The Robson Report: killing football in ‘one foul swoop’

Every decent football supporter was outraged by the Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre’s repugnant call for changes to TV rights that would divert more and more money to a handful of “big” clubs. Jeremy Robson is surprised more attention was not given to another corporate threat to the national game, this time from Suits of the imported variety …

Ten of the 20 current Premier League clubs are foreign owned. This would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.

Of the current crop it was Fulham who were the first to be taken over by a foreign investor (Mohammed al Fayed), in 1997, when they were in the third tier. Much has changed in a short period (and that’s no pun or reference to our owner and chairman).

Why is this significant? What difference does it make where the money comes from?

Here’s why. Only a few days ago Richard Bevan (chief executive of the League Managers’ Association) warned that “there are a number of overseas owned clubs already talking about bringing about the avoidance or promotion and relegation in the Premier League”.

Under current PL rules, 14 of the 20 clubs must agree if any major changes are made to the format of the league. The implicit message from Mr Bevan is that the foreign owners are all in favour of getting rid of relegation. There is clearly, in his view at least, some sort of consensus that another four or five PL clubs falling into the hands of foreign investors could put an end to the pyramid structure of football in England which has existed in many different forms since football leagues were first established.

Perennial relegation strugglers, and yo-yo clubs may rejoice in the thought that they are at last safe from the perils of relegation and the financial implosion which so often results as sure as night follows day. But the threat Mr Bevan identifies is real and very clear.

A quick analysis of the ownership of the clubs heading the Championship shows that foreign money is not just running the top tier.

Southampton were taken over by a Swiss national Markus Liebherr, an engineering technology magnate who took over in July 2009. Derby County are owned by GSE a US Sports and Entertainment marketing firm. Bucking the ownership trend, Crystal Palace has been owned by a consortium of wealthy fans since the close season of 2010. Similarly, Ipswich Town is owned by Marcus Evans, a Suffolk businessman. Peterborough Utd is owned by Darragh MacAnthony a Florida based Irishman who made a fortune selling time share.

Blackpool have an English owner, the convicted rapist Owen Oyston. Continuing the unsavoury theme West Ham are British owned by two Davids; Gold and Sullivan, the former the son of an East End criminal and the latter a pornographer of some stature. (And, did someone say foreign money was dirty?). Not to be pedantic but 35 per cent of West Ham is still owned by the Icelandic Straumar-Burdaras Bank.

Some appreciation of where ownership lies of clubs just outside the top flight makes Mr Bevan’s concerns all the more understandable. He presumably made his comments in the hope that something can be done to prevent the meltdown and destruction of what is arguably the cornerstone of our national game. It’s easier if you know who owns a football club, of course, and there seems to be some confusion about that at Elland Road when Leeds Utd’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, told the House of Commons Select Committee for culture, media and sport that (between 2005 and 2011) he didn’t know who the owners were, and perhaps more significantly that “to my knowledge” neither did his chairman, Ken Bates (full article on this at this BBC link). Very strange you may think, but absolutely true, and particularly worrying at this time. It’s difficult to fight your enemy when you don’t know who your enemy is.

As I write this article Blackburn, Bolton and Wigan lie in the relegation zone of the PL. Southampton and West Ham occupy the automatic promotion places, followed by Middlesbrough, Derby County and indeed Leeds as a proverbial “Trojan Horse”.

It’s not inconceivable that the current bottom three clubs could be relegated from the PL at the end of the season. It’s not stretching credibility to suggest that Saints, West Ham and Derby could all achieve promotion this season. All are foreign owned or partly foreign owned. Only Blackburn of the three sides dropping down are foreign owned. Half of what Richard Bevan might consider a “buffer” against removing relegation would be gone in one foul swoop.

The “buffer” could be removed altogether by the end of the 2012/13 season if the relegation places were filled by either Newcastle (hopefully!), Wolves, Swansea etc with promotion places being taken by say Birmingham, Leicester, and Millwall.

This would create the precise situation that Richard Bevan fears. It’s surprising therefore that so little attention has been paid to his comments. Within the next 18 months, it is possible that Premier League owners could completely destroy one of the fundamental tenets of the league structure. The consequence of abandoning relegation does not bear thinking about. The image of newly promoted clubs pulling up the ladder behind them is unthinkable and would kill football for ever.

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22 thoughts on “The Robson Report: killing football in ‘one foul swoop’”

  1. Maybe what we are heading for is better than what we currently have. The big guns can trot off to join some super Euro elite and we can have a more competetive league which is not run for shareholders etc.

  2. Wise words Hilary. Personally I wouldn’t mind if a top few clubs went their own way whilst the Sunderlands, Boltons, Derbys, Albions etc. ended up in a less wealthy but more competitive league structure.

