The world of football management has been attracting more than its fair share of clichés and unlikely metaphors of late, and who am I to disappoint.
Focus on Friday (English Football’s ‘Black Friday’?) was, unsurprisingly, on Fratton Park, where the media had gathered to report the utterly predictable and inevitable slide into Administration of a Premier League club for the first time. Oddly there was little sense that this event was unsurprising giving that from 2007 when Leeds United went into Administration, insolvency events have happened to three League 2 clubs, three League 1 clubs and three Championship clubs.
Radio 5 Live's Paul Greer interviewing Colin Farmery and Kevin Ryan
Obviously at the vanguard of the media pack was local radio station BBC Radio Solent, together with BBC Radio 5 Live. The entry into Administration had however attracted the interest of the mainstream news gatherers – BBC Breakfast, the BBC News, BBC 24 News Channel, Sky News, and even the US news channel Bloomberg (1). Clearly what we were witnessing was a major news story. But was it actually the right one?
What seemed to be missing was what the significance, or otherwise, of the imminent event was. Was it just a Pompey story, or was it a Premier League football story? Or, dare I suggest, an emblematic news event for the whole English football sector?
There seemed to be too little sense that this was a story not of ‘the bubble bursting’, of ‘implosion’, or of ‘financial meltdown’, but rather more of English football heading steadfastly towards the brick wall of unmanageable debt aboard the juggernaut of the unsustainable benefactor model. The collapse of Portsmouth’s finances was not well presented as part of a broader landscape of financial woes in English football.
Radio Solent did report that Bournemouth, on the Radio Solent patch, had been served that very day with a winding up petition by HMRC for tax debts of £314,000 (2), with only £100,000 available to meet the bill. But even surrounded as I was at Fratton Park by the cutting edge of the football media pack, I found it hard to find out what had happened at the Football Conference meeting to decide the fate of Chester City.
While these two events are in a direct sense of a lower significance because they are about clubs lower in the pyramid, I find it hard not to see them as all parts of one picture – a picture of a sector at a crossroads with its back to the wall, up Portsea Creek (or any other creek you choose to mention) without a paddle, a sector which is shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic, while finding it hard to organise a piss-up in a brewery.
With such a wide choice of clichés to choose to head this posting with, why then did I choose ‘drinking at the last chance saloon’. Well, first because it is a cliché popularised by David Mellor, he of the toothless Football Task Force, which was charged with, among a wide-ranging number of items, reconciling “the potential conflict between the legitimate needs of shareholders, players and supporters where clubs are floated on the Stock Exchange” (3). That final phrase seems lost to history today, but ‘Black Friday’ certainly seemed a day when the legitimate needs of shareholders, players and supporters were particularly in conflict.
Mellor of course used the phrase ‘drinking at the last chance saloon’ not with respect to football and the Task Force, but about the press and the reporting of his personal life (with its entirely false account of his use of football merchandising incidentally). The reporting of football business is at times not always of the absolutely highest quality (obviously with honorable exceptions).
Take as just one example this headline from the same day on the BBC website: ‘Stoke City free of external debt‘. The club is externally-free of debt the report began, but by paragraph 4 it emerged that “The club’s owners, the Coates family, have invested £17m interest-free and plan to put in another £24m“. ‘Invested interest-free’? Soft or otherwise, this is still a debt.
While the media focus on Friday was understandably on Portsmouth, the whole sector is running headlong towards the brick wall of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play protocol. The shambles of Portsmouth’s finances are sadly symptomatic of the entire sector, albeit Pompey is one of the worst cases, but our concerns need to be with the sector rather than just with today’s headline head cases.
It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, take the bull by the horns and sweep the Aegean stable!