The Importance of Being Shaun Harvey

Shaun Harvey, then, rides off into the sunset after eight years with the Football League, with six of those eight having been spent as its Chief Executive Officer. Indeed, he was already the CEO of the League when it emerged that, whilst working for the Ken Bates-owned radio station Yorkshire Radio in December 2010, Harvey had “instructed” Yorkshire Radio to make at least six broadcasts claiming they were “searching for the whereabouts of Melvyn Levi”, a former club director, because the club was suing Levi for money they claimed he owed.

It doesn’t end there, either. Earlier in the same year, Yorkshire Radio was found by the media regulator Ofcom to have made “unfair” broadcasts about the chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust, Gary Cooper. Bates said on the radio, unchallenged by the programme’s presenter, that he had looked at Cooper’s match attendance record on the club’s computer and had used that information to undermine Cooper’s credentials as a supporter of the club. The Trust was, of course, an outspoken critic of Bates’s ownership of the club.

Cooper was also given no opportunity to respond, in breach of the Ofcom code, who also found that Yorkshire Radio had “unwarrantably infringed” Cooper’s right to privacy. This finding was later supported by a statement from the ICO, who noted that it didn’t appear that Cooper’s personal information had been handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act. Cooper later said that, “I find it astonishing that the Football League decided Shaun Harvey is the best person they could find for a position of such authority.”

Prior to his involvement with Bates and Leeds United, Harvey’s career had been wrapped up with Geoffrey Richmond, first at Scarborough and then, when Richmond went there in 1994, at Bradford City. Indeed, by the time that Bradford collapsed into administration in 2002 Harvey was its managing director. Richmond, whose plan for the clubs of the Football League to get themselves back on their feet following the collapse of ITV Digital was for all clubs to offer new contracts to all players and make redundant those who would not sign them, was declared bankrupt in 2004 over £3.3m (inclusive of £1m in interest) owed to the Inland Revenue regarding the sale of his Ronson cigarette lighter company ten years earlier. Richmond had purchased the company from the official receivers for £250,000 and sold it on for £10m.

Set against this background, it’s hardly surprising that Harvey believes that we need “to look at how it treats the owners at some of its clubs.” Presumably he didn’t witness the reaction of Leicester City supporters to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, or that he doesn’t the broadly cordial online conversation enjoyed by Andy Holt, the owner of Accrington Stanley, on Twitter every morning. Football supporters aren’t stupid, Mr Harvey. We know good owners when we see them. The problem is that they’re so vanishingly rare that no, you don’t get to see a great deal of the love that supporters are capable of in that particular direction.

But you know, this is the man who made the Football League sound like a new extremist political party. This is the man who took the Football League Trophy, a competition that was never going to be at the top of anybody’s priority list but could provide a diversion from the mundane if your team happened to have a run in it, and turned it into the Check-a-Trade Trophy, a horrible abomination of a tournament with Premier League under-21 teams added which has seen clubs break records for low attendancess and has built up a degree of antipathy between the League and supporters that was almost entirely unnecessary, with no consultation whatsoever of the people who are expected to pay to turn out and watch it.

So, which clubs should we be looking at how we treat the owners? Bury, where the players had to issue a statement about the non-payment of wages? Coventry City, where the owners are preparing to move the club out of its home city for the second time in six years over an ongoing dispute presumed to be about getting ownership of the ground on the cheap? Blackpool, where the supporters boycotted the club? Bolton Wanderers, freshly put into administration? Notts County, where the owner exposed himself on social media and then got it relegated from the Football League for the first time in 131 years? Oldham Athletic, where a high profile former player quit as manager over broken promises made by the owner? Charlton Athletic? Yeovil Town? Macclesfield Town? Only the owners of Bolton and Blackpool aren’t still in place, and they both exited by legal process rather than anything that the Football League did.

That’s nine out of seventy-two clubs, and there are others besides. And very little of this is about terrible finances. Attendances are at an all-time high and ticket prices are often high, so that’s not the problem. Clubs can run themselves sustainably should they choose to, but they won’t. They’re involved in an arms race, in which the number of winners has become increasingly concentrated, with huge prizes if you can get it right. All this, and it’s definitely better odds than the lottery. Who knows? Bournemouth did it. Burnley did it. No wonder speculators accumulate on its fringes, and small wonder it attracts interest from the wilder end of the business community. Everyone knows that it’s a mug’s game in the current climate, yet no-one ever believes it’ll be them. Until it is them. It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. There’s no inevitability to the path that professional football is taking. But what hope could there ever be with Shaun Harvey running the show? He’s leaving the Football League now, but there are executive positions available within both the Premier League and and the Football Association. It’s doubtful that we’ve heard the last of him yet.