No way to run a football club

No matter which way I look at the Ronaldo transfer to Real Madrid, I can’t help being angry.  Not just about the childish demands of Ronaldo to a seperate ‘unveiling’ from Kaka (a superior player in my opinion), not just the obscene wages lavished on a petulant moron, not just the amount of money Manchester United now have to play with to bolster their chances of (domestic) dominance.

But the way that Real Madrid don’t play by even the lax rules of elite football.  They are hugely, massively in debt, and yet they break the world transfer record twice in a week.  They can do this because the banks and the State indulge them to an almost corrupt degree.  This began in the days of Franco, and has only really been toned down since the end of Fascism in Spain.

They have a model which, on face value, seems fairly commendable – the membership technically owns the club.  But you have to be a multi-millionaire to be eligible to stand for the position of Club President, a position which is the nearest thing to a dictatorship in the football world.  As it happens, the appalling Perez was the only candidate, and so he went on his splurge.

Barcelona have a superficially similar model, with membership ownership, but the whole arrangement seems more democratic, and they don’t have the advantages that Real have in terms of State preference.  They haven’t conspicuously bought success either, but brought on young talent, with the magnificent culmination in that Rome evening in May.

In Britain of course, elite football has an entirely different model, well two models.  The privately owned fiefdom, or the PLC.   In the 1990s, club after club went down the route of becoming PLCs, much to the disgust of fans, even though at the Premier League level, it was simply the formalisation of the fact that clubs were no longer sporting organisations but businesses.  There has been a trend away from PLCs towards private ownership by rich individuals.

With perhaps only one exception (Randy Lerner at Aston Villa), these new breed of private owners have proved to be interfering know-it-alls with the belief that their ability to make a lot of money makes them superior in judgment to experienced football managers and coaches.  Thus we have seen the mad experiments at Chelsea and Manchester City, and soon perhaps Portsmouth.  For some, this new model of owner breeds some nostalgia for the days when a well-off (but not mega-rich) local businessman ran the club as his fiefdom.  But for every Louis Edwards, there was a Sam Longson, the small minded Derby County chairman who drove Brian Clough out.

And in the lower leagues, this ‘local businessman’ model still persists, and is viewed generally not with affection, but suspicion.  There are a minority, such as John Ryan at Doncaster Rovers, that have done great things for their clubs, but Ryan gets credit most of all for saving the club after the criminal leadership of the unlamented Ken Richardson, a man who tried to burn down their ground so he could sell it off for housing.

In the lower leagues, there seem to be more Ken Richardsons than John Ryans, attracted by prime plots of potentially lucrative land.  The solution at some clubs has been ownership and control by supporters trusts.  This has undoubtedly saved many clubs, but as a long term option it has had mixed results.  For Exeter City it has had tremendoud success, for AFC Bournemouth not so.  At York City, the supporters trust eventually sold a controlling share to a local businessman, as they didn’t have the finances to run the club properly.

I will finish not by elaborating on my cop out answer, that the supporters trust model is the only one where the sporting interests of the club are made paramount, but is not viable under capitalism.  It is a cop out, but it happens to be true that such a desirable system will only work when capitalism has been swept away.

No, I will finish by noting that the real spirit of football resides not in the boots of Ronaldo or the chequebook of Real Madrid, but in the passion, committment and generosity of people such as Tony Kempster.  Tony, a lifelong football fan, and York City supporter, was a giant of the game, running an excellent website, and giving freely of his time and energy to other causes and intiatives.  He died last weekend from cancer, and I would like to pay tribute to him, his life and his work.  I’ll raise a pint to him tonight.

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2 Responses to No way to run a football club

  1. Dave says:

    AFC Bournemouth were never run by a Supporters’ Trust; at York, it was less about finances to run the club ‘properly’ (what is ‘proper’ in the madhouse of football economics is an interesting, if separate, point!) but that they didn’t have the funds to run a football club and service a loan at 10% interest to buy back the clubs’ ground which had been taken from it by the former Chairman. One of the reasons Exeter have been able to be a success is that their lucrative two ties against Man Utd in the FA Cup paid their debts off and wiped the slate clean, a luxury few of the other trust-run clubs have had. Indeed, the success of AFCs Telford and Wimbledon, and FC United is precisely because they’ve started with a clean slate.

    As to the conclusion, trust-run clubs are not impossible under capitalism, just difficult under the peculiarly bonkers and unregulated form of capitalism prevalent in football.

    • vengeanceandfashion says:

      Thanks Dave, and apologies for the mistakes in my original piece. I think in the case of the ‘refounded’ clubs such as Wimbledon and FC United, a large part of their success is having existing relatively large fan bases in lower leagues. Wimbledon will come up against a wall somewhat when they return to the League.

      The York example is instructive though, as many supporters trusts only take over after a disastrous crisis. Exeter were lucky, but many others aren’t. Not sure where I got the idea about Bournemouth, perhaps I was mixing it up with Lincoln for some reason.

      I think the bonkers form of capitalism is the only show in town in football, whilst capitalism exists outside of the world of football. Its also the case that to regulate it more strictly (which the larger clubs would of course never allow, and nor probably would Fifa) would lead to clubs seceding from the FA, and players deserting the country for riches abroad. I’d say, good riddance, but I doubt I’m in a majority or even sizeable minority there.

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