Football Management

Commentary on the management of over 160 English football clubs by Dr John Beech, winner of the FSF Writer of the Year Award 2009/10 Twitter: @JohnBeech Curator of! Football Finance

Posts Tagged ‘Identity’

Unsung heroes

Posted by John Beech on October 14, 2011

The news that Plymouth Argyle’s players and administrative staff are still failing to get their full pay (1) is not, of course, really news at all.  This situation has been going on for roughly a year.  It’s a message of despair that has become as familiar as Peter Ridsdale cooing that he expects a deal to be finalised very shortly.

There are still those who do not break out in sympathy with the players at least – you know the sort of stuff: “Overpaid prima donnas.  Serves then right.  No sympathy whatsoever.”  This is of course nonsense.  Plymouth Argyle is not a Premier League club, and the majority of players are on salaries that do not even begin to approach the telephone numbers that Premier League players command.  They do have the professional Footballers Association supporting them though.  Still, it’s hardly easy to adjust to dramatic changes in family income whatever your salary is.  I should know: I once had no choice but to make the first Mrs. Beech redundant from our shared workplace.

The administrative staff will undoubtedly be on generally lower salaries, and I have even more sympathy for them.  Apart from being worse off financially, they didn’t sign up to a profession where a transfer to somewhere else in the country was going to be an industry norm.  I’m sure most of them are local folk, who have more than demonstrated their loyalty to a club which is not just their employer but a club that they care about.  They are the real unsung heroes.

In a different news story today, another super-loyal administrator (in the non-insolvency sense of the word) has left his club/employer after an amazing 38 years – now there’s loyalty.  This is the case of Portsmouth’s Club Secretary, Paul Weld (2) .  As the club website points out: “Paul has worked through nine changes of ownership, 19 different managers (22 if you include Frank Burrows, Alan Ball and Harry Redknapp, all of whom managed Pompey twice), encompassing two periods of administration, four relegations, four promotions, one FA Cup final triumph, one FA Cup final defeat and a season in Europe!”  No doubt it was the two periods of Administration that must have caused the greatest stress in the Weld household.  Why did he remain so loyal when there must have been more secure job opportunities open to him over the years?  Well, “A Pompey fan, Paul was an active member of the London Supporters’ Club before arriving at Fratton Park from the Football Association as assistant to the then secretary Jimmy Dickinson, before taking over as club secretary.”  So, someone to whom it was clearly more than ‘just a job’.  And here’s a hint, Paul – yours is an autobiography that I can’t wait to read.

I’m sure there are similar stories to be told at a myriad of clubs.  Let’s not forget these unsung heroes, especially in the troubling circumstances of the current Plymouth Argyle administrative staff.  A club is much more than just the team who turn on Saturdays.  Let’s hope that those directly involved in the takeover negotiations can bring a rapid close to the brinkmanship and haggling, and show a little humanity to their loyal staff and their families.

Posted in Community, Human Resource Management, Identity, Insolvency, Investors | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

‘Club’, ‘club’ or ‘club’??? A 3Cs model

Posted by John Beech on February 9, 2011

The evidence submitted by the Premier League to the House of Commons Select Committee prompts me to write again on the inherent ambiguity of the word ‘club’.  The evidence contains the following statement:

English football clubs are very resilient with 95% of the clubs in the Football League in 1923 still in existence today and the vast majority within two divisions of their 1923 position

How can you square this with the equally true statement that over half the clubs in the top 92 have suffered insolvency events since 1990, with frequent cases of Administration and a new company being formed by new owners?  The difference, of course, lies in what exactly is meant by the word ‘club’.

In one significant respect it is not a word that should, in any case, be applied to today’s ‘clubs’.  It dates from the nineteenth century when football clubs were indeed members’ clubs, run by and for their members, associations of two or more people united by a common interest or goal, but professionalisation of the game at the end of that century meant that the formation of a limited company became the only practical way to operate.  ‘Members’ disappeared from the equation.  The use of the word ‘club’ persists, however, nearly always at least in the actual name of the company.  A breach of the Trades Description Act perhaps?

If we ignore the meaning ‘members’ clubs’ then there are to me three distinct meanings, and they are all too easily confused.

