When a club is at its most vulnerable
Posted by John Beech on March 27, 2011
A week can be a long time in football, but, having been out of the country for a week, working in the Tirol, I find it quite surprising in some ways how little has happened, or, to be more precise, resolved itself. Two ‘sagas’ which have been on my radar screens for several weeks have made no real progress towards a denouement – the cases of Plymouth Argyle and Wrexham. For both clubs, fans face the continuing uncertainty of who will be the new owners.
The former is now in the hands of an Administrator, and the sale of the club seems, at least at the time I write, to hinge on the issue of how much previous owners are prepared to write off with respect to Home Park (1). In the case of the latter, well, one reason I haven’t blogged on the trials of the club is the sheer rate at which stories have been breaking. Ian King, over at TwoHundredPerCent, has been doing an excellent job in keeping the story up-to-date with added interpretation and comment, but even he seems to have grown just a tad weary of following the wilder intricacies of the competition to buy the club. Arguably the only ray of sunshine for Wrexham fans has been the fact that they have been spared Stephen Vaughan as owner.
While there is a significant difference between the two clubs in terms of who is selling the club – an Administrator on the one hand and (how on earth do I summarise the situation at Wrexham?) let’s just say a sale by the latest of a series of ‘benefactors’ – what is particularly striking is an obvious similarity. When it comes to the sale of a club, it is the club as ‘company’ that is for sale, and any concerns for the club as ‘construct’ take a seriously back seat. [If you are not clear about the distinction I am making, see an earlier posting.] There is, of course, an inevitability about this, but surely there should systems in place to ensure that the continuity of the club as ‘construct’ is not compromised through a bad change in club as ‘company’.
At present there are two checks in place – the ‘Fit and Proper Person Test’ and the handing over of the ‘Golden Share’. There are so many examples of the repeated sale of a football club – think Portsmouth, with four owners last season, a period in Administration, and still an uncertain ownership for the future – that it is obvious that these two checks are woefully inadequate. Amazingly the FA set up a committee (no, I know that’s not amazing, but bear with me) back in 2003 to sort out an effective Fit and Proper Person Test (1), and I take it as self-evident that we do not yet have one. Similarly, the ‘Golden Share’ is normally handed on to new owners with little thought to the wellbeing of the club as ‘construct’.
Football governance, and its current inadequacies are very much on the agenda, and I live in hope of serious change. (My submission to the House of Commons Select Committee is downloadable here; all submissions are available here.)
Increasingly I am minded that the introduction of a rigorous system of club registration is the reform we need to improve football governance. One of the major difficulties I see for any reform is the issue of transition to a new system. For example, advocates of introducing the Bundesliga system with ’50 + 1′ fan ownership seldom explain just how the current share holdings of the club will be transferred to fan ownership – which 50%? A club registration system can be designed so that the well run club need make little or no changes to become registered. Badly run clubs would have to reform, and, when a club changes hands, the new ownership would be placed under close scrutiny.
It’s just a pity that any reform will come too late to remove the current worries of Plymouth Argyle, Wrexham, Portsmouth, etc., etc. fans. All they can do is pray is that their club as ‘company’ is delivered into ethical and benevolent hands, and that their club as ‘construct’ survives without, in the worst case scenario, an ‘Accrington Stanley, Aldershot, Maidstone United or the many more recent non-league examples’ discontinuity and the need for resurrection. Nobody wants another club to face the need for resurrection, but, at present, the checks in place make it likely that some club will have to go through that drastic process in the future.
If club registration is to be effective, it is vital that the body which oversees it has teeth. An unreformed FA would not be my choice. In the current climate though, the dream of a reformed FA is perhaps not totally unrealistic.
UPDATE – 29 March 2011
Interesting piece by Matt Scott of The Guardian here. All four strands he suggests will be incorporated into a Football Governance and Major Events Act are long overdue, but why just football?