For much of the last decade, British football has been teetering on the edge of a precipice. In an era during which the game should have been reaping the rewards of unprecedented amounts of money flowing through the game, we have seen over half of the clubs of the Football League forced into some sort of insolvency event and numerous non-league clubs lose their grounds or cease to exist. And things are getting worse, rather than better. In fact, it wouldn’t be completely wide of the mark to describe the last month or so as catastrophic for the state of the game in this country.
Consider the names of some of those that have found themselves in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons over the last few weeks or so. Rangers, the club of the Scottish establishment, the first club in the world to win fifty league championships and still the record holders for the most league championships won, have been disemboweled over the last few months, or perhaps years. Birmingham City, winners at Wembley just twelve months ago, are under a transfer embargo for not completing their accounts on time following the arrest of owner Carson Yeung in June on money laundering charges, while their Midlands rivals Coventry City, who played for more than four decades consecutively in the top division of English football, face the same sanction and are riven apart by in-fighting.
Elsewhere in the Championship, Portsmouth, FA Cup winners less than three years ago, are back in the headlines for all too familiar reasons. The club, just two years after entering into a Companies Voluntary Arrangement which was supposed to give the club something approaching a new start, is back in administration with dire warnings coming from the administrators themselves about the future viability of the club. If we drop down a couple of divisions, League Two’s Port Vale are to be placed into administration by their local council while various factions scrap for control of the club while earlier this season Plymouth Argyle only just escaped their appointment with the grim reaper after months of prevarication by insolvency specialists and a property developer that almost killed the club altogether.
If the situation is bad in the Football League, then it is positively dismal in non-league football. Darlington remain in administration, although a community buy-out of their club is now on the cards, and Kettering Town were today docked three points by the Football Conference after failing to prove they had plans in place to finance their debts. The situation below the Football Conference, either. Northwich Victoria of the Northern Premier League, who left their ancestral home for pastures new which turned out to be more akin to a curse, have been expelled from a ground that they only played at for seven years and Weymouth of the Southern League Premier Division have continued to be kicked from pillar to post, although they may now be finally in a position to move away from danger after a take-over last week. There are also other worrying rumours from elsewhere, though these remain anecdotal for now.
What, then, are we to make of it all? Well, the first thing to say is that the cases of Portsmouth, Darlington, Northwich Victoria and Weymouth are all repeat offenders, which can only indicate that the steps already taken by those that run the game in this country have been hopelessly ineffective with the measures that they have already taken in order to try and force clubs to manage themselves better. Secondly, we should point out that these are all cases which involve failures of neo-capitalism, to some extent or other. Every single one of the clubs listed above has had some sort of contact with an asset-stripper, carpet-bagger, venture capitalist, speculator or someone otherwise unconnected with their club at some point over the last five years or so which has left them in their currently enfeebled states.
Finally, and most importantly, the problems of the clubs that have recently fallen into difficulty frequently have little to do with football itself. Where exactly, supporters of Kettering Town, Darlington or Coventry City may well ask, were the dizzying highs that are supposed to come before these falls from grace? Why, we all might well ask, is it that so many of the people that hover over these clubs like vultures give no indication of giving an tu’penny damn for enriching anybody but themselves, and why do those in a position to be able to regulate against these very people not do exactly that?
Over the next few days, we’re going to be trying to bring you up to date with all of these stories, which span the entire length and breadth of the country. In recent weeks, the grim financial state of football in Britain has started to feel thoroughly alarming and supporters of many clubs will now be wondering who will be next to join this particular carnival of the damned. It used to be said that football supporters looked at other clubs in difficulty and thought quietly to themselves, “There but for the grace of God go I”, but those days also now feel increasingly distant. The financial position of so many clubs is starting to unite supporters of all clubs in disgust and is becoming an absolute humiliation for the game in a general sense. Something has to change.
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