None of us could have imagined at the turn of the year that anything could break the annual cycle of football seasons bringing joy to some and despair to others, and plenty for all of us to chew the fat over during the cold winter months.
Now however the old certainties have been torpedoed by COVID-19 with no immediate prospect of stadia filled to the rafters with fans and every likelihood that at least some of the new season will be in the form of the sanitised fan-free version of the game that has become the “new normal” under Project Restart.
It’s been very strange for us as we have looked in from outside, but as the excellent John Nicholson wrote recently, “ The change from the People’s Game to the game without people has been seamless.”
He was, of course, referring to the Premier League, safely cocooned with its TV money, and the betting companies and pundits who have carried on quite happily without us, but for the rest of the pyramid, where at some levels football has yet to resume, it’s a different story.
What the last few months has reminded everyone is both how big a part football and its clubs play in the fabric of our local societies, with countless stories of aid to the vulnerable during lockdown, and also how financially vulnerable many of them are, with the extra strain imposed by the pandemic pushing many to the brink of extinction.
In the words of the highly influential 2020 Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance:
“ With football currently on pause due to the impact of COVID-19, and losses set to spike due to the financial impact of this disruption, now is the opportune time to create more effective cost control regulations for the future and an overall regulatory framework to facilitate, monitor and enforce a more financially sustainable environment for Football League clubs.”
There have been a few sticking plasters applied to football’s creaking infrastructure in recent years, but major surgery is now required in the form of a complete overhaul of the governance and regulation of our national game.
As I wrote in an earlier article this is a wake-up call that simply mustn’t be ignored and consequently the new “Sustain the Game” campaign being launched by the Football Supporters Association (FSA) is both massively important and perfectly timed.
The campaign has received wide ranging support from MPs, pundits and supporter groups (including the Canaries Trust and other City fan bodies) throughout the pyramid and calls for all those with an interest in football and its place in our communities to support its five key principles, and to back the development of a system of governance and financial regulation that will ensure transparency, sustainability and prosperity throughout all levels of the game.
The five principles are:
Protect our clubs: A football club is an important asset of its local community and provides an expression of identity and a focal point that should have legal protection and support to secure its future and not be left to the mercies of a dishonest or disinterested owner.
A perfect example of the latter is Steve Dale, the man who bought Bury FC for £1, invested nothing, failed to pay players, staff and creditors and watched it die, saying “‘I never went to Bury. It’s not a place I frequented, so for me to walk away from Bury and never go back is a very easy thing to do. I don’t do anything up there. I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury to be honest with you. I’m not a football fan.”
Yet this man was deemed fit and proper by the EFL to own a football club.
Transparency: The owners of football clubs are custodians on behalf of all of us. Fans should have the right to know who owns their club and be provided with more information about how they operate.
For example, with minimal information provided to fans, Wigan Athletic was sold to International Entertainment Corporation, based in the Cayman Islands, in November 2018 and then 18 months later sold on to another Cayman Island based company who almost immediately placed the club into administration.
This is far from an isolated incident and leads directly to the next principle.
Financial Controls: The current system for assessing whether potential new owners of football clubs are fit and proper has proven to be appallingly ineffective on numerous occasions, with one of its fundamental weaknesses being the fact that the rules only require a buyer to show that they have the money to fund a club – not to actually provide that money, a bond, or insurance, to ensure that the funding is actually there.
This issue was a factor both in the collapse of Bury and the current crisis at Charlton.
Fans, and indeed everyone with the game at heart, want a regulatory system that has real teeth, and which is independently enforced because I think that few people retain any faith in the ability of the leagues and football authorities to regulate themselves.
Strengthen the pyramid: The upper echelons of the game are awash with money, with the reported value of the TV rights for 2019 -2022 being over £4.3 billion, but the level of financial support passed down to the lower leagues is lower in real terms that it was before the creation of the Premier League. Although the amount going to Championship clubs is considerable, a large chunk of that is in the form of parachute payments which obviously only benefit recently relegated clubs. The remaining money is made up of “solidarity payments”, which in 2018/19 resulted in Championship clubs receiving an average £4.65m each whereas League One clubs received £0.7m and League Two clubs £0.47m.
