Financial and football journalism have long been distant cousins. And since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, that has largely not mattered. This year, however, it has. Give or take a Norman Lamont-inspired week or two during its inaugural season, the Premier League has lived through economic boom times allied with a bottomless pit of broadcast revenue from that bottomless pit of broadcast evil, Rupert Murdoch. The burning monetary question for most fans has been “what comes after billion?”
It is a little ironic, then, that since Manchester City’s Emirati owners introduced us to the “trillion” (and not zillion or, my personal hope, squillion), football’s immunity to economic ills has been so threatened and football journalists have had to recognise that the value of even Premier League clubs can go through the floor as well as the roof. Premier League apologists such as David Gold, a man of former importance, continue to boast that no Premier League club had ever gone into administration, as if that was any sort of achievement given the money that has sloshed around English club football’s top-tier since it broke away to hog the best of it in 1992.
Some journalists still toe that party line, as if chronic financial mismanagement was the preserve of those naughty, irresponsible Football League-ites who spent all that ITV Digital money early in the decade, only for it never to arrive, and since the FA’s independent chairman Lord Triesman spoke the unspeakable in October 2008, that billion-pound debt wasn’t necessarily a “good thing”, the mantra has been that “size doesn’t matter”, “sustainability” does. This isn’t untrue, but it misses the point. The VERY few, who have maintained their criticisms of the Glazers at Manchester United saw vindication in the financial results the club announced last January. Whilst the headline debt figure of £699m brought people to the story, the apologists noted that Manchester United were hardly going to “do a Leeds” – the stock phrase for football club financial collapse, which could any day be replaced by “doing a Portsmouth”.
But the point was that in a year in which Manchester United won absolutely everything, including the Manchester Senior Cup, their debt increased. And if that happened, what were the prospects for a year in which Chelsea or Arsenal took domestic control, Michel Platini’s wet dream of a Barcelona/Real Madrid Champions League final came true, or Manchester City’s reserves regained urban dominance? It says much about the competitive imbalance of modern football (a subject to which I will return) that the prospect of United “doing a Liverpool” – out of the top four, into the Europa League – seems so distant. But people forget that four years ago, United were out of Europe altogether before Christmas. A repeat of that and debt sustainability will be an issue for Manchester United. When David Gill said two years ago that Cristiano Ronaldo was “not for sale, not even at £75m” he was proved right. But not every £80m will be so handily earned. It will be rather more disruptive if Rooney has to go too.
In a normal year, Notts County’s more vociferous fans would be a shoo-in for a “missing the point” award, for reasons which by now are too-well documented, but 2009 wasn’t normal. For example, it hasn’t been such a good year for Kenneth William Bates. At long last, a court ruled that he couldn’t go round insulting people he didn’t like under the guise of being “frank, fearless and free.” Bates called former Leeds director Melvyn Levi a “shyster” in the Leeds match programme. Levi objected, claiming he’d been libelled, and won hands down in court.
The full judgment is migraine-inducingly detailed. But for anyone with any antipathy towards Bates – and I’m looking at telephone directory-length lists here – it is a hugely worthwhile read, a systematic destruction of Bates’ often indirect relationship with the truth. Even the judge in the case, however, couldn’t get his mind around one of Bates’s age-old claims. Bates always maintained that he only had a limited shareholding at Chelsea when chairman there, and that if other shareholders – anonymous and off-shore – happened to agree with him verbatim on absolutely every issue, it was pure co-incidence. Detailed investigations failed to establish otherwise, allowing Bates to claim that he exerted no control over these international men, or women, of mystery. Such control would have been in breach of company law. An analogous situation exists at Leeds United. When Bates, “on behalf of” the off-shore ‘Forward Sports Fund’ (FSF), bought Leeds in 2005 and then bought it out of administration in 2007, he pleaded ignorance (he’s good at that) as to the fund’s “beneficial owners” other than that he had no link with, or control over, them. However, earlier this year, Bates let slip in a Jersey court that he owned one of only two “management shares” in FSF, before saying in May, in a sworn affidavit to said court, the legal equivalent of “oops, my mistake, I have no idea who owns FSF. I must have been thinking of someone else.”
The Football League is pressing Bates for the identities of these newly-rediscovered owners, to establish their fitness and propriety to run Leeds. Given Leeds’ recent financial history, this is an issue. But it isn’t the point. It is whether Bates exercises any control over them. Admittedly, such matters are ultimately for financial, not football, authorities. But the Football League has every right to ask the question of Bates, and let financial authorities deal with any answers he provides. It remains frustratingly unlikely that the Football League will do so. Amid the reaction to Wolves manager Mick McCarthy’s decision to field an entire second-choice outfield line-up at Old Trafford recently, the focus was on the Premier League rule E20 which states that “In every League match, each participating Club shall field a full-strength team.” But that wasn’t the point. McCarthy thought Wolves had no chance of getting one point at Manchester United, three days after getting three at Spurs, then TWO places below United in the league. So he wasn’t even going to try. The point really was that he was absolutely right to do so, which destroys any fanciful notion of competitive credibility in the Premier League.
There also appears to be a general consensus that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) taking clubs to court is no big deal, because it is so common. Cardiff chairman Peter Ridsdale branded sections of the South Wales media “despicable” for pointing-out the worst-case scenario for a club being wound-up in court, when they revealed – quite out of the blue – that the Bluebirds had wound up in court because of a reported £1.2m in unpaid taxes. Ridsdale seemed to think media sensationalism was the point – below the headlines, the offending article made it clear that Cardiff would (and did) settle the matter easily. But that wasn’t the point. Non-payment of taxes was. Of course, the winner of any “missing the point” award might be… me. I’m old enough and ugly enough to realise that. But if any of the above can be filed under “fair assessment” football in this country enters 2010 in some serious trouble.
Happy New Year!