Unfit and Improper: The calamity of Football League owners

Matt Stead

Let’s begin our journey of 2018/19 Football League ignominy in the north west, and work down from there. In November, Morecambe confirmed that players and staff had been paid late after the club’s overdraft had reached its limit. Down the road at Bolton, a far more pressing situation. Ken Anderson’s reign of woe may finally be ending after months of financial turmoil, but administration is the next step. And that’s the positive spin.

Onto Bury, six miles away, where promotion to League One has been achieved in controversial circumstances. The club required help from the PFA to pay the players their March wages after salary payments were delayed. Bury’s season has been beset by winding-up petitions and potential financial implosion.

Then to Oldham Athletic and Macclesfield Town, two more clubs in Manchester satellite towns who have been late paying their staff this season. At Oldham, players threatened strike action and then Paul Scholes resigned as manager over alleged owner interference. Sol Campbell inspired a sensational survival from relegation at Macclesfield, but reports suggest that players were paid late four times this season. Three days after confirming their League Two safety, the club were up in the High Court again.

We move south. At Oxford United, players did not receive their March wages until days later and the club was served a winding-up petition from the owners of the stadium over a late rent payment. Twenty-five miles down the A34, Reading manager Jose Gomes described the players not receiving their full monthly salaries as a “small mistake”, but the club saw their revenue halved in the last financial year and debts stand at £61m at the last count.

Finally to Southend United. Last week, the club confirmed that all outstanding late payments to their players ahead of their final game of the season had finally been made. It was hardly the perfect motivation for a team only outside the relegation zone on goal difference, but a late winner against Sunderland kept them in League One. Will that precious goal also keep the wolf from the financial door?

You get the picture, and there were many more potential stops along the way. Across the Football League, money is running out. Paying players late may not quite be a horseman of the economic apocalypse, but it’s hardly the sign of a club with spare disposable income being run in an intelligent and financially prudent manner. At Premier League level players can usually rely on vast accumulated savings, but in League Two it’s a different picture. Players have mortgages to pay and children to feed. The stereotype of the glamorous lifestyle of professional footballers doesn’t hold much sway here.

Ignominious football club owners is hardly a new problem. Coventry City, Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool have been fighting battles for years. Leyton Orient have just returned to the Football League after the scandalous non-stewardship of Francesco Becchetti. They are four of so very many, past and present. The fight always rages somewhere.

The Football League has a clear problem with club ownership. The current Fit and Proper Persons test bars potential owners on a series of criteria, but it is insufficient in protecting our social institutions. So how can that tide be turned?

We had been told to expect change. In June 2018, EFL chairman Ian Lenagan proposed additions to the FaPP test at the organisation’s summer conference that concerned taking action against owners who failed to meet the standards expected of them. The provision included reference to ‘persistent serious acts’ and ‘conduct clearly damaging to the standing and reputation of the wider profession’, and seemed to be the first step towards an ongoing assessment element of the test. The EFL Board formally adopted the policy that summer, but it remains to be seen what effect it has.

As EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey (you can boo and hiss as you feel appropriate) said in April 2017: “It is a purely objective test. That is as far as it goes. It offers no view on skill or ability. It offers no view on judgement.”

That was intended as a defence, but Harvey is conceding – deliberately or otherwise – that football invites those who have no experience or expertise in running a football club to have a go and see what happens. Inexperience, incompetence and duplicity can kill in months something that took many decades to build.

The best solution – and this is probably pie in the sky stuff – would be to create an independent football arbiter for all levels of professional and semi-professional football with the responsibility to oversee club ownership. The body would have powers of intervention in the most serious cases but its principle aim would be prevention rather than cure, providing mediation between supporters and owners. But the current EFL membership would have to be frogmarched into the idea, and it’s hard to envisage many being keen.

But there is something a little more troubling to all this, a miserable bigger picture: Football League clubs are trying to hold back the tide. As the financial gap between the top and bottom has grown exponentially, fuelled by insufficient drip down of incredible riches, life as a Football League club owner has become a choice between gambling on its financial future to try and break into the elite or balancing the books and slowly dying while everyone else chooses the first option.

As Accrington chairman Andy Holt points out, football has never been richer yet professional clubs failing to pay their players has never been more common – that’s a national disgrace. Owners – domestic and foreign – aim to use our social institutions as platforms for gaining a slice of the Premier League pie. When that plan falls apart (and more often than not it does), they can cut their losses and swan off into the sunset leaving the crippling results of their overspending behind.

That same financial gap has created a climate of desperation among many supporters driven by consumer culture. New signings are demanded today, and screw tomorrow. Championship clubs spend, on average, 98% of their revenue on wages. Only the strongest owners can avoid giving in to the demand and earning themselves some short-term goodwill.

As Harvey recently said on talkSPORT, often the only choice is between bad owners or no owners at all. The limp acceptance without fight is incredibly unhelpful from the head of the governing body, but that doesn’t mean his point isn’t true. There is no magic Rolodex of local business winners made rich who are prepared to stomach losses just to see their beloved club stay afloat. The reality is that bad owner is more likely to be followed by bad owner than good. See Ken Anderson and Laurence Bassini at Bolton for details.

This problem isn’t going to go away. Next season will bring more tales of missed payments and winding-up petitions, more local journalists reporting on results in the courts as well as on the pitch.

At some point soon, a grand old club will fall foul to incompetence or ill-will and fail to stave off the lingering threat of extinction. Not a non-league team that people can easily forget, like North Ferriby United, but a league club. Maybe it’ll be Bolton, maybe it’ll be another poor bugger, but it will happen. There aren’t enough knights in shining armour to go around.

People will tut, shake their heads and say ‘oh isn’t it absolutely awful’. And then we will wait for it to happen again, because there’s not much else we can do now. English football invited this upon itself when it readily agreed to dance with the devil. Not everybody was or is guilty. But enough were to speak for everyone.

Daniel Storey