What started out as a look into a Belgian third-tier club who had several English players on their books has turned out to be a whole lot more interesting than I first expected. This is the story of an English-Chinese owner, an influx of foreign signings, players going on loan to the Caribbean, former England international Terry Fenwick and Denise Lewis.
The chaos started in December 2016. Before then, Patro Eisden were like any other Belgian football club. The previous season they had suffered relegation from the second-tier, alongside eight other teams, as part of a reshuffle in the Belgian football league system.
The following season, the 2016/17 campaign, the club were slowly adjusting to life in the newly formed First Amateur Division. Their chairman at the time was a man called Robert Stevens, whose father Jaak Stevens played for the club. His cousin was former sprinter Patrick Stevens and he was the club’s CEO. He won bronze in the 200m in the 1994 European Championships and is also is the former husband of renowned British sprinter Denise Lewis.
A few months into the season, the chairman began negotiations with a mysterious English-Chinese investor with the club struggling finacially two years off its 75th anniversary. The investor was later named as a certain Wayne Woo.
A quick look at Woo’s records at Companies House shows that he has been a director at ten different companies, two which to this day he is still a director at. At the time of his takeover bid, he was a director of a company called RDS Europe Ltd. based in Kent which rented and leased cars. Interestingly, four of the companies which Woo had been involved in had been dissolved before this point and RDS Europe would later be wound up. Woo is reportedly a former investment banker who manages a family fortune, making
investments with said fortune.
Why he became interested in football is another matter and in this article by KentOnline in July 2017 Gillingham chairman Paul Scally said: “Their owner is Wayne Woo, who is Chinese and quite why he would buy a club in Belgium is beyond me. He knows nothing about football. We were helping them out,” in response to a fan asking why they had played a friendly against the Belgian club. The match report from that game makes interesting reading, the Gills won 4-1.
It was fair to say that Woo did not make a quiet entrance when he completed his takeover of Patro Eisden for a reported fee of €100,000. The technical director quit, Woo sacked the first team manager and the rest of his staff resigned. It was an explosive start to Woo’s time at the club and only a sign of things to come.
Into the club came English scout/agent Steve Davies as the club’s new technical director. He had worked as director of football at Belgian side CS Visé. Their manager at the time was former England international Terry Fenwick but the pair left when the club folded in October 2014. Fenwick arrived in Belgium after more than a decade of coaching in Trinidad & Tobago where he became the most successful coach in the domestic league’s history.
At first, it was reported that Patro Eisden had appointed Fenwick as manager after Woo’s takeover. However, a day later it was announced that former OH Leuven manager Guido Brepoels was the new manager. Fenwick would still be a part of this story, more on that later.
With Davies involved in transfers, the club set about to achieve Woo’s bold claims of promotion back to the second-tier as soon as possible. In came an influx of foreign signings, including defenders Michael Kedman, who joined from Sheffield United, and Lloyd Bannister, who had been with Wigan Athletic. The pair would be among the 33 players that the club would use in the 2016/17 season with seven appearances for Bannister and three for Kedman. Another English player Clinton Olagunju also made an appearance, he had played under Fenwick for Visé. The club finished the season under a different manager, former Belgium international Danny Boffin took over in March 2017.
One of the regulars for the club that season was Danilo Šarkić, who has represented Montenegro at youth level but was born in England. His brothers Matija and Oliver are also both professional footballers and currently play in England for Aston Villa and Burton Albion respectively.
At the end of the season, Fenwick’s connections with the club would appear again. He was now back coaching in Trinidad & Tobago but not in charge of any particular team. However, as Belgium clubs started their end of season breaks, the TT Pro League was about to start its 2017 campaign and Fenwick’s former side, Central FC would make several signings from Patro Eisden. Central, managed by former T&T international Dale Saunders, completed the signings of Bannister, Kedman and Olagunju on one-month loan deals.
Back in Belgium, after finishing tenth in their first season, Woo and Davies would now get a full season in charge of the club. They began 2017/18 with Boffin still as manager and the club made more signings. Bannister and Kedman returned from the Caribbean and were joined by two more English players. Midfielders Callum Harris and Aaron Knight joined the club from Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bolton Wanderers respectively.
It would prove to be a difficult campaign for Patro, despite their new signings (including signing the brother of Barcelona wonderkid Ansu Fati) and with the club struggling to avoid relegation, Boffin was sacked and former boss Brepoels returned for two months before ending the season with a third different manager. In the end the club finished rock bottom with three wins and were relegated to the fourth-tier. Woo was correct when he said he would get the team out of the division, only the wrong way.
It was not all negatives though. It was a positive experience for the English quartet training full time and living together in the same house in Maasmechelen, a town on the Dutch border. All four featured but it was Harris who impressed the most. The midfielder made 19 appearances scoring twice. His first was this fine strike from the edge of the area in a 1-1 draw away to Dender. He also scored another from the edge of the area in a defeat against Dessel Sport.
After relegation, Woo sold the club to an Iranian millionaire and they achieved promotion at the first attempt.It has been reported that Woo paid just €12,500 for the club, having never paid the rest of what he owed to Stevens.
And what of the five English players who played for the club during Woo’s tumultuous two-year spell? Well the most notable have been Michael Kedman and Callum Harris. The pair both played for fourth-tier Spanish club Tres Cantos. Harris, now 24, remained in the country for the start of this season, scoring twice for Real Burgos. He has since returned to England.
A whirlwind story which at the heart of it has what first piqued my interest, English footballers abroad. For the players most of this story would be irrelevant and they would have enjoyed playing senior football in new surroundings, but I found the background story behind it all interesting and I hope you enjoyed something different on the blog!