With the First Round of the FA Cup rolling around again this weekend, pitting the best of the non-league scene against the nervy sides towards the latter region of the EFL in one of the highlights of the British footballing calendar, the unwelcome subject of how fair the game is in this country across all levels naturally has to be brought up, if not by anyone else, then by me here at least. The simple reason I had to pick up on the controversy of how many sides are run, in both the EFL and non-league levels of the pyramid, this week is that there were far too many blatant examples dotted across the 40 matches this weekend for it to not be a focus point, summarising just how immoral and cash-fuelled the modern game is. Most plainly, the infamous Eastleigh (if you read one of my earliest blogs on them and many others back in January), who not only played at home against another high-profile league side in Swindon – as they did against Bolton in the Third Round last year – but who also played host to the BBC cameras last night (Friday 4th), showcasing the apparent charms of non-league clubs to primetime viewing on the biggest channel on British television.
Eastleigh isn’t where those charms are best demonstrated though. Their millionaire owner Stewart Donald has gone far and beyond what a vast majority of sane non-league level chairman would be able to do for their club in the five years of his tenure, pumping in £3 million to help the day-to-day running of the club, as well as the playing budget no doubt, in order to elevate them up the pyramid in seamless fashion, creating an upwardly mobile footballing dream world. The thing is, this world is built on unreliable outside investment rather than home-grown funding, creating an unsustainable club culture that could turn out to be fatal. But Eastleigh are nowhere near the worst example we’re set to witness this weekend, and have committed nowhere near the crimes of certain clubs who have already fallen casualty in the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup. So, having seen FFP – also referred to as Financial Fair Play – make inroads into the desired effects of ridding the game of cheaters, in the past few years on the continental and national stage, with UEFA and the FA being forced into action over penalisation of the rules, is it time the system was brought into the lower leagues to clean up the football in the wider landscape? Or is it too impractical and troublesome a venture for the FA to work with their regional counterparts and leagues to make an effective reality?
But what is FFP, and how does it work? Well, yes, I think a run through of this relatively low-key modern phenomenon of worldwide football is required just to ease us all into proceeding, don’t you? Well, if you trusted Google – and who does, considering their tax records in this country – you wouldn’t immediately discover the answer if you followed the first result when typing in FFP, as what we are looking at here definitely isn’t the medical process of Fresh Frozen Plasma. Instead, this was the UEFA brainchild, agreed back in 2009 in response to the growing trend of Russian oligarchs, Arabian royalty and American billionaires sweeping in to European clubs and running them into the ground through their pursuit of glory. These rules, introduced in the major leagues across the continent, were designed to protect clubs from falling into deeper and deeper spirals of debt, which was a pressing concern at the time, with the total debt of Premier League clubs in the 2008-09 season estimated at £3.1 billion. In addition, household names in Spain such as Real Sociedad and Celta Vigo fell into administration at a time at which total debt in La Liga rose to £2.5 billion, with at least £500 million owed to the Spanish tax authorities, and massive Italian clubs racked up debts into the tens of millions, such as Inter Milan, who brought losses of €1.3 billion upon themselves over the course of almost two decades. Obviously, the gaping holes in clubs across the continent were opening up in many more cases at that time than are currently prevalent, and that is thanks to the saving grace Michel Platini and his right hand men offered these clubs from absolute collapse as a result of the total mismanagement of irresponsible and acquisitive owners who swept in on the crest of a promising wave, but in the end delivered asset stripping and a negligence for the health of the club.
One – to imitate Donald Trump – huge point to recognise from this pattern of events is that FIFA were never involved in the creation of the FFP, nor have they taken any major steps to get involved either over the successful course of the project, as they remain eerily distanced from its running, whether that be for better or for worse. On the one hand, you could look at the plain and clear productivity of the scheme and credit FIFA for leaving it to UEFA to sort of the clubs’ problems, while on the other you could lambast them for their careless and standoffish approach, which almost resulted in the destruction of some of the finest clubs in Europe at the hands of irresponsible investors. Whatever your thoughts, surely we can all agree FIFA should spend less time worrying about whether the English, Scottish and Welsh players run out onto the pitches of Wembley and the Cardiff City Stadium with poppies on their armbands (not even on their shirts, I can’t see what the fuss is about, but it is regrettable that tabloids such as The Sun latched onto the story to promote nationalism) and more time clearing up the big problems facing the game, which include promoting the clearly effective project of FFP. If FIFA used their power to spread this idea of living within your means, there would be a much cleaner and better regulated brand of football off the pitch, hopefully resulting on more equality and fairness on it, as undeserving smaller clubs can’t just buy their way into competing with the historically and commercially successful clubs.
