As football sinks further and further into the financial mire, the official statements made by clubs themselves are becoming more and more odd, and more and more telling. Mark Murphy has been looking at some of these statements, and is less than convinced by them.
Word games have been in the football news lately, at least the bit of it that hasn’t been about John Bloody Terry. In tune with football in general at the moment, Portsmouth have been the most hapless at these games. “Spirit of Shankly” (SoS), the Liverpool supporters’ union formed amid the turmoil enveloping Anfield at the minute, have played – mostly, though not entirely – better than the team has. Where there’s sleight of anything involved, you know Ken Bates’s name will appear. When he’s not negotiating multi-million pound TV deals for clubs to flush down the toilet of obscene players’ (and chief executives’) wages, Premier League… er… “Chief Executive” Richard Scudamore also indulges.
Peter Trembling at Notts County has been a leading exponent and, surely to the screaming frustration of all fair minded Notts fans, he’s still at it. Southend’s Ron Martin relied on a gobbledygook version of the game to deny reality. And Cardiff’s Peter Ridsdale relied on gobbledygook in general. Both Arabian regimes at Portsmouth were at it, with their stated inability to transfer bank files and adapt to new payroll systems resulting in so many delayed wage payments. Not that there was no money about, you understand. But this week’s new owner has been playing games, too. The headlines said Balram Chainrai had criticised Urban Spaceman Al-Faraj’s regime as “reckless.” Chainrai called them “the people who are recklessly trying to ruin the club.” “Recklessly” grabs the attention. The word after it might be more worthy of that attention.
SoS held a meeting with Liverpool’s managing director Christian Parslow, at which Parslow was refreshingly straight to the point on a number of issues. Or so they thought. Their recollection of what was said somewhat differed in both tone and content from Parslow’s. And to emphasise this, SoS published both versions of events “to leave it to members to decide which version they consider more reliable”. This was a word game in itself, of course. What that last phrase really meant was “in order to show the difference between the Liverpool party line and reality.” But use of such phrases as “members to decide” seemed just so reasonable that you couldn’t but doubt that their “minutes” were the “more reliable”. The disparity between the two minuted versions of the Liverpool meeting can only partly be attributed to differing recall, or the two different styles of minute-taking that exist; one a verbatim account of discussions, the second a more general summary of those discussions.
It may also be down to the participants’ almost diametrically opposite agenda. It would certainly serve SoS’s agenda to include as much criticism of the Liverpool co-owners Hicks & Gillett as possible, whereas it would serve Parslow’s agenda, not to mention his future employment prospects, to exclude as much. But either Parslow said: “RBS are annoyed and unhappy with Hicks and Gillett and they want a change of ownership…(Liverpool FC) is for sale, the owners have to sell, they are out of money…they cannot hang on to the club”, or SoS made it up. Also, Parslow’s minutes are more faithful to a pre-prepared party line than the actual discussions, or he really does drop phrases like “transformational opportunity” into his everyday conversation, neither of which reflects well on him. I know which version I “consider more reliable.”
When their ex-director Melvyn Levi won his libel action against Bates last year, Leeds United issued a statement saying that “some aspects of the judgement handed down we find rather extraordinary” and that the judge “refused us leave to appeal (and) refused to give any reason why”. The “extraordinary” aspects were handily unspecified. An appeal was heard (and as comprehensively lost as the original action). And the judge only “refused to give any reason why” because, as Leeds statement later conceded, “he will give his written reasons in due course”. Nevertheless, the statement conveyed the impression of a judgement which was so obviously wrong that there were no good reasons for it. Whereas a reading of the judgement confirmed it as obviously right, with page-upon-page of good reasons for it. Bates employed similarly emotive language when Leeds lost their appeal against a 15-point deduction for failing to exit administration according to Football League rules. He ranted against the “dog’s breakfast” of League procedures and noted the “significance” of criticism of then before “reflecting” that “the whole (League) board and especially Lord Mawhinney should consider their positions and perhaps resign because the way they’ve handled the matter has been totally disgraceful”. Leeds, you had to remind yourselves, were entirely wrong at all times. If there was any considering of positions to do, it wasn’t to be by any peers of the realm.
