Bolton Wanderers & Footballs Broken Financial Model

It’s a terrible thing to even think, but it’s a thought that has been passing through my head over the course of the last few days or so. At what point is it best to say, “You know? I think it might be best to stick a fork in this. It’s done.” Bolton Wanderers to continue inch towards oblivion. This afternoon, the players of the club issued a joint statement which pushes the club a little closer to that cliff-edge. We republish their statement, below:

The long running financial crisis at our club has been well documented. As has the fact that we, the playing staff have yet to receive our March salaries. Five of our coaching staff are also yet to be paid for March. We have endeavoured to continue our training and playing commitments during this extremely difficult time, with seemingly no resolution in sight.

We thought that the prospective takeover of the club would provide a solution, but difficulties in its completion has left us no further forward. This situation is creating mounting mental, emotional and financial burdens for people through no fault of their own. The mental pressure has affected some people to the extent that they feel they are unable to perform their jobs sufficiently. These are unprecedented circumstances and are affecting every aspect of our lives, placing great strain on ourselves and our families.

During this time we have remained patient in hope of some explanation but information from the club has been extremely limited and very confusing. What we have been told changes constantly. With deep regret we have decided not to fulfil our remaining fixtures unless we are paid. We understand that this will disappoint our fans and for this we sincerely apologise.

We realise this may be seen as drastic action but we feel we have no other options left. This decision has not been taken lightly and is not a reaction to this one particular incident. We have suffered numerous issues this season, and recent seasons. Brought on by the mismanagement of this club. We have been operating in a near untenable environment for some time and it is the accumulation of these issues that have resulted in our decision.

It would be difficult to overstate how serious this is. When football clubs go bust they tend to follow quite a familiar curve, and failing to fulfil fixtures is right at the very end of that curve. It’s ordinarily a point of no return for a club already in trouble, although there have been exceptions in the past. The players have already been on strike from training for forty-eight hours over the late payment of wages, earlier this month. Non-playing full-time staff received theirs, albeit after a delay. The players still haven’t.

This wasn’t even the first time this season that Bolton matches had been threatened by some degree of managerial incompetence. At the start of this month, a prohibition notice was placed upon The University of Bolton Stadium preventing fans from entering the ground after staff refused to work, alongside a “critical IT failure” (interpreted by many as being financially-related, in some way or other.) These events threatened home matches against Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town, before the Stadium Advisory Group were finally satisfied and they were allowed to go ahead. It all reeked of incompetence and neglect then, and it’s difficult not to pick up the same scent tonight.

Late this evening, the Football League issued a statement of its own, confirming that the club had failed to confirm that it would be able to play the match:

Following the failure of Bolton Wanderers to provide formal confirmation of its ability to meet its obligation to fulfil its Championship fixture against Brentford FC on Saturday (27 April), the game will not go ahead as planned.

Earlier on Friday, the playing staff at the Club issued a collective statement confirming that they had decided not to fulfil the remaining fixtures of the season unless they received monies owed to them.

As a result of these disappointing developments, the League has been forced to suspend Saturday’s fixture and under EFL Regulations, the Club is now deemed to be guilty of misconduct and will be referred to an Independent Disciplinary Commission.

The EFL Board will now consider the matter of determining whether the fixture will be played or not. 

No further comment will be made at this time.

So who is running Bolton Wanderers at the moment? It’s understood that owner Ken Anderson is abroad, and the proposed takeover by, God help us, Laurence Bassini has not yet been signed off by the Football League and the Football Association. In view of this, it’s as likely as not that no-one is at the moment – certainly no-one with the wherewithal to pay the players’ wages in sufficient time for them to get properly prepared and onto the pitch. Except there is one, apparently. Bassini “vowed” to ensure that the players will be be paid by tomorrow, that the match will not be cancelled, and that he had already transferred £1m of personal funds ready to pay the debts, but the official confirmation required by the Football League would not be received and the match was called off.

Would it have been a PR triumph for Bassini to get the players paid and the match played? Probably, but how likely was it that he was actually going to come good on this? And in any case, even if the match isn’t going ahead, the players are owed that money. If he’s already transferred £1m of personal funds to pay their wages, he should damn well pay them. Bassini could certainly do with some good PR. Goodwill towards him has thus far been largely limited to those who believe that he can’t be any worse than Anderson, whilst Watford supporters have been sharing horror stories of his time at their club on social media on social media like ghosts of Christmas past. Hardly ringing endorsements, from any direction.

It’s starting to feel as though this could be the start of a real rupturing amongst lower division clubs. Horror stories are emerging left, right and centre of clubs in difficulties. Coventry City are at least now finally in talks between the owners of the club and the owners of the stadium over extending the club’s lease to play there, following a court decision to refuse Sisu appeal over a Judicial Review concerning the sale of the Ricoh Arena to the rugby club Wasps. Perhaps there will be further outbreaks of common sense to resolve this dismal saga. But perhaps there won’t.

Elsewhere, Alan Hardy (whose other business went into administration and who accidentally posted a photograph of his wang on Twitter – he’s had a busy year) may be set to sell Notts County to Norman Smurthwaite, the owner of Port Vale, a club which he threatened to put into administration last month. Smurthwaite also owns non-league crisis club Nuneaton Borough’s ground, though not the club itself. Bury’s new-ish owner, meanwhile, is finding out that the club’s financial position is far worse than he had been led to believe at the time of buying it, while Gateshead were evicted from their offices after failing to pay their rent and are under extremely shady ownership.

There’s no one particular theme running through any of this. Sisu may be many things, but on the whole they’re not unsuccessful as a business, so it’s not always a matter of incompetence. Notts County have an average home crowd of over 7,000 this season despite being the bottom club in the Football League, so falling attendances can hardly be held responsible. But each of these stories is lengthy, too. Bolton Wanderers’ unsustainability outside of the Premier League was much discussed before they were relegated from it. Coventry City’s owners have been been there for more than a decade. Notts County, Port Vale and Bury have all been in administration in the last twenty years, Port Vale twice.

But what we do know for sure is that football clubs are resilient. No Football League club has folded during a season since Maidstone United in August 1992, and even when clubs do eventually end up liquidated – a more common sighting in the non-league game – a new one often springs up in its place. Communities needs these focal points. And the fact that there is a ready and waiting fan base for the new clubs when they do re-emerge suggests that these ills are due to the business model rather than the state of the market. The Football League survived the ITV Digital collapse, after all.

It’s unlikely that there will be another external tremor like that, and this creates a problem in itself. The current financial ills of the lower divisions aren’t the result of external forces, they’re the result of a fundamentally broken business model. There is way, way, way too little redistribution of the vast amount of money that The Football, as a whole, earns. Regulation of club owners remains so feeble that it may as well be non-existent. Clubs gamble vast amounts of money in the pursuit of vainglory and a seat at the top table that they’re at best unlikely to get. Bolton Wanderers are a symptom of this, now taken as close to breaking point as it’s possible to be. Bolton Wanderers aren’t quite done yet, but the light at the end of the club’s tunnel remains extremely dim indeed.