The financial misfortunes of Norwich's would-be 'saviour' Peter Cullum and his rocking Towergate Insurance empire were back under the spotlight again this weekend as The Independent on Sunday claimed that accountants KPMG had been instructed to tackle the firm's 'debt mountain' in the face of the on-going bank and credit crisis.
Cullum – cited as Britain's 40th wealthiest individual in the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List with a personal fortune estimated at ?1.7 billion – has long been touted as the man to lead the Canaries out of the Championship wilderness.
His ?20 million “offer” to help then-manager Glenn Roeder's squad rebuilding plans prompted a wave of front page speculation that there was about to be a change of regime at Carrow Road – that the club's principal shareholder Delia Smith and her husband Michael Wynn Jones would have no option but to take the logical course of action and make way for the Kent-based billionaire.
Quite what Cullum's ?20 million “offer” would, exactly, entail never became clear as various nuts and bolts of any proposed takeover were hastily ignored in the scramble to join the billionaires club coming to dominate English football.
What it would mean for the Smiths' majority shareholding as Cullum sought “control”; where the club's banks would stand on a change of ownership; how much individual Canary shareholders would receive for their 50-odd shares – as pertinent as any of these issues were to the wider debate, Norwich now had their knight in shining white armour as the so-called 'King of Deals' hovvered in the background.
Unfortunately, it now appears that as the credit crunch bites with a vengence, like many a financial institution Towergate's numbers are having difficulty stacking up.
And, in fairness to the man himself, he foretold at Christmas that 2009 would prove tricky.
“We are all under the cosh. And we can only guess what 2009 will hold,” he said.
Detailed negotiations with KPMG's restructuring experts appears to be the answer if The Independent's report is accurate. The Guardian reported in February that Towergate was in breach of its banking covenents – struggling to repay its mortgage, in other words.
'Towergate Partnership, which describes itself as Europe's largest independently owned insurance group, is believed to have drafted in restructuring experts from accountancy firm KPMG to tackle its debt mountain, months after it agreed a covenant waiver with its banks,” claimed The Independent On Sunday.
The paper's suggestion was that Towergate's aggressive acquisition policy – one that culd, of course, have included the Canaries – lay somewhere near the root of its current troubles.
'The group has pursued an aggressive acquisition strategy over the past few years, buying 16 firms in 2007 alone,' the paper wrote. 'Its accounts, released in November, show that it carried loans and facilities worth nearly ?600m. The interest payments on this debt were more than ?37m in 2007 ? roughly equal to the company's operating profits during that year.'
No-one from Towergate responded to the paper's claims; Cullum's right-hand man, Andy Homer, admitted last autumn that the insurance giant was in talks with its lenders.
“I can confirm that we are in advanced negotiations with our lenders regarding fine tuning our banking facilities in line with our latest plans,” Homer said in an autumn statement to The Insurance Times.
“This is a process we regularly undertake and we expect a successful conclusion will soon be reached.”
With Cullum having now disappeared off over the horizon with his ?20 million “offer” in tow, the Canaries have sought the services of football's deal make extraordinaire Keith Harris in a bid to find a new investor – indeed, new owner.
But with the financial market in such turmoil, parties interested in propping up the fortunes of a provincial Championship club are proving few and far between leaving City with little alternative but to rely on the on-going support of their principal shareholder – now 'in' to the tune of ?11 million, she revealed last week – and the extraordinary loyalty of the club's season ticket holders whose 17,000-strong number gives the banks the kind of cash-flow security they need.
In the meantime, City boss Bryan Gunn will be breathing a small sigh of relief after key midfielder Sammy Clingan for once came through 90 minutes of international action intact as Nigel Worthington's Northern Ireland found Celtic's Artur Boruc in a giving mood in their 3-2 win over Poland at Windsor Park on Saturday night.
That now puts the Province at the top of Group Three – a position they need to capitalise on again this Wednesday as Clingan heads back into battle against Slovenia.
“There is no point doing the hard work on Saturday and not backing it up on Wednesday,” warned Worthington afterwards, with Gunn hoping for an easy outing for his midfield ace ahead of this weekend's return to Championship action against Sheffield Wednesday.
Alas, there would be little chance on that score as Worthington insists that his men keep their foot on the gas after springing a big surprise against the generous Poles.
“I don't want there to be any 'After the Lord Mayor's Show…' about the Slovenia game and I'm sure we can go from strength to strength,” he added.