Leicester Tigers the most decorated club in English rugby history – are up for sale.
An admission that the once-great institution – who have won 10 Premiership titles and two European Cups – is failing to keep up with the Premiership big boys?
If not that it certainly is the next stage in a sorry saga that has been playing out for the last three years.
A steady decline of poor performances, a loss of identity and a succession of sackings accelerated Leicester’s decline last season – their worst ever.
And now the club has put itself up for sale, hoping to be bought out for around £60m, reset and renew, Sportsmail asks: where has it gone wrong for Leicester?
Leicester Tigers have announced that the club has been put up for sale for a reported £60m
Having made the Premiership play-offs every year between 2005 and 2017 – including making nine finals in a row – Leicester fell spectacularly last season.
They finished a desperate campaign in 11th, 10 points clear of Newcastle, beating the Falcons very late in the season to save their bacon.
Hammerings at the hands of Exeter Chiefs (twice by 30 points), Gloucester, Bristol, Saracens and Sale made it a harrowing season.
Geordan Murphy’s side narrowly escaped relegation last season – as they finished 11th
Before the 52-20 home defeat by the Chiefs when it looked like Leicester might be for the drop, the club chairman Peter Tom was seen walking past the press box and motioning a noose around his neck.
The gallows humour did not make Leicester’s concession of their most points in a league game since 1988 any easier to take – and fans made their feelings known to Tom as they walked out of Welford Road that day.
Tom, along with a board comprising a chairman, chief executive, head of recruitment and director of rugby or head coach all having a say in major decisions is known to be cluttered.
Peter Tom is part of a hierarchy at Leicester that have seen major decisions become cluttered
Most concerning to the Tigers faithful has been the perceived lack of backbone on the field at Leicester.
A club once feared for its gnarly, brutal and uncompromising pack now had a boy-band backline – of Ben Youngs, George Ford, Matt Toomua, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May and Telusa Veainu but creaked loudly up front.
Long gone are the days of the A-B-C club front row, Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Neil Back, Lewis Moody, Martin Corry and the like.
Neil Back was an integral part of the Tigers’ best days during a 15-year spell at the club
THE EROSION OF A FORMIDABLE CULTURE
It was the Youngs brothers – Ben and Tom – who admitted it during last season’s decline.
Asked in an exclusive Sportsmail interview in April whether the Tigers aura had gone, Tom said candidly: ‘I would say we have.
‘With Leicester one of the things you get is expectation to win something,’ he explains.
‘We’ve tried to chase success by doing what has happened in the past.’
Ben Youngs (left) and his brother Tom have admitted that Leicester have lost their aura
With Ben adding: ‘I wouldn’t disagree that we have lost our identity and our aura.
‘When you have lost as many games as we have at Welford Road you do lose something.
‘As players you scratch your head. For a while we have looked at short-term fixes.’
No one fears Welford Road now. Leicester lost 15 of 22 league games last season – with their last-gasp loss to Bath on the final day their 10th defeat of the campaign at home in all competitions.
Leicester lost 15 of 22 league games last season in a season to forget for the Welford Road side
THE PLAYER DRAIN
Tigers have managed to keep fans happy with a few big-name acquisitions – like May and Toomua (who has now since left) – but have lost many who have starred elsewhere.
Harry Thacker, a hooker at Bristol, has been a revelation in the west country. Vereniki Goneva left in his 30s and went on to be crowned Premiership Player of the Year when Newcastle pipped Tigers to fourth in 2018.
Ed Slater was swapped for May that year and joined Gloucester – he never wanted to leave his boyhood club and now is a cornerstone of a vastly better pack at Kingsholm.
All were allowed to leave with little coming in to replace them properly.
At least for next season Leicester have snapped up some forward grunt, with no-nonsense Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini, Crusaders’ flanker Jordan Taufua and Munster back-rower Jaco Taute coming in.
Hooker Harry Thacker has been a revelation at Bristol since leaving Leicester last summer
It has been a revolving door at the top. Richard Cockerill was sacked in January 2017 at the beginning of Leicester’s limp – and since there have been three other head coaches.
Cockerill, before he went, had been undermined by the board bringing in former All Black Aaron Mauger. The Kiwi was thought to be the man to transform Leicester from their beat-em-up style to a side that could wow in attack too.