It is essential that we find a smarter and fairer way to use the huge amounts of money coming into the top of the game to ensure sustainability below the elite level if we are not to see more of our clubs disappear.
Supporter engagement: Rather alarmingly, Project Restart demonstrated how easily the broadcasters were able to cope without fans in the ground, and realistically matchday income for most Premier League clubs is minimal in comparison to the TV rights money.
However, while the broadcasters would be happy for us to continue to sit at home as long as we obediently pay our subscriptions the reality is that even top-level clubs realise that football without fans isn’t really football, while their star players’ egos go unstroked.
Further down the pyramid, however, the continuing loss of matchday income is crippling for many clubs with Derby County the latest to announce problems as they mortgage their stadium to generate working capital.
Fans are the lifeblood of their clubs and they should have a real voice on all issues affecting them and their communities. As I’ve said before, fan groups at Norwich are lucky to have a lot of meaningful dialogue with the Club, but elsewhere the story can be very different with many supporter organisations complaining that they can’t even get meetings with their clubs, let alone be consulted on any issue of significance.
We may be facing a last chance to bring about a comprehensive overhaul of the governance and regulation of the game, because the danger signs that others could soon follow the paths trodden by Bury, Bolton and Wigan are all too apparent.
This new campaign has been a long time in the planning and deserves the support of everyone who cares about this great game because to simply return to how things were before the pandemic and pretend that all the problems have gone away would be a massive dereliction of duty on the part of the footballing authorities.
Martin MacBlain says
Some Fascinating points there, Robin. A good read.
And to think, that even amongst some of those horror stories, there are those who wish to expedite, Delia selling the club to an investor.
I’m more than happy with our lot.
john holland says
When the club was sold to the current owners, it was sold to an “investor” so why the nervousness now? The biggest threat to the club is running out of cash. We can just about get by if we spend one year in three in the top flight but without parachute money we would be stuffed and our owners would be forced to sell and this would be without the luxury of picking and choosing suitable owners. The best way to keep the club sustainable, even outside of the PL is too campaign for a salary cap of something less than £20m
A very enlightening read.
On the Wigan situation news out last night was that the owner that put them into administration has written off the £36m he loaned the club, now being a cynical southerner and reading between the lines that a betting syndicate had large amount of money of them going into administration just maybe he had a few side bets to cover his losses, no one that has money willingly writes of £36m if they did they would be rich for long.
Well the fixtures are out and cities first 3 games look a challenge
So much for a chance to build up confidence in a new team.
Onwards and upwards
Stay safe and stay healthy
Jim Davies says
The Bury and Wigan situations are absolutely appalling. Having enough funds to own and run the club is not the same as committing those funds to do so. A bond is surely the only acceptable way forward. I have enough funds to buy an expensive car, but I’ve got no intention of using them for that.
The trouble is, those in positions of power in the FA and EFL are in a cosy little club, where they don’t want to rock the boat, and instead would let football go to the dogs rather than lose their prestigious job titles and benefits. As for the EPL, self-interest of the top half a dozen clubs is the over-riding principle. The sooner they break away and join a European super league the better, then we can have a true national game, with a pyramid with more equality.
martin penney says
Can’t beat a bit of football cynicism during the Test match Jim 🙂
Actually I agree with you 100%.
Football is rotten at the very top and has been for some time now as you say. As one of her harsher critics it is only fair for me to say right now that Delia has her good points and maybe her stubbornness has turned out to do us a short term favour after all.
All important points, Robin. The strength of football is in the pyramid. If you let the base die, the rest will wither too. Watching the same 8 teams fight it out three times a year in their own little Euro super league sounds extremely dull to me.
Football is a business but an unusual one. Any supermarket company would be happy to watch its rivals shrivel and die so it could have 100% market share, but football clubs cannot survive without their opposition – else there is no game!
The modern resurgence in desire for the blinkered pursuits of a) personal success rather than the common good, b) money for its own sake, and c) power, is distasteful at best and societal suicide at worst. Discomforting times.
