The $25m fraudster who came so close to buying an English football club


In the first of our series about the men who want to buy English football clubs, this is the remarkable story of Chris Kirchner, who came close to taking over Derby County and was then found guilty of fraud and money laundering.

This week, we will examine five prospective investors and what their interest in English football says about their ambitions and the game itself.


Valentine’s Day 2023 and, just after dawn, Chris Kirchner’s world begins to crumble.

A group of FBI agents have arrived at the gates of his family home in Westlake, Texas, less than a mile from the exclusive Vaquero Country Club, and begin seizing the trappings of his wealth.

A Rolls-Royce Cullinan and a Mercedes-Benz G-Class are among the items confiscated, along with five luxury watches and a Cartier necklace. Close to $600,000 (£475,000 at today’s rates) is taken from personal accounts in Kirchner’s name, as well as artwork and 57 bottles of wine.

The FBI arrested Kirchner too, issuing charges of wire fraud after alleging he had sent millions of dollars from the accounts of Slync, a software start-up he founded in 2017, to his personal account. A $16million Gulfstream jet was among the many things bought with the money of others.

Derby County, the English Football League (EFL) club crowned champions of England in 1972 under Brian Clough, had almost become another of his assets.

Nine months before his arrest in the United States, Kirchner still believed he could close out a takeover to rescue the club from administration. He had been named the preferred bidder, considered by administrator Quantuma as the man most likely to prevent Derby from going under. He had been depicted as the club’s saviour, drawing the acclaim of fans.

Like so much of Kirchner’s life, however, it was destined to collapse.

Chris Kirchner, Derby County


Kirchner at Derby’s stadium, Pride Park, on April 15, 2022 (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

A “life of luxury” had been built by misappropriating his company’s funds. At Kirchner’s four-day trial, held in January this year, evidence showed he had converted at least $25million in investor money to his personal use.

A jury found Kirchner guilty of four counts of wire fraud and a further seven counts of money laundering. Sentencing will take place on July 11 and, already denied bail, he is facing a maximum prison term of 150 years.

The fall of Kirchner has been sudden and spectacular. That he came so close to buying Derby, just a few months after walking away from a similar deal to purchase Preston North End, another Championship club, already seems fanciful.

Kirchner, though, forms part of a broader problem. English football, flush with money, continues to attract the wrong kind of would-be investors. Fraudsters, fantasists and charlatans are queuing up.

“Years ago, it was what sort of car or house do you have?” as one person working at an EFL club put it. “Today, it’s about more. Football clubs are attractive. It’s the one thing that gives you real credibility. The worldwide success of English football makes owning a club a trophy to have.”

Kirchner will not be the first or the last. Many others attempt to squeeze through the vetting process to become football club owners, pushing for control of teams that are better off without the interest.

“He went down this Walter Mitty path and never really had any touch with reality,” says one well-placed source in the deal to buy Derby who, like others in this piece, remain anonymous to protect relationships.

In a Fort Worth courthouse, Kirchner’s reality came crashing down.


Until the gilded walls fell in around him, it could never be said that Kirchner lacked credibility.

He was a young (still only 36), ambitious American, the bold chief executive of Slync, a tech start-up company backed by Goldman Sachs. Within four years of launching in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, thanks to growth propelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, Slync had been valued at $240million by investors and employed more than 100 staff members.

Kirchner purposely positioned himself as the company’s figurehead and took Slync to places he, as a golf obsessive, wished to go. Justin Rose, the former world No 1 golfer, was among the company’s first commercial sponsorships and was paid $2million annually. That path led Slync towards becoming a lead sponsor of the Dubai Desert Classic in 2021 in a multi-million dollar agreement.

The aim was to grow Slync’s brand but Kirchner enjoyed the perks that came with it. He was pictured playing golf with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and would turn out in tournaments, including the illustrious JP McManus Pro-Am at Adare Manor in Ireland.

Kirchner


Kirchner with Rory McIlroy in Dubai in January 2022 (David Cannon/Getty Images)

Kirchner was there in 2022 leading Team Slync three weeks before he was fired from his position as chief executive and removed from the company’s board of directors.

Plenty appeared to be taken in by Kirchner’s front, including Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), chairman of Newcastle United and another golf enthusiast.

Kirchner visited the Centurion Golf Club in St Albans, on the outskirts of London, in June 2022, where he had a place in the LIV Golf pro-am tournament, a curtain raiser to the Saudi-backed tour’s inaugural event. Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter, the high-profile European pair, were among Kirchner’s playing partners over 18 holes.

“I saw with my own eyes the rapport he had with Yasir Al-Rumayyan that day at LIV,” said Nigel Owen, formerly the spokesperson of the Black and White Together Derby fans group, who was invited by Kirchner to the Centurion GC.

