There are times when it dawns on you just how dirt cheap the BBC licence is. It dawned on me most recently when I tried to calculate how much of a refund I would be due for 26 minutes, the length of the Radio 5 Live ‘Monday Night Club’ debate on Uefa’s ‘Financial Fair Play’ (FFP) regulations. To be fair to the BBC, any proper debate on Uefa’s complex but largely common sense regulations would need a full hour at least. However, even in thirty minutes – less the news and travel – I feel I had a right to expect more than this wretched, miserable attempt to address the issues involved. I’d equate the discussion produced by Steve Claridge, Ian McGarry and John Motson on January 17th with a closing time pub discourse but that would do a disservice to the quality of drunken debate.
My hopes were not high after presenter Mark Chapman announced that BBC journo Ian Dennis was to guide the participants through the proposals and then asked Dennis “what are you laughing at?” But I did not expect the intellectual summit to be the pre-recorded interview with Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore. Scoo produced his usual contradictory bluster and nonsense. But in comparison to the studio contributions, he came across as a deep thinker. You sensed Dennis didn’t have faith in his knowledge of the proposals and I’d be surprised to be told he’d actually read them. And he was armed only with his notes from the previous week’s Uefa briefing which he’d attended but clearly not understood (“five pages…words such as amortisation”). As such, Dennis was as much to blame as anyone else for the car crash he was supposedly informing. He said he’d felt like he was back at school. And he’d clearly been chatting at the back of the class, to judge by some of his answers.
The other panellists inspired varying degrees of dread. Football League know-it-all-because-I’ve-played-for-them-all, Claridge was so far outside his comfort zone, he’d have needed a passport to return. McGarry, I thought, would at least bring some experience of reporting football business issues. There’ll be a few of you laughing at that. But I genuinely didn’t know that my toughest piece of research for this piece would be trying to find someone with a good word to say about McGarry. And Motson… When Claridge gets flustered, his voice goes up a notch. Add righteous indignation, he goes up an octave (for much of this debate he was in ‘only-dogs-can-hear-him’ territory). And for an encore, his syntax collapses. His attempt to ask who determines what income clubs can spend ended up as: “What does that dictate what you name the Emirates Man. City?” Little wonder Dennis couldn’t answer.
Those who didn’t know what ‘Financial Fair Play’ was about at the start of the programme… still don’t. Dennis’s five pages of notes clearly included a lot of doodling because after a good start on the break-even principle (“clubs must not repeatedly spend more than they generate”) he crumbled in front of other contributors’ prejudices. Claridge pre-judged the whole thing as incomprehensible (“Steve’s looking at me like I did that link in Swedish,” said Chapman). McGarry pre-judged the clubs as never accepting the rules, even when clearly told that they…er…had. And Motson…
Scudamore was no surprise to regular followers of his interviews. Ever since he became the Premier League’s chief executive, he has opposed every form of regulation until it simply had to be brought in, at which point he became its firmest advocate. So it was with the ‘fit and proper persons’ test. So it is with financial fair play. “You can’t argue with break-even as a concept” he informed us, having effectively done so for years. “A couple of years ago, you said it would never happen, you described it as fantasy,” noted interviewer Dan Roan, correctly. “But we pushed the timeline back,” Scudamore replied, suggesting that what he’d actually said was “It’ll never happen…for a year or two.”
“Now there’s this concept of deviation,” he added, which would certainly have brought Max Mosley on board. “You can make some losses,” was one of the ‘concessions’ which brought him onside. He also suggested that “there’s nobody in football who’s proud of the wage inflation we’ve experienced.” Pity then that he was never in a job where he could do something about…ah… Still, he wasn’t about to “sit here and apologise for” wage inflation which was “the one thing that has attracted the talent that has made the league as successful as it has.” That sounded like pride to me, as well as confirming that the Premier League is all about money, a stunning thing for Scudamore to admit, when you think about it. “What we don’t want to kill is, ostensibly, how English football has been built since 1888,” he concluded. Some would argue that certain events in 1992 did a pretty good job of that. But self-awareness has never been Scudamore’s strength.
