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Football: it’s only a matter of life, death and money

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By Nick Harris

SJA Internet Sports Writer of the Year

13 March 2012

During this equivalent week 16 years ago – or Monday, 11 March 1996, to be precise – I went to my dad’s funeral in the afternoon and then did something we’d done together so many times: I watched Southampton.

It was an FA Cup quarter-final at Manchester United and I hoped the Gods would do the right thing and make sure we won. Some hope.

A dodgy decision cost us a goal, United went on to win 2-0, and the rest of that season was Eric Cantona’s redemption story.

Though I grew up in Nottingham in the glory years of Brian Clough’s Forest, there was never any doubt which team to support. The Saints gene made sure of that.

Dad was born a five-minute walk from Southampton docks and grew up in the same house where his mum had been born and spent her whole life.

We stayed there often when I was a kid – making a 340-mile weekend round-trip regularly during the football season – and my grandparents always knew we were there to visit The Dell and them in that order.

I went to matches from four, I’m told, but the first game I remember with any real clarity from start to finish was one I didn’t attend, at Wembley in 1976; the greatest day in football history, obviously.

Dad was at Wembley, seated in a row not far behind the Royal Box, which made him easier to spot on the telly. I remember that, and Bobby Stokes’ goal, of course, and Nicky Holmes, who was my six-year-old self’s hero, almost certainly for no reason more complicated than we shared a name.

And that was it, a deal sealed for life.

Lawrie McMenemy and little Bobby Stokes. Channon. Osgood. Ball. Ivan Golac. Steve Moran. Keegan. Yes – Kevin Keegan! Mick Mills. Peter Shilton. Jimmy Case. The Wallace brothers. Shearer. Le Tiss. Doesn’t time fly?

Life’s ups and downs become intertwined with the fate of the team.

I assume most fans feel this way and I’m not talking about a good result adding to a spring to the step and a bad one leaving you flat.

It’s more complicated than that, as though a moment in a game or a final score or A.N.Other event linked to your club can presage or reflect what else is happening – or will happen.

Wednesday 1 March 1995 was a case in point. I was living in Japan that year. Dad was diagnosed while I was there and I’d flown home to visit him as he recuperated in hospital from the removal of a tumour.

Saints were at home to Spurs that day. Dad had a radio on the ward and we listened to the first half as we discussed his operation. Being a doctor himself, he knew the score, for good and ill. But he was chipper about making a recovery.

We talked. The radio played. Saints scored. And again. We were 2-0 up at half-time, which was when I left the hospital to head back to mum’s for dinner.

Life was good. Saints were on a roll. Ergo, Dad would get better.

I got back to the house an hour later and switched on the TV to check Ceefax for the final score.

I’m not religious. I’m not especially superstitious. I don’t see meaningful patterns in tea leaves and I’ve never seen the face of Jesus in a frying pan, or in an aubergine. But on the journey from hospital to house I’d calibrated in my head that 2-0 was a positive sign.

So it took a moment to process what I was seeing on Ceefax.

Final score: Southampton 2 Tottenham 6.

There’s this phrase: ‘The heart sinks’.

I knew for the first time what that really felt like, heart plummeting to stomach, making me feel sick. Dreadful, literally.

And not because I gave a flying f**k about being knocked out of the FA Cup.

s.

So there you go.

Life and death. And football.

Aren’t we all the same when it comes to our clubs, tied for much deeper reasons that anything as fleeting as a player or a set of results?

It’s about family, friends, community, continuity, fate – for better or worse, richer or poor, in sickness and in health.

That’s why when Southampton nearly went to the wall a few short summers ago, I found that the whole episode, especially the few days when it really looked like it might happen, left me bewildered, uncomprehending.

People live and breathe, and then they die, some too early. But that’s just what happens. It is inevitable.

But you do not expect a football club to die. There’s no need. A football club transcends life and death.

I was so relieved at Saints’ reprieve that I do think I take the whole of football less seriously now. As in, it is still great to win and disappointing to lose but frankly as long as the club is there, job done and the rest is a bonus.

Which brings me to Blackpool.

We’ve become so inured to the torrents of cash sloshing around in the game since the early Noughties that I can understand why some people aren’t that alarmed that Blackpool’s owner Owen Oyston paid himself £11m as a director in their relegation season.

And they’re not alarmed because actually Blackpool are in decent financial shape, for now, any further big withdrawals nothwithstanding, and the logic goes that it’s much better than being in the perilous state of Portsmouth or Rangers, Plymouth or Coventry or so many others.

For anyone who hasn’t followed the Blackpool story, the original revelation is linked here (declaration of interest, written by me); then the local paper said he’d actually taken £23m (link here).

Then The Guardian reported Oyston’s son Karl explaining it away for tax reasons (link here);  and then a Blackpool fan calmly dismantled Oyston Jnr’s peculiar logic (link here).

And then Blackpool manager Ian Holloway responded to the original revelation (a right-wing conspiracy, he appears to think) in his Indie on Sunday column (link here).

All of which is fuel for a much more pertinent, wider debate about what clubs are, and what we want them to be, and what they should be.

Are they clubs that should be run for the fans, albeit as well as possible to make as much money as possible from tickets and TV and merchandise to reinvest in the club to improve the team to make the fans happy?

Or are they cash machines?