So what else has FFP achieved in Europe, other than rescuing a number of high-profile brands from the threat of extinction? Well, it was brought into play by the FA pretty quickly on the grand scheme of things, as the Football League agreed to implement the project back in 2011, notable in the Championship especially as with the gulfs in quality fairly blurred between Leagues 1 and 2, as well as League 1 and the Championship, clubs can afford financially to get relegated if things came to worst, but with the gap between the EPL and the second tier widening, promotion to the Premier League has for recent years been absolutely priceless. The benefits even one season in the EPL can have because of its worldwide appeal can be massive, as sponsorship deals cue up at the door of the training ground and television income starts flooding in. With such an exclusive and potentially era-defining prize on offer, it’s perhaps understandable that the high quality clubs in competition in the Championship wanted to gain a competitive advantage, so looked to wealthy foreign owners to bankroll them. With FFP though, this has been partially stamped out, with Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers all handed transfer embargos as a result of their unsustainable financial actions in 2014, and Queens Park Rangers still currently continuing to battle an accusation of spending vastly more than they earned back in the same year, with potential fines of up to £50 million their possible punishment.
As well as these examples, the more big-name victims of their own success, so to speak, included the infamously oil-wealthy Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Anzhi Makhachkala (who I always pronounced as Makhalalalala when I was younger) who each were served a cap of 21 players in their squad for the Champions League, with the first two also handed two-year squad salary caps and transfer spending restrictions, as well as fines of €60 million. The latter was handed a mere fine of €2 million and one-year squad salary caps, but each club was taught a fine lesson about keeping their feet in line with their competitors, promoting the sort of fairness UEFA dreamt of all along in their continental competitions. If one thing is for sure, these hard, unrelenting actions have made sides more wary of their actions and as a result much more careful at how they approach any season or transfer window, which can only be a good thing for the game as Chairman and Chief Executives now have to answer to someone, or something, in terms of the FFP model.
But if it has worked on this level, what’s to stop it being enforced and similarly successful on the English non-league stage, probably the finest and most organised semi-professional and potentially amateur sector of football on the planet? Well, this is the entire conundrum facing the FA and indirectly UEFA as well, who have to work with respective FA’s and clubs to agree this rules for such leagues, at the moment, as neither seems too fussed over the wider introduction of FFP, especially in the non-league region. Why is this? Well, I’m sure they feel they have bigger problems to face right now, with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin only just settling into the job – with very little fanfare it must be said – and Greg Clarke facing a similar bedding-in process as FA Chairman, albeit with a little more controversy to deal with. Perhaps their blank on the subject, which notably is discussed by very few, is understandable then, but I would want them to vastly improve their productivity in the coming months, as I would argue they’ve already had sufficient time to get their feet under the undoubtedly luxury desks in Nyon (Switzerland) and London by now. Before they try and dispute it as well, there is an unarguable mandate for the introduction of the system into at least the top three leagues of the English non-league system, with a majority of teams at that level progressing every closer to their professional dreams considering the bulging budgets and vastly increased commercial income – with BT Sport running the National League Highlights Show for example – and a fair number also running with dangerous business plans.
The FA knows this only too well, so I cannot believe they would be putting off the establishment what will be an absolutely imperative system in the future, in order to save clubs from their own greed, at a time in which non-league sides cannot wait to join their full-time counterparts in the big time. It seems totally irresponsible on the part of the nation’s regulatory organisation not to put FFP into place, as picking up from where I left off in January, the likes of Rushden & Diamonds, Hereford United, Darlington and Maidstone United all fell to their demise at the hands of hundreds of thousands of pounds of carelessly racked-up debt. Each of these clubs has had a resurrection, but they have learnt their lessons, now focusing on structure and the reality of a club at their level, with the latter side from Kent finding particular success through their 3G pitch, constantly packed 3,000 seater ground and long-serving manager Jay Saunders. They are the perfect demonstration that patience and common sense will see you through to your goals in anything you do, and that it is a far more sustainable business plan than hitting and hoping with a wealthy benefactor, both on and off the pitch.
I know I’ve told you before about the Maidstone vs Margate story, linked to my local club Lewes, but this year in the South East’s football scene there are two more models of recklessness in the pursuit of a second in the limelight, Greenwich Borough and Shoreham. The first, based in the ideal catchment area of East London, clearly have had a considerable amount of cash injected into their playing budget over the past two years, as former journeyman striker Gary Alexander, most memorable to me for his years at Leyton Orient and Crawley Town, has been appointed player-manager, also bringing Peter Sweeney, part of the 2004 Milwall FA Cup Final team and ex-Crystal Palace Young Player of the Year (2004) Gary Borrowdale in with him. Slightly more obscurely, goalkeeper Craig Holloway was on the bench for Arsenal in their 2002/03 Champions League group stage match away to Valencia alongside Kanu, Ray Parlour and Giovanni van Bronckhorst, but any top-level experience counts in this ‘blast from the past’-style team.
