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Relegations, promotions, CEOs, loans and controversy: West Brom under Guochuan Lai

It was the summer of 2016 and rumours had been rife for a while that Jeremy Peace was looking to sell West Brom.

Guochuan Lai at the West Bromwich Albion Training Ground on December 15, 2021 in Walsall, England. (Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images).
Guochuan Lai at the West Bromwich Albion Training Ground on December 15, 2021 in Walsall, England. (Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images).

As owner and chairman, Peace had turned West Brom from a Championship club to a Premier League regular - and for him, he felt it was time to sell up.

Up steps Guochuan Lai, at the time a 42-year-old entrepreneur and businessman from China.

Little was known about Lai - but he became the latest Chinese investor to arrive in West Midlands football - and Albion fans were excited.

Six years, two relegations, controversial loans, a string of managers and hierarchy sackings later - it is safe to say Lai's controversial time at Albion hasn't gone as the Baggies fans would have envisioned it.

Jonny Drury takes a look back at six years under Lai's ownership:

July 2016 - The Lai of the land changes at Albion

After 14 years as Albion chairman and owner, Peace sells his 88 per cent stake in Albion for a reported £175 million to Lai.

At the time, Peace told the club's official website: "I believe this deal will enable Albion to build on the strong, sustainable foundations that have been the cornerstone of the club's progress.

"I have been chairman for 14 years and I am obviously pleased that in that time we have become an established top-flight club. Now, having spent time with Guochuan, I believe he is the right man to take Albion forward."

August 2016: A bright future

Two months after the sale to Lai, he penned a letter to the supporters in which he said he remembered the club's 1978 trip to China, explained how he wanted to bring West Brom millions of dedicated fans and wanted the club to establish itself in the top half of the Premier League.

In a letter to fans he said: "I have been following West Bromwich Albion for many years now, having first become aware of the Club through contacts who participated in the historic tour of China in 1978, when I was still a child.

"I am a lifelong football fan and my hometown is often referred to as the hometown of football in China.

Owner of West Bromwich Albion Guochuan Lai stops to sign autographs for West Bromwich Albion Fans on his arrival at the stadium

"II would like to re-iterate just how proud I am to have the chance to become the new owner of this Club and I believe that we have an extremely bright future ahead of us."

August 2016: Drinks on me!

Lai announced himself to the fans by buying those travelling to Crystal Palace for the first away fixture of the season a scarf.

And then he dipped in his pocket for the first home game to buy everyone a drink.

Owner of West Bromwich Albion Guochuan Lai stops to sign autographs for West Bromwich Albion Fans on his arrival at the stadium .

Lai himself was also at The Hawthorns for the first time and pledged to go to games as often as he could.

May 2017: A German partnership?

Lai at this point was keen on developing his football portfolio in the form of an affiliation with Bundesliga club Werder Bremen.

At the time, reports in Germany said Bremen directors were flying to China to hold talks with Yunyi Guokai Sports Development, the investment company Lai set up to buy Albion.

July 2017: Albion sign Chinese striker

Albion spent around £7 million on Chinese striker Yuning Zhang - who then was immediately loaned out to Bremen.

The deal was described as a "development project" with the hope he may one day become a key Premier League asset and did not hide the obvious commercial motives behind the deal.

At the time Technical Director Richard Garlick said: "Zhang will get the chance to further develop at Bremen, with whom we have an excellent relationship."

Zhang would never play for Albion.

Yuning Zhang

2016/2017: A year of Lai

A year had passed since the club started its new and exciting era.

So, what impact had been made?

New faces such as Nacer Chadli and Jake Livermore had arrived - as well as a new partnership with Werder Bremen.

There was also the emergence of six West Brom 'soccer towns' in China.

In a piece written by former Baggies writer Matt Wilson, he stated that the motives for Lai buying the club were clear: "With the weight of the Albion brand – or more specifically the Premier League brand – he can win lucrative housing development contracts in his homeland."

Off the field, season tickets had been reduced by five per cent - but Lai wasn't putting big sums into Albion as many fans would have expected.

The total net outlay was £12 million following a season that brought in £120 million in prize money.

October 2017: No deal!

Just over a year after he took over at Albion - Lai reportedly rejected an offer of above £200 million from an unknown US investor.

It came at a time when the Chinese government were reigning in spending abroad.

But despite the reported interest, chief executive at the time, Martin Goodman, insisted the rejection showed Lai had zero plans to jump the Baggies ship.

He said: “It was rejected and he decided to maintain his majority. I think it was an indication of his commitment. Lai is here for the forseeable future.”

February 2018: You're fired!

In February 2018, with Albion staring relegation in the face both chairman John Williams, and CEO Goodman were sacked suddenly and placed on gardening leave.

