Government must act to protect the game - club owners rarely do

The Weekend Dossier

Eighty-odd years ago Babe Ruth was taken to Tottenham Hotspur v Everton. After looking around White Hart Lane’s packed stands, he was taken into the away dressing room and introduced to Dixie Dean, the baseball legend’s nearest football counterpart at the time. “So you’re that Dixie Dean guy?” said Ruth. “Well, you should make some money today. What’s your cut of the gate?”

“I’m paid as much as everyone else: £8.”

The slugger was shocked. “I’d demand two-thirds of that gate if I was out there,” he said.

The gate money was not going to Dean, but it was not being spent on facilities either, or grassroots development. In the week the Premier League owners voted to cap wage levels in an attempt to trouser for themselves the cash currently draining away, via players’ pay packets, to agents, luxury car dealers and watch manufacturers, it is worth remembering that most have always been motivated by self-interest not altruism.

Consider Henry Norris, as much as anyone the father of the modern Arsenal. He hired Sir Herbert Chapman and engineered the club’s dubious promotion to the First Division in 1919.  But he was also the Pete Winkelman of his day, moving the club from Woolwich to Islington after plans to merge it with Fulham were blocked.

Consider Louis Edwards, a key figure in Manchester United’s success under Sir Matt Busby. The chairman was exposed as having built up his shareholding by nefarious means and, more damaging, expanding his meat business by bribing officials to win schools contracts then supplying meat unfit for human consumption. 

Consider the many players who were cast aside when injured and the managers sacked as brutally then as now – like Derek Dooley, fired on Christmas Eve by Sheffield Wednesday, with whom he had lost his leg in his playing days.

And consider the dead of Hillsborough, of Burnden Park, of Valley Parade, all condemned by inadequately developed and maintained grounds.

There has never been a golden age of club ownership. There have been some good ones – Steve Gibson, Jack Walker and Jack Hayward in recent years come to mind – but they are in the minority. Now we have a Premier League in which 60 per cent of the clubs are foreign-owned and only Everton, Norwich, Stoke, Swansea, West Bromwich Albion, West Ham and Wigan are run by people who represent the clubs’ communities. There is plenty of past evidence to underline that being English is no guarantee of good stewardship, but such a preponderance of foreign owners cannot be healthy, especially as most  appear to be in it for what they can get out of it: cash, reflected glory or respectability. They do not really give a monkey’s about the wider game and since in England the Premier League runs itself, they feel under no obligation to share the wealth.

In truth they do share a bit. Many Premier League clubs have become powerful forces for good in their communities, helping with social inclusion, health provision and crime reduction. The upgrading of youth development has benefits too, with the caveat that elements of it appear to be at the expense of some Football League clubs.  But it is a nonsense that Finland, where football is not the national sport, has five times greater provision per head of artificial pitches; that the cost of coaching courses deters many applicants – especially when salaries for coaches are so poor; and that a day at a Premier League match has become, for many, a treat, not a ritual.

In the absence of altruism, legislation is required. Governments have traditionally been reluctant to intervene, but the recent Parliamentary report into football governance, and impressive turnout of MPs at this week’s rally by Supporters Direct, shows the mood is changing.

The number of people with an interest in either cheaper admission prices or better grassroots provision is huge, as will be made clear by a forthcoming initiative originating from Merseyside. It is certainly large enough to concentrate some MPs’ minds ahead of the next election.

If politicians decide there are votes in it, the possibility arises of a windfall tax on the Premier League’s £5bn TV bonanza. And why not? As  long as the money is ring-fenced and invested in grassroots facilities, in coaches and coaching development, in school sports – in all those things which it would already be spent on if football was run by a single organisation instead of being hijacked by a self-governing coterie of millionaires and billionaires.

Maybe this will put new investors off. Many will hope so. Recent events at Nottingham Forest and Leeds United suggest Championship clubs are now prey to those interested in grabbing a slice of Premier League lucre for themselves. 

The new TV deal represents an opportunity and a challenge to the Premier League. Motivated though they were by self-interest, this week’s new regulations are a start. Ensuring owners have funds to underpin their spending is a positive development, as is imposing restraints, however mild, on rising wages. After all, Dixie Dean’s successors do not do so badly these days.

But if the new measures just lead to the owners enriching themselves, leaving the grassroots player and coach struggling on amid sodden pitches and broken changing rooms, before gasping at the price of tickets to watch the professionals, the Government must intervene.

Five Asides

1. Financial report reveals true extent of English privilege... 

There are 53 countries in Uefa. According to that body’s report on the financial health of clubs, the combined revenue of 636 top-flight clubs in 48 of those countries (everywhere except Germany, Spain, Italy, France) is less than that of the 20 Premier League clubs. Football League clubs’ revenue is 15 per cent of that of Premier League clubs, yet they are still the ninth-highest earners in Europe with an average income exceeding clubs in, for example, Portugal and Ukraine. Perhaps most startling is that top-flight clubs in 28 countries, including Croatia (pictured), Serbia and Hungary, typically have less revenue, even after the average is bolstered by European competition income, than a League Two club. No wonder there are so many foreign players in the English game.

2. ...but also the high cost of overreaching for Europe

The report also revealed that more English clubs (21) have competed in Europe in the last 10 years than any other nationality. Eight are currently outside the Premier League, including Leeds, and three others have been relegated and returned post-European adventures. That suggests clubs have a tendency to overreach to qualify for, or compete in, Europe.

3. Champions League tactics trickle down to League Two

Four of the top seven clubs in League Two have won more games away than at home. How to explain this? A few years ago Champions League teams, especially away from home, began to focus on fast transitions (counter-attacking). Inevitably coaches then sought to counter transitions. Trends filter down and in League Two the better clubs are now working on transitions, but the next step is yet to arrive. 

4. Portsmouth fans deserve their chance to run the club

Full marks to the Football League for standing firm on Portsmouth this week. The fans have had to put up with enough chancers and while the latest consortium may be genuine, the Portsmouth Supporters’ Trust have earned the right to have a go.

5. Curle’s dismissal is a mark of County incompetence

Having sacked Keith Curle after less than a year in charge, Notts County are seeking their eighth manager in five seasons. It is no way to run any kind of business.

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