Eddie Howe: Financial Fair Play is Just Not Fair

by | Dec 30, 2015

Back in 2009 and 2010 I more than once nominated current AFC Bournemouth supremo Eddie Howe as manager of the year. In 2008/09 Howe kept Bournemouth in the Football League…and alive, as they sought recovery from their 17-point deduction at the start of the season for on-going financial misdemeanours. The Cherries looked relegation shoo-ins until the appointment of the 31-year-old former player in January 2009.

Since then, largely with Howe at the helm, Bournemouth have turned their league fortunes upside down. They have done so partly through his astute management and motivational skills, of that there remains no doubt. I am still a fan, for the same reasons I ever was. But Bournemouth’s categorisation as an “underdog” doesn’t ring 100% true with me. And I didn’t entirely share the football nation’s joy at their promotion to the Premier League last May, especially the sight and sound of chairman Jeff Mostyn, who had both involvement in and influence over the bad financial times. Don’t get me wrong. I WAS pleased for them. Very pleased indeed for the many people who stood with the club through thick and oh so much thin (including, at some vital times, Mostyn himself). But…

The latter stages of Bournemouth’s journey to the Premier League were funded by (or, as the Daily Mail newspaper coyly reported: “helped to a reasonable extent by the financial power of”) the, ahem, shadowy Russian billionaire “businessman” Maxim Demin. The narrative is that Demin “made his money in petrochemicals” and…er…that’s it. What he did with or to those petrochemicals and/or to whom has never been clarified. There was, however, no doubt about his ability to pass the Football League’s various fitness and propriety checks. So, let’s hear no more about that.

Football League Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations were, though, another matter. And it was revealed on Christmas Eve (season’s greetings, eh?) that Bournemouth breached them on the final push to the Premier League, exceeding the permitted maximum loss of £6m by an as-yet-unrevealed amount. This leaves them open to a financial sanction, based on the extent of their breach. And Howe is not happy.

Howe has re-ignited the age-old argument about the consequences of restricting the ability of filthy-rich “benefactors” to bankroll their clubs to whatever success they as individuals can afford. FFP critics have long contended that such restrictions “locked-in” the current financial elite, with the billions of such as Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich and Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi United Group having ploughed in unrestricted wads of cash before FFP restrictions.

Howe has joined these critics. “A few years ago, if you look back through the history of football, there have been great stories,” he said, curiously mixing his tenses and severely limiting his definition of history, “where teams have achieved great things from an owner or a benefactor or whatever you want to call it.” He insisted that “the FFP structure will stop the underdog, the smaller team, having the chance to succeed and I don’t think anybody wants to see that – the rich get richer and the small clubs struggle to compete.” And he added: “We do not want a league table that picks itself. We want that smaller club that can still achieve great things.” Especially one “smaller” club, of course: “We have got an ambitious owner, we have an ambitious club that wants to move forward and to do that, at this level and Championship level, our income is nowhere near enough to achieve success.”

Howe’s arguments were confusing and selective. The correlation between expenditure and on-field success is statistically well-set. And the logical conclusion of Howe’s “spend what you like” theory is pretty adjacent to “a league table that picks itself.” His look “back through the history of football” avoided the chapters on clubs such as Portsmouth and Gretna, whose years of benefaction ended, for differing reasons, in financial collapse and clubs who “lived the dream,” whose years of dreaming ended with, to pick an example purely at random, Ken Bates. And overlooking the consequences of the end of Eddie Davies’ benefaction at Bolton Wanderers was unforgivable… Bournemouth beat Bolton, mired in currently unpayable debt, to secure their Premier League spot last April. As Ed Thompson, who runs the excellent Financial Fair Play website, tweeted, correctly: “It’s all very well for Howe to argue for the right of an owner to spend what they like but isn’t that what Bolton did?”

Lessons could, arguably, be learned from Bournemouth’s own financial struggles, many of which Howe “lived through” as player and manager. Howe’s comments suggest he hasn’t learned them. FFP supporters have always argued that the regulations were designed primarily to avoid such financial calamities, preventing clubs spending money they didn’t have in order to “compete” with even restricted benefaction elsewhere. And the exemption of items such as infrastructure and youth development expenditure allows unlimited benefactor-spending where “smaller” clubs have at least some scope to grow to “competitive” levels.

These exemptions are one of the fundamentals Howe, for whatever reason, leaves out of his arguments. While admitting that “yes, we have spent above our means regarding those rules,” Howe claimed this was “only down to our limited income due to the capacity of our ground.” Does he really believe FFP rules are unfair because they have hindered Bournemouth’s progress in areas where those rules don’t actually apply? He hasn’t thought that one through, has he? And the most fundamental of the overlooked fundamentals is that Bournemouth have broken current rules but this has NOT “denied them the chance to succeed,” as a cursory glance at their fixtures and quality of opposition really ought to have told him (though Aston Villa on the opening day might have looked and smelled like the Championship… and Manchester United…).  If Demin has made enough money to bankroll a “small” club such as Bournemouth to the Premier League, then £10m is not going to be far beyond loose change for him… and won’t be a huge dent in the TV money now coming their way.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Howe’s comments is the fact that he himself made them. He is an intelligent football man and his appearances in the media spotlight have been impressive and mature beyond his still-only-38 years (yikes!). Yet his concluding comments suggested that despite claiming the FFP sanction as “no surprise to us,” the development of FFP regulations had blindsided him completely, almost as if he’d never heard of the concept until news of the fine came through.

The rules, he said, “are something football needs to think about before anyone goes in a certain direction.” But “football” has spent years thinking about them, experience having demonstrated that there being “nothing wrong, if people have the money, to put it into a club” is far from always the right “direction.” Howe, perhaps, needs to “think about them” more. Not least because the current woes of Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland suggest that they will have two years of PL TV money to spend, Bournemouth and Demin have time to do the right thing financially within the regulations under which they now play and in their new rather less-straitened financial circumstances. And despite the criticisms offered above, I hope they will.

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