Dilemmas of Football Ownership: Property is Theft

Posted by on Sep 4, 2014 in Ownership | One Comment
Dilemmas of Football Ownership: Property is Theft

Once upon a time, earlier on in my real career in book publishing, I was present at some tense negotiations in which a nicotine moustachioed representative of the National Union of Journalists lost the room a bit with the old adage that ‘property is theft’.

At the time, our smooth operator of a company MD plunged his head into his hands, the look on his face something akin to that of a Newcastle United supporter on being told that Joe Kinnear would be returning to Tyneside.

This week, however, while pondering how Royston Drenthe has continued to prolong his career in football by securing a move to unwitting Sheffield Wednesday, it struck me that the persistence of the claim as it applies to the sport has gained rather more traction in recent weeks.

French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon initially suggested that owning stuff was robbery and if you’ll find few willing to concur with that rather extreme verdict in this decidedly capitalist age, as James Meek has written in The Guardian, we have been supine in allowing ‘businessmen’ to appropriate things that we thought we owned – water, electricity, train travel and the right to watch golf for free on TV (OK – there were always going to be some things we would be happy to give away).

The Post Office, not by coincidence the former fiefdom of Adam Crozier, previously of the Football Association, is one of the latest to slip through our collective hands; Vince Cable’s numbskullish (if you are being kind) mismanagement of the sell-off saw him come across as a forerunner of Dave Hockaday at Leeds United, bemused and confused as sharks circled.

But at least you and I theoretically tenuously stood a chance of retaining a piece of the action when these previous abuses unravelled, specious though British Gas’s  ‘Tell Sid’campaign and other such ‘bonanzas’ always are.

In football by contrast, the opportunity to buy shares in most clubs is as rare as a Ricky van Wolfswinkel pile driver. You’ll stand as much chance of becoming a part owner of Chelsea as you would getting a word of sense out of Piers Morgan while the latest breed of owners have stretched venality to new lengths.

Change the name of a club. Tick. Change the colours. Tick. Sit on the bench on the first day of the season at Millwall and conduct operations. Tick. Squirrel away £11 million and leave your club with just 8 players a week before the commencement of the season. Tick. Undertake plans to turn a much loved community stadium into a Las Iguanas and a Costa Coffee. Tick. Take possession of the country’s biggest club via loans and plunge it into debt. Tick.

This ‘We’ll do what we want’ culture has been skilfully depicted by Susan Gardiner, Jon Keen and Gary Hartley in the previous posts in our ‘Dilemmas of Leadership’ series but the message needs driving home. Such behaviours really do begin to resemble the actions of brigands and robbers.

Ironically, the ‘property is theft’ assertion is often associated with anarchy as a creed – and who could imagine a more anarchic sequence of affairs than those directed by George Reynolds at Darlington or Douglas Craig at York City. Yet ownership these rascals would clearly claim despite their rampant incompetence.

As Terry Clague wrote in a punchy piece for The Anfield Wrap, ‘all claimed ownership of football clubs is theft. Bodies can purchase deeds, businesses and rights but the club belongs to us’ – it is a public good.

And that goes for ‘intellectual property’ too – as Bill Shankly once said, ‘At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques’

For loathe as I am to use the term, a football club is indeed intellectual property – a ‘temporary monopoly granted by governments to artists’ – note the lack of the prefix ‘piss’ or ‘con’ – and a public good that fully deserves the kind of licensing system advocated by Jon Keen in his post for us.

The likes of Vincent Tan and Massimo Cellino may have brokered deals and signed cheques to gain ‘ownership ‘ of the clubs they represent but that is all they have paid to be allowed to do – they should no more be regarded as owning the club than Phil Jagielka could be said to ‘own’ Luis Suárez. Their money has provided them with at best a licence on the fans’ behalf, not to ride roughshod.

The ‘property is theft’ maxim may be one of the less enduring legacies of the nineteenth century Left and one that even hard core radicals cough before uttering, but the nutters being let loose in our game do make one think twice. There may be something in those three words after all.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. The Scratching Shed
    September 4, 2014

    Good post. There’s no question football clubs have to be better protected, they’re not a business or a plaything, but a community often numbering tens of thousands and should indeed – at least partly – be governed by that community.

    That said, and for all his “quirks”, I genuinely believe Massimo Cellino wants to do right by the club and fans. He’s a difficult character who we’re sure to have as many downs as we do ups with, and our fans bicker like crazy about him, but I think the press do him a disservice sometimes. I’ve grown to like the guy personally and while I still have my reservations (how could any free-thinking individual not have concerns, right?) I at least feel as if he’s making decisions for footballing reasons unlike many who went before him.

    But yeah, there’s a balance to be had here. I can’t remember a bad decision made at Leeds United some percentage of our fans hadn’t called beforehand. Ridsdale’s spending (a minority, but they existed), almost everything Bates ever did, The Hock (almost everyone)… these are all things the community saw coming and while fan involvement won’t stave off every crisis, at least the conversations would be had – ‘Why is this failed non-league coach the right man for Leeds United?’ was an absolutely valid question which I don’t feel was ever considered. ‘What happens if we fail to qualify for the Champions League?’ seems a fairly obvious one when you’re spending that cash ahead of time. ‘Do we really need to spend millions on cream cladding for the East Stand?’

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