This Government thinks it knows what is best for football. Here’s what is best for football. For all sport, in fact. Competition.
A healthy, open competition is what makes football in this country so vital. We do not know who will win the league every season. We do not know who will make the top four or who will go down.
More than half the professional clubs in this country have experienced the Premier League since its formation. Now one of its founding members, Oldham Athletic, are in serious danger of dropping into the fifth tier.
And that is a terrible shame but it is also competition. Bournemouth, Wimbledon and Wigan went the other way for a time. The movement of clubs up and down a pyramid system is the vibrant core of the English game.
Some will tell you it is all about community and, yes, that is important, too. Yet Leeds has a population of 1.89million and the average gate at Elland Road is 36,405.
So, undeniably, any true focus on community for the majority would improve hospitals, schools, transport infrastructure and local facilities such as parks and libraries. Football cannot cure cancer. It cannot take your kids out of a minimum wage job, or provide the rail link to cities where better opportunities exist.
Tracey Crouch seemed to have made her mind up even before the fan-led review
Yet it does have sexy footballers and charismatic managers and politicians love stuff like that. You have only got to look at the lists of gifts and hospitality for members of parliament.
And it is an MP, Tracey Crouch, who has chaired the Government’s fan-led review, which will now foist an independent regulator on the sport. Crouch was in favour of the idea before the review began, so has unsurprisingly come to precisely the conclusion she desired. And nobody would argue football has shown itself in the best light of late.
Yet Crouch somehow ties the proposed breakaway Super League with the ruination of Bury and the sale of Newcastle United to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, so it is a report that is not afraid to take the intellectual leap. Much like Shaun the Sheep, in fact.
Want to take those topics in turn? Let’s start with Newcastle. Asked if the independent regulator would have blocked the sale to the Saudis, Crouch intimated it might. She talked about a new integrity test, taking character into account.
‘I think the test would have stressed the takeover more than the current test does,’ she concluded. This is utterly fanciful. It is well known that the Premier League were placed under significant Government pressure to appease the Saudis, who are valued trading partners.
Yet such was the League’s reluctance to approve the sale it was held up for close on 18 months. Only when every last issue regarding ownership and broadcast piracy had been settled was it decided the League could resist no more.
The European Super League debacle has been nonsensically linked to other issues
Now, given that entreaties to step in and help conclude the deal went all the way up to Boris Johnson, would a Government-appointed regulator truly have addressed the integrity and character of those involved in the takeover? That sounds unlikely considering the back-channelling taking place.
And what is character anyway? It is such a vague, loose term. There are laws to protect football clubs from criminals but any regulator will have his or her work cut out halting a sale over the cut of the owner’s jib.
Newcastle supporters can argue that they did not like Mike Ashley’s character but nothing that he did during his time there was legally wrong. Some owners will be better than others. That is football, too. It is the reason Huddersfield won three league titles in succession and nothing since.
Bury’s owners were ruinous. Yet in Crouch’s report, the miserable fate of one club is seen as symptomatic of the whole system. Why is a handout the proposed answer to the problems of Bury and others further down the pyramid?
A 10 per cent levy on Premier League transfers is said to deliver £160m for redistribution below.
‘One year’s money could provide a grant to ensure League One and League Two clubs could break even,’ the report concludes. Alternatively, Leagues One and Two could live within their means.
Bury FC’s Gigg Lane gates were locked for the last time following expulsion in August 2019
If Bury cannot meet their wage bill, they have to buy cheaper players. If those players are not as good it will impact on performance. And if performance drops they could fall into the National League. And that’s the way it goes.
No club has the right to exist in any league. If Bury could only afford National League standard players then they would have become a National League club. Like Torquay, Yeovil, Grimsby, Wrexham, Aldershot, Chesterfield, Dagenham and Redbridge, Notts County, Halifax, Barnet or Southend, who all once enjoyed Football League status.
Why the handout? And who decides how much? The report says 10 per cent but what if Rick Parry gets his begging bowl out again and the Government regulator decides it isn’t enough? Who stops this levy becoming 20 per cent, or 30?
And who exactly is being helped? The owner of Bristol Rovers is Wael Abdulkader Al-Qadi. His family founded the Arab Jordan Investment Bank. And he needs a financial lift from Delia Smith, at Norwich?
Smith’s club are a good example because they go up and down. Their plan is to be in the top 26 in the country: either in the Premier League, or in the play-offs to return. Yet the transfer tax would see Norwich indirectly donating to a club such as Stoke, who are in direct competition to replace them. Stoke are owned by the Bet365 Group where, in 2020, founder and joint chief executive Denise Coates earned a salary of £422m and dividends of £48m.
But again, Stoke need a hand-out from Delia Smith to help usurp her club. Coates’ salary is more than 15 times Smith’s total worth.
It makes no sense whatsoever for Norwich owner Delia Smith to effectively fund rivals
One of the panel members, Baron Finkelstein, said he was greatly stirred talking to Gary Neville, and his mother Jill, about Bury.
‘The story of how Bury foundered was a scandal but just as much, it was a tragedy,’ he wrote. ‘It was moving to see what it meant to the family.’
Yet Gary Neville is reported to have a net worth of £25m. He had the money to save Bury. He chose not to. That’s fair, that’s his decision. But Baron Finkelstein did not explain why it then became the responsibility of Delia Smith, again.
