A fortnight or so ago, we devoted a whole week to the financial ill health of five soccer clubs, but the quintet might just as well have been picked at random. Our loose remit is to cover the three divisions of the Football League, but others have chronicled the worsening situation at a host of locations: from Kettering to Truro; from Darlington to the Ibrox district of Glasgow.
Further, these cases are but the very grubby tip of an iceberg of those ‘bad with money’. Over the course of the 2009-10 financial year, 78 of Europe’s top clubs spent more than their income on wages alone, with a tribe of light blues from the North West posting a £121 million loss. What’s the betting that next time we run a Turmoil Week, Plymouth, Preston and Portsmouth will be replaced by Manchester City, Macclesfield and Middlesbrough?
UEFA have reacted and their determination to instil a climate of financial fair play will come into full force in 2014-15, with the years until then acting as something of an amnesty for houses to be put in order – a debt limit of €45 million has been imposed for the 2011-12 financial year and a panel will sit in judgement on those continuing to breach the rules when the legislation kicks into full gear in two seasons’ time.
Of course something had to be done and, leaving aside Michel Platini’s blithe unconcern when Juventus ruled the roost and hoovered up the crème of Europe’s players (himself included) in the 1980s, he and his co-workers are quite right to intervene. Will their efforts be effective, however?
Firstly, at the very top of the game, the likes of City, Málaga, Anzhi and others are likely to have their wings clipped but £45 million, even if reduced in future years, is still a pretty penny to owe.
Secondly, the sugar daddy get out clause could cover a multitude of sins – what if that owner is tipped from a ship, Robert Maxwell style, sees his or her other investments begin to tumble in value (Amstrad anyone?), gets bored or – as is more likely, was never as rich as we thought in the first place?
Thirdly, UEFA state that their directives will stand up in court – but will they? Britain’s is not the only neoliberal regime where the current ideology is to discourage government from interfering with the workings of business. I can’t see any judgement passed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport or another European Court being greeted with enthusiasm by the monied giants of the Champions League.
Fourthly, and according to David Conn of The Guardian, the penalties for non-compliance will range from ‘a reprimand, to a fine, deduction of points in UEFA’s competitions, withholding income, prohibiting the registration of players or restricting the number of players a club can field, leading ultimately to a ban from the Champions or Europa Leagues’. Fine, but leaving aside the problem of implementation, is a ban from Europe really the ultimate sanction when most clubs never take part in European competition? Being barred from the Europa League isn’t going to bother the new Russian owners of Reading should they prove to be shopaholics, and a certain potential England manager might actually see this as a plus point – the equivalent of getting banged up in a warm cell for being drunk and disorderly.
It has been claimed that the 60 million euro spent this January by clubs across the continent is early evidence that UEFA’s intentions are being taken seriously and compared to the 225 million disbursed in 2011, that may well be the case – but last January was anomalous – the figure for 2010 was only 30 million. Football is heading for its own sub-prime crisis.
What to do? A report authored by Paul Marshall and Sam Tomlin was released in March last year and entitled Football and the Big Society. Sponsored by London based think tank, Centre Forum, it proposed four main measures to bring about greater financial sustainability in football. Worth quoting the recommendations in full as exhibited on the Forum’s website, these included:
- a consistent licensing regime across the professional game to include financial fair play rules encompassing income statement and balance sheet measures of financial sustainability
- rights of supporter representation on football club boards and extension of the Fit and Proper Persons Test
- community ‘Right to Buy’ rules, where fans are offered a chance to buy back their club when a change of ownership occurs
- reform of the FA such that its regulatory and management responsibilities are separated.
So far, so admirable – and the clear intention to regulate the sport in a more meaningful way is to be welcomed. However, before commenting further, let’s look more closely at the concept of sustainability – the central tenet of the report – and financial sustainability in particular.
‘Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable Development’ have become so widespread as buzzwords in the social sciences and society in general, that this witty graph was developed to lampoon their over usage. Defined by the Brundtland Commission as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, the notion is more usually wrapped up with issues of an environmental nature – so climate change, deforestation and land use are central concerns.
