Football Finances: A Question of Trust

Historically speaking, Peter Reid isn’t the easiest character to sympathise with. Gritty midfielder, gritty manager, solid but never spectacular. Conversely though, for Plymouth Argyle this is exactly the sort of character they need as their plight rumbles on.

From Championship club with aspirations of the Premier League and a World Cup stadium to League 2 strugglers on the brink of extinction, victims of the failed 2018 bid and pie-in-the-sky owners.

A player strike was narrowly averted last week after the administrators paid out 40% of their wages. The club continues to struggle by at the bottom of the league. Liquidation would be a blessed relief.

Except, the fans.

Of course it’s the fans who suffer, at club after club after club. Things have been this way for generations, from the demise of Accrington Stanley in the sixties through Aldershot, Maidstone and Newport County in the late eighties and early nineties to today.

Ah yes, today. However widespread mismanagement and financial strife might have been in the past, nothing compares to the modern trend of binge and bankruptcy.

Our modern culture of instant gratification – I want it now / what do you mean I can’t have it yet / what about my rights – has lead to a state of affairs where fans prefer reckless spending as long as it is accompanied by hollow promises of success and glory. That’s not to blame the fans, for it is not their responsibility to enforce good financial governance, but it is true to say that they could often speak out more loudly than they have.

Fools and other people’s money

Football business is good business at the very top, yet everywhere else it is the worst kind of business. If the average football league club owner went into the Dragon’s Den seeking investment, they would be met by a chorus of “I’m out”. Yet still the glassy eyed investors come slithering out of the woodwork.

Meanwhile the custodians – the FA, the Football League, the Premier League – allow the pillage to continue. It’s OK, they reason, it’s only business.

Except it’s not only business, at least to the fans to whom their club is their identity. It’s more than just support, it’s life, family, friends and more.

The fans have little choice but to place their trust in the fools in control of their clubs and hope that nothing goes wrong. Even at clubs where things have gone wrong, the cycle continues. At Brighton, a single goal away from extinction in 1996, the good times roll once more courtesy of gambler extraordinaire Tony Bloom. The fans are happy as long as the luck doesn’t run out.

The role of the wealthy benefactor is under added scrutiny these days and rightly so. The Commons Select Committee has been heavily critical of football’s governance and UEFA is introducing the financial fair play in an effort to force clubs to change their ways. The spending figures from the recently concluded transfer window demonstrate that they have no such intention.

The supporters trust movement

There is another way. The trust movement, ably guided by Supporters Direct, have proven that fan ownership does work as the success of AFC Wimbledon demonstrates. The problems for Supporters Direct are two-fold – reliant on funding from an organisation that would rather they went away, and hindered by the misconception that fan ownership is a small time fad.

Ultimately though, what is needed is a culture change within English football. All the while the rich continue to get richer and the rest have to struggle harder just to stand still there will be trouble.

Take Everton for example. For years they have been considered a decent club with a terrific manager. Now they’re in trouble, shunned by investors and now the banks too, and David Moyes is left with little if any money to bolster his threadbare squad. This is what irks the fans rather than the lack of money – all the while Everton were using bank loans to fund player purchasers the dissent was minimal.

Whatever you might think of Bill Kenwright, it would be hard to secure a conviction on a charge of gross overspending. Yet wages at Everton have increased significantly as they try to maintain their mid-table position.

Player wages are the big evil, far more so than transfer fees. Transfers are just that, as the money continues to flow from one club to the next and eventually completes the loop in many cases. Wages disappear into the pockets of players and their agents never to be seen again.

If clubs are incapable of cutting their cloth then football will have to call in the tailors. A cap on wages to a percentage of turnover is a sensible way forward to protect football clubs from themselves.

Whilst we’re at it, let’s ensure that fans get a fair deal by keeping ticket prices under control, regardless of how much the clubs might bleat about the injustice of being unable to fleece their captive audiences.

For the football fan is a captive audience. Culture dictates that never shall you abandon your club in the way that you would your car insurer. Most of the time that’s a good thing, but from time to time fans could help themselves by staying away to make their point.

Will we ever see that culture change? Not likely. Cash is king and a mighty one at that. Fans are going to have to trust in their fools for a while longer yet.

About Mark Chalcraft

A long time follower of non-League football, Mark also takes an interest in the murky antics at the top of the pyramid & in the infamous FIFA House.