Is This The New Face of Football?
7th June 2020
Face masks, testing, social distancing and the echo of empty stadiums. Many publications and media outlets have spent the past week morbidly claiming this as the new face of football. As Swindon Town’s financial issues were laid out at the High Court recently, the threat of administration looming, at our level, I could not help but feel that is the new face of football. The sport we love is in trouble. Television deals will take care of the Football elite to the point where little damage will be caused, a blip perhaps, but those SKY and BT subscriptions will creep up and all will be right in their world. However, in the EFL, the argument over who goes up and who goes down may prove an insignificant footnote in the plight of lower league football.
Let me be clear, the Coronavirus lockdown is not the sole reason clubs in the EFL are in financial peril. It will be easy for Owners to claim so, but the current situation is purely the straw that broke the back of a weary camel. Poorly run, over budgeted, under resourced and barely solvent football clubs are not an anomaly, they are commonplace. The accounts for the 2017/2018 season highlighted that in League Two the average weekly loss for a club was £13,500. The average loss per club over the season a staggering £802,000. How many sectors in business would exist with those numbers? League Two sides receive an estimated £472,000 for competing, regardless of the position they finish within the league. Clubs also receive a £430,000 “solidarity payment” from the Premier League, the type of “solidarity” that allows a Premier League club to purchase a young talented Welsh player for a pittance of what they are actually worth for example. So before clubs start pencilling in the budget for a season, they have £900,000 guaranteed income to rely on. Yet, the average loss is still £802,000? Incredible.
Swindon Town’s situation was of little surprise. In their relegation from League One in 2016/2017 they were losing £34,000 a week, a deficit of £1.768 million over the year. Lee Power, an owner who is not universally liked in Wiltshire, has loaned the Club close to £6 Million in his tenure. I read one supporter mock the notion that Power was a “Sugar Daddy” owner, if throwing six million pounds at something and getting nothing in return does not qualify him for that then I am not sure what does. Power’s investment has kept the club afloat, just. By September 2019, football finance expert Kieron Maguire, devised that the club’s losses were at £11 Million and exceeded their assets. A grave situation it would seem. Fast forward to January 2020 and the “Ginger Pele” signs a lucrative deal to stay at the County Ground and ultimately secure promotion. The stupidity of it all blows my mind. It is like if Flybe had tried to resolve their financial issues by purchasing a Jumbo Jet.
Swindon Town are not alone, just the latest club off the rank. You do not need to look too far in League Two to find other red flags. Forest Green Rovers have established themselves as a competitive League Two side, yet the cost of getting the club to the Football League totalled £12 million worth of losses over a six year period. Clearly running a budget at over £2 million a season will help achieve success, but as a business model? If Dale Vince has spent this fortune building the Gloucestershire club, I dread to think what money is going into Salford. A legal loophole used by the Greater Manchester club prevents access to their wage budget through the published accounts, I wonder why they might want to keep that from public knowledge? As millions has been invested into that football club I present their average attendance for this season of 2,997 without further comment.
Newly promoted clubs are not the only guilty ones. In 2017 Colchester United published a loss of £3 Million. In 2018 they published a loss of £2.37 Million. The Essex club have now borrowed close to £25 Million from their parent company, that is a figure that feels worthy of a pause for thought. Northampton Town lost £42,000 a week in 2018, the monies they owe on borrowings are now £5.5 Million. With the knowledge that this is a club who received a £10.25 Million loan from the local council, seemingly “lost” a significant portion of it that resulted in a £3 Million public investigation into the club and it’s then owners, the fact they are still not run on budget is simply staggering. Cambridge United and Crewe Alexandra are other clubs who appear to struggle. Both have reported losses around £800,000 in the last two years of their accounts. I would like to think that if you lose close to a Million Pounds in one season then you make necessary cuts to avoid a repeat, not in football, it appears the “we go again” mentality reflects into the Boardroom.
Locally, Plymouth Argyle are a club not making money. The stadium is a magnificent venue, the redevelopment of the Mayflower Stand evolving Home Park to a level beyond the one the club plays at. However, that is a project funded by the benevolence of one man. Argyle lost £1.3 Million in their relegation season and will make further losses this season. In 2019 a portion of the clubs losses were converted into shares, a procedure that had already been carried out in 2016. Coupled with his purchase of the club from James Brent, Simon Hallett has now put as much as £11 Million into Plymouth Argyle football club in his two year involvement. When you look a short way up the M5 to Bristol Rovers, they are a club that owe £16 Million in loans to a parent company in Jersey. Madness everywhere.
The question posed to all football clubs should be a simple one. If the owner of your club cannot provide additional funding, is your business sustainable? If it is a No, you have a problem, and it is a No, in a LOT of cases. We live in a time of uncertainty, if, as anticipated, events of the past few months result in a difficult financial climate and owners have to stop investing and tighten their own outgoings, what happens to those expensive toys they play with?
