2010: A Football Financial Review
You could frame it. If you wanted a short, pithy representation of all that has been wrong with football finance in 2010, you could do no better than quote a Plymouth Argyle fan known as “Sensible Surfer” on the BBC Football website over the Christmas period. “Ridsdale set to take control… good news,” he/she said, a phrase which would sit nicely as an explanation of irony…except that it didn’t appear to BE irony. And it served as fair comment on Argyle’s current state that, relatively, Peter Ridsdale – the failed former Leeds and Cardiff chairman and serial over-borrower – IS good news for the cash and panic-stricken South Westerners, with the heaviest possible emphasis on the word ‘relatively.’
If professional football entered 2010 in a state of moral and financial bankruptcy, it is leaving it in much the same manner. Certain football problems have been “solved.” Some more have emerged. While others, hello Portsmouth, look set to run forever. The “greater fool” theory still underpins much of the game’s financial strategies. The theory is about as scientific as it sounds – buying something in the belief that you will be able to sell it again for a higher price (to a “greater fool”), regardless of what has happened in the meantime (increased debts, usually), or even whether the original price was rooted in reality.
Finding a “greater fool” is never impossible with people like Sulaiman Al-Fahim in this world or, indeed, intelligent rich football fans in the Middle East. The theory appears to be the Glazers’ only way out of the Manchester United debt-morass. And although they have six years to find their fool, he/she will have to be a massive one to cover such debts, as United supporters groups continually remind us… and Chief Executive David Gill continually denies. Indeed, Qatar may be the Glazers’ only hope, although, as Plymouth fans are probably screaming right now, that’s better than Ridsdale being your only hope.
For Tom Hicks and George Gillett it was impossible to find a fool great enough to give them a profit on their Liverpool experience, as anyone prepared to do so would probably lack the wherewithal to sign relevant papers with anything more complex than the letter ‘X’ or with anything sharper than a crayon. And the sleeves on their jacket would be too long to allow them to grip their crayon properly and…you get my point. Hicks and Gillett were the prime examples this year of “business’s” failures in the football market. In the rampant ego category, they had stiff competition from not just Ridsdale but other ‘usual suspects’ such as Southend Uniteds Ron Martin.
Bates would also usually be filed in the rampant ego column of business failures, except that Leeds United do not appear to have been a business failure this year. With Yorkshire’s version of ‘Chelsea Village’ in the pipeline, however, it is far more a case of ‘watch this space’ than ‘well done.’ But you wouldn’t expect me to give Bates credit even where it was due, would you? Although Bates did prove a dab-hand at finding a ‘greater fool’ when he happened upon Roman Abramovich in 2003. Chelsea will continue to post multi-million pound losses for as long as an impatient Abramovich continues to believe he knows one end of a football from the other and for as long as he’s untroubled by paying off long and large managerial contracts.
It won’t be long before Abramovich has employed and sacked every former Champions League and World Cup-winning manager. And then, or when Abramovich himself grows exhausted of Chelsea, the club can wave goodbye to any combination of top-four finishes and self-sufficiency. Only Venky’s at Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United’s perennially clueless Mike Ashley have this year presented a challenge to Abramovich’s gormlessness. But Venky’s remain a work in progress, and despite the continuing reluctance or inability among Venky’s advisors to get Anuradha Desai to just SHUT UP!!!, they may yet prove not to be a failure. I mean, they sacked ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce, which surely fits into the ‘good thing’ category. If there was a more depressing on-field sight than Rovers’ El-Hadj Diouf deliberately clattering keepers and defenders like a pinball in need of an exorcism, then I missed it. And the whole situation gives Allardyce a shot at that top La Liga job that has his name on it, like Real Madrid’s.
It also allows him to finish that legal action he is taking against the BBC’s Panorama: Football’s dirty secrets programme in 2006, which suggested he had profited from agents’ activities at Bolton. Obviously, only pressure of work has stopped him successfully suing for millions; because there is no irony whatsoever in Allardyce losing his Rovers job because of agents developing a ‘special’ relationship with a club, none whatsoever, oh no. Allardyce’s main talent, we have subsequently been informed, was that he guaranteed Premier League survival. This has been presented to us almost as a law of physics. And the relevant science text books may indeed have to be amended if he were to get the West Ham United job and keep them from the financial meltdown of relegation
West Ham are not alone in having their very existence threatened by anything lower than 18th place. The co-owners – former pornographers David Gold and David Sullivan (no need to consult any lawyers, that’s what they are) – have sent mixed messages about the Hammers’ finances during the year, combining doom-mongering about £100m debts with £100,000-per-week offers to has-been French strikers called Thierry. But the loss of SKY’s money from the Hammers’ coffers could be fundamental. It certainly could be to Fulham, who have had owner Mohamed Fayed’s benefaction for a decade-and-a-half but will genuinely struggle to survive on a combination of Championship broadcast rights and Fayed’s ever-diminishing fortunes.