First there is the social construct.  This is the ‘club’ that fans normally think of as being the club.  It doesn’t actually exist in any formal sense, but is incredibly ‘real’ to its supporters.  It provokes the ‘till I die’ element and the tattoos.  It is built on heritage, culture, mentality and mythology.  To illustrate it, I have used in presentations a photo of the famous John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood.  It is notable indeed for its longevity.  It survives the disappearance and (later) resurrection of a club, and often with slight changes in name – think Aldershot; think Accrington Stanley.  Or conversely, don’t think Wimbledon and MK Dons – it is precisely the construct of ‘Wimbledon’ that to some extent is still contested, a fight over ‘Whose Wimbledon is it anyway?’.  (I’m sure readers don’t need telling the answer by the way!)  This example serves well to show how this social construct is also embedded in location and identity, which gives it its permanence.

In short, it is the club as construct that fans support.  There is no inconsistency other than the use of the word ‘club’ when fans find themselves in conflict with the owners of the ‘club’ (and, remember, there are no longer members of the ‘club’), to use a second meaning – the club as company, a different  meaning.  My loyalty to Pompey – the club as construct – does not in any way automatically transfer to a loyalty to Messrs. Mandaric, Gaydamak, Al Fahim, Al Faraj, Chainrai or indeed Uncle Tom Cobleyski.  I doubt too that John Eastwood has been tempted to have any of their faces as tattoos.

This distinction between club as construct and club as company is an important one.  In particular, it should be considered when desperate directors call on fans to get the collecting boxes out to save the club.  fans will certainly want to save their club as construct, but want to think twice about saving their club as current company, i.e. the current board of directors.

The club as company does not show the longevity, or continuity, that club as construct does.  Frequently the inclusion of a bracketed year in the company’s name is an indication of discontinuity, for example, Middlesbrough Football and Athletic Club (1986) Ltd., Wrexham Football Club (2006) Ltd.  95% of the (football club) companies around in 1923 are most definitely not still in existence!

The third version of club is the club as crew, in other words the players.  The crew has a continuity, but no consistency of membership over time.  The crew is a case of Trigger’s broom, with players coming and going, and sometimes reappearing in an opposition team.  The days of one-club players such as Jimmy Dickinson (Portsmouth) or Jack Charlton (Leeds) are long gone.  As fans we show them our loyalty, but the minute they leave our loyalty tends to evaporate, as we perceive a lack of loyalty to the club as construct on their part.

Three different meanings of the word ‘club’ with quite significant difference in the loyalty we show them, in longevity and in continuity.  Is it just petty academic differences?  I think not.  For fans, it is the construct that matters ultimately.  Directors have been known to have no concern for club as construct; the postings on this blog can certainly suggest some examples.

The important distinction to me is the fans’ view of club as construct as opposed to the directors’ perspective of club as company.  My blood boils when directors use the club as construct to get fans to help them hold on to power in the club as company.  There are certainly situations when fans might well be advised to not donate to collections, as this can just prolong the mismanagement of their beloved club.

Mind you, confusing, at haste, club as construct with club as crew can be a mistake to regret at leisure, as at least one Liverpool fan must now be doing.

Posted in Fans, Governance, Identity, Ownership, Players' careers | Tagged: , , , , | 12 Comments »

Pride and prejudice

Posted by John Beech on November 13, 2010

Prejudice is always a hard one.  Can we really be so certain that someone else’s position is irrational and wrong?  To what extent should we take account of the context in which opinions are expressed?  Is football really the place to drag personal ideologies in to?

Certainly the last week or so has seen more than it’s share of issues.  Vlatko Markovic, the head of the Croatian Football Federation, has caused a storm of protests about anti-gay remarks he made in a newspaper interview (1).  He is now threatened with court action (2), and has subsequently apologised (3).  Not that that is particularly significant – it is the bedrock of prejudice that underlies the original remarks that is disturbing, and court action and an apology will not result in a sudden change of perspective.

Not the we don’t have issues nearer home.  In a different area of prejudice, there has been the anti-poppy protest by some Celtic fans [the offending banner can be seen here].  If instinctively you condemn the banner, and see Celtic and Rangers as a simple Catholic Republican v. Protestant Unionist divide, try looking at these two blog postings: Remembrance Sunday: An Alternative View and the response Let Me Wear My Poppy With Pride! (they come from an excellent website called The Celtic Underground, which is run by a group of angry middle-aged men, so it’s bound to get my vote [oops! betraying my own prejudices, but you may have already spotted them!]).  Together they make a compelling case against stereotyping fans, and for the complexity of issues that are often dismissed as ‘black or white’.