So how do we govern football better? The EFL get a lot of blame, rightly so in many cases, but I do have a slight issue with some of the vitriol. I work in retail, if I run my business incorrectly and fail to budget accordingly, then it would not be the National Retail Association’s fault if I went bust, it would be my own. Where the EFL needs to step in is to make certain that clubs who run losses receive punishment and, perhaps more importantly, help to address their issues. Look at Cambridge and Crewe, if those £800,000 losses continue season after season where does it end? As fans we also have a duty and this can be the hard bit. We just want to watch a successful team, a love of football rarely includes a love for economics. When Swindon Town are not buying players and being relegated, yet the owner has pumped in £6 Million, that is a red flag. It appears that after criticism Power did not cut their budget to erode the losses, he budgeted to try and spend their way out of trouble. A mindset that clearly underlines that the loss of Bury and how it came about resonated in no way with other Football Clubs. Ultimately, for many Clubs to meet a budget they would have to significantly cut outgoings, this would feasibly lead to poor on field results and criticism from supporters, so, rather than face that, the running up of considerable losses continues. If Bury had played their Academy players for the 2017/21018 season then they may well have been relegated out of the Football League, however, those supporters may still have had a club to support and rebuild. Running losses to the point of no return is the way football has been heading for too long and perhaps the events of 2020 may save football from itself? Bury going out of business was sad, but did owners fight the EFL for rule changes? Few acted because it did not effect them. The Coronavirus lockdown effects everyone and perhaps that will bring about needed change. As an example, Cambridge United may be a club that are fearful of cutting costs as it will effect their ability to compete, if all clubs are also cutting their outgoings then perhaps it will alleviate that fear and bring a healthier future? You can only hope so.
For Exeter City, this could have come at a worse time. We have some cash resources and though it was hoped they could increase the base budget for another season sadly that may no longer be the case. The club have lost out on approximately 30,000 paying customers from the remaining home games alongside the extra capital of those attending a play off campaign. You cannot recover that cash, it is gone. Had this happened in the summer of 2015 when the PFA were asked to provide the club with a loan, our future could have been a lot bleaker. The now realistic possibility of the next crop of Academy players forming a significant part of the first team squad is an exciting prospect, the Leasing Trophy Semi Final highlighted just how talented these players are. Cuts will undoubtedly be made, but I would anticipate them being manageable ones as appose to severe ones.
With a decision now due on the seasons completion, it appears we will lose out on promotion to one club on the brink of administration and who’s debts exceed their assets, one who has lost considerable amounts of money in recent seasons and one who is largely propped up by the generosity of one man. We will share the play offs with two clubs whose collective debt is greater than £30 Million. I hear the words “Financial Fair Play” often, clearly not working is it? Being well run means next to nothing, surely it should count for more?
Whatever happens from here, most lower league clubs face an uncertain summer. We are Lucky though. No one will walk away from SJP. A likely recession will not affect the amount to which an owner can prop up our business, just how we map out our future. Many clubs have been walking a financial tight rope for some time and I genuinely fear that we may not start the season with the same clubs that we premutruely finished it with. Fortunately, and due to some considerable hard work over many years, whilst this will not be an easy time, Exeter City will not be one of those clubs that fights for it’s survival.
20th December 2018
aka Etch (and sometimes hands and arm
On Saturday afternoon at the Port Vale game, a number of volunteers will be sited around different parts of the Moss Rose with buckets in hand, collecting money that will be used to contribute towards a garage conversion that would include a wet room, electronic hoist and toilet. Such resources would have a massively beneficial effect on Mrs Etch’s quality of life and level of independence, and provide the help and support required to reduce the significant physical and emotional stress that the family are currently under. Etch has given so much over the years in helping the Silkmen cause, and now it is time for the Silkmen faithful to give something back to Etch and his family, not only to reduce their pain and suffering, but to say thanks to a true gentleman for all his hard work and help turn his wife; his family’s and his frowns upside down!
01 December 2015
The sight of snow in the hills around Macclesfield and the torrential rain at Wrexham reminds us of the struggle it can be for small Clubs to fulfil their winter fixtures. It also took me back to Christmas of 2009 when heavy snow and freezing temperatures threatened to postpone the visit of Crewe Alexandra. With a bumper crowd expected and all the hospitality packages sold out, the Club were facing a substantial loss of income. So an SOS went out from calling for volunteers to help get the ground ready. This is the story of some of those volunteers…
Dario Gradi – Our part in his downfall
(or how 12 hours of hard labour was worth it in the end)
27/12/2009 Match Day -1
It’s 10-00am at the Moss Rose and a mixture of fans, directors and Club staff, wrapped up as best they can against the cold and rain, are squelching their way around the pitch dragging sodden, smelly pitch covers to the sides of the ground, while several more are shovelling off the snow from the covers at the Star Lane end. What lies underneath the covers is not promising. The snow has melted through and the pitch is waterlogged. Surface water is present in lots of places and the corner of the McAlpine and the Silkmen terrace could comfortably home fish. The Chairman seems confident that a bit of forking should sort the problem but we are not so sure. Still, no time for worries as it’s complimentary bacon butty time, during which we discover that there aren’t any forks to do the forking with, other than those in the kitchen which are a bit small.
