Is football really not ‘dying on its feet?’
Posted by John Beech on September 25, 2009
Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe, in a slight toning down of his attack on the way English football and football clubs are run, has said “Football is a success, nobody is saying it’s dying on its feet” (1).
It would be nice to be able to come out in whole-hearted agreement with this prognosis of the English game, but I find it hard to do so, at least with respect to the management aspects of clubs.
Perhaps I have become jaded – in a recent posting on a chat forum, someone commented with reference to this blog ‘The Dr’s a cheery soul isn’t he‘ (2). The next poster suggested however ‘He was probably the life and soul of the party when he started studying insolvent football clubs, and has been ground down over the years‘ (3). A not entirely inaccurate surmise!
But, joking aside, my prognosis of the English patient is that he is suffering from a chronic (i.e. long-term) illness, the symptoms of which are giving me, at least, increasing cause for concern. These include, with differing degrees at the various levels of the professional game, and, of course, at individual clubs:
- an ever-rising debt mountain;
- increasing dependency on benefactors, who themselves are under increasing pressure due to the credit crunch;
- working on the false assumption that ‘soft debt’ will never become hard debt;
- a cavalier attitude to the payment of PAYE and National Insurance to HMRC;
- using HMRC, in effect, as a benign bank, when the signs are clear that it is no longer prepared to be benign;
- the increasing incidence of seeing the club’s fixed assets such as the ground and the training ground pass out of the club’s hands;
- allowing costs (mainly the wages bill) to escalate at a faster rate than the rise in revenues;
- allowing other (external) stakeholders to have an undue influence on the game;
- failing to recognise fans as stakeholders;
- an obsession with the short-term;
- a reluctance to introduce ‘negative performance’ payments, so that the wage bill automatically drops should relegation occur;
- an assumption that part-time management at the very top of the club’s organisational structure is sufficient;
- an inability to act collectively within the league structure to resist the expansion of financial disparity between top and bottom of the pyramid.
Add to this an at worst bellicose, and at best indifferent, attitude to the sensible recommendations of the Burns Report, and a real attitude problem to the more sensible recommendations of both the UK government and UEFA, and you start to get the picture of a patient who is ignoring his symptoms.
Frankly, I think there are too many individual clubs that are dying on their feet, or, more specifically, it is the companies that own the clubs which are dying on their feet. The very real danger is that the collapse of the company will drag the club out of existence. How long before we have another Accrington Stanley (heaven forbid, even at Accrington Stanley), Aldershot or Maidstone United?
Unless there is a sea-change in the way clubs are managed, the number of dead companies will only increase. If nothing is done, it is just possible that we will see the sector die. The patient’s last words will probably be ‘Platini’s to blame‘, still accepting no responsibility themselves for their predicament.
On the other hand, they may decide to clean their Augean stables and, with alacrity, put their houses in order.
Which would you put money on?