Sharon Brittan has revealed the motivation behind her decision to buy Bolton Wanderers in 2019 – and why it became one of the toughest takeovers in football.
Back in late August 2019, the club was a matter of days away from liquidation after negotiations between the Football Ventures consortium and the relevant stakeholders had stalled for the umpteenth time.
With the EFL threatening to revoke Wanderers’ membership to the league, administrators admitted there was no back-up plan if the Football Ventures consortium failed to get a deal done.
What became a complex and bitter business transaction had personal connections for Brittan, who said she had seriously considered walking away from the process altogether.
“I was told this was the most difficult process of acquiring a football club through an administration in the history of football,” she said in a YouTube interview conducted by Cowgills as part of their Business Heroes series, which covered a number of aspects of her business background.
“Part of that is me. When I come up against something challenging, I tend to rise to it.
“But having said that, this was very, very complex. There were so many moving parts.
“And there were times when I just went ‘gosh, is this too hard to do?’ “In June 2019 I lost my sister suddenly and four days beforehand she’d texted me and asked how it was going with Bolton. I said: ‘Bloody awful!’ “She replied: ‘Whatever you do, promise you won’t give up.’ “When she passed away and I went to bed for a month, thinking I was done, it was looking at what she sent to me that motivated me and made me think I needed to finish it.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do a negotiation with the complexity of this, and the mess, to be honest. When we completed in August 2019, over the next two, three months, understanding the enormity of the job was quite daunting.”
Initially committing to a three-year business plan for the club, Brittan and the four other investors involved in the FV consortium faced the immediate challenge of finding a manager and constructing a squad within the space of a weekend.
Boltonian Keith Hill and his assistant David Flitcroft were initially given the task of turning around a 12-point deficit imposed upon the club for going into administration, one Brittan now accepts the club was never likely to achieve.
“That initial first season was incredibly difficult,” she said. “I thought I knew business but until you are actually in it and living it day to day you don’t really understand it.
“With having no players and having to put them together so quickly it would have been nothing short of a miracle, even with the pandemic finishing the season in March 2020.
“I think the task for that season was almost impossible.”
To make matters even tougher, before that first campaign was over, the global Covid pandemic forced football to shut completely and left clubs like Bolton without 70 per cent of their normal revenue.
“It gave me a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of 2am waking up thinking ‘where is this going?’ It was a total unknown,” she admitted.
“It was something none of us could have ever foreseen.
“We have an incredible group of investors, only five of us, and I can honestly say we have barely had a cross word over the two-and-a-half years.
“I do lead – you need a leader. The bravery of Michael (James) even doing this astounds me because he’s a local businessman and super fan. You know the emotion which comes with that.
“Maybe having one super fan is enough and then the balance of the other investors not being of the same ilk is really helpful.”
Football Ventures had initially expressed an interest in buying the club at the start of 2019 and though they did extensive homework on what they bought into, there were some challenges that the data room could not prepare them for, Brittan admitted.
“I did a huge amount of due diligence, it would have been bonkers not to. It was such a big club to buy,” she said.
“What I don’t think I possibly understood is how closely every single thing do is analysed and out there in some way.
“Everyone has an opinion and I will listen to them but ultimately I am running this and will make a decision is best and right for the football club. We are custodians and I want to do the very best I can and make sure I leave it in a very different place to the one I found it.
“Where that place will be – whether it’s the Championship or beyond, or we get to the Championship and it needs significant funding, we will always do what is best for the club and not what is best for me. That is the lens I look through.
“If it is a three-year journey, it is a three-year journey, if it five, it is five. I have said from day one as long as I am enjoying it and my family are not affected in any way, I’d continue, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I have been made to feel very welcome here by the fans, the community, the University, the town and I have met some delightful people through all the challenges and difficult times.”
Though Wanderers dropped into League Two for only the second time in their history during 2019/20, they were led back into the third tier by the consortium’s second managerial appointment, Ian Evatt.
There has been a huge turnover of players – more than 60 of which have made their debut during the last two-and-a-half years.
Several senior positions at the UniBol have also been swapped and changed but Brittan believes there is now a managerial hierarchy that can serve the business well in the future.
“The other thing I have learned – you can’t pick up a football club from where this one was and expect a quick fix. It’s two or three years to rebuild the right way with the right people, get the right players,” she said.
“I have never known a business where so many things can go wrong. Agents like to move players and managers, churn people, so if someone is doing well they want to take them, if they are not doing well they want to fire them.
It is very difficult for all the parts of the puzzle to come together and get longevity, and that is what I’d like to achieve here. I’d like those pieces of the puzzle to come together and then Neil Hart, Steve Philips, Mike Pink, Ian Evatt, Chris Markham, fabulous people here and we’re on the journey together travelling in the same direction.
“I truly believed that if I did things in the same way I do with the other companies I work with – an honest, ethical, transparent way – then I think it would be a differentiator.
“I have no ego, envy or jealousy. I want to create a really cohesive team where we are all on the same side.
“I laugh a lot and count my blessings every day and evening. I want people who work with me to have fun and that is why when I came into this I committed to a three-year plan.
“If at the end of this I am still having fun and enjoying it, fantastic. If I am not – even with the pandemic and all the challenges then I have learned so much about the business of football.
“It has been really hard work, really challenging. We lost 70 per cent of our revenue overnight and that is a huge challenge.
“We have had to let people go from the business. But even in those circumstances I have always made sure we conducted ourselves in in the right way.”
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