FFP was launched with good intentions but served to protect elite clubs. Time for a rethink

The Weekend Dossier: The reality is such an adjustment of FFP is necessary here and abroad

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The Independent Online

As he pondered a fine season, and looked forward to the next one, Ronald Koeman was philosophical on Friday. "It's more difficult [for Southampton] to push up now [from seventh] than from 14th [last season] because we are fighting bigger teams who normally have more money to spend. This season for Southampton has been incredible. One point behind Tottenham, two points behind Liverpool, [but] to make the next step... I don’t say it's impossible, but it's very, very difficult."

The Dutch manager is absolutely right, which is why the Premier League should be looking anew at its financial fair play regulations, as Uefa are. Many will regard loosening the rules as a negative development, as it would play into the hands of the super rich, who skew the playing field by pumping millions into clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. However, the reality is, such an adjustment of FFP is necessary here and abroad.

As another season comes to an end, the usual suspects are at the top. In the last decade only six clubs have finished in the top four – the same six that sit above Southampton. Arsenal have been ever-present, albeit rising no higher than third. Chelsea and Manchester United have been top four in nine of the last 10 seasons. Liverpool or Manchester City have usually taken the other spot, aside from a couple of fourth-place finishes for Tottenham.

Compare this to the 10 seasons either side of the Premier League’s formation. Fourteen clubs finished in the top four from 1987 to 1997, with no team making the quartet more often than the seven appearances achieved by Liverpool and Arsenal.

There is, of course, no turning back the clock to the days when provincial teams such as Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers could win the title. Even clubs with the supporter base and heritage of Everton and Tottenham have been unable to mount a serious challenge since the 1980s. Spurs may become more competitive when their new ground is built but Everton, like Aston Villa and the rest of the league, seem destined to be reduced to fighting for scraps of glory in cup competitions – and with the current top six winning 34 of the 45 finals in the Premier League era there are few of them to go around.

The Premier League argues it is competitive, pointing to three different champions in the past three seasons and to the fact that Bournemouth’s promotion will mean more than half the 92 league clubs have played in the competition. But the truth is the Premier League is now split into a small coterie of title contenders and a rump primarily focused on staying up.

The fans noticed this long ago but now some administrators are raising their voices. Carolyn Radford, the chief executive of Mansfield Town, has produced a polemical piece for Touchline TV  in which she concludes, “history will not look back too kindly on this era of top-flight football”, adding “evolution requires [looking] beyond the price of TV rights to consider the restoration of healthy competition”.

Radford is best known for being catapulted into her role in her late twenties when her husband bought Mansfield, then in the Conference, in 2010. Much was made of her looks and the age gap with John Radford. However, five years on, Mansfield are in League Two, have bought their ground back from the previous owner and appear to be progressing, which suggests she was underestimated.

While there are inconsistencies in Radford’s piece, the overall thrust is correct. It is supported by the academic Stephen Wagg, professor in sport and society at Leeds Beckett University, who said: “In my view the Premier League isn’t really a competition at all. It’s a global television spectacular and a showcase for the six brands Carolyn Radford mentions. This position has been further strengthened by the so-called financial fair play regulation, which prevents the Abramovich-style endowment being repeated anywhere else.”

The reference to FFP is spot-on. FFP was brought in by the clubs as a way of reducing their collective spending and it has worked to the extent that most now make a profit. It also protects clubs from reckless spending. But it prevents upward mobility.

Although the Premier League has a more equitable split of television money than most European leagues, the top six earn so much extra from other sources (mainly the Champions League and sponsorship) the others cannot develop sufficient squad depth to compete. The one change in the established order has been Manchester City’s rise, fuelled by the Abu Dhabi United Group’s petrodollars before FFP kicked in. Now, with outside investment restricted, breaking into the elite is, as Koeman said, near impossible.

Thus the need to tinker with FFP. However, the solution is not to allow owners to spend what they want, which puts clubs at risk of bankruptcy, but to allow unlimited investment as long as it is in the form of a gift, not a loan. Chelsea’s holding company owes Roman Abramovich £1bn, Hull City owe Assem Allam around £80m. Neither club could pay this back if they had to. By contrast Jack Hayward gave his cash to Wolves, as did Jack Walker at Blackburn.

It is not the perfect solution because it will have the effect of increasing the gap between rich and poor, making success even more dependent on the wealth of a club’s owners. Ideally, there would be a much more widespread distribution of TV wealth but at least, it would make financial fair play fairer.

FIVE-A-SIDES

1. Grassroots insurance is an accident waiting to happen

One area of grassroots that needs funding is adequate insurance. The Football Association insists all clubs have some personal accident insurance (PAI) but lawyers Irwin Mitchell have discovered huge variations, with much cover inadequate. Ask about your club’s. It can happen to you.

2. Belgian title winners are a breath of fresh air

The Premier League is one of many leagues  increasingly contested by a handful of clubs, but there are exceptions. In Belgium, Ghent have just won their first title in their 115-year history while newly promoted Targu Mures lead the table in Romania.

3. Fighting talk from new Sports Minister Crouch

An encouraging opening salvo from Tracey Crouch, the new Sports Minister, who said of the Premier League yesterday: “We can certainly persuade them to put more money into the grassroots and encourage them to do so through a variety of levers.” Let’s hope  actions match words.

4. FA makes a positive move for equal representation

Sports Minister Crouch is a keen player herself, but while there is some way to go before she will be allowed to resume turning out for the parliamentary team, the FA’s decision to raise to 18 the age at which both sexes can play in the same side is a progressive step.

5. Hodgson trawls the shallows for strikers

Every English striker in the top 25 Premier League goalscorers (nine goals or more) was named this week in either the full or U21 England squads. All five of them. Sometimes it seems the talent pool is of paddling pool depth.

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