The decision was said to have come as a shock to the pair - and was at a time when the club had won just once in 25 games.

Long serving former CEO Mark Jenkins returned to the club.

It was reported that Lai had culled the pair because of their decision to sack Tony Pulis, who was understood to be seen as a safe pair of hands by the owner.

And in a statement at the time, Jenkins said Lai’s determination to rebuild is what helped convince him to return to the club.

Martin Goodman, right, with Chairman John Williams.

Although much had happened since his takeover, Lai had made virtually no public comments at this point since buying the club.

April 2018: Another one bites the dust...

Two months after Lai had wielded the axe on Goodman and Williams - Technical Director Nick Hammond was shown the door as part of a restructuring at The Hawthorns.

It was decided that Hammond should leave his post after a poor season that saw Alan Pardew sacked, and the club in serious danger of relegation.

Nick Hammond

April 2018: Who's this?

Giuliano Terraneo is appointed as a technical consultant at Albion following Hammond's departure.

He came in on a six month deal to help with transfers - having been a technical director at clubs around Europe - but his time at The Hawthorns was brief and he left a few months later following the arrival of Luke Dowling.

May 2018: Hello Ken...

In May 2018, Lai brought in one of his own men and someone who would become known to Baggies fans over the following years.

Xu Ke, or Ken as he would become known, was made a director of the West Bromwich Albion Group Ltd.

The 29-year-old executive assistant had been part of the team dealing with Albion for Lai - and he had attended games and been a part of the set up.

He was the second of Lai's business associates to be named on the Baggies board after Li Piyue.

After a disastrous season that prompted Lai to sack three board members including the chairman, chief executive, and technical director, Albion's Chinese owner wanted to have more control over club affairs.

May 2019: What about the loan? With interest...

By this time, Albion had been relegated and failed to return to the top flight at the first time of asking.

But in May 2019, bigger issues had surfaced away from the pitch.

When Lai purchased an 88 per cent majority stake from Jeremy Peace - he inherited a £3.7 million loan that the Albion holding company owed to the football club.

In the time since the loan was taken out - he had accrued interest. In May 2019, the debt was £4.1 million.

Club accounts stated there is ‘no fixed date for repayment’ and the loan is ‘payable on demand’, so in theory, whenever the club needed the money, they could ask for it.

However, a number of Albion’s minor shareholders who owned the remaining 12 per cent of the club were becoming concerned the historical loan is yet to be repaid.

They believed the £4.1m could be useful for the seasons ahead.

May 2019: They won't let me pay...

Just weeks after the details around the loan emerged - Lai told the club that restrictions on foreign investment from the Chinese government were stopping him repaying the £4.1million debt.

Chief executive Jenkins formally asked Lai for the money he owes Albion from the historic loan he inherited.

Guochuan Lai meets Darren Fletcher.

In response, Lai acknowledged the debt, but said he could not repay it at that time because of government restrictions specifically on sports related investments.

At the time, the E&S reported that there was no suggestion of any tension between the chief executive and the owner.

August 2020: Jenkins out, Ken in

Following the club's return to the Premier League - Jenkins announced his retirement after an 18 year association with the club.

In came Ken, the young director Lai had earlier brought on board.

He had no football administration experience at the time and had been learning the ropes from Jenkins for the previous two years.

On announcing his retirement, Jenkins said: "He knows the club, he cares about the club and, most importantly, he is already part of the team.

Guochuan Lai meets West Bromwich Albion Academy Manger, Mark Harrison.

“And I think bringing an outsider in could risk disturbing the excellent management team we have got – and it is an excellent management team."

November 2020: Where's Lai and is he still in charge?

Details began to emerge on the state of the ownership - with questions over whether Lai was still in charge.

Orbis – a publisher of business information similar to Companies House – released documents suggesting Ms Yasha Ge is now the Baggies' largest shareholder instead of Lai.

That information, however, was found to be incorrect with the Express & Star having seeing documents dated October 29 that confirmed there had been no change in ownership at the club.

Ms Ge had become a director at Shanghai Yunyi Investment which is a partner of Yunyiye Investment Company and Yunjin Investment Company – two bodies entirely owned by Lai.

But she never had a say in the day-to-day running of Albion.

It is was believed the club contacted Orbis to inform them that their documents were wrong and to ask them where they obtained their information from.

November 2020: The US are back

We are now four years into Lai's time at Albion - and now for a second time a US consortium are back in for the club.

They were among two parties who became interested in buying the football club - but were said to have been put off by Lai's asking price of over £150 million.

The American consortium continued to monitor the situation and negotiations reportedly could have resumed later in the season, when Albion’s Premier League fate was clearer.

Alongside the American investors, it was understood that at least one other group had contacted Albion’s hierarchy to find out how much they wanted for the club.