When he’s not negotiating TV deals worth billions – and then saying how proud he is that “we haven’t lost any clubs yet” – Richard Scudamore has been defending the Premier League against non-existent accusations. During the Tevez affair, Scoo spent much time denying that the league were favouring the big club, West Ham, against the small club, Sheffield United, even though such criticisms weren’t prevalent. Bias was far from the main issue. But it got plenty of coverage at the expense of the 94 areas where the Premier League were hideously at fault.And as Portsmouth have been directed towards destruction while the league “carefully monitors the situation,” Scudamore has said that the league is “never going to be intervening at the level where we decide how much money it needs to run a club”. Again, no-one has asked them to do so. What has been requested is the scrutiny and leadership that will not be forthcoming while Scoo is happy with a “fit and proper persons test” which is not designed to “ensure an owner has enough funds to run a club”. “I’m sure you don’t want the Premier League running your club” he said in the News of the World. That not been suggested either, as it is an abhorrent idea, given how badly the Premier League runs itself. As an side, Manchester United have also learnt much in this regard, claiming that Ferguson wasn’t about to spend the Ronaldo transfer bounty “just to satisfy pundits.” Which, of course, was as far from the point as even Garth Crooks could get.
You would think that after months of spinning fantastical yarns about Munto Finance, Peter Trembling, Notts County’s executive chairman would have learnt a few tricks. But no. His recent statements about County securing funding to secure the club’s long-term future were simply not…secure. The deal “secured” County’s long-term future “in terms of progressing our plans to bring a higher level of football,” he claimed, unequivocally. A week after the “deal” was “secured” it emerged that a “deal” had “collapsed”. Just as well, then, that this “deal” wasn’t the one that he’d “secured.” And at least “HMRC…are satisfied that the investment offered is genuine.” Or, as HMRC themselves put it: “(We) have not expressed any opinion whatsoever about the genuineness or otherwise of any investment that the club may have attracted”. The “Trembling Paradox” is that the more open and honest he seems, the less open and honest he actually is. Not unlike Southend’s Ron Martin.
The bottom line with Southend’s tax situation was that they owed £2.1m and… er… that’s it. But you would never glean that from his “chairman’s statements” on Southend’s official web-site. Having been “distracted” by “irresponsible reporting” by the local Echo (not “inaccurate” you’ll notice), Martin found himself at the mercy of an HMRC whose “left hand” didn’t know what its “right hand” was doing, or “was there some Machiavellian activity at work?” “I don’t know”, he said, but only once incompetence and skulduggery had been fixed in the mind of the reader (few readers would know what Machiavelli did, except that it wasn’t good), and “never before in the knowledge of our lawyers and barrister, has anybody, let alone HMRC, moved from a winding-up petition to an administration order”. So what, you may ask. If they’d moved from offering a rebate to demanding £2.1m, that would be news. But HMRC were merely changing strategy in order to get £2m back – and it worked. Martin paid up at the very last minute claiming “administration was never going to happen” no matter “what headlines were written…causing unnecessary concern,” which I’m sure was a relief to Southend fans who’d long fretted over whether Martin would, or could, find the money. He concluded that“it is always nice to win”, though what he’d actually “won” was not clear.
When the News of the World told another tale of Cardiff’s financial ailments, chairman Ridsdale threatened “legal action” to focus readers’ attention. “Some information contained within this article can only have come from documents which have been stolen…currently the subject of a police investigation,” noted a club statement. How this “investigation” progressed, is unclear. But the information was “out of context,” “not the latest position,” and did not “contain all the facts,” a club statement continued. Yet the “information” being stolen didn’t make it untrue – quite the opposite, in fact. Not being the latest position didn’t make the latest position any better. And if it didn’t contain all the facts, it follows that it contained some of them. The story was that Cardiff needed to settle a £2.7m tax bill or they’d face a winding-up order noted that the club blamed stadium costs, and quoted Ridsdale claiming “we have the money to pay our tax bill and…to do things to the team”. So, yes, the paper did get some facts wrong. The article was published on January 2nd, and also contained what Ridsdale described as “damaging content.” Such as: “Some of (Ridsdale’s) promises will alarm fans who bought golden season tickets in the belief that all the cash would go to…strengthening the squad during the transfer window. But the cash could end up going to the taxman instead.” Yes, that “damaging”. And so it will go on. With the High Court full of football clubs this month, doubtless we’ll get more and more imaginative language to cover up clubs’ misdemeanours and incompetencies. Because clubs still don’t think fans can handle the truth, or even recognise it. Well, fans can, and do. Rather better than the clubs themselves, in fact.