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So You Want To… Buy A Football Club

In the first part of a new regular series, in which we speak to the people that have made realities out of popular daydreams, we chat about the trials and tribulations of owning a football club with John Marshall, the Liverpudlian owner of Hungarian football club Vác FC

There’s a funny anecdote about the first time Roman Ambramovich flew into London after buying Chelsea. Rumour has it, that upon the final approach into Heathrow, the Chelsea owner spotted Fulham’s humble Craven Cottage out of the window, and mouthed something along the lines of ‘swear word, I haven’t bought that, have I?’ The first time Vác FC owner, John Marshall, flew into Budapest, he’d have been lucky to spot the ant-like home of the football club soon to be his.

It’s not often you come across the owner of a football club. Usually, they make every effort to stay away from the fans. Of the twenty teams in next year’s Premier League, fourteen will have foreign owners with a majority stake. The pattern continues down to League One, with many of the owners proving controversial among fans, keeping their distance in the safe and mysterious confines of the director’s box.
So far, John Marshall hasn’t had to face the fury of his club’s fans. With two back to back promotions (as champions) between 2013 and 2015 following his takeover in 2012, it’s no wonder. John’s stewardship has taken Budapest-based Vác FC from the brink, back to the Hungarian second tier enjoying the comfort of mid-table with an eye firmly on another promotion.

Chances are, you haven’t heard of Vác FC, just like football fans in Hungary probably won’t have heard of Blackburn Rovers, but as I sit with John earlier in the year, he agrees the two are a fair comparison. Both have a history punctuated by a dramatic top tier league title in the 90s, both dabbled with Europe (Vác FC bowing out of Champions League qualifying to PSG), both have since found themselves lingering in the lower divisions and both have foreign owners. When quizzed on why of all things he bought a football team in Hungary, John’s answer is to the point.

“It gave me the opportunity to combine my love for business and football into one project.
In addition, when I got involved in 2012, Hungarian football was at the beginning of a revolution so to speak and I felt I could only add value to Vác FC.” The revolution John touches upon can be linked back to the country’s football-obsessed populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Having played semi-professional football at the same time as being Prime Minister during his first elected term, Orban has since invested lavishly in the country’s football infrastructure. The most noticeable example being the Pancho Arena, a cathedral of a football stadium with a capacity that’s double the population of the village it towers above. Owning a football club has taught John a lot as well as changing the way he views the game as a whole.

“People talk about romance in football, it happens sometimes, briefly, like when we beat Hungarian Champions Videoton 3-1 in our FA Cup last November. These are the moments we work towards and cherish. The day to day work of an owner and executive committee however is far from romantic. Running a football club is very complex. There are so many people involved at every level and all of those people have their own expectations of the club and of me as owner. It is impossible to satisfy everyone.”

John’s passion for football shines through in conversation, especially when he shows me the first goal from the previously mentioned giant killing. In a swift attacking move that begins with the keeper, Vác bomb down the wing with seven passes, two of which backheels, with the third putting the ball beyond the keeper at the near post. It’s Barcelona-esque and John knows it, grinning as he shows me the goal on his phone.
A staunch Everton fan, John knows what it’s like to be a fan. Everton is his obsession and it’s this passion for football that helps with ideas and understanding the people around the club, whilst keeping his football emotion in check. The current head coach of Vác FC is former captain, Tibor Nagy, a local legend that helped the team to their league title in the 90s. John insists on keeping a hands-off approach when it comes to team matters. But that’s not to say he won’t have a word if he forks out for a development player that isn’t given a game.

When asked what the future holds, John’s emphasis is on building. “The development of infrastructure must be dealt with before we can even entertain the idea of pushing for promotion into the Hungarian premier league. The first phase will start in the autumn with the demolition and construction of a new main stand at Vác City Stadium. After which we plan to lay a brand new pitch with under soil heating, install new flood lights and then renovate another stand whilst erecting a roof to protect more fans from the elements.”

The experience has given him a cause for empathy too, perhaps bringing him a little closer to a certain Mr Moshiri (in spirit). “Sometimes you must be cruel to be kind and try not to be hasty. I now empathise with other club owners nowadays and criticise much less.” EJ

Words by Davey Brett