The Football League Fails The Fit & Proper Test
On their website this week, Notts County Football Club have invited all to “celebrate the football league decision on Saturday” when they entertain Crewe Alexandra. But before you decide whether to join the party, it might be an idea to examine what it is they are celebrating. Remarkably, Notts County fans themselves will be celebrating the fact that they are not allowed to know who owns their club (what was, earlier this year, literally their club). They are not allowed to know to whom their season ticket money goes when the new owners, as they have promised, stop stumping up the cash and insist that County become “self-sufficient.”
The Football League know, or at least whoever is defined as “The Football League” in this instance – who this might be isn’t implicit in any statements the League have made on the topic. Notts County themselves know, or at least those who told the League. Until recently, those in the know didn’t even include chief executive Peter Trembling, or whoever wrote the official club statement that named various names and families who, it transpired, didn’t own Notts County at all. And the Football League have said that Notts County can tell anyone they like. The League themselves have long insisted that data protection regulations prevent them from spilling the beans. But if Notts County volunteer the information, these regulations don’t apply, it would seem.
As yet, though, Notts County aren’t volunteering. So while fans can celebrate the approval of their new owners, they can’t do so with those new owners, or at least not knowingly – a couple of Birmingham’s new Chinese directors apparently watched a recent St Andrews match from among the faithful. We do know that the ownership “structure is complicated,” although we don’t know why. And we also know that it “features both offshore entities and discretionary trusts,” though again it is not explained why a League Two club should be so labyrinthine at the top. Trembling “wishes to re-iterate that at all stages we fully co-operated with the Football League,” which isn’t necessarily compatible with the League’s view that they were only “in a position to confirm” their satisfaction with what is going on at Notts County “following greater co-operation from the club more recently”.
Meniwhile, the chief executive notes that “there has been considerable ill-informed speculation about our ownership structure,” which is hardly surprising, given the ill-information which he himself has produced. Yet while the fitness and propriety of Notts owners, people whose profiles would be low alongside HG Wells’ Invisible Man, has been the headline, the real ‘news’ is elsewhere. It has also been confirmed, according to the Daily Mail, “that the money being spent in excess of the League Two salary cap has also been approved.” So, perhaps while Notts fans are celebrating how their club has got away with that, they could spare a thought for the team that currently lead their division.
For while Notts can dream of hiring Roberto Mancini for what will surely be a multiple of the national minimum wage, Bournemouth are having to field visibly unfit players because of a transfer embargo imposed upon them for past misdemeanours. This isn’t to say the embargo shouldn’t apply to Bournemouth. After the financial mess the club has been under many owners for many years (dating back to – no surprises here – Harry Redknapp’s time as manager), the embargo should apply. However, the same Football League board who have approved Notts’ raucous expenditure, against the spirit if not the letter of the salary limitation regulations, have denied Bournemouth the chance to even bring in one player as emergency cover because their walking wounded can limp through ninety minutes.
Forget the long-term damage that might be done to these players, or the fact that Bournemouth are, slowly but methodically, paying debts which wouldn’t have covered Sol Campbell’s wages for half a season. Rules-is-rules. Unless people you don’t know, who don’t want to be known and who cannot be named, have enough money to flaunt them. In which case, welcome to English football. It’s hypocrisy. It stinks – and if you don’t mind, Notts fans, I’ll pass up your invitation to celebrate it.