About 15 years ago, I made a little film about a day in the life of a postman. It was an early start. As I helped him sort out his bag, we chatted about football. He was a Chelsea fan. I wondered if he had a season ticket at Stamford Bridge. I will never forget the look he shot me. It was like I had asked what kind of Ferrari he drove. “I can’t afford to go and see Chelsea,” he said. “I’m a postman.”
So here we had a football club owned by a fantastically wealthy Russian, which was pricing out a normal working man. Here, before dawn in a sorting office, somewhere in the generous sprawl of south London, this anomaly felt stark. In football, we always have a lexicon of clichés ready to go; I reached for one now as I said to myself: dear God, the game’s gone.
This isn’t to blame Roman Abramovich for everything. However ill-gotten his gains may be, he is not directly to blame for the pricing out of many ordinary football supporters by clubs up and down the country. But his entry into the game highlights the fault line at the heart of professional football’s problem: clubs can’t find a way of living within their means. That leads to desperation, which invariably leads to desperate measures. And that entails all manner of desperadoes getting involved.
Whether you are into football or not, it won’t escape your attention that some of the owners of these football clubs have a certain dodginess about them. Many are morally dubious; others are plain incompetent. Some clubs have owners who are both dodgy and hopeless, a terrible combination indeed.
England’s three football authorities – the Premier League, English Football League and Football Association – each have had their own tests for owners and directors. They are designed to establish that potential owners are fit and proper for the job. It remains unclear just how unfit or improper you have had to be to fail this test. It’s a low bar indeed.
Now the government is stepping in with plans for an Independent Regulator for English Football, or Iref – see what they did there? Clever! It will now be down to Iref to keep the wrong ‘uns out. I offer my suggestion for the very first question Iref should put to any prospective football club owner. It goes like this: do you want to own a football club? If the answer is yes, then I’m afraid they need to be shown the door because the chances are they are either mad or bad; neither fit nor proper.
There is no rational financial reason to own a football club. However big its income – be that from TV rights deals or other commercial activities – all of it, or usually much more than all of it, will end up in the pockets of players and their agents. How else do you explain the fantastical levels of debt even the world’s greatest clubs have accrued: Manchester United, about £ 500m quid; Barcelona, more than £ 1bn. What kind of person or country wants a piece of these businesses? However cleverly structured the debts may be, debt is debt.
So if you are not buying a club to make money, and will surely lose money, you must be doing it for some other reason. This could be because you’re a great person who loves the club, or football in general, and wants to do the right thing. If so, great. But if you’re not, I’m not sure what Iref or anyone else will be able to do about it.
The likes of Russian and Chinese squillionaires, and oil-rich countries with sub-optimal human rights records, will always have the riches to tempt owners to sell. Fans will end up turning a blind eye to anything other than what success that money could help bring their beloved clubs.
If the owner of your club wants to sell it for, let’s say, £ 250m, and they have a buyer who wants to give them £ 250m for it, I can’t see how a whole squad of red-card-brandishing Irefs are going to stop it happening. Anyone who’s about to trouser that £ 250m, or who’s intent on spending £ 250m, will have much more to spend on lawyers than Iref, or anyone else, to get the deal over the line.
Iref’s proposals to keep out the baddies are detailed enough. They call it an “integrity test” – their quote marks, not mine. The use of the word integrity echoes the endless debate in the game regarding the laws on handball. Referees are asked to decide whether the handball was “deliberate”. How can they know? Surely, only the player on the end of the hand in question can answer that; it’s between them and their god, if they have one. We are told that a regulator will make an “overall, evidence-based judgment using expert opinion to assess whether an owner or director would be a suitable custodian of a club”.
I wish them well. Here are the two questions I seriously think they will need to ask of any prospective owners. 1) Do you appreciate that when it comes down to it, you can never really own a club? Whatever the legal documents say, morally you’re merely the club’s custodian, charged with loving and cherishing it for the next generation. 2) When you move on, do you appreciate that you can’t just sell the club as you please to the highest bidder? No, you’ll have to go with whoever can look after it as diligently as you have.
This might not make the price of a ticket affordable to your average postal worker, but it might just send an undesirable packing.