This isn’t about Blackpool, it’s about how we’ve become numb to numbers, numbers as in cash; money poured in and out of football, spent or wasted on players and agents and debt, and in some cases extracted by owners.

I contend we can trace the numbness to a relatively recent time, specifically Leeds United’s losses in two seasons in the early Noughties.

If a £34m loss in 2001-02 looked bad, and heralded trouble, then £49.5m for 2002-03 was truly shocking and signaled meltdown, and tears of regret over ‘living the dream’, and tales of Peter Ridsdale’s fish tank.

By the time Chelsea took the baton from Leeds, losing £87.8m in 2003-04 and then a world record-pulping £140m in 2004-05, the plot had been lost.

By then a million here or £10m there wasn’t worth quibbling over.

We stopped being shocked. We shrugged at massive losses. Expected huge signings. Believed players should get a shed load. Complained loudly and endlessly when the board / owner / CEO failed to spend, spend, spend.

Hence we’ve reached a point when Manchester City can lose £197m in a single season in 2010-11 and many people just shrug it off and think ‘That’s OK, Sheikh Mansour can afford it’.

And he can. And that’s fine. And not for the first time, I should state:

1) I believe Uefa should allow benefactor funding, even of large sums, as long as it is ring-fenced, perhaps in escrow, for a rolling period of several years ahead, maybe five years ahead. This would focus any benefactor’s mind, mean that promises of being involved long-term would have to be backed up with hard cash up front, and give a long ‘withdrawal adjustment’ period should the owner walk – with five years’ notice. If this deterred all big benefactors, so be it. And if it didn’t, good luck to them. But that’s NOT what Uefa has done and that probably means headaches for City.

2) I think FFP should have elements that address fairness to the fans. Leveraging and related debt should be outlawed / addressed, while ticketing and TV income distribution should become more equitable.

I have no issue with City’s spending, per se.

To see City pay hundreds of millions of pounds in fees and lavish salaries to assemble a cast of stars who can be a joy for any neutral to watch, has, at moments, seemed exhilarating. Yaya Toure to Aguero to Silva, back to Aguero, into Balotelli. Wallop. Lovely.

And at other times – fleeting and not often, and typically during a Richard Curtis-directed clip for Comic Relief that presses the button that reminds us that people really do die every day for a reason as simple as no access to clean water – such expenditure by City or any club seems grotesque.

And yes, I know that’s a contradiction, to think something is both thrilling and obscene. But that’s just the way it is.

But maybe sometimes we should stop and think what these sums actually mean.

City made a financial loss last season of £16,416,667 per month, or £547,222 a day, £22,801 an hour, £380 a minute, £6.33 a second.

That amount per second is just a bit more than the British minimum wage worker will make in an hour.

What about United, and the amount the Glazers have leeched from the club? On 28 June 2005, Malcolm Glazer increased his stake in the club to 98 per cent, enough for a compulsory buyout of the rest, and total control. In the 2,377 days between then and the end of 2011, the blogger Andy Green (Andersred) has calculated that interest, bank charges and the like – to help the Glazers buy United with United’s resources – have cost United’s coffers £497.5m.

That’s £209,297 a day, or £8,721 an hour, £145 a minute, or £2.42 per second, every second for six and a half years.

What about Chelsea?

Abramovich has spent a billion pounds net in eight years, maybe a little more. But let’s just call it a round billion. That’s £125m a year, or £342,466 a day, £14,269 an hour, £238 a minute, or £3.96 a second. Every second since June 2003.

One billion pounds is the GDP of Burundi, a nation of 10 million souls, according to the World Bank.

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So what am I saying? That Roman Abramovich shouldn’t have bought Chelsea and instead given every person in Burundi double their income for a year or two? Of course not.

That the Premier League should stop promoting itself to keep its position as the most globally successful competition, wear sackcloth, and send Richard Scudamore on community service on a daily basis? Of course not.

That the Glazers should be drummed out of Britain and that Oyston should be chained to Blackpool Tower while fans throw sponges of water at him? Not either of those. Because actually, why should rapacious businessmen act like anything other than rapacious businessmen, if the law allows them to?

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It’s about balance, and about ultimate responsibility.

My dad was an old school GP. He wouldn’t dream of telling his patients how to live their lives. He wouldn’t be so hypocritcial. He smoked. He drank. He died.

But he would tell patients, and he always told me, quite seriously, to be aware that actions have consequences, and that if you chose to do A, then there’s a chance that B might happen. Or it might not.

What football needs is for someone, somewhere, and it’s probably going to have to be a government, to remind a few more people, with a little more seriousness, that actions have consequences.

Personally, I think Uefa have got FFP wrong. Either they won’t police it effectively, or it will have unintended consequences. There’s plenty good about it, but in its final form it’s watered down, doing nothing to address debt, per se.

Will FFP prevent an owner using a leveraged buyout to take control of a club? No. Will it guarantee that only fit and proper people own clubs? No. Will it guarantee affordable tickets? Probably the opposite, as clubs strive to make as much cash as possible to balance their books.

It’s a start, though, albeit a wrong start.

If there were a proven way to guarantee truly fit and proper owners, a lot would be healed at a stroke.

I’ll get back to you when I’m done with the full manifesto.

It’s only a matter of life, death and money.

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More from Nick Harris

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2013-05-28 11:34:43