“We came off the fifth or sixth green and, between there and the next tee, there were two huge blokes stood there, bouncers almost. They part and there’s this little guy behind them and then it twigged with me who it was.

“Chris and Al-Rumayyan greeted one another like long-lost friends. It was a bear hug. If you’re in my shoes, as someone who wanted someone to come and buy Derby County, I’m watching him with people like that and I’m thinking, ‘This guy must be legit’.”

A large media presence was on site to cover the start of golf’s disruptive new era and Kirchner was caught off guard when walking to the clubhouse. Updates on Derby’s takeover were sought amid reports of its collapse. “No comment on that,” he said.

Owen, though, was given a different reading on the state of play.

“It was within an hour of that moment he told me that it was done,” he remembers. “The transfer had been made and it was done. I spent the next hour with him in the clubhouse with Phil Mickelson at the next table. He (Kirchner) was ringing people saying it was done. I went away from there believing the money had been transferred. It was all going through.”

Derby, by then, were desperate. Close to nine months had been spent in administration after long-standing owner Mel Morris had pulled the plug on his financial support, triggering points deductions and an inevitable relegation from the Championship.

The future of the club hung in the balance and Kirchner, named as the preferred bidder by administrators in April 2022, offered the only visible promise of salvation. Yet Kirchner always seemed more interested in publicity and acclaim than getting on with the business of making it happen.

While it might have been anticipated that Kirchner would initiate talks with Morris, the American showed little interest in getting around a table with the owner. Morris had become a hate figure for many Derby fans and Kirchner used that to strengthen his position, repeatedly criticising and questioning the man who held the keys to the club.

go-deeper

Morris had suspicions about Kirchner and did not appreciate the American’s hostile and standoffish approach. Nor did it escape his attention that few prospective football club owners gave a running commentary on social media.

Kirchner was certainly fond of the spotlight. Over several weeks and months, he interacted with supporters on digital platforms, pledging to fix their stricken club. There was even an interview with Derby’s in-house media. “It kinda feels like home to me,” he said, likening Derby’s vista to “the rolling hills” of his hometown Lexington, Kentucky.

Kirchner attended several home matches across the 2021-22 season and waved to supporters from his padded seat. He would visit pubs on a matchday, accompanied by his wife Ali, and pose for pictures.

Kirchner also met players and staff at the club’s Moor Farm training complex, wearing Derby-branded clothing. Forward Tom Lawrence was pictured visiting Kirchner at his home in Dallas during the summer break.

“Derby were looking for a man of the people and he gave that impression,” says Chris Poulter, former leader of Derby City Council, who was pictured with Kirchner at the Peacock pub before a home game late in the 2021-22 season.

Kirchner had made it his business to ingratiate himself with the council. “He’d completely got them wrapped around his little finger,” says one of the key players in the proposed takeover. “He had charmed them into thinking he was the guy to take Derby forward.”

“It wasn’t for me or any supporter to do due diligence on whether he actually had the money or where it had come from,” says Poulter. “That was down to the administrators and the league. He was being put forward as the preferred bidder and we had no option but to support him in finishing the job.”

What followed bordered on the tragicomic. At 8.45am one Sunday, Morris took a call from an intermediary, a banker, to suggest that it might be worthwhile for the two parties to start communicating.

Kirchner followed that up with a letter to introduce himself and explain that he wanted to buy the club. Morris wrote back to say he found it surprising that it was their first contact but made it clear he was willing to get down to the nitty-gritty of making it happen.

Morris and Kirchner, it transpired, used the same bank. But when the transfer from Kirchner’s account didn’t arrive, there was a stream of excuses.

In a remarkable exchange, an exasperated Morris ended up instructing Kirchner’s camp that, if necessary, he could pass on instructions about how to log on, which page to find, which buttons to press, and how to send evidence of attempted transfers.

But the money was never sent and Morris was left with the overwhelming feeling that the whole operation had been a waste of time. He and Kirchner had not spoken once during the whole process.

Quantuma, the club’s administrator, was not the only party misled. Kirchner worked with Garry Cook, formerly Manchester City’s chief executive and now of Birmingham City, during the negotiations, as well as Paul Stretford, the agent of Derby’s then-manager Wayne Rooney, who called Kirchner “a very good businessman” in October 2021.

Derby


(Left to right) Stretford, Kirchner and Cook at Pride Park in November 2021 (Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There was an undoubted veneer of believability about Kirchner. He had hired the respected legal firm Squire Patton Boggs and senior partner David Hull to act on his behalf during negotiations, and background checks undertaken by the EFL indicated there was no reason to doubt Kirchner had the finances to proceed. The backing of Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs also helped entrench the American’s plausibility.

