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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 mere £40-million.

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 frequently.

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 accounts.

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 Richardson, proposes.

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 him.

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CWN / Sport / Football / Coventry City FC / Stuart Linnell / 5 Dec 01
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