You can always tell when an organisation is in denial. They set up a lot of committees to look into the symptoms rather than the causes of their problems. From the look of the FA’s response to the DCMS Football Governance Enquiry of last year, it is quite clear that Freud would have a field day if he had them on his couch. Somehow or other, the urgency for root and branch reform has drifted past the moguls of the game. The FA response shifts responsibilities around but essentially does nothing for the key ills of the game – financial instability and fan disaffection. The game is sinking into laissez-faire chaos of evolutionary proportions and the FA chooses to swerve a golden opportunity to restore sporting values and ethics to the game.
David Bernstein is quite sure it’s nothing to do with the FA how much money there is in the game and he doesn’t see it as their job to deal with it. The FA response boasts of Football being ‘Britain’s “greatest sporting export” and the most followed and largest professional game in the world,’ and claims that, ‘the FA, the National Game, and the Premier League and Football League, understand the responsibilities we share to grow and protect our sport,’ later adding it was the FA’s responsibility ‘to regulate the game effectively and with integrity.’ To my mind it is impossible to separate the way money is managed in the game from its integrity. Indeed, clubs that suffer from financial mismanagement are penalised because they are deemed to have undermined the integrity of the competition. So it is difficult to understand the FA’s claim to be concerned with integrity if they cannot concern themselves with finances. However, they have washed their hands of that responsibility, passing it on to the Leagues. Bernstein continued by saying ‘the massive commercial success of the Premier League was very much its own business… The vast flow of income is an achievement of the Premier League. Whether all that money can lead to clubs being out of balance, that’s another story.’
You are led to ask why it is a story that the FA can not concern itself with if it leads to clubs being ‘out of balance?’ In the enquiry that led up to the FA’s response, witness after witness gave testimony to the fact that the current models of financing football clubs were fatally flawed; that leveraged buy-outs and benefactor funding models were knocking the competitive balance of the game out of kilter and clubs were being driven to the wall by owners who were ‘unethical, dishonourable or ill-advised’ in their attempts to operate those models, as Supporters Direct succinctly put it.
Sick as I am of making the point, my own club Pompey, is the best example of how such owners can sink a club. There are several articles on this site detailing events there, so suffice it to say that Pompey’s case makes it clear that owners who struggle to finance a club above its earned income will never be able to guarantee its continued existence. There is always the temptation to add a little more to the debt burden and hope that you can ‘do a Blackpool’ and clear your overspend through promotion to the Premier League. Even after one ‘insolvency event’ at Pompey nobody seemed to have learned the lesson and a whole new set of owners and executive managers were allowed, by the Football League, to repeat the mistakes made when Pompey won the cup in 2008. Players were brought in on contracts that were unsustainable given the level of debt in the club. All the people who made the mistake are gone, but the club continues to be punished as administrator Trevor Birch offloads player after player in an attempt to make it to the end of the season and complete our fixtures. Temporary loans fill the gaps and fans struggle to recognise the players they are supporting. How is this ensuring any kind of integrity in the results? How is it delivering to supporters the experience they pay for? Value for money has been unknown criterion at Pompey for some time, but now the blind struggle for mere existence trumps all.
Club after club comes up against the same issue and yet the Leagues do nothing. Indeed, they exacerbate the problem, preventing clubs cutting their costs by insisting they keep the players they couldn’t afford in the first place because the players cannot be made redundant under the football creditors rule. The madness of this ‘catch 22’ situation escapes no one but those charged with running the Leagues. Yet the FA is content to leave all financial matters in their hands. No talk whatsoever of this rule in the FA response, despite the many discussions during the enquiry and the Government’s response that, ‘it should not be beyond the skill and financial resources of the professional game to find a solution that protects the integrity of the competition, incentivises financial prudence and due diligence, and offers equal protection to all unsecured creditors in any future insolvency event.’ One assumes this is what the myriad of committees may consider in the future, but the FA makes no statements of intent on the matter. Meanwhile clubs continue to fall into administration. The Captain of the Titanic was more diligent than the FA are prepared to be, it seems.
So self-focussed is the FA that the recommendations of the DCMS enquiry regarding ‘Supporter Engagement, Consultation and Ownership’ are consigned to the level of the clubs themselves. This will please Ken Bates in no small measure, no doubt allowing his continuing war on ‘dissidents, morons and sick pots’ as he closes down the Supporters’ Trust elected representatives’ accounts at the Elland Road ticket office. Owners who find Supporters’ groups a thorn in their side, Coventry and Blackburn leap immediately to mind, will no doubt find enough obligingly affirmative supporters that will comply with the owners’ wishes and fulfil the obligations of any such involvement. It is a classic case of ‘divide and rule’ any opposition to the way individual clubs are governed. It works against the fans forming a united front against the erosion of their involvement in their clubs by keeping issues based around the individual clubs rather than providing a well-defined right of consultation in a transparent and democratic manner as a condition of the licensing system. It is not an issue of mere fan involvement that is needed but one of effective fan involvement, one that cannot be left in the hands of individual owners with the potential to be ‘unethical, dishonest or ill-advised. ‘ Such owners will not see any kind of transparency as being in their best interests.
This despite one of the explicit recommendations of the DCMS on licensing, approved by the Government response to the enquiry, that ‘every club should officially recognise the relevant supporters groups or trusts and keep an open dialogue with them. They should hold official and regular annual general meetings at which these groups are invited to take part and at which appropriate financial and other information can be shared and consulted upon.’ The FA seem content to pay lip service to examining, alongside the Government, the idea of a ‘statutory framework’ allowing the recognition of supporters’ trusts obtaining and retaining ownership interests in clubs, but this smacks of shelving the problem to a later date in the manner of a toddler saying ‘do I really HAVE to?’ to a demanding parent. It seems they are unwilling to have the internal workings of clubs and authorities open to public scrutiny.
As a defence of vested interests the FA response is indeed masterly. It drags its heels, it shrugs off responsibility and it hands authority over two key ills of the modern game to the very causes of the disease. At the same time it designates the management of the Fit and Proper Owners Testing to a committee which appears to be accountable to the FA Board but will be operating under rules emanating from the Leagues themselves. As Malcolm Clarke of the FSF has said, ‘The FA is agreeing that many issues of fundamental concern to fans are outside its remit. In key areas this amounts to the FA surrendering its role as football’s governing body. It seems that 20 years since the Premier League was formed, this is its victory over the running of football.’
The whole document is steeped in a culture of the private members club that the FA is. Indeed, the fact that many insiders at the DCMS see this document as ‘the best that could be hoped for from bodies that have been warring for years’ says enough to tell us that reforms in the game will not come easily. Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson has threatened legislation if authorities fail to reform themselves. Clubs on the brink of financial disaster know that such reforms cannot come soon enough. Fans who want their game back would rather see clubs liquidated and reformed anew than struggle on in the kind of unedifying death throes that we are witnessing at Pompey. It is as Supporters Direct has said, ‘If the substantive issues of sustainability are not addressed, the regrettable trend of insolvencies and financial strife affecting football clubs can be expected to continue.’ No one within the FA appears to see any urgency in the situation. Fans are left with the hope that the Government is prepared to step in and address the problems that the abusive parents of football are allowing the child to suffer.
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