But the definition is certainly wider and in football, how far are we prepared to go to exchange immediate gratification for the long term financial health of the clubs we support? Which Pompey fans were uncomfortable as they watched their club defeat Cardiff in the 2007-08 FA Cup Final? How come only a minority of Doncaster Rovers fans have complained about the new regime ushered in by Willie McKay? Who at Stamford Bridge is concerned that Roman Abramovich need wait a mere 18 months before calling in a debt that stood at £726 million in July 2010?
The problem with sustainability is that it doesn’t go far enough. By its very definition, sustainable development requires continued economic growth – for as prices goes up, so fortunes, financial and otherwise, have to improve too. But economics as a discipline grew up as a direct response to the concept of scarcity. There simply aren’t enough resources to go round – so shelling out millions for players on gates of less than 20,000 is foolhardiness – yes, you Fulham; yes, you Queen’s Park Rangers.
Economists such as Herman Daly and Tim Jackson have discussed the notion of ‘steady-state growth’ and the latter has achieved a degree of fame with his book, Prosperity without Growth. The argument goes that there is more to life than financial wellbeing and that we should strive for a more holistic notion of prosperity. In soccer, clubs that appear on the outside to be well run and rarely overstretch themselves – Swansea, Reading, West Bromwich Albion – might fall into this category. Indeed, Swiss Ramble’s analysis of the Black Country outfit’s finances from last year highlight a business sticking to the straight and narrow remarkably well.
But is that enough? Even Reading posted a £5 million loss recently and rumours of a bid to take Wayne Bridge on loan following the takeover by Thames Sport Investment set alarm bells clanging. Over at Doncaster, years of financial prudence have been jettisoned at the behest of a superstar agent and a club as ‘unfashionable’ as Stoke City have spent big on the likes of Kenwyne Jones and Peter Crouch.
No – sustainability is a useful staging post on the route to financial health – but it’s just that – at its best, a sensible concept to follow; at its worst, a phrase for Andy Coulson or Alastair Campbell to insist be inserted into every third sentence. Latterly, it has been replaced in many people’s thinking by the concept of degrowth.
In the January issue of the Popular Stand fanzine, Doncaster Rovers supporter and erstwhile TTU contributor Glen Wilson suggests that it might not have been all that disastrous had the Yorkshire club retained the services of Sean O’Driscoll and settled back to life in the third tier; Rovers having spent the majority of their existence in the bottom two divisions. Sacrilege? Absolutely not. Similarly, as a Reading fan, I have had my two years of fun supporting a Premier League club and have no wish to return.
Degrowth – popularised by a cluster of academic thinkers including a significant group at the Autonomous University of Barcelona comes from the French décroissance – signifying a downscaling of production and consumption that looks to increase non-financial well-being, equity, democracy and stability. It does not mean recession and it does require an active role for regulation. In football, this means a greater emphasis on equality and, in actual terms, a greater role for activism and supporter involvement, a refusal to kowtow to the Scudamores of this world and the influence of Sky Sports; a return to grassroots attitudes and community sufficiency. In this case, it’s the community that many of us care about more than any other – the football club we support.
In a series of masterly articles recently reprinted in a new book, Pitch Invasion: 21st Century Soccer Writing, Gary Andrews spoke to a number of people involved in the supporters trusts that have sprung up in recent years – from those that are commonly regarded to have been successful such as Exeter City’s to those that struggled, such as Notts County’s – the general feeling was one of satisfaction that some control had been wrested out of the mitts of the money men.
As an example, there will be more than a few Manchester City supporters who felt happier after Terry Cooke and Andy Morrison inspired them to a 3-1 win over Reading in 1999 than they did after a routine 3-0 victory over Fulham last weekend – maintaining one’s league position may be one thing but dropping one or two may be more fun still. Sustainability may be one thing, but degrowth is a more pressing need.