The thing is, Greenwich are bankrolled by Chairman Perry Skinner, brother of the late David Skinner, who owned the (very) profitable international shipping insurance firm DGS Marine. A stain on his reputation was that he was exposed by the Telegraph in 2012 as he funded oil tankers transporting from Syria, but I guess to Greenwich none of that mattered a year later, when the brothers took over the club, as they now sit second in the Ryman League Division One South (where Lewes now play), with a game in hand on three-point leaders Dorking Wanderers. Speaking of Dorking, they have an interesting owner themselves in manager (yes, you heard that right, he’s running the club both on and off the pitch) Marc White, who is a bit of a wheeler-dealer in the sense he holds director roles at four different companies, has resigned from another two in the past, and was at the helm while a further two collapsed in debt, with a current reported net worth of these companies reaching over £40,000, certainly enough to strip out if you wanted to have a bit of fun with your local football club on the side.
In a slightly smaller-scale example, Shoreham FC have become the latest side in Sussex to try their hand with a sugar daddy in order to dominate the field in the county scene. Every year it seems, there comes a new challenger to the fore with a wealthy backer, with Littlehampton, East Preston and Peacehaven & Telscombe all winning the Southern Combination Football League in the past five years by sweeping up the best players in the county, but unsurprisingly none actually getting promoted as they didn’t have the foresight to prioritise ground improvements, which would’ve allowed them to move up the pyramid, over the playing budget. This is exactly the kind of thing FFP is designed to discourage and excommunicate from the game, be it at the multi-billion business of the Premier League or the one-man-and-his-dog stereotyped non-league level. I can assure you, Mr Clarke, us fans in the non-league are sick and tired of these clubs taking advantage of businessmen with a bit of money to spare and bypassing the accepted rules and morals of the game at that level to take a shot at the big time without earning it. They act disgracefully and selfishly in their mindless pursuit of the financial rewards that come with promotion, not actually caring for the fans or the club itself, as if they did they wouldn’t risk its future in such an dishonest way.
It doesn’t have to be immediate or across every single league in the English league pyramid, but the FA, with the help of the legal experts at UEFA, have to do something within at least the next five years to stop this alarming trend of reckless owners being coaxed into their local clubs and running them into the ground, before leaving them battered and bruised with crippled resources as soon as the team starts to struggle. Unless the FA wants to encourage this sort of behaviour from owners and clubs across the country, I cannot see why they are leaving the game as it is right now when there are so many issues in plain sight. Well I can actually, it’s because they don’t care. They don’t f***ing care anymore, as they never appoint the men and women who actually understand football and realise that the fundamental stakeholders of the game are the fans to their boards, but instead run their dangerous organisation with a bunch of old white men, who are so blinded by sponsorship deals and pleasing the moneymen that they have completely lost the good intentions they had when they stepped into their roles. That’s the thing with football these days; everything else is forgotten as soon as money is mentioned, and that is not good enough. Those forefathers of the game in Victorian England, from the FA to the chaps at the pub looking to start a village club, did not design the game with even a single thought of players being paid, entry prices being enforced, sponsors decorating the specially-designed (and outrageously priced) shirts of players or agents sucking onto the value of their clients like leeches when organising moves between clubs for even the most mediocre of players. It is an absolute disgrace, to the furthest stretches of the word, at how the FA is acting these days, and the scary thing is I think it is completely accidental, as they have totally forgotten what they are supposed to be fighting for. No, their main priority shouldn’t be dragging out £30 million from the sponsors of the most historic cup competition in the world, it should be ridding the game of these evil parasites who ruin it for the rest of us, who respect the rules and try to run our clubs sustainably. (Edit: sorry for the rant, but it had to be said, as it really gets on my wick, and I don’t see anyone else highlighting the issue.)
Some of you might argue that this issue isn’t the greatest one facing the English, or even non-league, game in 2016. You might say that because of the lack of FFP, competition is increased as any number of clubs can latch on to wealthy local benefactors in their race for triumph, and that the standard of football is increased. Not many of you though, I should hope after all I’ve already said, as these arguments are totally pointless in comparison to the basic principles of fair play and equal regulations for all, which FFP deliver as best as any system possibly can in modern football. In a perfect world, all clubs would be fan-owned, harnessing the power of their communities in order to beat the competition, and only spending as much as they could afford, as it would be a much fairer and simpler system (at least the Germans understand it). In our imperfect world, though, we have to deal with our problems as they are, and for this one the FA imperatively has to expand the FFP system to non-league. There is no sense in limiting the benefits of this project to just the most advantaged in footballing society, as the FA needs to continue looking down the leagues and stop turning a blind eye to the part-timers, who deliver far more for the health of the game than the ridiculously overpaid, ungrateful and disloyal automatons at the top level of the game. The world needs FFP, and far sooner than later, non-league needs FFP, so those in power better deliver on the expansion of the one good idea they’ve had in years, because the system cannot afford to be left in a wishy-washy half-and-half no-man’s land, only afforded to the most privileged, but has to be in place to make sure those at the lower stretches of the game don’t make the same mistakes. It may only be a safety net of a system, but FFP provides life-saving security for the countless alumni of the project, and should be offered to everyone for the good of the game. Period.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!