DEC 01] THE STUART LINNELL
Can't Buy Me Love
When is a debt not a debt? When
it is owed by a football club, apparently.
The publication of Coventry
City’s annual report and accounts show what we already knew
– that the club is deeply in debt and, if it were a company
operating in any other industry, might very well find its future
in serious doubt before many more trading days had passed.
What the accounts don’t show,
as they tell the story of the twelve months up to 31 May 2001,
is that the post-relegation sale of players in the summer,
reduced the debt by around £20-million. So it is down now to a
That puts it on a par with that
carried by many other clubs in the UK, and it is still many
hundreds of millions better than the enormous debt carried by
clubs on the continent. There, however, the big Italian clubs in
particular are sustained by major corporations, Fiat and the
like ensuring that football will get every last lira it needs to
keep their star players happy.
People say that in this country
we have five or six rich clubs and the rest struggle. That is
not quite true, either. We have the richest club in the world
– Manchester United – four or five who do ok, but come
nowhere near United’s financial might – and then a curious
mix of those who seriously struggle, like the Sky Blues and one
or two who keep themselves afloat and some who even make a
profit. Walsall are among the former and League new boys Rushden
& Diamonds among the latter, though their profit amounts to
barely a round of drinks by United’s standards.
But in the real world, the
majority of professional football clubs would be put out of
their misery if the normal rules applied. The comedian Bob Hope
once said: “a bank is a place that will lend you money, if you
can prove that you don’t need it”.
So why do the banks and the other
creditors to whom football at large is in deep hock, allow such
massive debts to roll on?
There have, of course, been some
famous, even notorious instances where they have not and it is
ironic indeed, to remember the day, not so long ago in the
scheme of things when Wolverhampton Wanderers, now buoyed up by
Sir Jack Hayward’s personal fortune, were within hours of
going out of business.
With former Coventry City
defender David Jones as their manager, proving how foolish
Southampton were to presume him guilty until he could prove his
innocence in that bizarre and ridiculous court case, Wolves are
now among the strongest challengers to the Sky Blues in the
First Division promotion battle.
But the clubs who have met their
financial end are few and far between. So why let them continue?
Primarily because they remain the
focal point of so many people’s lives that it would be a brave
or foolish bank manager who pulled the plug.
That said, the banks and others
to whom clubs like Coventry City are in debt demand a certain
level of financial prudence. Not prudence as she is known and
loved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer maybe, but prudence in
that, when the debt creeps or sometimes gallops above a certain
agreed level, the bank will demand urgent action. For most clubs
that means only one thing – the sale of a player.
For a player to reduce the debt
significantly, he would naturally have to be of interest to
other clubs at a point in his contract when he will attract a
sizable fee. Such a player is likely to be a key member of the
current squad and the manager and fans alike will be reluctant
to see him go.
But we can’t have it both ways.
If you want a club where the inevitable debt is managed, you
must resign yourself to saying goodbye to good players fairly
For that to happen you also have
to have good players coming in fairly frequently and for that to
happen you must be able to demonstrate to the bank that you can
buy and sell at a profit.
Few can deny that the ability to
wheel and deal in the transfer market to the club's financial
benefit is something that Sky Blues Chairman Bryan Richardson
has mastered to a tee.
None of us wanted to see Robbie
Keane, John Hartson or Chris Kirkland (to name but a few) leave
the club, but in those cases and many others, the club has made
money out of those transactions – money that has kept the bank
manager at bay.
There are many who have been
genuinely shocked by the latest Sky Blues accounts and many who
are fiercely critical of the Chairman for the salary he draws
and the peripheral financial benefits that have also,
apparently, come his way.
That he is entitled to be paid
for doing a full-time job (as many other Chairmen and, in some
cases, Deputy Chairmen at other clubs are) should, in my view,
not be questioned. We may argue about the amount, but by what
benchmark do you set it? How do you decide what is fair for a
job that is, in part at least, about securing the services of
players who get the same salary several times over?
I share the reservations and
concerns about the ownership, or rather the lack of it, of the
club’s own ground, but I am in no doubt that all that will be
put to bed once the new stadium is built, which it will be.
Those who look back a few years
point to the relatively well-off state the club was in
pre-Premiership. It has never been rich and prosperous like
some, but it always got by.
When Sky TV persuaded twenty
clubs, including Coventry City, to quit the Football League and
form a new elite, everything changed.
Rupert Murdoch’s money meant,
at a stroke, that the game was marketed and presented
differently and that player’s wages and agent’s fees would
soar to unprecedented, previously unimagined levels.
The consequences of living in
that new environment left Coventry City and many other clubs
facing total extinction if they failed to find ways to hang on
alongside the so-called “big clubs”.
Debts soared as a bizarre
consequence of the TV millions being pumped into the game simply
because those millions have never been shared equally. The rich
have got rich, and the rest? Well, look at Coventry City’s
Now Bryan Richardson, loathed by
many for being the man who has kept the club in touch with the
big boys in the only way he knows how, by wheeling and dealing
his way through it all, is credited with being the architect of
the next UK soccer revolution.
TV will not pay the same money
again for the same product. It wants something new. Celtic and
Rangers are part of the answer. A Premiership Division Two is
another. It all presents many pitfalls and problems unless you
tear up what we now have and start again. That is precisely what
the so-called Phoenix League, allegedly drafted by Bryan
So, revile him, criticise him and
protest against him if you will. He will, without doubt face a
stiff examination of his tenure as Chairman at the Annual
General Meeting on 21 December.
But consider, too, what he has
done and what he is trying to do, in a game where money is
everything and the big clubs grab most of it.
Bryan Richardson knows only too
well that money can’t buy you love. I’m not sure it bothers