The Last Word: You want some credit? Help the local community

Football clubs should have to pay what they owe to neighbours, charities and the public purse first of all
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The Independent Football

Abolish the Football Creditors Rule! Not quite got the ring of "Sack the board!", has it? But for football fans, the times are as tough as they are hellishly complex, and a new chant is required. And at least this one might actually achieve something.

For the clubs who lined up in the debtors courts last week, sacking the board – or the owners, or whichever self-aggrandising toe-rags happen to be responsible – would not so much be an exercise in locking the stable door after the horse has bolted as it would be locking it after Dobbin has bolted – and funded his shot at Grand National glory by selling the house and car on his way. With a few dishonourable exceptions there doesn't seem to be anyone left on the premises to blame. Just "years and years of mismanagement". A very unsatisfying target.

Perhaps this is why the mutterings against the taxman are gaining volume. To be frank they are pitiful; the desperate whinges of the condemned. The argument goes that with its special role in the community, a football club should not be treated like any other business. Meanwhile, those cold, cruel-to-be-kind commentators say that is exactly how they should be treated. But both camps are missing the point. Football clubs cannot be treated like any other business. And that is why Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs have their sights aligned and their gun cocked.

Peer closer in – with the aid of the research of such excellent journalists as David Conn – and one discovers the HMRC's hard line has a lot to do with the Football Creditors Rule (FCR). In short it means when a club is bought out of administration, the players owed salaries and bonuses and the other clubs owed transfer fees must be paid first, normally in full. In turn, the HMRC have to take their place in the queue with the other creditors, which outrageously and invariably also include the St John's Ambulance. So Benito Carbone receives the outstanding £40,000 and the public purse and a charity get 10 per cent of what they are due. Is it any wonder the HMRC challenged this unique and lopsided regulation a few years ago?

The appeal was defeated in court, with the Football League winning the day with their insistence that without the FCR clubs could gain an unfair advantage over their rivals by not paying transfer fees. So the fairness of the League table took precedence over the fairness of more and more local businesses going through. Absurd.

Still, football was happy; the merry-go-round could continue. Except it was never going to be merry for very long as there is plainly not enough to go-round. Not at these prices anyway. But what if the FCR had been scrapped and what if football had to obey the same rules as every other business in the free market? Would the situation be any worse? Could it be any worse?

No. In fact, the landscape would probably be far less depressing, as English football would already be in the process of adjusting to the economic realities. Clubs would not be in the position of selling players to other clubs safe in the knowledge that the fee is all but guaranteed. Instead they would have to make sure the buyer is capable of coughing up. A novel concept might have evolved, called "paying up front". No readies, no left-back. There would not be so many clubs in the market and transfer fees would inevitably fall. Thus the correction of one of sport's most grotesque anomalies would have been well underway.

But more than this, football would be on the road to being a true "community" in the sense that it would genuinely have to fret about the financial predicament of other members in that community. The dangers of the domino effect – of Club B only getting a fraction of what they are owed by Club A and only being able to pay Club C accordingly – would have to spur the collective into preventative action against clubs living beyond their means. We're not talking about the obviously inadequate deterrent of nine or 10-point penalties; but of salary caps, stricter bookkeeping, enforceable bans from the game for those who have overseen the financial carnage.

The most naive theory doing the rounds is that Portsmouth becoming the first Premier League club to go into administration would somehow inspire the rest to wake up. What? Just like the great crash of Elland Road did? Leeds are a bigger club than Portsmouth, yet the warnings of their dramatic collapse clearly went unheeded. The only way the rest will wake up is if they themselves are affected in the here and now, not in some possible future meltdown.

Of course, even the giants would feel the fall-out if Portsmouth fold and the rest of the Premier League season is thrown into points-scrapping chaos. But in all the resulting emotion – of fans crying as the bailiff auctions off their family's memories – the central lessons would predictably be skewed. The HMRC would doubtless be held up as one of the baddies in this tear-jerking pantomime. All that history sacrificed to make a legal point... Yet the taxman would have done no wrong. After all, he is there to protect the public purse and if he thinks the best way to do this is to make an example then that's his prerogative. More important aspects of life than football are in jeopardy by the non-payment of taxes, you know.

So if you feel it necessary to point the finger at anyone other than those unmentionables who have undertaken the mismanagement, then look no further than the rule which is supposed to be protecting football but instead is actually helping perpetuate its false economy. That daft FCR, currently being propped up by the bar.

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