Premier League clubs already pay a four per cent transfer levy to the Professional Footballers’ Association pension fund and Premier League and EFL academies. There is also a proposed six per cent levy from FIFA. Add the Government’s 10 per cent and that brings a £20m transfer in at £24m. Nothing to the elite but a significant hit on the budget at Norwich or Burnley, that could affect squad improvement. This widens the gap and makes the league less competitive. But no doubt the Al-Qadis will be most appreciative.
The problem is nobody knows what each club can afford, other than the owner. Certainly not some Government-appointed overseer. All owners have differing wealth and are split on investment issues. Roman Abramovich is prepared to spend considerably more on Chelsea than Ashley was on Newcastle.
Tottenham have just announced pre-tax losses of £150m across the two years of the pandemic. The majority of clubs in the Premier League are striving with all their might to stay ahead of Stoke and keep up with Liverpool. And then in comes the Government to give their money away.
Newcastle’s LGBT+ supporters group backed the Saudi-led takeover of the club
And to think it all began as a reaction to the Super League, which seems the least of it now. Fans will get a golden share, apparently to veto any breakaways, changes of location, colours or badge. Yet, what fans? A lot of people can be described as fans. Season-ticket holders, regulars, club members, and there is a wider community, particularly when clubs now have global fanbases.
What if all Manchester United’s fans were polled, including those on far continents? Would they be as married to the English pyramid system as a Stretford End regular? A binding charter would have been better because fans are malleable.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and the Milan clubs did not endure anywhere near the pushback over the Super League proposals and still don’t. Fortunately for the English game, the idea came at a time when the six English clubs were at their strongest.
Turning it down should have been obvious, as it was for the supporters. But imagine, in different circumstances, if Arsenal couched the breakaway as a matter of survival — that they joined this Super League or became Queens Park Rangers in two years? What then?
Fans do not always see the bigger picture. United With Pride, an LGBT+ supporters group at Newcastle, warmly backed the Saudi takeover. They momentarily lost sight of gay rights because embracing a repressive regime was better for Newcastle.
Still, Government regulation is coming, so let’s see where it goes. The Premier League has successfully created the best competition in domestic club football, envied across the world.
It has made, and continues to make, super clubs that rule European competition and have provided half of the finalists in UEFA tournaments across the last four seasons. And all this was achieved from a business strategy document running to six pages. Crouch’s review numbers 160.
The people that put Dido Harding in charge of Test and Trace will now run your club. And all because Bury would not buy cheap.
LAW DOES PACIFIC ISLANDS NO FAVOURS
The new eligibility laws in rugby are a terrible idea. From January 1, players will no longer be tied to one country and can switch providing they have a birth right or a qualifying relative and stand down from Test rugby for three years. Potentially, Billy and Mako Vunipola could play for Tonga from March 2024.
By which time, Mako will be 33 and Billy 31. They will have given their prime years to England and would take the place of younger Tongans, whose progress would be thwarted.
The Pacific Islands think it will make them more competitive, and this may be true, but it destroys the pathway and makes it more likely domestic players will seek opportunities with Tier One nations, knowing they can return home near the end. How does this help? Proper investment is the way forward, not artificial ruses.
Billy Vunipola (centre) could switch representation from England to Tonga if he wishes to
WOULD DION TELL MESSI TO MOVE IT?
Dion Dublin was analysing Manchester City’s game with Paris Saint-Germain. ‘(Lionel) Messi, (Kylian) Mbappe and Neymar — there is no real striker there,’ he said.
‘They just play off the cuff. If I was playing with them I’d have to say something because the other eight are working really hard and those three have done absolutely nothing.’
He has a point — but one imagines if Dublin was in the same team as Messi, Mbappe and Neymar, he wouldn’t necessarily be the first to speak.
KLOPP DOES RESPECT AFRICA – JUST ASK MANE AND SALAH
Far from disparaging African football, it is hard to imagine a European manager with more respect for the continent than Jurgen Klopp. In 2018, a day before an FA Cup third-round tie with Everton, he allowed Sadio Mane and Mo Salah to fly to Ghana to participate in the ceremony for African Footballer of the Year.
So when he referred to the Africa Cup of Nations as a ‘little’ tournament earlier this week, he was being ironic. He meant it was the opposite of ‘little’. It takes his best players in the middle of the season and for a considerable length of time. Sadly, the reporter who angrily questioned him on this several days later did not get the smile behind the initial remark.
It is one of the complications with press interviews conducted as conference calls rather than in person. In the room, the misunderstanding would have been swiftly rectified.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has tremendous respect for the African Cup of Nations
What purpose would be served by moving the Davis Cup to Abu Dhabi? Money, obviously — but the competition would lose much of its soul. It is the partisan nature of the final that makes it special.
When Great Britain played Belgium in 2015, the hosts nominated an indoor clay arena in Ghent because it was considered the most alien surface for Andy Murray and his team.
That was Belgium’s prerogative and it made victory all the sweeter. Excitable, noisy crowds create a ferocious, unique atmosphere, lost in the Middle East. The rewards will be significant, but it still isn’t worth it.
Daniel Levy is not the most popular figure at Tottenham, but the fact that the club is £706million in debt and still refused to cash in on Harry Kane rather flies in the face of those who say he is without ambition.