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.