Lord Sugar Tackles Football: Well, Almost
Despite its fundamental flaws, the BBC Money Programme production Lord Sugar Tackles Football was a watchable attempt to evaluate English football’s financial ills. These flaws were immediately evident. Sugar’s call for football to take a “dose of hard business reality” came during an hour-long documentary whose introduction contained next-to-no reality whatsoever. It began by re-writing of Sugar’s history in the “beautiful game” (first mention: 53 seconds). Football, apparently, is “an industry close to his heart,” which – aside from implying the man has a heart – was never true even when he was Spurs chairman from 1991 to 2000…especially when he was Spurs chairman, in fact. He was categorised as a “lifelong Spurs fan” as he recalled his “first trip to the terraces” at “an absolutely packed” White Hart Lane (“health and safety would have had a nightmare, if it ever existed in those days”). But this was a rare trip, as Sugar, famously, shunned football as a youth.
Sugar re-wrote the story of the Premier League’s first broadcast deal in 1992, something his documentary acknowledged was the beginning of football’s modern-day financial ills, portraying his pivotal role as entrepreneurial genius when, in reality, it was grubby business dealing at its worst. Sugar’s assertion that he was “going to talk to people in all facets of the industry” was wrong too. “Managers, agents, owners of football clubs and people that run the actual football industry” were subject to Sugar’s working-class Jeremy Paxman schtick. And, naturally, ubiquitous Premier League chief Richard Scudamore got to talk about virtuous circles as if irony had been abolished by act of parliament (Sugar’s face, as it does when listening to people who aren’t Alan Sugar, screamed “who IS this idiot?”)
Yet the programme managed to avoid direct reference to English football outside the Premier League until two minutes from the end. And Sugar’s round of interviews specifically excluded the major financial contributor to the game, the supporters. The brief reference to “beyond the star players and modern stadia of the Premier League” included the fact that Plymouth Argyle were “the 54th club to enter administration since 1992,” a major part of the story of football’s financial ills in those 20 seasons. And supporters’ representatives showed in their evidence to the current parliamentary inquiry into football governance that they have both a firm grasp of the issues and a coherent manner of explaining them. Certainly better than some of the interviewees who did feature.
For all its flaws, though, Lord Sugar Tackles Football had its moments, too. He certainly got under Scudamore’s skin, even if you’d want an argument between those two to be won by almost anyone but those two. And it was a well-constructed programme which demonstrated how issues such as this are far better served by an hour’s airtime than the half-hour currently afforded Panorama, the Beeb’s ‘flagship’ current affairs documentary programme.
Sugar interviewed representatives of the promised facets of the football “industry” and followed up each one with his own take on what they had said. It was methodical and clear, without being simplistic. And whilst Sugar’s “own takes” were usually b****ks, they were clearly presented. It helped that Sugar’s views were already in place after his bitter years in the game. Little of what was said caused him to stop and think, “hang on, you’ve got a point there” (as in documentary, so in life?). But he teased out plenty to explain football’s money troubles, not least the general attitude, which Sugar quickly discovered was “not me, guv.”
It certainly wasn’t David Sullivan’s fault. West Ham’s chairman was only taking on the previous owners’ debts. “You’re a clever businessman, clearly,” Sugar crawled. “You didn’t open the books and say ‘bloody ‘ell’, did you?” (In fact, Sullivan claimed at the time that he pretty much did). And in answer to Sugar’s plaintive “what the bloody ‘ell are you doing ‘ere?”, Sullivan noted that “we also believe we will turn the club into a club worth £500m.” But before Sugar could ask “how”, Hammers MD Karren Brady was on-screen. And it certainly wasn’t her fault.
She suggested that “a London club, owned by English owners with a proven track record in business, run by myself” was “quite a compelling story for an investment.” Sugar agreed that “it sounds a good story” (especially as it left out the businesses – soft porn and sex shops – in which they have this proven track record) but added: “You don’t mind if I duck the opportunity (to invest).” And Brady inadvertently highlighted a flaw in her compelling story, noting “a level of panic and fear in the Championship, particularly those clubs that come out of the Premier League.” Like West Ham may be, in a week or two.
Brady’s “English owners” reference had hints of xenophobia. “Like West Ham, Portsmouth had fallen under foreign ownership,” the narration continued. Sugar, thankfully, didn’t dwell on this, using the Portsmouth saga as a battering ram against the ‘Football Creditors’ Rule.’ ”Everyone else loses their money. Players get paid. Not fair at all,” concluded Sugar, his allergy to nuance appropriate for once. It CERTAINLY wasn’t Scudamore’s fault. “Apple’s got a great brand and they make a load of money. Your great brand doesn’t make anything,” ventured Sugar. After a smug, un-necessary “football people aren’t allowed to use the word ‘brand’”, Scudamore noted that the Premier League didn’t own the product, like Apple did. “We don’t run the clubs.”