Even nearer home, we have seen what I would view as prejudice manifesting itself in a football match that may yet not be scheduled – AFC Wimbledon v. MK Dons.  Now, many readers will object to the name I have chosen to use for the latter team, preferring the soubriquet ‘Franchise’.  To them, it is the club that should not be allowed to dare to speak its name.

Their current anger, and I have no wish to increase it, is understandable.  Some sections of the media have been presenting this pairing as some kind of derby match.  This, I would suspect, is simply because as this is the first time the clubs will have met, and the pairing is a unique one – there are no direct comparisons to be made in the English game yet, and so people tend to fall back to assuming, wrongly, that the closest comparitors provide an example to be used for contextualisation.  One thing which some Wimbledon fans seem to forget – those who are offended that the two clubs have been bracketed as ‘rivals’ – is that rivalry is rarely two-sided.  Many Coventry City fans, for example, would see Aston Villa as deadly rivals, but I doubt that few of the latter’s fans would reciprocate this feeling.

What the possible meting has undoubtedly stirred up is long-held emotions, hatreds even.  These I would personally label as ‘prejudices’.  I’m very aware of why they are felt so strongly, but there seems to me to be an irrationality in the way they are being applied by some fans, and a dangerous one at that.  It’s the invocations to neither forgive nor forget that bothers me.  ‘Never forget’ I have absolutely no problem with – if you ‘forget’, you have no basis for advocating ‘never again’, which I would certainly advocate.  ‘Never forgive’ is, on the other hand, distinctly more problematic.  Its totemic presentation begs the rather vital question of who is to be forgiven or not.  In this case the obvious contenders are Sam Hamman, Pete Winkelman and the FA.  Current fans of MK are a rather less obvious contender, and yet it is they who bear the brunt of the abuse and hatred, oh, sorry, banter.

There has even been talk about possible violence at such a game.  If there should be, perhaps it will bring home to those who engage in ‘banter’ that there is a fairly thin line between their position and that of the Russians who defended the Odemwingie poster as ‘banter’.  Talking of violence is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy, typically if the context is overtly or covertly one of prejudice.

Peace and reconciliation(and bear in mind that I am based in Coventry [3], and in Coventry University [4], so I recognise that I am open to accusations of prejudice towards those two virtues) between football fans is possible.  A great example can be found North of the border this very week (5).  Let’s hope that, should the encounter in England happen, banter will take a back seat, and that we do not carry on passing on our own prejudices to the next generation of fans, who then feel the need to express the strength of their identity with their club through some rites-of-passage act of mindless violence.  Let’s see a bit more of the ‘yours in football spirit’.  After all, you don’t have to be prejudiced to be a loyal club fan.  Or am I wrong?

[In an act totally unrelated to this posting and the cages I may have inadvertently rattled in South West London, I’m off at silly o’clock during the coming night for our rather delayed ‘summer’ holiday.  I expect to be offline from late this evening for the best part of a fortnight, so there will be a disruption to both moderating of comments, and postings.]

Posted in Fans, Identity, Media | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Warring at Walsall

Posted by John Beech on May 16, 2010

Rising up the pyramid when there are larger iconic clubs geographically close to you is always going to be difficult, because the size of potential fan base is constrained.  In the case of Walsall (League 1), within ten miles they have West Bromwich Albion (Premier League next season), Wolves (Premier League), Aston Villa (Premier League), and Birmingham City (Premier League).  That is not to suggest that Walsall is not capable of having a committed set of ultra-loyal fans; rather, it is to suggest that when ambition for the club is mentioned, it needs to be tempered with some realism.

The club was an early mover into a modern stadium, the Bescot opening in 1990.  It has a capacity of over 11,000, and conference facilities, allowing non-matchday revenue streams.  Its form in modern times has seen it fairly stably around its current level in the pyramid.  The size of the stadium has not really been a constraint, and of late it has not been well filled.

After a period of considerable turbulence, the club was taken over in 1988 by a consortium led by Maurice Miller, who appointed two directors, Ray Clift and Jeff Bonser.  Within ten years, Bonser was Chairman, a position he still holds, and owner of the stadium.  (For more on this turbulent period and the early years of this regime, a particularly useful source was a series called The Long Road to Bescot published on the Walsall-Mad website, but now seemingly taken down.*)

Given the continuity of ownership and the relative stability of the club within the period over the last decade, one might expect to see at least the emergence of a financially healthy club.  The accounts for the period available to me (1999/00 to 2008/09) make interesting reading.

