So everyone stands and watches. The FA, the clubs, the fans, the media. Move along,
nothing to see here....
The thing is, it doesn't actually matter if you believe that private ownership of
Nationwide football clubs is an inherently bad thing. That's an argument about
principles, and principles don't pay players' wages. What does actually matter is
that, for at least three First Division clubs, the bubble has burst in spectacular
fashion. They won't be the last.
Let's take the most pressing case, Portsmouth. Currently in administration and cutting
costs like there's no tomorrow, the south coast club is desperately seeking a buyer. Now,
there's no love lost between me and Pompey...but anyone who's been to either of our
matches against them this season would acknowledge that those fans, noiser and more passionate
than any of their supposedly more illustrious counterparts, deserve a flourishing club.
Football gains nothing by denying them that. So, here's the problem - how do we ensure
that Portsmouth and those like them are not only pulled out of their current holes, but
are also prevented from falling back in?
Various consortia are waiting in the wings and, although details are typically sketchy,
it seems highly unlikely that Portsmouth will die without some attempts at resuscitation. So
that's the first bit of the problem solved, although God knows it never pays to take
too much for granted. The second part is more difficult.
In the past, I've hedged my bets with regard to subsidising lower division football with
'taxes' from the elite. I'll jump off the fence now, though. It's an idea that ought
to be opposed for a number of reasons.
Subsidy does nothing to end the vicious circle of financial failure. It merely allows
the poor business practices that land so many clubs in trouble to be swept under the
carpet. Losses are losses, no matter how they're covered up. Worse, we end up perpetuating
the divisions we're trying to close - Nationwide football remains a burdensome charity
case, unable to define itself by anything other than what it is not. Those Pompey
fans deserve better than a lifetime of being forced to look grateful.
So we arrive, predictably, at community ownership. One of the consortia currently
bidding for Portsmouth has already reached the same conclusion, offering supporters
the chance to buy 'shares' for a thousand quid a go. The merits of that scheme are open
to debate - as a purist, I'd argue that it has the uncomfortable feel of a glorified
flotation and that democracy shouldn't just be available to those who can afford it -
but its heart certainly appears to be in the right place, which is something.
It ought to be so much easier, though. After all, we're not talking about wrestling control
from the hands of an unwilling board. Portsmouth is up for sale, the only thing that
matters is finding the money - five million quid or so - to buy it.
And there are clear precedents for that money being made available. The Football Trust has
been providing substantial grants for the renovation of stadia since the Taylor Report. In doing
so, it has improved the country's grounds, made supporters' lives safer and allowed
clubs to whack up ticket prices at will. It has not, however, done anything more fundamental.
It simply makes no sense to say that Portsmouth can apply for a grant to fund the building of a
new stand, yet can find no source of help to aid survival. Without the club around it, that new
stand is utterly meaningless. You might as well buy a new house for someone with a potentially fatal illness, then
refuse to pay for health care.
In essence, and without saying as much, the creation of the Football Trust edged towards what we're
talking about. After all, much of the pressure for such a trust fund came from the fact that the cost
of making grounds all-seater would've bankrupted many clubs. It spread its cash across the board, of course, but
the two crucial points were still conceded - football clubs are significant enough to merit assistance, and they
should not be allowed to go under because of changes within (or without) the game. The
opportunity is now there to follow that up, to make a permanent difference.
Let's flesh it out a bit. These would be grants, not subsidies. They would
provide money to enable the purchase of football clubs by supporters; they would absolutely not
be a source of emergency help for beleagured chairmen, nor a way for factions to stage coups. They would, naturally, be
strictly controlled and available only via an application process that would require
the resultant community clubs to abide by a common constitution. That constitution
would guard the key principles behind the idea - democratic ownership and long-term
financial planning. And, no, the supporters wouldn't be able to pick the team or
sack the manager (you'll know from reading recent match reports that I think fan power can
go too far)...but they should be able to elect members of the board.
If necessary, the grants could even be re-paid - as long, of course, as this was on an
interest-free basis. The idea is not to create the bureaucracy of centralised ownership,
rather to allow clubs to grasp genuine independence, so a gradual repayment of an initial
grant might even be considered desirable.
That's it. From then on, the club fends for itself as before.
You will have spotted the flaw, no doubt. How does being community owned end that
vicious circle of financial failure? By itself, it doesn't. The slate has been
wiped clean, but there are no guarantees for the future.
Except for some very crucial points. If you can't borrow, you can't get yourself into
debt - so, before we've even begun, that averts the worst crises. The likes of
Portsmouth have courted catastrophe by spending money they haven't got - remove
that temptation and, although numerous problems remain, they're actually comparatively
Cost cutting is inevitable and essential at most lower division clubs anyway. It cannot
be avoided for much longer. That the clubs we're talking about will probably have been
through the harsh streamlining process of administration means that some of the
hardest decisions will have already been taken. At worst, these clubs will be in much better
shape than most, the task in hand is to keep them that way. Add in some of those key principles -
transparency and democracy - and it's obvious that they will be at an advantage.
Needless to say, it's deeply ironic that the removal of private investment has the side
effect of forcing clubs to operate as efficient businesses. But it is also logical. If
you cannot make a loss - and without the ability to borrow to cover shortfalls, which is
the primary role of private investment within football, that is the reality - then you must
eliminate the practices that cause losses.
So, say goodbye to wage bills that swallow turnover. Say goodbye to sacking your manager
at the first sign of trouble and paying him compensation, employing someone new and
giving him money to replace half the squad. Say goodbye to screaming for emergency
signings whenever results disappoint. And so on, and so on. These things have to stop in any case,
community ownership merely forces the issue. Say hello to the real world,
where much of what currently goes on within football clubs would be considered absolutely
But it is precisely this revolutionary shift of focus that will prevent the majority of
clubs from being suitable candidates. Because what starts as a voluntary change
of control ends as an involuntary change of everything.
The trust fund scheme outlined above provides the funding, it does not provide the will. It is
simply no good for an active minority to instigate this, it must have the support of the
vast majority if it is not to end in disaster. For the moment, that rules out Watford
and virtually everyone else.
If such a revolution is to succeed, the circumstances must be extreme. This is not a
short term fix and it is certainly not painless. The warm 'n' fluffy exterior that the media
has given the Cherries since their emergence from intensive care hides some bloody tough
economic discipline. When the choice is between extinction and survival within a
strict financial regime, it is not difficult to make - although, even in Bournemouth's
case, there are some choppy waters to come. When the choice is between continued
spending (no matter how unwise) and that same strict regime, it cannot be made
wholeheartedly. Think of it as a diet - unless there's cast-iron will behind it, the temptation to
stray is going to be too strong.
No-one's saying that it's going to be easy. To run at an operating profit is in itself
a considerable feat; to do so while achieving success on the pitch is even tougher. But it is
not impossible, as Bournemouth have already proved - indeed, to turn it around, history
teaches us that running up debts is not necessarily the way to build a winning team
either. To quote Delloitte and Touche,
Survival strategies, facility share arrangements and other similar
developments must be the order of the day for many Football League clubs. Success
is far more likely to go to those clubs who boldly embrace those concepts rather
than those grimly waiting for something to 'turn up'.
For the clubs, like Portsmouth, that are already at death's door, community ownership
is not a solution in itself. It is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It is a
way of allowing them to 'boldly embrace' their own future, to start building something
worthy of their supporters. It can happen.