Updated: May 10, 2020
I was flattered to be namechecked by Norman Giller this morning, one of the names from Fleet Street’s heyday and a man much respected in sports journalism circles. He urged a campaign to save football from its financial madness in his regular column for the Sports Journalists Association. His thoughts were prompted by a conversation with my old friend Alex Fynn, which I used to inform a feature on the Daily Finance website called ‘Is football about spending or sport?
It’s hard to separate talk of money from the sport of football – and in some respects I can’t complain as someone with a regular gig writing about the football business. But I’ve been thinking lately that the critique of football and its money-corroded current form is not quite as simple as popularly thought. So here are a few observations.
I raise the Spurs connection because it’s relevant to this discussion. I’ve often recognised the irony of discussions among Spurs fans bemoaning how clubs just buying up the best players is ruining the game. Spurs used to do the same, and not that long ago either. I remember Newcastle United fans voicing the same criticism when we nabbed Paul Gascoigne, and Spurs have traditionally spent big to bring in quality players to complement home grown gems such as Glenn Hoddle and Steve Perryman. Look back through football history and you’ll find a recurring theme of big clubs using their money and standing to attract the best players.
Manchester City are not the problem
What’s different now, of course, is the scale of the deals. In that discussion with Alex Fynn, his observation of moneybags Manchester City was that “we’ve never seen a club spend so much, so quickly to such effect”. It was hard not to be depressed after watching City take my side apart 5-1 at home last weekend – and not just for the obvious reasons. Sure, the football was thrilling – but there was an unsavoury element about a club which has bought all the most expensive items on the market in order to short-cut its way to the top. Something distasteful too about the way Citys’ fans, who I’d always respected for sticking with their team in numbers during the lean years, revel in the money from backers who I’m glad are not funding the club I follow. Football has a context.
But City provide an interesting example. The recent deal between the airline owned by the family that owns the company that owns the club and the club itself brought charges that an artificially high price had been fixed by parties with connected interests. But, as an intriguing article on the rightly-lauded Swiss Ramble blog argued, it is perfectly possible to see that deal as a perfectly legitimate and sensible one. It is well worth taking the time to read.
It could in fact be argued that City are doing what they have too, throwing money at the issue so that they can bust into the upper echelon before the route is shut off forever. For UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules threaten to cement the big clubs at the top while condemning those outside the magic circle to eternal exile. And that’s a shame, because the idea that clubs should only spend what they generate is a very good one. I can see why clubs which have tried to balance the books get annoyed when their rivals build success on massive debts. The ability to spend big has changed to an ability to sustain and support losses, as first Chelsea and now City are showing.
But UEFA’s rules would simply mean the clubs with the biggest stadiums and which made more money through matchdays and media rights by virtue of being at the top would be more likely to stay at the top. For those outside the top group, the financial gap between success and failure would grow ever greater. Much has been made of this by some within the game . But their opposition to any interference with the militant free market model they evangelise makes their ‘concern’ rather suspect. After all, the status quo hardly helps – to take an entirely random example – a club such as Nottingham Forest win promotion, a league title and a European Cup in consecutive seasons.
The concerns expressed by many fans and observers such as Norman, I would suggest, are less about money but about how money seems to be squeezing competition. Football clubs have always spent to achieve success, but that spending has also gone alongside such apparently old-fashioned concepts such as coaching to achieve success. Before, a big spending club could afford one or two big stars, but other stars would go to other clubs and the manager would have to make the whole team more than the sum of its parts. Now, a big spending club can buy almost all the stars – in City’s case, there’s no qualification on that statement – and so the need to manage successfully sems to be reduced.
But that’s not quite true either. City spent plenty under the much overrated Sven Goran Ericsson and the more impressive Mark Hughes, but it’s current manager Roberto Mancini’s ability to handle the stars in his squad that seems to be working best. Although it’s still early days. Spurs readers may want to look away now, but the two most successful clubs in the last 20 years have been Manchester United and Arsenal. Both have long-serving managers who are trusted by their boards. Both have been prepared to pay big wages, if not always big transfer fees in Arsenal’s case. Both draw on solid traditions, but Arsenal have been perhaps the more impressive, transformed into one of the world’s leading clubs and moved into the larger stadium that will be necessary to stay at that level.
In both cases, success has gone along with winning games of football. Sure, the money has helped, but the fact that others with money have failed to challenge as consistently indicates that while money is important, it is not the only factor necessary for success. What all this means is that while it is right to be concerned about the influence of finance in sidelining the more purist elements of sport that I believe we should not be embarrassed to eulogise, it’s too simplistic to say merely that money is ruining football. Money has always been a part of the game. The problem is the way the chance of success going in cycles is being pushed out.
To change that requires some changes that will certainly not be welcomed by the militant free-marketeers, but will also be hard to graft onto a deeply-rooted football culture. Can you imagine a girdiron-style draft system being embraced in English football, for example? For all that I sympathise with Norman’s complaints about player wages and shirt prices, these are side issues. The players earn high wages because they can, it’s a simple result of the market economics the clubs love so much – except in this case when they have to pay out rather than rake in. And replica shirt prices are a scandal, but no one has to buy them. Redressing the balance between sport and finance means adopting some deeper changes.
I’d say the most pressing need is for the gap between the reward for success and the price of failure to be closed. Clubs stake everything on getting into the Premier League because not being it increasingly means accepting no progress. The Champions League is constructed so that the clubs that qualify this year are more likely to be the clubs that qualify next year. The game is structured in such a way that profligacy is incentivised. And that’s rooted in the self-interest of the clubs who broke away to form the Premier League. Last year I interviewed Alex Fynn, the man who advised the FA on restructuring football, and his tale of how and why football rejected his vision is instructive.
There are alternatives – the German model is most often referred to, but here in England there is some excellent work going on at grass roots level as fans and communities take back their clubs, ably assisted by the excellent work of Supporters Direct. There needs to be a change in attitude too, with clubs more actively embracing their social responsibilities in the way something that likes to present itself as ‘the national sport’ should do, rather than waving examples of that responsibility excitedly when it happens as if they are doing the country a favour.
It’s clear that stronger and more deeply rooted action than is currently being discussed needs to be taken if football is going to retain enough of its sporting soul to remain attractive. Football is not about implode, explode, eat itself or otherwise crash and burn. But it could be far enough along the road to achieving the status of just another commodity to make those who genuinely care about it worry enough to shift their thinking up a gear.