  • Apart for the three years from 2002/03 to 2004/05, a profit has been achieved.  Losses were so great in that period however, a loss of just over £1m in 2002/03 in particular, that the average has been a loss of £137,000 a year.
  • Turnover grew to a peak of almost £8m in 2001/02, with a ten-year average of just under £6m – which is almost exactly the figure for 2008/09.
  • The wages/turnover ratio peaked at almost 73% in 2002/03, but in the past few years has been held at below 50%, a level which is unusually low for an English football club.  It is this figure that no doubt drives the complaints from fans of a lack of ambition.
  • Long-term liabilities leapt in 2003/04 by £1m to £1.4m.  By 2008/09 they had grown to £2.2m.
  • Directors’ remuneration has grown, for 2008/09 being £134,000.
  • There is nothing obvious in the version of the accounts I have seen to substantiate claims that the club is paying Jeff Bonser over £1,000 a day as rental for the stadium.  That said, there is no alternative figure explicitly stated either.

The overall picture is much what one might expect at a club owned by a ‘benefactor’ who is trying to run the club as a business.

The one football source of revenue over which a board does have a major control is matchday receipts.  Average gates at Bescot Park grew at the start of the decade, reaching a peak of just under 8,000 in 2003/04, a season in which the club was relegated from the Championship.  In the season just finished they had fallen 11.9% on the previous season to just over 4,000, putting only Hartlepool with a lower average in League 1, which overall averaged over 9,000 (although it should be remembered that the average is pulled up by the presence of Leeds United, Norwich City, Southampton and Charlton Athletic).

Whether you see a football club as a business, and fans are your ‘customers’, or you see it as a sports organisation which is a focal point of the local community, and your fans are, well, fans, it would not make sense to alienate them and drive away the one source of revenue which have some control over.  Here too there has been a stability in Bonser’s approach.  Consider this quote from him: “I have no intention to justify to anyone how I invest personal money. I have always viewed any personal investment I have made into commercial enterprises as the only way of securing the long-term future of league football for Walsall.”  This is from a statement he made in March 1998, reported in the Sports Argus as he threatened to sell the club.

The same report included the following:

Ken Morrall, chairman of the Supporters Club, who once spent a year on the Walsall FC board as the fans’ representative, hopes any new owner will talk to them.

He said: “Problems started when we asked the football club in 1995 if we could have a little breathing space from paying our £1,000 a month donations while we sorted out our finances.

“We just needed a couple of months, but the next thing we had been served with a writ claiming we had contravened the licence by letting in people who were not members.”

The supporters club claim that over the years they have handed over about £750,000 to help the football club stay in business.

Twelve years on, are relations between board and fans any better?  In a word, no.

Protest is not tolerated at Walsall under Bonser and Chief Executive Roy Whalley.  Banners recently raised against Bonser and manager Chris Hutchings provoked bans (1).  Predictably enough there were further protests at the next home game (2), resulting in more bans.  According to Whalley, the protestors would drive attendances down (3), an interesting example of cognitive dissonance.

At the final home game there was a protest in the form of a sit-in (4).  One fan unfurled a banner, and was ejected by stewards who showed a remarkable failure to notice the irony that the banner read ‘Freedom of Speech’.

Tempers may cool over the summer, but the underlying issues will simply fester.  At the very least, Bonser and Whalley might like to think a little about the advantages of good public relations – they seem to have been off the morning that was covered.  Unless there is some movement in the opposing sides, the club is in danger of ripping itself apart.  For a club with a modern stadium with good facilities for non-football revenue streams, a good measure of stability in terms of where they play in the pyramid, a loyal core fan base and a very clear sense of local identity, this would be just plain ridiculous.  ‘Dialogue not warfare’ would be my choice of banner.  I’m not optimistic though.

[In the light of problems with comments encountered by my friends at Twohundredpercent, I have decided to allow comments, but moderation is likely to take longer than usual for comments from readers unknown to me.]

* Andrew Van-Hagen has kindly contacted me to say that this excellent ‘The Long Road to Bescot’ five-part series, written by ‘Sadlad’, is now available as part of a Memory Lane section on his Walsall Web-Fans Forum: (A), (B), (C), (D) and (E).  Strongly recommended.

