If 2010 ended up being frequently forgettable on the pitch, then away from it we saw a year which combined the good, the bad and the ugly in almost equal measures. The year began with the faint scent of revolution in the air. Old Trafford was revolting, but would anything come of it? The answer, as it turned out, was no and, although season ticket sales at Manchester United during the summer were sluggish and the famed waiting list for season tickets all but evaporated, the Green & Gold protests can be deemed now to have broadly been a failure. Wearing a scarf was worth nothing while the money continued to flow into the club through people attending United’s home matches.
Forty-odd miles up the M62, a protest that was to become more vehement was taking place at Liverpool. The saga of Gillett and Hicks, their extraction from Anfield and RBS’s sale of the club to John W Henry’s New England Sports Ventures was the football story of the autumn but, while all concerned with levering the sale through seemed keen to play up to the notion that the supporters of the club had been critical, what difference did they really make? And will NESV turn out to be little more of a case of, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”? It may or may not have helped RBS and NESV to have had the weight of support of the club behind them, but it is certainly too early to tell whether they will turn out to be much better for the club than the previous incumbents were. At least, however, the dead weight of the leveraged buy-out debt has been removed from around their neck.
Elsewhere, FIFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations lurked in the background. Manchester City seem almost gloriously oblivious to them, but elsewhere the sound of cost-cutting was in the air. It all came too late for Portsmouth, though, and they became the first Premier League club to be forced into administration. Many questions remain unanswered about what went on at Portsmouth, and it says a great deal about the culture of the Premier League that they seem unlikely to ever be satisfactorily answered. Portsmouth were relegated with room to spare, but their supporters had two trips to Wembley in the FA Cup and the club, after HMRC unsuccessfully challenged their proposed CVA, is now stabilised in the Championship. Their whole saga, however, left a sour taste in the mouth. In Scotland, meanwhile, Dundee skated on the brink of absolute ruin, whilst even how the league system will look in years to come remains open to debate.
Elsewhere, familiar faces either got away with it or wormed their way back into the game. Serial chairman Milan Mandaric took over at Sheffield Wednesday after they had a couple of close shaves at the High Court, whilst Plymouth Argyle’s future remains far from certain after they secured an adjournment of the case brought against them by HMRC and confirmed that their best way forward was to… appoint Peter Ridsdale, the architect of colossal losses at Leeds United, Barnsley and Cardiff City, as something called a “football advisor”, which led to the resignation of their former chairman, Sir Roy Gardner. Whether they will still be with us when we come to review 2011 is very much open to question. If there was one notable sea-change in opinion towards clubs in financial trouble this year, though, that change could best be described as “compassion fatigue”. Other clubs, too many to mention, had problems of various magnitudes but there was so much smoke and mirrors, so much splintering between supporters groups and so much divide and rule that it became difficult to get to the truth of what was going on at some clubs.
Non-league football followed similar patterns. We lost Chester City, Bromsgrove Rovers and Ilkeston Town (amongst others), whilst others, too many to mention, sailed – and are still sailing – close to the edge. Mansfield Town were evicted from their ground before managing a deal to get back into it and, in one of the most bizarre (and, as it turned out, most tragic) stories of the season, Croydon Athletic of the Ryman League found themselves involved in a cricket match-fixing scandal, rumours of money laundering and the apparent suicide of their chairman before being half bought out by a Danish consortium that had, earlier in the year, tried to resuscitate the corpse of Chester City against the wishes of that club’s supporters. At the other end of the spectrum, Crawley Town, who have had their fair share of brushes with the Grim Reaper, found themselves suddenly flush with new ownership and began throwing money around with gay abandon. Whether that will end in celebration or tears also remains to be seen.
It wasn’t, however, all bad news. Chester City’s corpse was resuscitated by their supporters trust, and a new club, Chester FC, borne of a desire to never have to go through the systematic abuse of the club over the years, started the new season in the Evostik League. At the midway point in the season, they are top of the league, playing in front of crowds of over 2,000 and many of the bridges between the club and the community that had been burnt by previous regimes are being rebuilt. Elsewhere, Bromsgrove Sporting were formed by disillusioned Bromsgrove Rovers supporters and, after the inevitable folding of the former Football Conference club, managed to secure the right to use the old club’s ground and Ilkeston Town will be reborn for the start of next season.
Not all of the good news in the non-league game came from the ashes of failure, either. FC United of Manchester secured planning permission for a ground of their own at Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath, and followed this up by raising over £1m towards building it through an unprecedented – in football – Community Share scheme. What began as a protest has become an alternative vision of how a football club might be run. Lewes FC, of the Blue Square South, are also now a Community Football Club and have seen their crowds increase by 50% even though their team is struggling near the bottom of the table. And finally, at the apex of the non-league game, Wimbledon head the Blue Square Premier at present while Newport County, newly-promoted into that league at the start of this season and benficiaries of considerable assistance from their supporters trust, are in second place (albeit having played more matches than their rivals).
One final story grabbed more headlines than most would have foreseen towards the end of the year and that, of course, was the battle for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The story is still fresh enough in the memory for us to be able to skip the details of this story, but there are conclusions that we can draw that should continue to have ramifications for world football. Firstly, the notion of corruption within FIFA is no longer a crackpot theory being hollered from the sidelines. It is now arguably the common currency of public opinion that there is something rotten at the heart of FIFA. Secondly, the government and the FA’s craven kow-towing towards FIFA, criticising a free press and offering changes to national law that were not far short of morally repugnant, said much about all concerned. Finally, future bidders can rest assured that having the best technical bid to host the World Cup matters not a jot. At best, FIFA is now only interested in introducing the tournament to “new markets”. At worst… well, this hardly needs to be stated. England is better off without it.
It was, then, an eventful year and there were many more stories that could have been included in this round-up. Perhaps the best that we can hope for over the next twelve months is greater regulation and stronger governence. FIFA is likely to remain a law only unto itself but, in England at least, the incoming government has promised, “a fundamental re-evaluation of the way the game us run, with a particular focus on the FA, and the relationship between the FA and the Premier League”, but what this will consist of and whether it will be to the benefit of the many or the few are questions that cannot be answered at present. We know that regulation works – the Blue Square Premier’s Financial Reporting Initiative has caught some clubs out, but forcing a change in the culture of football at this level has become such a necessity that it must be seen through. Likewise, Premier League clubs may not like UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules but they are coming, whether the clubs like it or not. Against this background, the appointment of David Bernstein as the new chair of the FA is an appointment to be cautiously approved, especially when the most likely alternative was David Dein.
Finally, the biggest concern that many English clubs may have over the next twelve months is the ever more aggressive stance that HMRC is taking with a view to recovering tax money owed by clubs. Perhaps this is just a matter of clubs reaping what they have sewn in effectively treating what should be one of their financial priorities as something that they can opt in or out of as they please. The suspicion remains that HMRC is of the opinion that the only way that it can force a change in the behaviour of football clubs is to create a splash and bring down a long-established club. They have come close on several occasions over the last two or three years or so and they may well be more successful in 2011. If English football is to learn anything to ensure its survival, it should surely be that to say “there but the grace of God go I” is no longer sufficient and that the false Gods of trophies and marquee players must take second place to actually having a club in the first place.
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