Former Watford director Jimmy Russo has denied his dealings with Laurence Bassini were part of a scheme to get back at Lord Ashcroft for treating him “disgracefully”.
During witness testimony in the High Court this week, Mr Russo said he had loaned £3.6million to the Stanmore businessman as he wanted to help the club move forward.
Mr Russo and his brother Vince are suing Mr Bassini for the money saying the loans were not repaid. However Mr Bassini denies the money were loans and claims they were the cost of the Russos secretly becoming joint owners of Watford FC with him.
At the trial this week, Mr Russo said he first became involved in 2003 when he acquired 20 per cent of Watford FC to prevent the club sliding into administration. However, by the end of the 2005-06 Premier League season, he said he felt he was becoming “marginalised” at the club in an attempt to get him to sell his shares.
In April 2007, Mr Russo and his brother Vince were voted off the board of directors but in December 2008 there was an extraordinary general meeting where he was voted back in as chairman.
Mr Russo said he then made a suggestion to Lord Ashcroft the two of them should buy Watford FC. “I asked Lord Ashcroft if he was prepared to look at this situation and see if we could buy the club together.
"His response came back that he did not want to own the club.” Instead, Mr Russo said he made a loan to the club of £5million. But then in 2009, following more boardroom trouble, he demanded repayment and left.
Jimmy Russo (pink shirt) with his brother Vince (white shirt) at Watford FC play-off against Hull FC in 2008.
The year before the Bassini takeover, Mr Russo said he had had an offer to buy Watford FC for 3p a share rejected by the board. This was more than the 1p a share offer the board accepted from Mr Bassini, which meant the club was sold for £440,000.
Mr Bassini’s barrister, Jonathan Crystal, read emails from January 2011 from the Russos’ company, Valley Grown Salads, which said “both Jimmy and Vince are enthused with the prospect of returning to Watford”.
He also read an email from company secretary Robin Williams to Mr Russo from January 24, 2011, which said the Bassini offer was difficult for Andrew Wilson, Lord Ashcroft’s representative, to progress as it needed a 75 per cent resolution at the AGM.
The email said the Russos should suggest the vote taken by shareholding rather than a show of hands, which would give them the deciding say as they held 29.9 per cent of the shares.
The email also said they could “embarrass the board” by asking why they were considering this current offer when they had not even replied to the Russos’ higher offer of 3p a share the year before.
Mr Williams said they wanted to do “anything we can to make this uncomfortable for Wilson”.
The email added they would “keep Angelo (Barrea, Mr Bassini’s solicitor) in the loop”.
When pressed what this meant, Mr Russo replied: “We were not treated particularly well. I think it is fair to say we were treated in a disgraceful manner.”
Mr Crystal said: “My sense of this email is that if Mr Bassini obtained ownership of the club that would be a way for you to get back at Lord Ashcroft and Mr Wilson and all those who had treated you disgracefully?”
Mr Russo added: “That’s not true. Lord Ashcroft... I did not have a problem with him. It was commercial. It was business.”
Mr Russo conceded he had had to conceal his involvement with Mr Bassini and his takeover of Watford because of bad blood between him and the board.
“However, he said the request for secrecy and to shred documents came from Mr Bassini’s side.
Mr Russo added he was happy to remain involved with Watford FC from afar and it was agreed he would be paid £150,000 a season for consultancy.