Posted in Assets, Benefactors, Censorship, Community, Fans, Identity, Ownership, Public relations, Stadium | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Player mobility and Sunday’s semi-final

Posted by John Beech on April 12, 2010

Deep joy in the Beech household, of course, after the much wished for but more than somewhat unexpected result for Pompey against Spurs.  It was a strange game for other reasons though.

There were those familiar ‘Pompey’ faces – Crouch, Defoe and Kranjcar – on the Spurs bench, and although Kaboul was cup-tied he was no doubt there.  A Spurs fan would equally have been watching for Boateng, Brown and Rocha, albeit on the Pompey bench, and might well have been looking for O’Hara, on loan to Pompey and thus contractually constrained from playing against Spurs, perhaps sitting in the stands with Kaboul.  Now, I don’t keep stats on the numbers of players cup-tied, let alone on players who pop up later on the opposition bench, but it did strike me that this was a tie with particularly strong reunion connotations.

This of course is no surprise given that professional players have moved between teams since the 1880s, when Preston North End regularly turned out a team of imported Scots, but it was nevertheless particularly striking that ’till I die’ does not apply to players in quite the same way it does to fans.  Which means that club loyalty is just that – loyalty to a club but not in the same way to its players.  But if the players move around so much, and in this case between two specific teams, it doesn’t help with the notion of local identity and a sense of community implicit in the team.  Perhaps I’m just being old-fashioned, but I find it difficult to ‘dump’ ex-players as readily as they themselves dump their previous clubs.  The problem I have is in seeing a club as something permanent and not related to its ever-changing squad of players.

Hey ho, I’ll get over it, but it has reinforced my view that the all-too-often often opposing diad of the sociocultural  ‘club’ and its business form the ‘company’ constituting a football club should more rationally be thought of as an uneasy triad of ‘club’, ‘company’ and ‘crew’, to use a naval term as Pompey prompted this rambling.  In terms of ‘identity’, it is a peculiarity that both ‘company’ and ‘crew’ regularly change (well, especially the former if you are a Pompey fan) while it is ‘club’ that goes on for ever, even if in a resurrectionist form.

Posted in Community, Fans, Identity, Transfers | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

AFC Liverpool and Liverpool FC

Posted by John Beech on July 13, 2009

There is a definite uncertainty about AFC Liverpool.

No, I’m not referring to either their financial situation or their progress on the pitch. I’m referring to their sense of their own identity.

In my earlier posting on The fate of resurrectionist clubs (1), I looked at FC United of Manchester although their predecessor was alive and not doing too badly in fact, thank you very much, but not at AFC Liverpool. Why did I make a distinction between the two AFCs?

Their births were in similar sets of circumstances but with significantly different motivations. FC United of Manchester was established as a political statement of disapproval at the Glazer takeover of Manchester United. AFC Liverpool was also formed in protest, at the level of pricing of season tickets at Liverpool.

Gregg Roughley of The Guardian dubbed AFC Liverpool ‘Liverpool’s little brother’ (2), and the cosiness of the relationship between the two club provides a basis for this soubriquet. At the time AFC Liverpool was formed, it was made clear that the dispute with Liverpool FC was simply over ticket pricing and was not a statement against Hicks and Gillett (3). Liverpool FC have never been anything other than supportive, and their website carries news of AFC Liverpool, usually in glowing terms, recording ‘triumphs’ (4, then search under ‘AFC’).

The position AFC Liverpool adopted in relation to Liverpool FC was understandable when they were formed, but is it still appropriate today? The FAQ page of the AFC Liverpool website (5), and the ‘About AFC Liverpool’ page (6) make clear that the relationship is still totally benign. The latter even sees the club now stating “We see ourselves very much as part of the LFC family – LFC’s little brother”. Are they secretly hoping for some return to Anfield as a prodigal little brother?

If they were indeed ‘LFC’s little brother’, it strikes me that it would be grossly unfair that the ‘Liverpool family’ is allowed two clubs in the pyramid, with AFC Liverpool denying another club a place in the Vodkat League.

The reality is that AFC are not Liverpool FC’s little brother, nor are they part of a notional ‘Liverpool family’. The sooner they establish their own identity and shake-off their surrogacy pose the better. It is unhealthy and does not bode well for their future. They should perhaps learn a lesson from history – Liverpool FC hardly ‘feel part of the Everton family or Everton’s little brother’ even if initially they wanted to (7).

Posted in Identity, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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