Mel Morris: Major health problems made me sell Derby at a £200m loss

A year of hell: Mel Morris reveals how a Covid battle and major health problems forced him to sell Derby, at a personal cost of £200m… as he admits fears for the rest of the football pyramid with no fans in stadiums

  • Mel Morris has been involved in negotiating a Derby sale over the past year 
  • Despite slow progress, the 64-year-old says a sale to Sheik Khaled is still live 
  • Morris told the Mail On Sunday he suffered his own Covid-19 episode last year
  • He also revealed major health problems motivated his sale of the club 

Mel Morris buried his best friend last week, a victim of Covid found dead in his bed. 

As if the Derby County owner needed any more indication that it has been a dreadful 12 months, and could yet get worse for his beloved club and the rest of football.

Today Morris reveals he suffered his own Covid episode for six weeks last year that left him reliant on oxygen, and it was followed by a few unrelated health scares that made him contemplate his mortality and led to his decision to sell the club.

Mel Morris admits he sold Derby County at a personal cost of £200m due to health problems

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The subsequent takeover saga involving owner-elect Sheik Khaled — an Emirati royal who is second cousin to Manchester City’s Sheik Mansour — has left many fans concerned over whether the Sheik will complete his buyout.

But in an exclusive interview with The Mail on Sunday, lifelong Derby fan Morris, who turns 65 in the coming week, told this newspaper:

  • The deal to sell to Sheik Khaled is technically still ‘live’ and there remains a ‘contractual obligation’ for Morris to sell and for the Sheik to buy the club. The parties remain in dialogue;
  • His personal investment in Derby since he took control in 2015 is now ‘more than £200million’, and despite that being money he will NEVER recover, he will continue to bankroll the club until ‘a new custodian for this great club’ is in place;
  • He fears for the viability of many EFL clubs if no fans return to stadiums this season or for a large part of the 2021-22 campaign, and believes the Covid pandemic will be the catalyst ‘for major changes to the model of how football works. It’s just a case of when, not if.’

Morris made his fortune, estimated at more than £500m, via investments in internet ventures including King, the game developer responsible for Candy Crush.

His years as Derby owner have seen three Championship play-off adventures, including losing in the 2019 final, and backing a series of managers including former England boss Steve McClaren and former England stars Frank Lampard and, currently, Wayne Rooney. Derby began the weekend 22nd before beating Middlesbrough 2-1 on Saturday to move up to 19th.

Morris remains a tech investor and philanthropist in many areas, but has seen both his football club and his personal life hit by Covid.

‘I buried my best friend last Monday,’ he says. ‘He had Covid in October and we thought he’d recovered … but his wife found him dead next to her, two weeks ago last Thursday. That was a big shock. He was a huge character and a big part of my life, a friend and mentor for 30 years. He’d been ill with it, a bad two to three week stretch when he was really poorly. 

Morris has overseen the tenures of several Derby managers in recent years like Frank Lampard

‘We thought he’d recovered. But of course the damage is still there … and weakens the rest of your system. You go to the crematorium for the funeral and only 30 people are allowed, and no mingling. It’s very hard to cope, for the family particularly.’

Morris believes he was struck down by Covid himself a year ago, although with no testing being done outside of hospitals at the time, there was no formal diagnosis. 

‘It happened as the [pandemic] started raging in February,’ he says. ‘At first I thought it was gastric flu and it lasted for six to seven weeks. I lost about a stone and a half. I had all the classic symptoms of Covid but was never diagnosed. It nearly wiped me out.

‘I wasn’t in hospital but I had an oxygen machine at home, an oxygen generator rather than a tank, and that was massively helpful. Even now I’m not 100 per cent but I’ve got a few other health issues as well. I’ve had a few bits chopped off here and there, from my bowel and my back, that haven’t been helpful.’

Morris believes he was struck down with coronavirus this time last year

Morris is married with grown-up children and says these episodes contributed to a re-evaluation of how long he could meaningfully contribute to Derby. ‘Clearly when you have those sort of things, it makes you think,’ he says. ‘You have to hand over [ownership] at some point anyway. And these things focus your mind a lot more.’

Sheik Khaled arrived on the scene last May, when talks began over a buyout. He had previously explored investing in Liverpool in 2018 and Newcastle in 2019.

Morris was happy for negotiations to unfold in secret, and paperwork to formalise a deal was signed in October. At this stage, as the EFL approved the deal, news leaked. Morris has no idea where from, but this forced the club to tell fans what was in the pipeline.

Morris has been negotiating a Derby sale since May of last year but progress has been slow

Since then, progress has been slow, prompting assumptions the deal is dead.

‘It’s not finished,’ says Morris. ‘I can’t really talk about it because it’s under a very strict non-disclosure agreement so I can’t give you details on it. But it’s not finished…

‘I don’t like to put percentages on it. There’s a contract between the two of us. That’s in the public domain. There’s a contractual obligation to sell and a contractual obligation to buy. You continue to have dialogue as much as you need to.’

For fans worried about the club’s short and medium-term future, Morris insists he will be around to keep it afloat until a transition to a new owner is complete, whoever that is. ‘Literally every day is spent trying to work out how to improve our situation,’ he says.

The terms of the proposed sale are not public but it is understood that they include covering working capital for this season (£22m) and next (slightly less), plus taking responsibility for a £15m loan. 

Morris claims maintaining the finances of a Championship club has been difficult 

Beyond that Morris personally will get nothing himself immediately, with any other payments, in the low millions, contingent on future success and promotion.

Owning a Championship club is, for most, a loss-making endeavour; the dream for everyone is the top flight, and few get there. ‘Navigating a pandemic is something no previous era has had to deal with,’ says Morris. ‘We haven’t had a fan in the stadium for almost a year.’

He calls the pandemic ‘a dampener on all clubs’. He cites January transfer window business at 25 per cent of last year’s level and explains how clubs like Derby, who need to develop and sell talent to survive, have been hit by the bottom falling out of this market. Against revenue slumps of over 50 per cent, the situation will become desperate for many EFL clubs soon. 

Playing in empty stadiums has not helped the financial turmoil affecting second tier clubs

‘If there are two seasons, this and next, without fans, then who knows what we’re going to be left with as a league.’

Morris has long argued for structural change in football, fairer TV income distribution, better wage controls, a reboot to the current model that he now sees as inevitable. 

Despite everything, he says he has no regrets about spending more than £200m on his club. ‘I don’t believe in having regrets. You do something and you get on with it. Looking backwards never does anyone any good. My focus every single day is to get this club into the best possible position going forward, as it always has been.’

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