Until now, all official inquiries into what’s wrong with English football governance have foundered in the face of the English Premier League’s latest version of “mind your own business.” But in the first oral evidence session of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee on football governance, contributors were prepared – mentally and practically – to get to the heart of the problem, namely the Premier League’s inflated sense of its own importance. And Lord David Triesman was the best prepared. The two-and-half-hour session didn’t threaten to be high-ratings television, although one suspects the BBC Parliament channel – on which I watched the session this week – would have had lower ratings still for some of the other select committees transmitted (Transport Committee, anyone?). But it was compelling.
The first evidence was from the Mail on Sunday newspaper’s feature writer Patrick Collins, former Supporters Direct leading light Sean Hamil, now Birkbeck Sports Business Centre (University of London) leading light and Professor Stefan Szymanski of CASS business school, a “highly-regarded” economist. At least he was “highly-regarded” before he spoke. Two strands of thinking immediately emerged. There was gentle exposure of the economic madness enveloping top-flight English football. And there was the populist, “the Premier League is wonderful, UEFA are not, who needs regulation?” which reinforced every Mail reader and contributor stereotype you could muster. That Collins exposed the madness and Szymanski punted the populist trash only added to the fascination. But when Szymanski credited football agents with all of football’s commercial success since the abolition of the maximum wage, I nearly wept. In between them, Hamil was the plain speaking voice of reason: “If your industry is losing money year-after-year then, I’m sorry, that’s a problem.”
Szymanski set his stall out early, quickly establishing himself as a top-of-the-range Premier League apologist. “The professional game is very robust,” he declared, seemingly unaware that Hamil, would soon be waving a Portsmouth CVA document in the air. Hamil and Collins both acknowledged the success of the Premier League but weren’t prepared to define that success as a “robust” model. Hamil said it had lots of strengths but lots of problems – “that’s why we’re having this investigation.” Collins used a low-key, speaking-into-his-chest delivery which masked much of the vitriol in his opening gambit: “the Premier League was conceived in a spirit of greed.” And Hamil warmed to that theme: “The job of the leagues is to run two successful leagues, it is not to govern football,” he declared, correctly, getting to the crux of the matter so quickly and completely that the rest of the session might not have mattered, were it not for one bespectacled, “highly-regarded” economist.
Szymanski’s courses at the Richard Scudamore School of deflecting criticism were paying off. “The Premier League tracks down talent globally rather than nationally. Is that bad?” No. Was it the point? No. The debate had moved onto the (lack of) “trickle-down effect” in English club football – how the PL was hogging more money than ever and how less of that was trickling down through the game. Szymanski could see “no reason to say that there’s not enough money trickling down,” possibly not an opinion to venture at a Football League club treasurer’s conference. And he got a bit tetchy at the continued insistence of Adrian Sanders MP that less money was reaching the professional game’s lower reaches. “Part of the problem,” Szymanski huffed, “(is that) people don’t base their arguments on researched facts. There’s a reluctance to look at the data.” Yet Szymanski’s reluctance dwarfed all-comers, as he conveniently overlooked decades of the professional game sharing gate and TV money before 1992.
His next history lesson made up for this deficiency of facts by crediting all sorts of financial good deeds to football agents. Collins broke the awkward silence that followed “because you don’t often hear defences of agents.” And certainly not one which suggested that agents were responsible for the major commercial advances in both football and gridiron. “Do they damage the health of the game?” asked Szymanski. “I think not” came his reply, with something approaching pomposity. Collins had a different answer, which included the words “scar,” “stain”, “leeches” and “parasites” in as quick succession as you’ll ever hear them. He also recounted the now-familiar tale of ‘super-agent’ Pini Zahavi, and his part in Wayne Bridge’s move from Chelsea to Manchester City. Bridge wanted to move, Chelsea wanted to sell, Manchester City wanted to buy and the clubs’ CEO’s could have done the deal “over the phone in five minutes,” yet Zahavi got £900,000 for…erm…. Suddenly, MPs’ expenses didn’t seem quite so scandalous.
Szymanski wasn’t worried about the average age of a Premier League fan being 43 (“which is still young,” noted 44-year-old David Cairns MP) and the fact that the ‘working-classes’ were being priced out of the game. “The Premier League is like a luxury car. Do Porsche worry if the average age of their customer is 43?” he asked, adding: “If you can’t afford a Porsche, you go down the ranks.” With the MPs silenced by Szymanski’s abject misunderstanding of the nature of football support, it was left to Collins to note that the 16-30 age group was actually being lost to live football altogether, going down the pub rather than “down the ranks.” This didn’t stop Szymanski returning to luxury cars, suggesting that government intervention – one of the inquiry’s major questions – was only necessary if there had been a market failure or a need to redistribute wealth. “Clearly” there hadn’t been a market failure, he declared. And “in the same way as people don’t have access to luxury cars…” I must admit I didn’t catch the rest as my pen made one hell of a ping as it crashed off my TV screen.
