When the founder of the popular game Candy Crush bought Derby County, heads turned. But a string of hiring and firing multiple managers, breaking transfer records, and overspending didn’t pay off.
Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker.
One story every day to make sense of the world of football.
Today, has the Candy Crush King crushed Derby County?
“My job is to get the players playing. Erm… all we can do is get them playing with a lot of pride… and erm… my job is to try and bring some dignity back to this football club.”
“How were you told about the news breaking last night?”
“I seen it on Sky… so…”Wayne Rooney, Sky Sports News
That was Wayne Rooney talking.
And after that interview, his team, Derby, won 2-1 versus Stoke in pretty difficult circumstances.
After the match, he said the fans should be “so proud”.
Because less than 24 hours earlier, Derby had issued an official statement to declare that the club was heading for administration.
In the first four paragraphs of that statement, the phrase “COVID-19” was mentioned six times.
And we know that the pandemic has hurt all 92 of England’s league clubs financially. So there must be something else about Derby that has tipped them towards administration.
The answer lies with owner Mel Morris.
He’s an entrepreneur. He owned a company called King. They were responsible for creating the incredibly popular game “Candy Crush”.
Morris collected 450 million pounds when he sold King to American games company Activision Blizzard in 2014.
He then bought 22% of his hometown club, Championship side Derby County, the same year, and then assumed full ownership in 2015.
“But being local, of course, it’s more fun for me. I see every game. I’m here a lot of the time. And my belief was, in order for the club to get where it needs to go, then there would need to be a much stronger local ownership element.”Derby County YouTube
It became immediately clear that Morris was not the strong and silent type of owner. He set about spending vast amounts of money on the squad, breaking the club’s transfer record four times in his first three years in charge.
I guess, if any of us won the lottery and bought our own beloved club, that’s probably the first thing we’d do too.
Morris had gambled that spending big on the playing squad would come back in increased revenue if Derby made it to the Premier League.
He’s hired and fired his way through nine managers in six years in trying to get his strategy to pay off.
And, in a way, it nearly did.
Derby reached the Championship playoff semi-finals twice before losing to Aston Villa in the final in 2019.
“Aston Villa are heading to the Premier League. Derby County’s time in the Championship will continue. They threatened a second-half fightback, the Rams, but couldn’t find it right where it mattered. Right at the end. Absolute heartbreak.”Derby County YouTube
But they never got there.
When he took over at Derby, Mel Morris said: “I hope together we can help steer this club back into a sustainable place in the Premier League.”
Instead, they’re looking at a possible 21 point deduction for the mess that they are in.
This is football finance expert, Kieran Maguire:
“If you take a look at the Mel Morris era… Derby went from just about covering their wages with revenue coming in… 2016… £157 in wages for every £100 coming in, then £137 then £161. Er… the average wage bill went from… players were on less than six grand a week in 2013. And that had gone up to 22 grand a week in 2018. And Derby were in the same… you know… Derby were in the same division for that period of time.”Kieran Maguire, The Ramswriter podcast
In 2018, Morris bought Pride Park, Derby’s stadium, by another company he owned and then leased it back to the club. It looked like an exercise which meant that on paper the club had raised 80 million pounds.
By December 2020, the club was struggling with cash flow issues and the players weren’t getting paid. The overspending had caught up with Morris and he was looking for outside investment or a new buyer for the club. Neither materialised.
Last season, they avoided relegation to League One by just one point. And that was only because Sheffield Wednesday had been handed a points deduction. It was a far cry from those lofty initial plans to reach the Premier League.
Derby were on thin ice in the summer too. They were told to refile accounts that had already been submitted and only avoided a points deduction on appeal. Other teams in the league weren’t happy.
When giving evidence at the EFL hearing, Morris said that he was “an enemy of the EFL state” and that the EFL had “a personal axe to grind against him”.
Derby were also placed under a transfer embargo, which meant Wayne Rooney was forced to admit he could only come up with nine outfield players at the start of this season.
And now, Morris has admitted defeat and placed the club into administration. The statement, the one that kept mentioning COVID-19, said that the owner as well as all the staff are “true Derby County fans.”
That may well be true, but in the first three years of ownership, Morris more than doubled the pay of directors from £1 million per year to 2.2 million. They’ve essentially done OK.
Just like every other football club that has ended up in administration, it’s the local businesses, unpaid suppliers and ultimately the supporters that lose out.
Mel Morris made his money from Candy Crush. We’re about to find out just how crushing his ownership has really been for Derby County.
Today’s episode was written by me, Chloe Beresford, and produced by Studio Klong.