The first indication that a major change was taking place within Athlone Town AFC emerged locally in mid to late January with growing talk of a foreign investment into the club.
In our edition published on Wednesday, February 1, the Westmeath Independent broke the story that Athlone Town had secured a major financial investment.
We reported, referring to sources close to the club, that a Portuguese-based investor who is involved with a portfolio of clubs around the world was poised to play a key role in the club's operations. It was stated that the investor wished to remain anonymous.
However, work on the project had clearly been ongoing for some time before that.
A company, Callaview Limited, was set up on December 15 last with a registered address at Athlone Town Stadium.
The company, the club told the Westmeath Independent in late April, was set up to aid the management of club's first teams affairs.
Its three directors include Marc Fourmeaux, a French man who the club appointed as Director of First Team Operations, and who is believed to represent the investor in the day to day affairs of the club's first team.
Fourmeaux previously worked as a general manager of FK Dainava, a club in the Lithuanian top flight during the 2014 season when it was relegated in last place with a goal difference of - 131.
The other two directors are a Portuguese man Jose Manuel Francisco and local business man Joey Boland, who was treasurer of Athlone Town at one time. Francisco was sporting director with a Lisbon football club Atletico Clube de Portugal.
Cobh Ramblers licensing officer Shane Kavanagh told the Irish Daily Mail earlier week that Fourmeaux approached his club in November last stating that he was representing Chinese/Portuguese investors.
It's understood that other Airtricity League clubs were also approached. These clubs did not proceed with the approaches.
The Westmeath Independent contacted Mr Fourmeaux on Monday. He said he did not wish to talk to us. However, he told the Irish Daily Mail on Friday: “We have nothing to fear. We came here for football and to be a success. We have done nothing wrong.”
Athlone's first pre-season friendly against Galway United on Friday February 3 gave a glimpse of the new look Athlone Town FC with coaches Ricardo Monsanto and Ricardo Cravo present, and a number of foreign players tasting action with the club for the first time.
Among the new arrivals this season are Igors Labuts, a Latvian goalkeeper, Kiris Grigorovs, a Latvian defender and Dragos Sfrijan, from Romania.
According to the UEFA Betting Fraud Detection System report sent to the FAI and seen by this paper, all three participated in matches previously scrutinised by UEFA.
Labuts and Grigorovs took part in 17 games each that where 'escalated' or scrutinised over irregular betting patterns whilst Sfrijan was listed as having played in four games that were examined by UEFA. However, no disciplinary action was taken in relation to any of these games.
Labuts played with Atletico Clube de Portugal, which was the subject of UEFA concerns in 2014 in a warning document sent to the Portuguese FA and published by newspaper Expresso.
The 2014 UEFA report on Atletico Clube de Portugal said it did not believe there had been games manipulated either in the previous season or in that pre-season. However, it referred to a potential risk for manipulating results. The report referred to a number of players, including Igor Labuts, whom it said had participated in 17 previously escalated games.
Atletico are believed to majority owned by Anping Football Club Limited, led by businessman Eric Mao.
Following the publication of the UEFA report Atletico Clube de Portugal strongly denied the involvement of its company or its majority shareholder in such practices.
There was no disciplinary action taken against the club or any player.
Labuts continued to line out for Atletico Clube de Portugal and there were no escalated games during his period with that club.
Labuts denied any involvement in match fixing in an interview with a Lativan paper in 2014.
He said he was "shocked" when he saw his name mentioned in Portugal. "I know that I am clean but it's unpleasant and my reputation has been damaged," he told sportacentrs.com
Whilst last week he told the Sunday World he was not involved in match fixing. “I hope the investigation will go well and clear me.”
“I hope everything is going to be good because from my side I'm not doing this. I played the game and yeah, maybe I made a mistake on the goal but okay I don't want to talk about this. In the second half I made a lot of saves and nobody cares about this.”
Sfrijan too has denied any involvement. He told the Sunday World he did not think there was any match fixing in Athlone.
“I don't want to say nothing. We will say what we have to say to the federation.”
Grigorovs is also understood to be adamant that he is not involved in match fixing.
The PFAI head Stephen McGuinness told the Sunday Independent that the players were shocked at what had emerged in recent days. He said all three players referred to in the UEFA report as having played in escalated games had never been contacted by UEFA.
"I think the players are surprised and shocked by what has come out over the last few days," he said. "Each player was given the UEFA report. Each player has read the report, in particular the three players who are said have escalated games by UEFA."
He continued: "They had shared with us their surprise in relation to the amount of games that have been escalated. They said they had never been spoken to by UEFA.” He said there was no evidence against any of the players as regards the Longford Town v Athlone Town match.
With little information available on the new investor and with questions being asked locally as to the business model of the investment, the Westmeath Independent submitted questions to the club on March 30.
In response three weeks later, the club named the investor for the first time, as Lisbon registered firm PRÉ SEASON, corporate entity, UNIPESSOAL LDA.
The company is based in Lisbon and its address on Rua Henrique Campos in Amadora, a town in the northwest of the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, is identical to that given to the Irish Companies Registration Office by Jose Manuel Francisco in his role as director of Callaview Ltd.
In its response to this paper, Athlone Town AFC confirmed it had come to an arrangement with a Portuguese-based investor in relation to the first team. It said, however, that the club had not been sold nor taken over.
It said: “It is early days yet but the idea is that the partnership will bring stability and ultimately success to the club. The plan is to not only to keep League of Ireland football in Athlone but help the club go on to better things.”
“The sole purpose of this arrangement is to relieve financial pressure on the club and thereby allowing it to expand and be competitive on a national and international level. The club does not aspire to be some parochial club playing in a national league.
it said the mechanics of the investment arrangement were “confidential, until the investor says otherwise”. The club confirmed the deal was for a five year period to be reviewed annually with a three year break clause.
It also stated: “The investor has also been made aware of various comments, untruths, utterly false accusations, defamatory statements about the deal and individuals at the club.
"As far as the club is concerned these comments that have been posted on social media are based on zero actual factual knowledge.”
On the field Athlone's season started commendably with two wins from the opening two league games with local man Colin Fortune as manager.
However, a bizarre situation arose in early March when Ricardo Monsanto contacted The Irish Sun stating that he was in fact managing the club, while Fortune, when contacted in response by the paper, said he was still the manager as far as he was aware.
A few days later, the club issued a press statement appointing Monsanto as manager with Fortune taking up a new role as head coach.
Since then both men have left the club, Monsanto after 42 days at the helm, stepped down, after a series of disappointing results.
The club said that following talks “it was mutually agreed by both parties that Ricardo’s tenure as first team manager come to an end”.
Fortune released a statement in late April indicating that he had also left the club.
The club at that time said Ricardo Cravo would act as interim manager and that the club hoped to make an announcement in regards to the managerial position in the short term.