But the messages all became confused, the pair did not bond at all and it was Cockerill who went – much to his ire.
Leicester legend Richard Cockerill was sacked as their head coach in January 2017
The 48-year-old is now in charge of Edinburgh – where he is excelling with the Scottish side
Soon, though, Mauger was out too. There was a bizarre scenario where it was announced he would be sacked the morning after winning Leicester their first trophy for four years – the Anglo Welsh Cup – in March 2017, and then he asked to speak to the media the following day.
With just five games left in the season Mauger was devastated, described the conversation where he was told he would be binned as ‘brief’ and when asked if he felt let down, he had to pause, bite his lip and simply say: ‘I am disappointed I am not going to be here for the rest of the season.’
Matt O’Connor – the bad-cop to Cockerill’s bad-cop when the pair coached Leicester to three league titles between 2008 and 2013 – was brought back. The Australian failed spectacularly with the head coach job and was turfed out one game into the next season after a 40-6 defeat on the opening day to Exeter.
The players were livid that plans had been ripped up after a week. Later last season Ben Youngs said: ‘You set yourself up with a bit of a task straight away when you make a change after one game. You can’t spend 12 weeks getting a whole game-plan, a philosophy in place and then get rid of it after one game and then expect a magic wand to come in.’
Aaron Mauger replaced Cockerill but was sacked himself just two months later in March 2017
Matt O’Connor just lasted one game in charge last season – to sum up Leicester’s fortunes
The unprecedented early sacking brought legendary club full-back Geordan Murphy into interim charge.
After a brief bounce in results he signed to become full-time head-coach in December 2018, but results quickly slumped with Leicester losing 10 of the last 12 matches of the season.
Rumours now swirl about whether a big-hitting director of rugby, like Australia coach Michael Cheika, will be brought in above Murphy next season.
Murphy is now in charge but there is speculation that he could be demoted for someone else
Leicester are not the only Premiership club losing money hand over fist. Every side in the league – apart from Exeter who continue to make a small profit – do.
The Tigers had the third highest turnover in the Premiership – of £19.7m based on their 2017 accounts – but also had the third highest wage bill, of £12m and losses are increasing.
Based on their 2018 strategic report ‘rugby income’ has dropped from £5.9m to £5.4m between 2015 and 2018, season ticket sales have slumped by 1,200 in the last four seasons down to 14,027 for 2017-18 and commercial income has dropped by more than £1m since 2014.
Tigers still spend up to the £7m playing-squad salary cap, but while they made a profit of £479,000 back in 2015, the last three sets of accounts have shown increasing losses – of £424,000, £686,000 and £991,000.
That is not a unique situation in the Premiership however, hence why the league chose to sell a 27 per cent stake to private equity firm CVC – the company that tarted up Formula 1 then sold it to Liberty Media for £6bn – giving them each a windfall of around £13m for next season.
Indeed Chairman Tom said in the statement that confirmed Tigers were up for sale that: ‘CVC’s investment in Premiership Rugby has created a unique opportunity – catapulting the sport into the public consciousness like never before and broadening its appeal to potential investors. It is our duty as a Board to explore the Club’s strategic options and assess the best possible ownership structure to benefit from the changes ahead on and off the pitch.’
At least Leicester avoided relegation. Without stating the obvious that would have been a monumental blow to the most successful club in the land.
As Sportsmail reported at the end of the season the Tigers stars had no relegation release clauses, so many would have had to stay in the Championship on big money, and once the league’s parachute payments had run out if they did not return next season Leicester would have been faced with a catastrophe.
The Tigers announced on Tuesday that they’re up for sale as they look to reshape their future
Former coach Pat Howard oversaw a review of the club at the end of the season, and now Leicester have decided that they should try and sell up.
With the CVC money they now have no net debt and see this – looking positively – as a way to catapult themselves back to the top.
But gathering clouds of uncertainty hang over Welford Road. There is huge uncertainty at this stage over the future direction of the club.
What is certain is that the playing squad – at least in the short term – should not be affected.
Rugby is not like football where new owners come in and completely revamp the back-room staff and playing squad. With players locked into contracts, and a salary cap to adhere to there is little wiggle room for next year.
Any new owners can’t come in and splash the cash straight away.
But they must be charged with rediscovering the Tigers’ bite on and off the field.
Leicester are looking to rebuild on and off the pitch as their gradual decline continues