Fulham’s team have spent some years virtually on the Harrods’ payroll. But Fayed this year had to sell that particular source of Premier League wages to the ubiquitous Qatar. And with the family’s financial power base transferring down a generation to less football-fanatical Fayeds, Fulham’s future is racked with uncertainties. The Football League has maintained its supply of basket cases – it’s not just on the field that Portsmouth seem more at home below the top-flight. Watford, Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday AND United, Leicester City, Port Vale, Southend United, Plymouth Argyle, Charlton Athletic, Cardiff City, Notts County, Ipswich Town and probably a few that I’ve missed out are spending far too much more than they earn.
Sheffield Wednesday may have got relatively lucky with the “greater fool” they’ve found, although the arrival of Milan Mandaric as 100% owner raises the potential of my favourite local newspaper “reader comment” coming to pass – “Tax evaders bought by tax evader.” Mandaric is no such thing, of course, unless or until found to be so by a court of law. Watford’s main shareholder, Lord Ashcroft, is more adjacent to the art of not perhaps paying the tax he could. Southend United’s Ron Martin is still trying to kick the habit of confusing Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with a bank. And Cardiff City’s Malaysian “greater fools”, Dato Chan Tien Ghee and Vincent Tan, have probably paid more tax this year than in the rest of their adult lives combined, as well as an impressive variety of other debts which Plymouth’s current “Football Consultant” ran up as part of his strategy for “saving” the club, plus (or including) the odd ten million quid or so owed to noisy former owners by the name of Sam Hammam. Mandaric’s takeover has divested Wednesday not only of a board of power-hungry self-servers but a shareholder base full of them. Even when the club was on the edge of financial oblivion, there wasn’t complete shareholder unity. Getting rid of the 10% shareholding of the Supporters Trust Wednesday-ite was for many as at least as important as actually saving the club. But with Mandaric hovering up all Wednesday’s shareholdings, it’s farewell then, Shareholders Association too.
Pieces of good financial news at Football League level are still straws to be clutched at. Recently-installed regimes at Leicester City, Preston North End and Notts County may yet provide such news. Charlton Athletic’s latest new regime is being installed as I type, so who knows what fun their future finances will provide. Port Vale in particular end the year in a state of flux, having just lost their best manager in, oooh, ages – a move which edges the club closer to a change of ownership from the ‘Valiants 2001’ collective to benefactor local businessman Mo Chaudry. And AFC Bournemouth continue to pay bills, although the business history of chairman Eddie Mitchell severely tempers optimism about their financial future (meanwhile, it was refreshing to see Paul Newman in the Independent newspaper cite Ernie Howe as manager of the year).
All-in-all, then, the future still looks brighter for those blogging about football’s relationship with money than for many of their subjects. A return to recent arctic weather could push more than one club over the edge, Plymouth Argyle especially relieved that their recent local derby with Exeter went ahead – or at least their staff are, as they’d still be waiting for November salaries otherwise. And it is no co-incidence that tales of football’s financial woes in 2010 should start and end with Argyle. Twelve months ago, they were about to embark on a five-year mission to seek out new grounds, new finance, to boldly go from the Championship to the Premier League. And, as the BBC’s Matt Slater memorably commented in a recent blog, “erm… well.”
Like so many clubs before them, Argyle left the Championship at the wrong end. They concentrated on their part of England’s equally over-ambitious, reality-free plan to stage the World Cup at the expense of funding a team to fill the new ground. And Peter Ridsdale is now their “Football Consultant.” What Ridsdale knows about actual football would leave column inches to spare on the back of a postage stamp – God knows the real reason for that job title. But what he knows about “financial stability” – which he has been hired to provide – could fit on the same stamp. So it is that the last major football financial appointment is of an ego-maniacal football business failure – a short, pithy personification of all that has been wrong with football finance in 2010… and looks likely to be wrong again in 2011.
Happy New Year?