How Dutch football fans blocked Man City's owners from buying Pierre van Hooijdonk's old club
"They got it wrong with us. They got a big surprise at our club."
One morning in late March, four NAC Breda supporters drove north to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and boarded an Easyjet flight bound for Manchester. Arriving in England, they stopped for breakfast before making their way to Manchester City's Etihad Stadium. They set to work immediately - closely examining the area surrounding the ground, being careful to keep a low profile.
An hour or so later, having made note of where all the on-duty security guards were patrolling, the group agreed on a location. Aware that they had a narrow window of time before they were asked to leave, they quickly unfurled a large, yellow tarpaulin banner, stringing it up on a railing outside the glass-fronted reception area of the East Stand.
'STAY OUT OF OUR TERRITORY, NAC IS NOT A CITY GROUP STORY,' read the thick black lettering which ran across the banner.
Pictures and video were taken as proof of their stunt, then, as anticipated, security staff arrived at the scene, politely requesting that they left - taking their banner with them.
At approximately the same time, over 300 miles away, another car of NAC supporters reached Soevereinstadion, home of Belgian First Division B side, Lommel SK. On a mesh fence outside the turnstiles, they fixed another banner - identical to the one used at the Etihad. Again, photographs were taken, before the banner was bundled away and the car drove on for the best part of another 300 miles. Over the French border it went, to the Stade de l'Aube, where Ligue 1 side ES Troyes AC play their home fixtures.
The final pictures were taken by 7pm. Within minutes, they were being shared across social media by fellow NAC supporters. The job was done.
— Fanzine De Rat (@FanzineDeRat) March 28, 2022
'We are a proud club'
"The plan unfolded exactly how we wanted it to," Leon Deckers, one of the supporters who made the journey to Manchester, tells SportsJOE.
"This was only part of what we were doing, but it got a lot of exposure and that was important.
"That helped us to get our message across - that we are a proud club and would not accept being part of City Football Group's business model."
NAC have played in the Eerste Divisie, the second tier of Dutch football, since their relegation from the Eredivisie in 2019. One of their most famous former players is Netherlands striker Pierre van Hooijdonk, a cult hero when he moved to Celtic, who scored 81 goals in 115 appearances, over four seasons.
They boast a passionate home support, with numerous highly engaged fan groups. Despite slipping down a division three years ago, the club still averaged home attendances of over 17,000 in their first season after relegation - a drop of just over 1,000 from when they were in the top flight.
It was announced in March that City Football Group (CFG) had reached an agreement to buy NAC for €7m (£5.8m). This followed on from a loan agreement with the club which saw some City players - including the likes of Angeliño - temporarily move to the Netherlands to aid their development. The deal ran between 2016 and 2021, with 14 City players appearing for NAC during that time.
With CFG reaching an agreement with the club's shareholders, NAC looked to be on the brink of becoming the 12th club to be added to the group's burgeoning portfolio - the fifth from Europe behind City, Girona, Lommel and Troyes.
What is City Football Group?
- City Football Group (CFG) is the parent company of Manchester City.
- CFG describes itself as 'the owner of football-related businesses in major cities around the world, including football clubs, academies, technical support and marketing companies'.
- CFG currently owns 11 football clubs across the world, with City the most prominent.
- From September 2008 to December 2015, it was wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), an investment group for the Abu Dhabi royal family, belonging to City owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
- CFG is currently majority owned by Newton Investment and Development LLC - a company registered in Abu Dhabi which is also owned by Sheikh Mansour.
- CFG also has 'significant minority shareholdings' held by US private equity giant Silver Lake and China Media Capital (CMC) Consortium.
Supporters quickly objected, keen to protect the identity of their club and, in some cases, uncomfortable with the alleged human rights violations associated with Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates.
"I think, because of the five-year loan deal we had with them, they [CFG] expected to encounter a friendly face," says Deckers, editor for Fanzine de Rat. "It was, in fact, the opposite of that."
"The takeover wasn't in the interest of our club. We have a very strong fan culture here. We cherish the bond between club and fans and our community very much and we didn't want to be part of some big international private equity group.
"Football makes sportswashing possible and we cannot be part of that, either. Once you do that, once you take that money, you can never give an opinion about anything anymore. You can never win an argument about human rights anymore after that.
"That wasn't what we stood for, so we had to do something."
— Fanzine De Rat (@FanzineDeRat) April 8, 2022
'We were all together on this'
Almost immediately, NAC supporters sprung into action. Within half an hour of the announcement being made, fan groups were in dialogue, hatching plans to make it explicitly clear that they did not want their club to fall into CFG hands.
A statement was released. The details of trips to Manchester, Lommel and Troyes were finalised. Large banners were ordered for inside the stadium. The depth of feeling towards the potential takeover was illustrated during NAC's next home game.
"Usually, it's one supporters' group that makes all the banners - that's their job, so nobody else has to make any," Deckers explains.
"But when we arrived at the stadium for our next game, it was incredible: so many people - kids, elderly people - had turned up with their own self-made banners as well. There were table cloths, bedsheets, anything - all with clear messages against the takeover.
"It was so good to see. A surprise to us, but a really powerful message that we were all together on this."
A social media campaign ran alongside the in-stadium protests. The only hint of support for the takeover, Deckers says, came online.
"It was strange," he says. "We saw accounts appearing on our website and on Twitter which were anonymous and had made-up nicknames.
"A lot of them appeared with a very similar writing style, but it was obvious to us they weren’t real people. Especially on platforms where you can be anonymous, like Twitter, there were a lot more pro-City Football Group messages than on the others, like Facebook."
What is a Golden Share in football?
A Golden Share is a share designated to a group which represents the supporters of a football club. It would give the group the right to be consulted on key decisions regarding a football club - including stadium moves or a change of ownership - and, in some cases, the power to veto.
Deckers and his fellow NAC supporters knew they were in a strong position to take on the might of CFG. The club had been owned by a group of shareholders since 2011, meaning it was always possible that they would be the subject of a takeover bid. Crucially, though, four of those shareholders - collectively referred to as the NOAD Foundation - held a 'golden share', giving them the power to block any potential sale of the club. The fierce backlash to the announcement made it abundantly clear that supporters were against the move, meaning NOAD were near certain to veto the deal.
Sure enough, a matter of weeks after the announcement that an agreement with CFG had been reached, confirmation that the deal was off came via a statement on NAC's website. NOAD rejected the proposal, along with two alternative offers, and instead opted to transfer shares to a group of local business people.
"After intensive discussions with both the City Football Group and two possible alternatives, the NOAD Foundation decided after careful and extensive testing to submit to the local plan of NAC Breda."
- NAC Breda statement
Given recent events, the subject of football club ownership is more contentious than ever before, but the case of NAC Breda and its 'golden share' model is a fine example of supporters retaining genuine power and influence at their club.
Interestingly, one of the proposals put forward by Tracey Crouch as part of a fan-led review of English football is that supporters groups are given a golden share in their club, allowing them to veto key decisions.
"We were fortunate to have that," Deckers says. "A lot of clubs don't have it, but we were prepared for the day someone came to try and take our club. I just hope more clubs are able to have that in the future.
"Looking at the reaction to what we did make us aware we did something very special. We're proud as we put a lot of work in - recently and back when we arranged for the golden share to be included. It gives David a chance against Goliath.
"Maybe they [CFG] are used to picking up clubs that are already down and out and are happy to be bought, but they got it wrong with us. They got a big surprise at our club."