The Last Word: Football in a Hull of a mess but it can be fixed
Not paying agents' fees and putting a 'relegation clause' in player contracts are just two ways to help
Sunday 25 April 2010
So here's what football fans learned this week. Players are ridiculously overpriced and overpaid. Agents are ridiculously overpaid for ensuring their players are ridiculously overpriced and overpaid. Clubs ridiculously overprice and overpay both of them before some eventually go bust with ridiculous debts. And the authorities ridiculously do nothing to stop all this ridiculousness.
Didn't we already know all this? As startling revelations go, wasn't this right up there with Sir Alex Ferguson's declaration that he is not planning on retiring any time in the next 50 years? Well, yes, in the overall sense it was. But what Wednesday's scoop in The Independent finally introduced us to was the devil which lurked so putridly in the detail.
Portsmouth are wrong to the Nick Leesonesque figure of £122m and included in this debauchery of debt are not only non-payments to local firms and an ambulance charity but also £1m to Tottenham because of a goalkeeper who had the effrontery to choose Stoke over White Hart Lane. And guess who will get paid out first? Take a bow English football. You must be so proud of having the richest and biggest league on Earth.
Oh yes, we were shocked by the scale of it all. Repulsed even. But were we that surprised? Not really. The professional game has devolved into such a squalor that its supporters have long since perfected the knack of raising eyebrows at the same time as shrugging shoulders. During this footballing equivalent of patting one's head while rubbing one's tummy, the fan somehow manages to laugh as well. Particularly when the swashbuckling heroes of the Football Association arrive at the scene of the financial devastation promising "to probe" for any irregularities.
It's not probes the FA need to launch, but rockets right up their members' posteriors. The FA shouldn't be rooting around for any misdemeanours against their weak rules of governance, but barging through every office door and ripping apart every accounts book. Portsmouth are just the tip of an iceberg on a collision course with the entire League structure and with the arrogance of the Titanic captain they have ignored the threat of the impending catastrophe. They can't any longer. It's here. "Club overboard!"
It might not just be Portsmouth who go under. It's Hull, it's Cardiff, it's any club who get caught up in the hype and dare to spend like the giants they are encouraged to be rather than the respectably sized outfits they should aim to be. Forget the perceived corruption at Fratton Park, for that is not representative of this mess. In many cases the charge of "mismanagement" is merely the charge of "dreaming", of flying up there in the fantasy clouds.
Just as reprehensible as their excess is the shortage of tethers. Nothing and no one is yanking them back down to reality until the earth has opened up irrevocably. Effectively the club police themselves and in an industry where success can be bought on the never-never that is very dangerous. The governing bodies must get a grip now.
First off – apart from the spectacularly obvious step of overhauling a fit-and-proper-owner test which Arthur Daley would pass with merit – clubs should be banned from paying agents' fees. What are they for, these middlemen? If a club wants to buy a player they should approach that player's club through the official channels. Then they can haggle, not pay some outsider to do the bartering on their behalf. It's wasted money and, worse still, it perpetuates a seedy marketplace. With one swing of the axe the governing bodies could remove a cancer which eats away at the game's economy as well as its soul.
Not that the agent necessarily has to be driven to extinction, however satisfying that may be. These parasites can derive their lifeblood from a body from which they should be sucking – i.e. their player. Let the modern footballer foot the bill. After all, it's not as if they would struggle to afford it.
As vehemently as the players' unions would object and as inevitably as the Bosman Ruling would lead to their objections being legally insurmountable, there must be a way of stopping clubs from signing players to contracts their finances should not be able to honour. Of course, the grotesque Football Creditors Rule which dictates that players' wages and transfer fees are paid in full before the settlement of other bills such as those from St John's Ambulance, props up the false economy. So players can sign long-term deals basking in the guarantee they will keep collecting the big bucks, regardless of the results on the pitch or any resulting void in the coffers.
Jimmy Bullard is on £45,000 a week and is due to be for the next three and a half years. His wages alone could push Hull over the brink, now they've been relegated. Nobody could doubt the motives of such a genuine performer as Bullard, or criticise him for obtaining the best deal. Yet somehow it doesn't seem right that a player who is part of a team which will drop down from the elite can go on being paid as if he is still in the elite. The "relegation clause" should become a permanent fixture on each and every contract.
But then, perhaps if the Football Creditors Rule is scrapped – as it ethically should be – players such as Bullard would look at what clubs such as Hull are offering and think: "hang on, what chance is there of them being able to honour this?" Clubs would need to have their accounts in order to entice the talent, and the accounts would only be in order if the incomings could service the outgoings. Not just for this season, but for the next and the next.
Player wages are just one of football's anomalies and perhaps, after all the theorising, all the supposing, all the moralising, their inexorable rise truly is an unconquerable evil. But many of the faults are fixable. All it would take is strict, hands-on leadership. Never mind all that "restraint of trade" nonsense, some of these traders clearly need restraining, if not pinning down. For their own future as well as that of the game as a whole.
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