In an extraordinary article in the Daily Mirror yesterday, Oliver Holt put forward a call to arms to all football supporters and offered an impassioned defence of those that are protesting against the way that our game is being mismanaged at the moment. Last Friday the Daily Mail, of all people, ran an article on FC United of Manchester that came close to being a eulogy and was at the same time a stinging attack on the Glazer’s management of Manchester United. The Guardian is getting its teeth well and truly into the proposed Manchester United bond issue, with new stories about the state of the club’s finances being reported on a seemingly basis. There’s something in the air. Attitudes are starting to change.
The writers on the sports pages are generally given a freer political reign than those in other parts of a daily newspaper. Much as it might seem jarring to be FC United being talked about in the Daily Mail, it isn’t, upon reflection, actually that surprising. Football is in the process of eating itself, and football sells newspapers. At this moment in time, however, there is a tangible sea change in the attitude of the printed press in its attitude towards football and money. The bare fact of the matter is that articles such as the two linked to above simply wouldn’t – apart from the ever-impeccable David Conn in The Guardian – appeared in British newspapers a year ago.
When the truth began to come out the takeover of Notts County a couple of months, there was no public apology from Chief Executive Peter Trembling over comments that he made about media speculation being the reason for the lack of money being forthcoming from the supposed billionaires that had persuaded the supporters to give it to them, rather than the possibility that the supposed “bank guarantee” that was the proof that everything was above board wasn’t worth the paper that it was written on. Unsurprising, perhaps, considering that he brought it for £1 from them. Nice work if you can get it.
The truth of the matter is the people running English football clubs are completely losing the trust of the public, and this can be seen in the reaction to various stories involving football clubs and insolvency over the last few weeks. Portsmouth have been taken to court for not paying their tax and lost their initial appeal, pushing them closer to becoming the first Premier League club to enter into administration. In previous years, it may have been easy for them to paint the taxman as some sort of bogeyman, but this doesn’t wash any more. Even the news that Sol Campbell – not necessarily the most popular footballer in the country – has chosen to launch proceedings against them over money that they owe him has been met with a mixed reaction, with a sizeable number of people siding with a player that is owed money and not been paid it.
The reaction on the television has been somewhat more muted, but this is not surprising when we consider that television contracts will be up for renewal in a couple of years and the heavy handed reaction of many of those within the game to the Panorama special on bungs in 2006. Alex Ferguson, to his considerable discredit, still doesn’t talk to the BBC as a result of the programme. Harry Redknapp threatened very publically to take legal action against the corporation in 2006, during a time that falls very much within the period that he was recently charged with tax evasion over. No libel writs were ever issued over that particular programme.
The over-dependence of football clubs on television money in particular may yet prove to cause them even greater problems in the future. The television regulator Ofcom’s recent confirmation that they are to force Sky to cut prices to wholesalers is likely to lead to a price war in the pay TV market, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the next contract for football on the television will be worth less – possibly considerably less – than the current one is. Clubs are going to have to readjust if these circumstances come to pass. Whether they will be able to or not is a quite different question. There isn’t a great deal of confidence in the people running our clubs going around at the moment.
And the responsibility for all of this lies with the people running the clubs. Excuses will be thrown around. It’s the fans for not turning up. It’s the taxman for demanding payment. It’s the authorities for trying to eliminate debt and mismanagement. These, however, are the the bleatings of the culpable. The shower in charge of Portsmouth are running a business. They have projected income streams which are, by the standards of most businesses, fairly stable. They have a largely captive consumer basis that is loyal above and beyond any reasonable call of duty. If they can’t run their business properly, they should face the consequences. The “club” – the community, the shared experience – will keep going. We know this from the clubs that have reformed after the failure of clubs as busineses in the past.
Elsewhere, the game stumbles from PR disaster to PR disaster. A Liverpool director – and the son of the club’s owner – sends vile emails to a supporter and has to resign over it. There is more alarming news from Old Trafford, with talk that the Glazers could take £130m out of the club if their proposed bond issue is successful while the club’s debts have risen to £716m. The game is starting to smell rotten from the inside out, and this smell is starting to become all-pervasive to the extent that even those that have been trying to avoid the smell or don’t have a particularly strong sense of smell are starting to notice it. The question now is whether the current press enthusiasm for sniffing around is a passing fad or something capable of bringing about meaningful change.