So it’s off to Homebase. The lady behind the counter raises an eyebrow when we purchase nine garden forks and the other eyebrow when we return two minutes later and buy another five but she’s too British to ask why two blokes might need fourteen garden forks.
Back to the Moss and let the forking begin. At which point it starts pouring down. The forking doesn’t produce miraculous results. Think prodding a sodden bath sponge with a cocktail stick – in a running shower. Still, there’s two water bowsers – rollers covered in sponge which soak up surface water. Except there’s only one because the other one tears up the pitch as it rolls – can’t think offhand of an occasion when that might come in handy. My boots, socks and trousers are also proving excellent at absorbing water but there’s no noticeable improvement on the pitch.
We are expecting to be finished by 1-00pm but the Chairman drops into conversation that some super-duper pitch covers are arriving at 2 o’clock and it would be handy if people were around to help set them out. So after a quick Maccy Ds and a change of socks, it’s back to the Moss Rose.
It’s actually closer to 4 o’clock before the lorry containing the super-duper covers arrives, which gives us a chance to have a good go at the surface water using the bowsers. The corner by the McAlpine however is still a mess. As the lorry reverses into the ground we squelch over to get our instructions.
“Hoo hey hoo hoo hey hoohey” says the man in charge of the covers, Big Davey. We do not understand. Big Davey is from Glasgow and has an accent you could cut with a knife. No-one wants to tell Big Davey that they can’t understand a word he says because Big Davey is really big. So the pitch covering gets underway – the ignorant led by the incomprehensible. The first two covers are unrolled using a large inflatable sausage. As can be expected when people are rolling a large heavy object, at speed, in the dark, on a slippery surface, mishaps occur. People fall flat on their faces, people fly head first over the sausage but no-one is (seriously) hurt.
Meanwhile a small group of people are trying to wrestle the remaining rolled up pitch covers from the lorry. The covers (fresh from the New Meadow, Shrewsbury) are wet, slippery, very heavy and not keen on leaving the lorry. In addition, the floor of the lorry is wet, which means there is no grip. Watching five people on top of a rolled up cover, legs thrashing furiously but going nowhere is like watching a beetle on its back. Eventually brute force and ignorance prevail and the pitch (still waterlogged in places) is protected against the forecast overnight sub-zero temperatures. It is 7.30pm. We are tired, we are frozen, we are soaked, we are going home. 9-00am would be good for tomorrow says the Chairman. We can’t believe the game will be going ahead but the Chairman is quietly confident. Or confidently quiet, it’s hard to tell.
28/12/2009 Match Day 9-30pm…
and everything aches. Still, there are twenty fans waiting expectantly for instructions, and waiting, and still waiting. Eventually we are told to “grit over there”. People set off with a new sense of purpose and some grit. Not only do the terraces have to be made ice free but outside the ground as well - can’t have people coming a cropper before they’ve had a chance to hand over their hard-earned. Before long, it’s time to remove the super-duper covers.
“HOO HEY HOO HOO HEY HOOHEY”. Someone has given Big Davey the PA microphone. Everyone is still confused but now they are deafened as well. The microphone is tactfully returned to the Stadium Control. The covers are just as heavy as yesterday but now they are spread over a huge area as well but under the guidance of Big Davey and his team they are gradually dragged to the side of the pitch. To our relief, the covers have done their job and the pitch seems soft, if a still a bit soggy. Midway through the unveiling, the Referee arrives for a pitch inspection. He seems happy enough but is that because he knows he’s going to get the afternoon off?
If this were Hollywood then the news that the game was on would have been made over the PA by an emotional Chairman, while the workers cheered, threw their sodden gloves in the air and hugged each other. However, this is Macclesfield so the news filtered slowly by word of mouth and, to be frank, was a bit of an anti-climax. After all, we’d spent 12 hours working our nuts off in order for what? To see a Macc Town match. Hell, some of the ones we’d seen this season hadn’t been worth crossing the road for. There was just time for the washed out pitch lines to be re-painted and a little more forking to be done before it was back to base for a sandwich and some more dry socks.
28/12/2009 Match Day 16.55pm
As mentioned, this is Macclesfield not Hollywood but there was a Hollywood ending. Macc won 4-1 with Colin Daniel scoring a 25 yard screamer against his former Club. As we supped a celebratory pint in the McAlpine we gave thanks not just for a great win but, more importantly, that it was the youth team who had to put the covers back on after the game and not us.
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