It’s a question that’s unlikely to have been posed during pub quizzes in Glasgow’s leafy West End at any time: What do Nice, Barnsley and the former burgh of Maryhill all have in common?
Any time now, the answer may become abundantly clear. And for supporters of Partick Thistle, it has the potential to turn their world upside down.
Sportsmail can today reveal that takeover talks between the incumbent Firhill board and a consortium which already owns the French and English clubs are at an advanced stage.
Partick Thistle are the target of a takeover move by a wealthy international consortium
Barring no last-minute hitches, the Great Glasgow Alternative, as Thistle proudly bills itself, will embark on what could well be the most extraordinary chapter in its 143-year history.
The implications for a club which only just survived in the Scottish Championship last season are potentially seismic.
The consortium is headed by billionaire entrepreneur Chien Lee, founder of NewCity Capital investment firm, and American businessman Paul Conway. To say both men are serious players boasting impressive track records is a gross understatement.
A Chinese-American, the private investment company Lee founded in 2013 includes real estate, hospitality, retail and sport. He is the founding member of CS China Acquisition Corp, director of Asian Coast Development (Canada) Ltd, the developer of The Grand Ho Tram Strip, a luxury resort in Vietnam, and founder of the 7 Days Inn budget hotel chain.
Conway made his money through the Pacific Media Group, a Hong Kong-based company which distributes Western sport, film and TV shows across Asia, while also working with partners to acquire media companies across the continent, with deals often surpassing nine-digit figures.
Chinese-American entrepreneur Chien Lee already owns French side Nice and Barnsley
Having first moved into football in Europe with Nice in 2016, the pair took the French club from nowhere to qualification for the Champions League in the space of 12 months.
Their buy-out of Barnsley at the end of 2017 came too late to prevent the club being relegated from the Championship but they bounced back impressively last season to finish second in League One and are now gearing up for a tilt at the Premiership.
But if the motivation for buying controlling interests in two clubs either already in one of Europe’s five richest leagues or one step away from it hardly needs explaining, their interest in Thistle most certainly does.
Because, frankly, if bigger clubs at the upper echelons of the Scottish game find it nigh impossible to make ends meet, those outwith the top flight assuredly endure hand-to-mouth existences.
So why would men with a combined wealth measured in billions rather than millions give it as much as a second thought? Why Thistle? Why now?
The reason almost certainly lies in the consortium’s need to acquire a smaller cog for their well-oiled machine – one that is far enough removed from their existing interests in the game.
Nice, now under the tutelage of Patrick Vieira, are, as things stand, the main concern, with Barnsley next in line.
Thistle will effectively become the third component of the business model. In the same way that players and expertise will flow from the Allianz Riviera to Oakwell, so they will trickle into Firhill.
The main advantage to the Glasgow club comes by way of accessing a vastly superior pool of players than they could presently dream of.
Nice and Barnsley, meanwhile, are able to expose fringe and developing players to first-team football in Scotland. In theory, everyone’s a winner. For all the extraordinary estimates of the consortium’s net wealth, to be clear, their modus operandi isn’t the signing of blank cheques in the search of overnight success. Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour they are not.
The implications for the Great Glasgow Alternative could well be seismic long term
Barnsley’s dealings last summer underscored the point. Of the eight players they signed, five were free transfers. They hailed from the likes of Bury not Barcelona, the button on each transaction only pushed once the value of it has been amply demonstrated.
The same discipline in the market applies at Nice. Just £2.2m was spent across seven players in the first transfer window they oversaw. Lee and Conway did not get rich by giving money away.
In a rare interview after the Barnsley takeover went through, Lee made it clear that his approach is distinct from the scatter-cash one of so many owners of English clubs.
‘I’m a long-term investor,’ he explained. ‘So there’s no rush. Let’s stabilise and then move forward step by step.’ Expanding on what needs to catch his eye before dipping into his pocket, he added: ‘You need to know what to buy, how to buy and buy smart.
‘You don’t just want to buy a club, or a hotel, or buy a media company… you need to know after you buy it what your goal is.
‘Is there a synergy with your existing business? For me, why I buy is not why others may buy. I see the business opportunity. I invest in different industries… hospitality, sport… I like challenge. If there’s no challenge, I don’t invest.’ It will be fascinating to see if Barnsley’s unorthodox approach to recruiting players manifests itself to any degree at Firhill.
While there is no suggestion that he is actively involved in the Thistle buy-out, one of Lee’s fellow investors in Yorkshire is Billy Beane, the inspiration behind the 2011 movie Moneyball.
Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame, has a back-seat role at similarly owned Barnsley
Starring Brad Pitt, it tells the story of how Beane brought success to Major League Baseball team the Oakland Athletics by using data to scout and recruit undervalued players around the league. Although he has not played a hands-on role in Barnsley’s rise over the past year, his input is a matter of record.
‘We’ll expand what Barnsley did in the past couple of years,’ added Lee. ‘Their strategy was focused on England. So now we’re going to expand this base to Germany, France, Holland, Portugal… South Africa. This will involve analysing the players – and how to pick players, using big data.’
Whether done on site or for them in the south of France or Yorkshire, this scientific crunching of the numbers is likely to become as much a part of Thistle’s DNA as their famous red-and-yellow jersey.
What is harder to determine at this juncture is Lee and Conway’s estimation of the club’s long-term potential. Certainly, Lee has placed no limits on how high both Nice and Barnsley can fly.
‘I like the culture of Barnsley,’ he said. ‘The club is the town’s biggest asset. It’s a small town, so the football club is its identity.
‘My goal is to work with the fans, work with the city council, work together to promote Barnsley and the town at the same time.
‘We will try to “internationalise” Barnsley, as we did with Nice. Before we invested in Nice, not many people in Asia had heard of them. Now in Asia – in China – people know the club.’ He also pointed to Barnsley’s potential reach in India.
‘Here there are more than a billion people and they have that historical relationship with England,’ he said. ‘So I see that as a big market. If we can bring more sponsorship from India – and China – to Barnsley, we will improve.’ If all of this is enough to have the Firhill rank-and-file reaching for the craft beers, then spare a thought for Gary Caldwell.
While there is no suggestion that the current manager’s job would be under threat purely on account of new owners moving in, it goes without saying that he would need to win their trust.
Where the stunning development would leave the Weir family’s involvement is no clearer.
The couple who won £161million on the EuroMillions in 2011 have invested a total of £1.85m in the club’s academy and are involved in the building of a £4m training academy, the details of which remain sketchy.
Given the now-divorced couple have always seen their investment at Firhill as long-term rather than a quick fix, Lee and Conway’s way of doing things might well meet with their resounding approval.
It is now four years since news of the Weirs’ financial backing of Thistle became public. On that day, long-suffering supporters felt it was them who had won the lottery. Should it go through, the Chinese-American deal will smack of landing the rollover.