Jim Davies says
Robin, how is it that Derby County are trying to mortgage their stadium, when I thought they had sold it to one of their owner’s companies for an inflated price, then rented it back? I thought that was the reason they were being investigated under FFP regulations? Have I missed an update on all this?
Robin Sainty says
I think I’m right in saying that it was the training ground that was involved in the earlier transaction Jim.
Stephen Godbold says
I think it’s very naïve of us to assume that the teams at the top of the EPL are somehow “different” to any others. Even Wigan and Charlton had players earning far too much money for it ever to be sustainable or self-financing. Norwich are now big players financially in Championship terms and we are as culpable as anyone – we are rumoured to be paying some pretty high wages to attract new players.
Unless and until there is some kind of levelling off on both transfer fees and wages, the overall game will continue to die – I don’t think that’s overly dramatic; it is dying. The spectacle is transitioning fast into an armchair experience dependent on subscriptions, and in that sense it is just another form of entertainment. When the EPL started television was an enhancement to the live game – now it has just about replaced it. Once we lose the tribal element of support, it’s effectively just something to do, like watching a film or doing the garden.
I don’t think any of the individuals in charge of football have a clue what to do. They are in thrall to the tv and the betting companies and it’s like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas to expect them to instigate any kind of meaningful change.
Unfortunately, within 10 years there will be a Premier 2, and most of the rest of the leagues will be part-time and ignored. The gravy train is unstoppable.
john holland says
We can fund higher than average wages as long as the contracts end by July 2022 when the parachute money runs out. The finances of the Championship are the worst in football. We survive by spending our winnings but that is at least money earned on the football pitch. Yes the best way of the Championship surviving is by becoming a Premier League 2 with a mad flurry from the likes of Sunderland and Portsmouth to make sure that they make it back in time
David Bowers says
Our owners would not pass these tests.
“The current system for assessing whether potential new owners of football clubs are fit and proper has proven to be appallingly ineffective on numerous occasions, with one of its fundamental weaknesses being the fact that the rules only require a buyer to show that they have the money to fund a club – not to actually provide that money, a bond, or insurance, to ensure that the funding is actually there”
Our owners couldn’t afford to fund the club for more than a month or two if called upon.
Jim Davies says
That’s the same as saying I could afford to buy a fancy watch a few years ago, but I couldn’t afford to buy it now. Our current owners at least demonstrate that while they may not be in a position to put up enough funds to buy a club under that definition, they have demonstrated good stewardship in recent years enough to keep the club relatively stable and in a reasonably financially secure state. The fly-by-night owners of Wigan and Bury were not of the same ilk.
If you apply that criteria to most of the existing owners of both EPL and EFL clubs, they’d fail, too. It’s the running of the club with responsibility that separates our owners from the failing ones.
David Bowers says
Our owners do not keep us in a relatively stable financial position. Last year we overspent by 38M quid.
Only a small portion (less than half of that) was bonuses.
We have on numerous other occasions gone precariously close to bankruptcy.
Stephen Godbold says
But that test is putting the cart before the horse – most clubs looking for new owners are being run at a huge loss, so expecting new owners to come along and just pay that off and then invest more for no reason is mind blowingly stupid. The only owners who do that are those where money is absolutely no object because they have so much – there aren’t many of those.
Clubs need to step off the gravy train , reinvent themselves in some kind of sustainable way and then look at their ownership. Barcelona are fan owned – they seem to compete quite well. Any club with a reasonable fanbase could be as effective.
I wonder what would happen if our current owners put all their shares up for sale to existing supporters, and ran it like a proper “club”. Could Norwich fans raise enough money between them? I suspect they could, Would their ownership be “fit and proper”?
Robin Sainty says
I wasn’t aware that Delia and Michael are currently buying a club. Of course if they’re not your comment is irrelevant but thanks for sharing.
David Bowers says
So you write a piece outlining what restrictions on owners aren’t tight enough. Including an inability or unwillingness to fund the club.
Yet you give our owners a pass because they’re not buying a club right now.
Seems about right for the NCFC “supporters” trust.