Szymanski also found time to say that English football finances were far more transparent than “the finances of German football clubs which know everybody admires as the great model,” although his sneering tone – and the look on his face when he sneered “German” – suggested that “everybody” didn’t include him. But like all good showmen, he had a big finish. There was a consensus that punishments for administration needed to be severe. “Recklessness is endemic,” noted Hamil. Szymanski agreed, while taking time to trash UEFAs ‘Financial Fair Play’ initiative – “18 pages long at the moment, in five years time it will be 800 – lawyers will crawl all over it.” But he also asked whether fans of clubs relegated for financial mismanagement were upset because their club lost money, or because they were relegated. “I think it’s the latter,” he said, with his pompous hat back on. “I don’t think anybody apart from the owners actually cares about the money, what’s important is the level at which their team plays.”
This will have been news to Portsmouth fans, and to the countless fans’ groups over the years who have protested financial mismanagement. And the countless fans who have responded to surveys which showed among their greatest concerns was the fact that the Premier League were getting too much money. “People don’t base their arguments on researched facts. There’s a reluctance to look at the data,” said Szymanski, a few paragraphs ago. A point his own contribution to this session proved conclusively. Lord David Triesman, in the second 75-minute session, was a required, refreshing antidote to Szymanski. His contributions, about Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards in particular, led most of the news coverage of the two sessions. But they were more damning, and more fun, than these reports conveyed.
The second session panel was Triesman, Lord Terry Burns and former FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly, from whose 1990 “blueprint” for football ‘a’ Premier League emerged, if not ‘the’ Premier League of today. “Completely different to what I envisaged, I struggle to recognise it,” he noted, regretful but dignified. Burns, whose five-year-old recommendations for FA reform have yet to be, and might never be, fully implemented, gave good soundbite. The Premier League (PL) representation on the FA’s board was “as if the Financial Services Authority had a controlling interest by the banks.” Having spent “the last 13-to-14 years on various company boards” (at which no-one batted an eyelid), he believed independent directors “ask the questions that are very often not being asked,” (such as “Sir Dave Richards, is that hair dye, or a wig?”), and he made his most pertinent point when Jim Sheridan MP said of the current state of football governance that “the status quo is not an option.” Burns paused for a moment. And then paused again.
Triesman, meanwhile, had pertinent points to burn; so many, in fact, that it might have needed some choreography to get them all into the session. Luckily, in Paul Farrelly MP there was a choreographer handy. When Farrelly commented that the Professional Game Board “in good Leninist style” had pre-meetings to determine their FA Board strategy, even an American could have spotted the irony, as his questions could not have seemed more planted if Triesman had started each answer “Funny you should ask that…” Triesman’s main revelation was a 2009 FA document on English football’s financial regulation, a response to questions put by the last Labour government, which was suppressed by PL representatives on the FA Board.
It is clear why the PL reps didn’t like the document, (since published on the fabulous “Andersred” website), and “took perhaps a maximum of two minutes to say that the document should not be submitted.” It made sense, and my guess is that its wide-ranging regulatory proposals will form the basis of the select committee’s report. Especially as Triesman thought the committee might like “to see the body of work” the FA had done and compare it to their published document, which “must have been all-but-unintelligible to the rest of the world. (pause for effect) It was to me.” Triesman expressed his dissatisfaction with ‘fit and proper persons’ legislation, noting that as a junior Foreign Office minister, he was asked to encourage Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, “not to dispose of his political opponents in quite as ruthless a manner.” Shinawatra was a subsequent ‘fit and proper’ owner of Manchester City. And he matched Burns soundbite-for-soundbite: “Most clubs have got into (debt) spending money related to their ambition rather than to their business model.” “The FA Board is heavily conflicted, would you have OFCOM made up of Sky, ITV, the BBC and ESPN?” “The FA should (govern football) systematically and transparently because under FIFA statutes, that is what it is supposed to do.”
When Farrelly quoted at length from a graphic 2005 description of Richards’ aggressive behaviour, Triesman noted, deadpan as you like: “That has a terrible ring of authenticity.” Even my mum laughed at that. Despite Triesman’s insistence that the governance problems were “systematic not personalities”, the conversation kept going back to Richards. Triesman seemingly refused to be drawn on whether Richards should still be PL chairman. “That’s a matter for the PL board,” he noted. “I think bodies that are constituted properly in their own right need to take that decision.” However, Triesman had already said, matter-of-factly: “They have a board of two people,” planting in committee heads the idea that the PL was far from “constituted properly” given the view already expressed that the FA board should have two INDEPENDENT directors.
There is a feeling of deja-vu about all this, of course. But, like “Alan Green is a rubbish football commentator who should have been sacked years ago,” it isn’t wrong to re-iterate that football governance is rubbish and should have been reformed years ago. Richards has already responded to Triesman’s comments, saying it was his job to stand up for the PL’s interests on the FA Board. This is, as the session showed, factually incorrect. Richards also said the FA couldn’t govern football because, “the PL won’t tolerate that kind of interference.” Deja-vu again. So we know where the PL stand. In the wrong. Let’s pray that this select committee can hammer that point home.
The next oral evidence session is on 8th March, with Man Yoo chief bottle-washer David Gill, Stoke City chairman Peter Coates and former Football League chairman Lord Mawhinney among the panellists. And 200% will be there… watching the BBC Parliament channel’s coverage, in lieu of having a proper job.
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