Rooney offered his public endorsement, too. The manager was popular with the fans and that immediately gave Kirchner an extra layer of respectability.

So convinced of Kirchner’s credentials was Stretford that his company, Triple S, stepped in to cover a monthly wage bill of £1.6million in May 2022. That move was investigated by the English Football Association but it says no further action was deemed appropriate.

Stretford would later begin legal proceedings against Kirchner in an attempt to claw back that £1.6million. A winding-up petition against 9CK Sports Holdings, a now-dormant company of which Kirchner is the sole director, was lodged two days after the American’s arrest in February 2023. Triple S was listed as the claimant but that pursuit has been unsuccessful so far.

Triple S said in a statement: “Paul Stretford is a licensed football agent. At no point was he ever offered — nor did he seek — any role at Derby, including director of football.

“In May 2022, the Triple S Group provided a short-term bridging loan to Chris Kirchner and 9CK. At no point did the Triple S Group provide funding directly to Derby. Recovery of this loan is subject to an ongoing legal process in the UK and U.S. — as such, no further comment can be made.

“The Triple S Group voluntarily disclosed all information to the FA and cooperated with them fully throughout the entire process. The Triple S Group has been open and transparent about this matter from the start.”

Stretford and Cook had also been present for Kirchner’s very public pursuit of Preston at the start of 2022. Cook initiated the contact between the two parties once an initial interest in Derby had subsided in the final weeks of 2021 and, by mid-February, Kirchner attended a home game against Huddersfield Town at Deepdale.

Then came a bid that proposed Kirchner take control of Preston from the club’s long-standing local owners, the Hemmings family. There was a deal to be done at the right price and a willing seller.

There was even broad agreement but Kirchner chose to walk away and back towards Derby. “Ever buy a car?” he would later ask in a social media Q&A. “If someone raises the price halfway through the deal by 10 per cent over what you agreed then wants to force you to buy options and packages you don’t want/need with the car, would you buy it?”

Kirchner


(Cameron Smith/Getty Images)

Preston were not amused and, privately, considered Kirchner to be a tyre kicker. The club issued a pointed statement, purposely making no reference to the American.

“The most important point to make absolutely clear is that contrary to suggestions in the public domain, we never increased the asking price from the price and terms included in the originally agreed offer,” it said.

Kirchner was considered a “chancer” by some of those who worked on the deal at Preston. An offer had been made but no proof of funds was ever shown.

“Then he goes back to Derby and says he knew all along it was a bigger club than Preston,” said one figure at the club. “Cheeky.”


Kirchner never hid his ambitions to find a route to professional sport. Golf topped his interests but he followed English football intently. Kirchner claimed it was part of his family upbringing

“When I joined the company, his story was that he was a lifelong fan of Chelsea, that he was open to sponsoring a hospitality suite at Chelsea’s stadium,” Matt Gunn, formerly chief marketing officer at Slync, tells The Athletic.

Kirchner had his eyes on a much bigger outlay by the spring of 2022. “When he went to purchase Derby County, he told his executive leaders, myself included, that it was a personal pursuit he was doing outside of the business and it wasn’t business money,” adds Gunn.

“He said it was a lifelong dream of his to own a football club. To avoid the perception it was a distraction, he even told staff on an all-hands call to the company.”

There were already misgivings within Slync that Kirchner’s apparent commitment to growing the company’s brand was causing a financial strain. Sponsorship of Dubai Desert Classic, a flagship event for golf’s European Tour, had been announced in September 2021 on a multi-year arrangement that would eventually be scrapped 12 months later. There was also a commercial deal with NHL’s Dallas Stars, with Slync unable to maintain payments by June 2022. It is estimated that project commitments for sports marketing ran to almost $60million.

Kirchner


Kirchner with McIlroy during the pro-am in the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic 2022 (David Cannon/Getty Images)

“We all knew there was a lot of expense involved,” says Gunn. “He was the sole decision maker for the sports sponsorships — the hockey, the golf, the trips to the Masters — and ran those almost as though they were a separate division of the company.

“It was his way of making a bet. Software wasn’t sold by software alone. He thought it was about making big relationships with people.

“Come and play a round of golf with Justin Rose or take them to watch a big tournament like the Dubai Desert Classic. I don’t believe any of his sports interactions led to a single dollar of revenue.”

Kirchner came to be seen as a contradiction by employees; the man who helped build up Slync and the man whose actions threatened to bring it down. There was no questioning his short-term successes as the company’s chief executive, bringing in $57.2m in two funding rounds. Kirchner presented himself as a personable leader on the good days but those who spent time in his company could not miss the little shows of wealth.

