This season, it is probably fair to say, has not been the best of football seasons. Portsmouth are hanging on to their Premier League status and Brighton & Hove Albion seem likely to fall through the relegation trapdoor from League One. Meanwhile, AFC Bournemouth have somehow managed to pull clear of the League Two relegation places after the Football League docked them seventeen points at the start of the season (though they’re far from safe just yet), Lewes spent what seems likely to be their only ever season in the Blue Square Premier anchored to the bottom of the table and fighting against having to enter into administration and Weymouth found themselves close to closure, and not for the first time in the last two or three years.
Bottom of the pile, however, even from this sorry lot, are Southampton. The Saints’ decline has been a rapid and largely unexpected one. Those of us of a certain age will be able to recall their occasional finishes in the top six of the First Division during the early 1980s, and they continued to confound the odds (they finished in eighth place in the Premier League and got to the FA Cup final as recently as 2003) before finally getting relegated in bottom place in 2005. The key to their problem has been the St Marys Stadium. Southampton evacuated The Dell for it in 2001, at a cost of £32m. After they failed to get back into the Premier League, crowds started to fall (from an average of 31,700 in 2004 to 22,250 last season) and, when the Premier League parachute money ran out, they ran into serious problems.
The club has been in a desperate position all season, both on and off the pitch. From a falling out at boardroom level (between much loathed chairman Rupert Lowe and a director, Michael Wilde) down to the teams performance at the bottom of The Championship and falling crowds (down almost 20% this season to an average of just over 17,000), the impression has been of an irreversible rot having set in. High noon came last week, with confirmation that the bank would not extend their borrowing any further or invest in them because they did not feel that the club is financially viable. At this point, the holding company, Southampton Leisure holdings, went into administration, the directors resigned and the club was put up for sale.
One small detail of this tale, however, is vexing other clubs at the foot of the Championship. Because the club’s holding company has entered into administration itself rather than Southampton FC, as things stand the club will not be deducted any points. Under current regulations, any club entering into administration suffers an immediate ten point deduction, but Southampton may be immune from this because the debts are held by the holding company rather than the company itself. The Football League is meeting what to do about this today, but the questions raised by this issue affect all clubs.
You may be wondering why clubs have holding companies in the first place. The short answer to that question is so that club directors can make a profit from the club. FA rules state that clubs directors are allowed to draw a salary and draw a dividend, but these are restricted. The same rules also state that any liquidated club’s assets (after the payment of debts) have to be donated to sports charities and benevolent funds. In other words, they were designed, at the end of the nineteenth century, to counter the danger of asset-stripping. The first club to bypass these rules were Tottenham Hotspur. In the process of setting themselves up to be floated on the stock market, they made Tottenham Hotspur FC a wholly owned subsiduary of Tottenham Hotspur PLC, making the club more attractive to those looking to buy shares and, at the same time, freeing shareholders from those nagging restrictions on their ability to “realise their investment”.
We are, therefore, entering uncharted and dangerous waters. This stunt hasn’t been attempted before, and it may yet backfire on Southampton. The risk is great that the Football League could seek to take punative action against a club that is deliberately seeking to side-step rules that were brought in to force clubs to handle their finances more responsibly. Alternatively, considering the outcome of the affair between West Ham United and Sheffield United, other clubs could seek their own legal recourse against Southampton. These other clubs are right to be angry about this. The likes of, say, Barnsley and Blackpool have (as far as we know) cut their cloth accordingly and, were they to enter into administration, would have to accept their punishment. Why should PLCs or holding companies be treated any differently to other clubs because of the way that they are set up? In the current political climate, having one rule for the rich (and it tends to be the bigger clubs that end up as wholly owned subdisuaries of holding companies because of either having built a grand new stadium or having been floated on the stock market) and one for the poor would surely not be the Football League’s intention.
Of course, other clubs will be watching this all very closely indeed. If the Football League fails to close this loophole, we can probably expect a flurry of other clubs in similar circumstances to follow suit or convert themselves in this way in order to sidestep their punishment. It makes a mockery of the rules, but when did football clubs (or, indeed, any sort of business) give two damns about rules where making a profit is concerned? There remains the possibility that it may not matter anyway, too. Southampton lost at home to bottom of the table Charlton Athletic on Saturday. Ten points off their current total would comdemn them but, without a win in their last five matches, they remain plenty capable of getting relegated even without the Football League sanctioning them any further. Indeed, the League may keep their fingers crossed (as the FA seemed to over the Tevez affair) that they will contrive to get themselves relegated anyway and obviate the need for further action to be taken now. As the Tevez affair demonstrated, though, this is a huge gamble.
In the meanwhile, Southampton supporters probably have a few questions that deserve answers. Where did the Premier League parachute money go? Where the money from the sales of the likes of Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale go? How did it come to pass that a football club with an average home attendance of over 20,000 should find itself in a position in which there are doubts over whether it will be able to complete the season? The sorry truth of the matter is that they won’t get any straight answers to questions like this from the likes of Rupert Lowe. They can at least take grim satisfaction at the fact that his shares in the club are now not much better than worthless. Every cloud has a silver lining.