Carson crisis leaves Blues adrift
Carson Yeung finally made good on his promise to make Birmingham City news in China on Thursday.
Sporting a club blazer, the Hong Kong-based entrepreneur strode into a room full of important people and delivered a performance guaranteed to ensure front-page exposure across the former British colony's news stands.
Sadly, this is the type of coverage only Aston Villa fans would wish upon the Blues, because Yeung was up before the beak on money-laundering charges: five of them, to be precise.
It should go without saying, of course, that the 51-year-old is innocent until proven otherwise but the no-smoke-without-fire risk to his reputation could not have come at a worse time for the Midlands club.
With the season little more than five weeks away, Birmingham City should be concentrating on rebuilding their squad, bedding in a new management team and reassuring supporters that May's relegation was just a temporary setback. But Yeung's spot of local bother practically ensures the club will spend the rest of the summer convincing everybody they are not in freefall.
What a difference four months make. Back then, the Blues were luxuriating in the warm glow of a Wembley win - a surprise Carling Cup victory over Arsenal. That triumph, sealed on Yeung's birthday, earned City their first major trophy for half a century and a place in this season's Europa League.
Having finished ninth in the Premier League a year before, this looked like a club on the verge of a significant shift in status. Sport can be very cruel sometimes.
Birmingham president Carson Yeung on his way to court in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
One week later, Yeung was forced to admit to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that Birmingham International Holdings Ltd (BIHL), City's parent company, was £28m in the red. This warning came only months after the club's accounts had revealed a £10m+ deficit in their annual spending. And this was before they were relegated.
Concerned fans and troublesome journalists were assured Yeung had a plan: the former hairdresser turned business tycoon would juggle some assets and inject a bit of working capital into the club, and a £25m share offering in Hong Kong would do the rest.
But even in a growing market, a slumping team is a tough sale. BIHL's share price started to mirror City's league form and no takers were found for the most important chunk of those shares. The sale was postponed and then quietly forgotten about.
Not that anybody was asking anymore, there were far more exciting things for Blues watchers to get exercised about, namely the defection of manager Alex McLeish to fierce rivals Villa and the corporate mud-slinging that followed.
Throughout this period, nothing was heard from Yeung himself. Requests for interviews were declined (politely, it must be said) and the club's increasingly shrill statements were channelled through acting chairman Peter Pannu and the Birmingham City website.
The prompt appointment of Chris Hughton to replace McLeish was a rare moment of clarity but the number of first-team regulars leaving St Andrew's was starting to make his job look difficult even before news arrived that his boss was "assisting police in a criminal investigation".
Details of that assistance, and the subsequent charges, remain sketchy, so it would be rash of me to rush to any kind of judgement, no matter how hypothetical. But come on, admit it, you want me to be rash, so I will.
There are two obvious questions that leap out when you start to play the "what if" game: first, what would a conviction mean for Yeung under English football's infamous "fit and proper person test" (FPPT), and second, is there any danger of City being prevented from taking up their Europa League place?
The first question is relatively easy to answer: a conviction for an offence such as money-laundering would force Yeung to give up his position as club president and leave the board. British company law is pretty clear on this and football's "Owners and Directors Test", a beefed-up version of the much-maligned FPPT, insists upon it.
But matters get more complicated when we consider what might happen to his controlling interest in BIHL.
Football's rules talk about owners with holdings of 30% and above: Yeung has never personally owned more than 29.9% of Birmingham City and his current stake is considerably less than that. So there is no suggestion that he would be compelled by the Football League to sell his shares.
But what if the Hong Kong authorities are right about Yeung's tax affairs between 2001 and 2007 and they decide to seize assets? Could China plc end up owning a stake in Birmingham City? Crazy, right...but then who picked up the pieces at Manchester City after Thaksin Shinawatra was forced into his Dubai exile?
The issue of City's Europa League place is no less fraught with uncertainties. The key question here is not Yeung's legal status but Birmingham City's ability to convince the football authorities they remain a going concern.
The authorities in this regard are the Football Association and the Premier League - it is their responsibility to grant licences to the clubs who qualify for European competition on behalf of Uefa, European football's governing body.
Despite some speculation to the contrary, the Blues gained their Uefa licence in May and that, as far as things stand, is enough to get them to the starting line. That could, however, change quite quickly if Yeung's difficulties lead to a reassessment of City's financial prospects. Suffice it to say, all parties are watching this space very closely.
And that really is all that can be safely said by anybody until Yeung returns to court on 11 August. In the meantime, it must be stressed that he is guilty of nothing, as his lawyer and the club's official statement have pointed out.
But nobody can pretend this is good news for the club, staff or supporters. The Blues are news in China now but it is doing them no favours at all.