“The first time I met him in person was when I flew to Dallas for some meetings with executives and Chris decided to pick us up for lunch in a bright red Ferrari,” says Gunn. “That was pretty unusual for me. He showed me his Richard Mille watch, which he told me he had to speak to a financial advisor before purchasing because it was so expensive.”

Plenty who crossed paths with Kirchner considered him ostentatious.

“One time after a round, there were 10 or so of us in the locker room,” says one close associate from the Vaquero Club, “and he said, ‘OK I need to go pick up my friend in Kentucky on my jet, then we’re flying back here. Does anyone want to come with me, drink bourbon and play cards?’.

“He always loved to talk about his money, where he was on his jet, what elite private course he was playing, name dropping celebrities and athletes left and right like they were his best friends.”

Yet, tellingly, there was also an enigmatic streak to Kirchner. He would claim his source of wealth was cryptocurrency investments, depicting himself as the boy from a blue-collar family who had struck lucky. Kirchner had attended the University of Kentucky but left without graduating, initially working at Best Buy, the American electronics retailer.

Slync, launched in 2017, became his path towards bigger things. The company’s growth, with DHL and Kuehne + Nagel among its early customers, convinced others to buy in and saw millions raised. Kirchner, for a spell, had legitimacy.

Golf


Viktor Hovland tees off at Emirates Golf Club in January 2022 (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The indictment for his arrest, filed on February 5, 2023, claimed he had restricted other Slync employees’ access to financial information, with the chief executive considered the “sole decision maker”.

All investor funds raised during the A and B rounds for “product development and other general corporate purposes” were wired to a Slync Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) account and before the first of those, made in March 2020, that account was overdrawn by $693.21.

Between April and November 2020, the indictment alleged that Kirchner initiated 27 wire transfers from Slync’s SVB account to Slync’s Chase account, of which Kirchner was the sole signatory. Those totalled $2.174million and much of it was moved to Kirchner’s private accounts.

But the money kept coming for Slync. In December 2020, just under $37million was sent to Slync’s SVB account by investors and Kirchner soon moved $20million to his personal account without permission from Slync’s board of directors. He used $16million of that for the deposit and purchase of a Gulfstream G550 private jet.

The indictment papers also outline how Kirchner initiated another 70 wire transfers between January 2021 and March 2022 totalling $6.8million. The last of those came a fortnight before Quantuma named Kirchner as the preferred bidder for Derby County.

Cracks, though, were starting to show in an empire built on sand. Staff at Slync were paid late in April, May and June 2022 and Kirchner set about attempting to claw back money. He convinced four groups to inject $850,000 during a round C fundraiser. Kirchner would later sell his private jet to repay the round C investors.

The end was nigh. Kirchner fired one Slync employee after they had reported to the company’s board that financial performances had been falsely exaggerated and by late July 2022, Kirchner was suspended from his role as chief executive. He then “attempted to delete approximately 18 gigabytes of Slync data, including emails”, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“All the warning signs were there and I saw it — directly and indirectly — the person that he was,” says Gunn. “I was glad when he was no longer in a position of power with that company but sad in the knowledge that so many people were impacted because of what he’d done.

“Chris stayed in character to the end. The company folded when he counter-sued them to get legal fees paid for. That tells you a lot about who he was. He couldn’t move the money he did and not have a dozen red flags pop up. I can’t believe he could not show remorse for that but then it’s not entirely out of character.”

Slync was wound down at the end of last year.


Derby County were eventually able to see the collapsed negotiations with Kirchner as a blessing. His formal withdrawal came on June 14, clearing the way for local businessman David Clowes to rescue his boyhood club from the threat of liquidation.

“You can look back now and it’s almost laughable in a dark way,” says one member of staff. “Did that really happen? But it almost makes you realise how fortunate we are now with the owner. If the Chris Kirchner deal had gone through, what might have happened?”

A spokeswoman for Quantuma, which selected Kirchner as the preferred bidder to take over Derby, said: “The joint administrators can confirm that the obligations upon them relating to anti-money laundering tests were complied with. The joint administrators are unable to comment on what due diligence processes were undertaken by third parties. There are legal obligations placed upon the joint administrators and other authorities that mean that no further comment can be made.”

go-deeper

Derby, almost certainly, would have been plunged into enormous trouble. Everything Kirchner owned was seized within a year and now he waits on a sentencing that could see him imprisoned for decades.

“I don’t know what his intentions were,” says one senior figure involved in the takeover process. “It was going to go bang at some point. He was introduced by some people inside the club and I suppose that gave him a certain level of credibility that was beyond what he should have been afforded.”

Kirchner had the charm and confidence but none of the money to maintain his life of fantasy.

Additional contributors: Melanie Anzidei, Elias Burke

(Design: Eamonn Dalton; photos: Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images, Robbie Stephenson/PA Images via Getty Images, Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)





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