed fans may recognize the chap on the far left: popular TV and radio pundit Ray Stubbs, who played and worked at Tranmere.

Today’s game is full of players, managers and owners from other countries. In the 1980s it was more insular. After English clubs were banned from European competition in the late 1980s, foreign players such as Tottenham’s Argentine duo Ossi Ardiles and Ricky Villa were still a novelty, and it was not until Józef Vangloos joined Aston Villa from Czechoslovakia. Until then, there will be no foreign manager. in 1990.

After overcoming the club’s short-term woes, Bruce Ostermann appeared at Tranmere for a few weeks at a time, a few times a year. There was sometimes a language barrier with the distinctive Merseyside accent. “I used to go to sportsman’s dinners for guys who had shares in the club, and I usually bore the brunt of the after-dinner comedians,” Osterman recalls. “I know he was speaking English, but I didn’t understand a word!” Osterman’s family also came, although his wife kept herself out of men-only areas such as the boardroom and the team coach. “He tolerated me doing this, but it was not a pleasant time for him,” Osterman admits.

Journalists were delighted to see the 43-year-old president’s eyewitnesses training area mud divingWhile the players mischievously hit the balls at them. It was all very unusual, but still — Tranmere survived.

to be honest

In the days before television revenue, a lesser club’s main income was ticket sales. Larger-than-life characters attracted paying fans through turnstiles, so Osterman made the unexpected choice to appoint Frank Worthington As the player-manager of the team.

Worthington, who died in March 2021, had two decades of experience on the field, but had never managed a team. The Elvis fan was certainly an entertainer, a prodigious goalscorer and an even more prodigious playboy. His autobiography, titled “One Hump or Two”, lists more nightclubs than football clubs. Worthington joked that when he took over at Tranmere the players thought they would be in trouble if they went home before this at 2 o’clock

Football - Home International Championship - Scotland v England - Hampden Park

Larger than life character Frank Worthington is playing for England.

The flamboyant player-manager scored three goals in a 6–2 victory in his first game before the Prenton Park loyalist, and he scored 20 runs that season. He also cleverly used Osterman’s limited budget – one of Worthington’s acquisitions, ian muiro, remains the club’s all-time top goalscorer. But the defense was poor and Tranmere could not buy new blood.

“We didn’t have the players or the money,” Osterman admits. “I had no idea the difficulty of handling a team even in the fourth division.”

One player understood most of all the economics of Osterman’s position. Tennius midfielder Mark Palios was a local lad in his second stint at Tranmere when Ostermann arrived. Unlike most football players, who typically spend their time between matches wasting money, Palios managed money in a unique parallel career as he trained to be an accountant.

Football - Football League Cup - Round 3 - Arsenal vs Tranmere Rovers

Mark Palios playing for Tranmere the night he defeated Arsenal in 1973.

One day the director of Tranmere walked into Palios’ office for advice. They wanted to oust Osterman. The puzzled player found himself in the awkward position of advising on the club’s financial future for hours before pulling off his team shirt and running onto the pitch.

Tranmere’s cash flow crisis came to the fore when the well-intentioned but over-stretched Osterman tried to sell off Prenton Park to make way for the supermarket. Fans, directors and local officials turned against him.

The American dream had soured.

history repeating

Thirty years later, in 2015, history repeated for Tranmere Rovers – and for Marc Palios. The club was again in serious trouble on and off the field. And just like in the 1980s, a new owner stepped in. But this time, it was Palios who bought the club.

After combining his playing days with a successful accounting career, Palios was the CEO of the Football Association. An expert in turning over failing businesses, he and his wife, Nicola, now face the turmoil of Tranmere.

Palios began a three-step process that he applied to several dying companies: Search cash for breathing space. Use that breathing space to fix business. And finally, bring in new investment.

Most importantly, the club had to break the cycle of going from savior to savior. Palios likens football clubs to gamblers who are gifted more chips who continue to bet on the same old numbers. To really fix the ailing business, Mark and Nicola have to make new bets.

Tranmere Rovers vs Newport County - Sky Bet League Two Play-Off - Final - Wembley Stadium

Tranmere President Mark Palios and Vice President Nikola Palios took over in 2014.

osterman out

Back in 1985, Palios left Tranmere and distanced himself from boardroom shenanigans to avoid conflicts of interest. The directors eventually took advantage of changes in bankruptcy law to get rid of Osterman, Bracewell and Worthington, earning Tranmere another dubious distinction as the first football club to go into administration under the new laws.

In 1987, a new buyer offered Ostermann less than what Ostermann paid for the club. Fortunately for the American, a strong pound pulled Sting out of harm’s way.

A new owner and manager took over, but Tranmere’s troubles were not over. They either had to beat Exeter City on the last day of the season to ensure survival or were disastrously ejected from the professional league.

Kickoff delayed as 7,000 fans…

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