When 'friend' of Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein tried to buy into Canaries
- Credit: Archant
The ownership of Norwich City Football Club comes under regular scrutiny – but things could have been very, very different, as CHRIS LAKEY reports
It was 20 years ago when the unwanted attention of a legal-minded gentleman settled itself on Norwich City Football Club.
The tranquil life of owners Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones was thrust into the spotlight by a man whose name would become synonymous with some of Europe’s most hideous criminals.
The man’s name was Giovanni Di Stefano. Born in southern Italy, his family emigrated to a town near Northamptonshire where his father worked in a shoe factory.
Di Stefano claimed he had a PhD in law from Cambridge University. He hadn’t. He tried to buy MGM Studios in Los Angeles. He fled to Yugoslavia, where he befriended the worst kind of tyrants: then president Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian warlord Arkan among them.
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He later claimed to have links to Robert Mugabe, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Harold Shipman - the tip of a very unsavoury iceberg of criminality. No wonder The Guardian called him "surely the only man in the world to claim the personal friendship of Saddam Hussein and the personal enmity of Delia Smith".
Given his propensity for defending – or trying to – the indefensible, he was nicknamed The Devil’s Advocate.
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So how on earth did he come to be mentioned in the same breath as Norwich City two decades ago?
It was in June 2001 when di Stefano first popped his head over the parapet of Norwich Castle and began to attract headlines locally.
The thrust of the story is that he was planning to buy a share of the club for his son Michele from the late Jimmy Jones, who was then vice-chairman. Di Stefano had his sights on Jones’ nine per cent stake, valued at around £450,000 – it wouldn't have got him a seat on the board, although he would be allowed to vote at shareholders’ meetings and to table motions.
Owner Delia and Michael were not interested in selling their shares - they had 58pc of them.
Di Stefano believed he could attract some top young talent from the Balkans, Italy and Iraq - and wanted Bryan Robson to work with then manager Nigel Worthington as director of football.
At the time, Jones, a City director from 1985-95, said: “I have spoken to a representative of his (Di Stefano) and I think he is coming over.”
It seems Mr Di Stefano wanted a guided tour of the ground - it appears not to have happened.
The Robson link came from the horse’s mouth.
"We need someone like Mr Robson as a director of sport and it is something that I intend to follow up to try and get him, or somebody like him, who can take this club into the Premier Division," said di Stefano.
"We want to have somebody with experience of the Premier League in the last two years."
In an continuing effort to get a place on the board, di Stefano said he had local support and had a meeting lined up with then chairman Bob Cooper – he also claimed he had been approached by smaller shareholders about taking over their shares.
“I have taken six per cent from Jones, but we will now be voting together,” he said. “Quite a few other small shareholders have come together and asked me to take power of attorney over their shares which boosts our shareholding to over 15 per cent.
“So there is a move towards a change, but I really want an amicable way forward.”
One report of the era read: “The man who would be Delia’s partner trooped into Norfolk on a media blitz (staying well clear of Carrow Road) with the aim of getting a place on the board for his 21-year-old son Michele. Other shareholders were then to be persuaded to give Michele and his brother Milan voting rights, with the club being forced to make unreleased shares available. Legal action was even threatened, which seemed a strange way to win Delia’s trust.”
An odd way indeed. In the end, the inability to get a seat at the top table saw di Stefano's interest fade away.
Perhaps the owners’ oft-cited reluctance to sell their club to an overseas buyer traces its origins to the events of 20 years ago.