“Was that not the most flakiest interview you’ve ever heard?” was Claridge’s high-pitched take on Scudamore, as close to echoing the thoughts of a nation as he was going to get. And his solution? “Why don’t we just bring in a rule that if an owner wants to come into a football club, spend an awful lot of money and put that club in debt, he takes the debt and he’s responsible for the debt? And if he leaves, it’s his debt and not the football club’s. Let’s bring in a rule like that and simplify it.” Claridge knows his “flaky”, I’ll give him that. McGarry suggested Roman Abramovich’s conversion of debt into equity would “make a nonsense of the rules straight away.” No-one in the studio thought to ask “how? And Motson…
Then things turned from laughably awful to just awful. Dennis reported that someone at the briefing suggested owners “had a right to invest in their own assets.” This is not a right denied them, which Dennis neglected to mention. Instead, he said Uefa had cited “Brookes Mileson… who basically…” and here I give you my usual warning to be seated to read this bit, “…walked away, left the club with debts and it went bust.” Mileson bankrolled Gretna from non-league football to the Scottish Premier League, Scottish Cup Final and European competition. He did not, however, “walk away.” He became too ill to sign the necessary documentation to keep his funds flowing into the club and…DIED. Dennis clearly hadn’t known of Mileson. And he clearly hadn’t bothered to find out in the six days between briefing and programme. Some guide. While, Claridge’s follow-up, “we changed the rules for that sort of thing,” defies analysis. And Motson…
Well, there’s no putting him off. Chapman asked Motson if he thought “this is just some attempt, somehow, however crude, to introduce a Europe-wide salary cap? – dismissing, in fourteen words, a LOT of detailed, valuable work by people across European football. Motty claimed: “There are so many ways to get round it. There’s so many excuses here.” Such as? Nobody asked. “I think it’s a bit of sabre-rattling actually,” he concluded, dismissing, in eight words, a LOT of detailed valuable work by people across European football. Thinking about it now, three dots after his name probably over-stated his contribution. Clips from an Arsene Wenger press conference provided an unexpected shaft of light. “Would you be worried,” he was asked in relation to Uefa’s regulations, “if you were Manchester City’s boss?” “Yes,” came the answer. “Would you like to elaborate?”, “Yes is the word,” Wenger elaborated. He’s good.
Wenger made the point that the fact that City, and Chelsea, supported the legislation “should eliminate all questions.” But this was a point lost on Claridge.
Dennis, to be fair to him, carefully explained what City were doing to meet their FFP obligations. But he was wasting his time. City’s revenue streams, Claridge declared, incorrectly, were “a dot in the ocean” (not thought to be an accountancy term) compared to what they were spending. Chapman added that “clubs will look at every single loophole,” assuming that Uefa had left all the loopholes in. And Claridge had found one: “Why can’t I go out and sponsor someone’s shirt then for £5m at Manchester City?” Claridge asked, leaving most listeners wondering how much he was being paid to sit near Manish Bhasin on the ‘Football League Show’ (whatever it is, it’s not enough). Remarkably, Uefa had thought of this. And the already-existing ‘Club Financial Control Panel’ (FCP) is empowered to determine the “fair value” of a sponsorship deal, to ask for proof from the ‘billionaire’ that the deal is financially viable and to reject “any attempt to circumvent the regulations.” But, not having read the regulations, Claridge bundled in again: “How is that dictated? What is the market value?” And Dennis failed to guide again, suggesting incorrectly that this was a “grey area for Uefa.” Uefa, he claimed, admitted there were “several ways of getting round the rules.” But he’d obviously had a sixth page of notes which he’d lost on the way back from Uefa HQ, the one about the FCP.
There was just time for another piece of McGarry bull… ishness. “The last time Uefa tried to do something the clubs didn’t like, the (clubs) said we’ll form our own separate league and you can stuff your Champions League…and that’s exactly what will happen again.” Dennis noted that… um… actually, the clubs are fully behind this proposal.” But for somebody like McGarry, that was just a fact getting in the way. “So the only thing definite at the end of all this is that these rules have their own acronym, the FFP,” Chapman concluded, thereby admitting that the programme had been an abject failure. He did thank Dennis for “going to that meeting” thereby confirming that that was the entire basis of Dennis’s “guidance”…and research. And McGarry told Dennis the meeting was “part of your life that you’ll never reclaim,” – a feeling I knew well by then.
Typing this five days after the broadcast, I’m still angry at it. The level of debate about “the financial fair play,” as Dennis called it, has barely risen above the xenophobic in the English media. It’s Platini’s idea. He’s French and hates the English. So it must be rubbish. And while FFP was just an “idea”, ill-informed debate was, just, understandable. But this “idea” is now in the 91-page Uefa Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations – 2010. The document was published last summer. It’s not that complex – not for a proper journalist, anyway. The rules have been agreed, with Uefa and its clubs. Ill-informed debate is no longer understandable or acceptable. Dirt cheap the licence may be. But for 26 minutes last Monday, I was ripped off.
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