By this point, four years on since his arrival, Lai’s interest in Albion has been severely questioned with the owner absent from matches.

June 2021: I don't want Wilder

Chris Wilder was all set to become the new West Brom boss following relegation from the top flight.

However, despite being Technical Director Luke Dowling's number one pick - Lai said no.

Wilder had been outspoken about off field ownership issues at Sheffield United with relationships strained during the end of his time at Bramall Lane.

That put Lai off - and he overruled the decision.

Chris Wilder looked set for the Albion job until Lai had his say

June 2021: Another one out the door

The fallout of the Wilder fiasco proves to be too much - and Dowling leaves the club by mutual consent.

The chaotic managerial search saw Dowling's Wilder move knocked back - and he left.

To this day, he is yet to be replaced.

Luke Dowling Technical Director of West Bromwich Albion..West Bromwich Albion's first game after season suspension due to Covid19 / CoronaVirus pandemic.

December 2021: Out of nowhere!

Out of nowhere, Lai is photographed at the training ground alongside manager Valerien Ismael.

He held a 45 minute chat about the transfer window - in which Albion subsequently paid out £7 million for Daryl Dike.

It was also reported he was likely to return and take in a match later in the season.

Valerien Ismael and Guochuan Lai of West Bromwich Albion at West Bromwich Albion Training Ground on December 15, 2021 in Walsall, England. (Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images).

On the visit, Ismael said he had positive discussions with Lai, said he was very passionate about the club still and he described the owner as 'completely committed' to Albion.

Jake Livermore of West Bromwich Albion and Guochuan Lai (Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images).

February 2022: Demotion for Ken and a new CEO

With Albion slipping down the top end of the table - they not only replace their manager and bring in Steve Bruce, another change is made at the top.

Ron Gourlay, the former Chelsea CEO, who has been a consultant over recent months comes in to replace Ken, who is made a non executive director.

Gourlay becomes Lai's fourth chief executive in just six years.

May 2022: Investigation time

Shareholders for Albion succeed in their attempt for an independent investigation to be carried out into the loan that moved to Lai when he purchased the club.

S4A said after talks with Gourlay, the club had agreed to pay for the investigation.

At this time the interest for that loan had exceeded the £1million mark – meaning the Baggies are owed in the region of £5million.

The statement from S4A to it’s members added: “We await a detailed proposal on the terms of reference for the investigation.

“Obviously, if the terms of reference are not correct, the investigation will be practically and legally meaningless.

Guochuan Lai during the Sky Bet Championship match between West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City at The Hawthorns on January 2, 2022 in West Bromwich, England. (Photo by Adam Fradgley/West Bromwich Albion FC via Getty Images).

“It has to be independent, full and unfettered. We will confirm when the terms of reference have been agreed and the investigation has commenced.”

Summer 2022: What?! Another loan

As Albion's accounts are published - Albion fans are left angered after Lai reveals he took £4.95 million of the club's money - to put into another one of his firms Wisdom Smart Corporation Limited.

Interest was fixed at £50,000 with the repayment due on September 15, 2021. That repayment however was no made with a new date of December 21, 2022, then agreed.

Lai explained the pandemic had hit his other businesses, and in March 2021 he received the loan from the club.

He said: "The upturn in the global economy has brought with it greater positivity and I can confirm I will repay the loan in full, with interest, by the end of the current calendar year and the funds will be available to the club during the January 2023 transfer window."

The date that was set for the loan to be repaid is December 31, 2022.

Summer 2022: And that's not all...

On top of that £4.95 million - it also emerges that Lai borrowed, via his company West Bromwich Albion Holdings – £2million on September 8, 2021.

The money was borrowed from Warmfront Holdings Limited – with the cash not coming from the club.

Albion are not the lender or the beneficiary. However, it went into Holdings and Lai used 2.35 per cent of his shares to secure the loan.

That means if Lai fails to repay the money, Warmfront Holdings Limited will own 2.35 per cent of Lai’s shares in Albion.

Interestingly, if 2.35 per cent of Lai’s shares are worth £2million – the club as a whole is worth in the region of £97.5million at the time the loan was agreed.

That, of course, is substantially less than what Lai paid Peace when he purchased the club in 2016.

According to Albion’s latest accounts, the £2million loan was due to be repaid on March 31 this year.

It will not be clear until Albion’s next set of accounts are published next year whether Lai repaid the loan on time.

August 2022: A family visit

Lai's last game came in January 2022 - but his son was in the stands as Albion thumped Hull 5-2 back in August.

He was accompanied by former chief executive Xu Ke, known to Albion fans as Ken - and he was also in the stands for the midweek 0-0 draw with Cardiff City.

Lai's son is not believed to have any involvement over the running of the club - and it is understood he has attended several Albion matches in recent years.

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