UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations are coming, and those of us of the opinion that these regulations would come into force without some sort of noisy, braying argument will have been unsurprised to have seen the first significant broadsides against it fired from the Premier League’s mouthpiece of choice, the Daily Mail, this morning. In a breathless piece written by Martin Samuel, there is a florid description of a meeting of the twenty clubs last month at which a letter, produced on the headed paper of Arsenal Football Club, but also signed by Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, was produced a desire on the part of these clubs to follow the FFP rules to the letter.
That these four clubs should have been behind such a proposal should be no great surprise. These four clubs have amongst the greatest financial clout of any under the existing status quo, and each might well find that positions at or near the top of the Premier League table would be cemented by having rules in place which prevented individuals from coming in and throwing money at other clubs in order to be able to challenge near the top of the table. It’s a familiar back and forth story, and with most other stories in football whether you are in favour of FFP or against it can usually be defined by which club you support. Supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City, for example, would be expected to be in favour of continuing to allow their clubs to post lavish losses in their annual accounts if it allows their clubs to continue to challenge for silver pots at the end of each season. The supporters of Arsenal and Manchester United, on the other hand, might look at the silver pots accumulated by those Chelsea and Manchester City over the previous decade and conclude they would probably have won most – if not all – of them had those pesky newcomers with their financially-engorged owners not pitched up with grand ambitions and even bigger wallets.
The identity of most of the clubs that have apparently nailed their flags to the ‘no regulation’ mast should come as no great surprise either. Aston Villa and Fulham have both been dependent to a degree on the munificence of others in recent years, whilst West Bromwich Albion have run a tight financial ship in recent years and may well be wondering what they have to gain in siding with clubs who wish for greater leverage in their negotiations with players and agents. It is this that will come to characterise the debate between Premier League clubs on how they choose to deal with FFP at a domestic level. The only question that those running the individual clubs concerned seem likely to ask themselves will be ‘How can we ensure that the path that the Premier League follows benefits us most of all?’, whilst any public pronouncements to the press on the subject – whether made openly or through the selective leaking of documents – will make a great fuss of the well-being of the game in a broader sense.
In that respect, what this morning’s leak feels most reminiscent of is the debate held between clubs over which Premier League television contract to sign twenty years ago. At that time, the biggest clubs were in favour of a deal with ITV which would have seen them get the lion’s share of future television coverage. The voting structure for the final decision, however, required a majority vote and with the assistance of Alan Sugar, who, coincidentally, manufactured Sky’s set top boxes and dishes for them and leaked the details of ITV’s bid to Sky, the smaller clubs carried a vote which guaranteed them a greater share of the limelight. The deal agreed at that time remains in place, as far as the way in which it is distributed in concerned and to the Premier League’s credit – not words you will see written on these pages very often – it remains relatively egalitarian, with the biggest clubs not making the vast amounts more than the rest that, for example, Real Madrid and Barcelona have been doing in Spain in recent years.
Even this sop towards egalitarianism, however, fails to address the single word which is never mentioned in English football by anybody, ever: redistribution. There was a time when this the redistribution of money within football was merely par for the course. Gate receipts were shared between clubs – a relic of this can still be seen in the FA Cup – and television contracts had clauses contained therein which required broadcasters to show matches from all four divisions of the Football League, even only occasionally, as it was in the case of the lower divisions. This redistribution – which was as near as you could imagine to a trickle-down economic policy which actually trickled down – was one of the motivating factors behind the decision of the biggest clubs to break away from the Football League in the first place. There were other factors, most of which were never seen through, quietly put to one side or watered down to the point of irrelevance, but the prime reason behind the very formation on the Premier League was to get a new television contract in place and for the twenty member clubs to keep all of the money for themselves.
Of course, it wasn’t portrayed as such at the time. There was, after all, something of a PR battle to be won. So, the FA – which had been fighting a quasi-political battle against the Football League since the latter’s formation just over a century earlier – were brought onside to give a veneer of respectability to it all, and because a breakaway league could not succeed without the clear approval of the governing body. The FA, blinded by the opportunity to score a decisive victory in its ongoing battle with the Football League, agreed. It has been said before that the Premier League clubs could not believe the ease with which the FA allowed them to do as they pleased, and so the putsch continued after the clubs were allowed their wish to break away. The League effectively became self-governing from the start (although it took until 2007 for the league’s by now superfluous nomenclature to be amended in order to finally remove the name of the body which clearly no longer governed it), and the severance of ties with the Football League led to a chain of events that would end with the financially ruinous ITV Digital contract (and the subsequent non-payment thereof) and the subsequent collapse of many of its clubs into administration.
We’re not going to see any genuine, real distribution of money within football. We’re not going to see gate receipts shared to any extent, and we’re certainly not going to see, for the sake of argument, ten per cent of television money being given to the Football League to distribute amongst its members. We’re probably not going to see any more than a token sop – and, to be honest, we’ll be lucky to see as much as that – towards redistributing the vast amounts of money that the Premier League makes from its television contracts through lowering ticket prices for supporters. It would be nice to think that there are more than a handful to believe that there actually might be that there are more than a handful of individuals within the entirety of the Premier League’s management structure that would be interested in redistributing football’s money to the benefit of the little guys, but there is little to suggest that they will do so unless forced to, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anybody that will force them to. None of this means that Financial Fair Play doesn’t matter. It’s just that the idea that anybody involved in the debate and how it should be managed by the Premier League will be doing so for any reasons other than self-interest seems… somewhat unlikely.
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