Sugar almost diverted down sarcasm alley with “Am I getting the feeling that you’re saying that the level of responsibility lies outside the league?”, betraying his weariness of all the buck passing. “That is not the players’ fault,” Alan Shearer opined about “spiralling” wages. And Harry Redknapp pleaded ignorance. “We know nothing about football finances, football managers, we are football people,” said… Harry Redknapp. “Agents are pulling all the strings… they get a pay day when players move,” he added. Well, he should know. And each time Redknapp said “agent” his venom levels rose. It wasn’t like this at West Ham, was it Harry?
Redknapp’s rage neatly segued into what the film editing cleverly portrayed as the real showdown, as Sugar turned his “hard-hitting” approach towards agents. Previously, there’d been little mystery as to how Sugar had got access. His Apprentice chum Brady at West Ham, BBC pundit Shearer representing the players’ – even though he retired in 2006. Jerome Anderson, however, was a catch. There was no-one better equipped to demonstrate Sugar’s pre-judgement that agents were over-influential. Anderson had ‘built’ a Manchester City team from his contacts for then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra and his newly-appointed manager Sven Goran-Eriksson. And his current influence at Blackburn may be even greater. New Watford owner Laurence Bassini claimed Anderson “offered” Blackburn to him, before current owners Venky’s bought it. And Rovers manager Steve Kean was less of a shock appointment when Anderson was revealed as his agent.
But Sugar instead concentrated on general agent-bashing (“agents are a relatively easy target,” noted Anderson) and asked him about Wayne Rooney’s public spat with Manchester United last autumn (“Was that an agent getting busy?” “It could have been”). And there was time for Anderson to confirm that it wasn’t his fault, either: “Whilst Mr Murdoch at Sky and other networks… decide that the Premier League’s value is what it is…then the game will continue (like this) because that’s what’s funding the wages.”
By contrast, Sugar warmed to Wigan owner Dave Whelan for “putting his money where his mouth is” in supporting the Latics’ rise from fourth-to-first-tier in English football. Wigan’s debt was the Premier League’s 10th-highest – “somewhere around, ahem, £70m” to quote Whelan verbatim. But it was all owed to him, and he could afford not to want repaying. That this sort of benefaction caused precisely the overspending Sugar condemned elsewhere was overlooked. The programme did touch on Wigan’s looming problem, what happens when Whelan goes. Whelan gave himself “three or four years.” But if he’d choked on the meal over which he and Sugar chatted – a near-certainty if Sugar had offered to pay – what would Wigan do then?
Sugar later suggested that “white knights” had “to be stopped.” He was referring more to the leveraged buy-outs at Liverpool and Manchester United. But Whelan’s largesse has also left Wigan spending well above income, which was Sugar’s main bugbear. Sugar frequently lapsed into this sort of contradiction. His take on players’ attitude to their wages was “I’m here. I’m in a marketplace; people want to spend that on me, not my problem.” Sugar’s philosophy of life, usually. In this programme? Outrageous.
Eventually, we got to Sugar’s “business blueprint.” We’d heard minimally from Uefa president Michel Platini and general secretary Gianni Infantino, despite Uefa’s ‘financial fair play’ (FFP) initiative seeming tailor-made for this programme. This was because Sugar’s plan was either obvious, or a clear rip from FFP. Sugar proposed “controlling players’ wages”, “borrowing to build not to buy”, “tougher penalties for financial failure”, “ending the football creditors rule” and “setting up a Football Trust Fund.” This fund – “for the community and… all that good stuff” was the closest Sugar got to innovation, although Brady dismissed Sugar’s suggestion that 50% of broadcast revenue go into it: “Most clubs need every penny and more.”
Sugar correctly suggested that the “place where that money should not go is the pocket of a player, or an agent.” He could, of course, have referenced other multi-millions taken out of football over the Premier League years. The vast monies paid to club directors as a result of various buy-outs, for example – many directors have cashed in to seven-and-eight figure tunes. But only a cynic would suggest Sugar had 42 million reasons to avoid the subject altogether – the pounds profit he made on his Spurs shares. Entrepreneurs? Not their fault, either.
Sugar’s ultimate conclusion – and you sensed he’d been itching to say this all along – was that “the fanbase of this country see a couple of disasters,” by which he meant clubs disappearing (so much for his opening spiel about how “football is a great social thing…a great thing for the community”). “Most people have got their head buried in the sand because they’re interested in Saturday,” he added. So, after haranguing his interviewees for claiming “not me, guv”, Sugar ended up believing them. Football’s financial mismanagement was the fans’ fault, the people he hadn’t interviewed. It was an annoying, if predictable, conclusion; comparable to the government finding themselves in billions of national debt, largely because of the worldwide recklessness of the banking industry, but blaming public sector workers and their pensions for the problem – which no fair-minded government would ever do that. Still, at least Sugar tried to address the issues. And while he’s no journalist, he got rather deeper into the problems than many of those who are, in a genuinely interesting, if deeply flawed, documentary.
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