  3. As a postscript, it is not only the UK and Europe which are subject to economic pressure and intimations of decline,but also the US. Obviously if the US withdraw from investment in English football, China et al may take over. However if there are falling gates at teams outside the upper reaches of the Premiership, less prominent clubs will become less attractive a proposition for investment. I believe that things will change in the next ten years one way or another, and it might just be that teams outside the holy circle will return to a less corporate more local culture. Ver hard to predict the impact of the changing political and economic orser , but there will be change and it will touch everything.

  4. I agree with much of this, Malcolm. However I do wonder about the impact of the changing economic climate on the culture of football. Obviously the North East is going to take a bigger hit than the rest of the country it seems. It is very difficult to predict the economic future, but all the signs would indicate that we are in for a period of decline, possibly serious decline.

    It may very well be that global brands such as Man U, Man City etc survive as they are, but I wonder how economic change will affect teams like Sunderland which are not necessarily good box office in Sky terms. There might be an international superleague which feeds into the global media. Who knows, but if times are harder I don’t see fans continuing to cheerfully hand over their money to see obscenely well paid footballers often fail to provide good entertainment on a Saturday afternoon. I think we entering a period of changed perspectives and challenge to the post Thatcher order, and I do think somewhere along the line a large number of football fans will begin to challenge the status quo as they see the gap betwen North and South and ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ get ever wider.

  5. It is unsurprising that as American owners begin to have more influence in the English leagues they will look to the North American models for ideas about how they can earn more money and dominate the “market”. The NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB all group their clubs into Divisions and Conferences with no promotion or relegation. The winners (and wild cards) go into a knock out for the Super Bowl, Stanley Cup etc.

    I doubt that supporters voting with their feet will even enter their thinking. To most of us, who grew up with football before the Premier League, our local clubs were run by local people. These were generally businessmen whose knowledge of football merited a blank page in Shack’s book, but were nevertheless generally people who recognised the importance of their club to the supporters and the local area.

    The game is not what it was and to foreign owners, their club is a franchise – a brand to exploit. When I was growing up in Hetton everyone at my school who followed football supported Sunderland and if they wanted fast food used the Silver Grid on Market Street for a tanner’s worth of chips and batter. We may have had a passing fascination with Dukla Prague or Sporting Lisbon, but only because they had played some English team in the European Cup or a testimonial game.

    The majority of young people today are no less enthusiastic about football, but in a different way to previous generations. Exposure to the game on a massive scale has created a situation where many (not all by any means but a sizeable percentage) identify with a team totally unconnected to their geographical location.

    Clubs are brands. Ask kids today what their favourite fast food is and many will say MacDonalds or KFC rather than their local chippy. I’m afraid we dinosaurs walking out to watch Unibond, Northern League or Zamoretta Central teams will never outweigh the marketing opportunities to sell replica shirts and other branded items in Asia, Africa North America etc. etc.

    SNQ’s new position in the club reflects this trend so don’t be surprised if Ellis Short is having “informal chats” with the Glasers, Venkys and Henrys of this world.

    As I once again contemplate turning my back on the Premier League I am preparing to set off with the hope that a decent showing against the American owned Villa could be the start of the turn around. Brand loyalty (and optimism) are terrible things!

  6. What a wonderful sentiment expressed in that post Hilary. Lovely!

    At one point earlier in this debate or even in the original article, I almost made reference to the frequently used quotation from Oscar Wilde about “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

    I’ve never quite understood the need for money in football. It serves no real purpose other than to overfill the already well lined pockets of greedy players and their agents. Asamoah Gyan didn’t bring 13M quids worth of pleasure to Sunderland any more than Jordan Henderson relieved us of 20M quids worth of pleasure when he departed. Money just brings fripperies and the bad stuff. All you need to play football is a field, a ball and 22 keen players. Strictly speaking you don’t even need goalposts as jumpers will do.

    I feel surrounded by fellow dinosaurs on this thread and I love it. It’s a beautiful thing.

  7. I agree about the play off games in the Championship being more engaging than what happens at the top of the Premiership. Local rivalry aside, I am watching Middlesbrough keenly this year and do have an interest in Derby’s fate, mainly because of Nigel Clough. In the post Thatcher/Blair world in which we live, I enjoy seeing the success of towns and teams with a long history in the Football League and for which some success acts as an antidote, or some compensation, for the social and economic pressures that they have to endure. This is where I was touched by Niall Quinn’s vision for Sunderland, which was as much about the morale and well being of the people and the City itself, as the Club-these things should be inextricably connected.

    I agree with Joan that fans should start to vote with their feet and their Sky subscriptions, if football is removed further and further from their interests. Child of the sixties that I am , I believe we have become too passive whan it comes to the extreme and obscene commercialisation of everything. There are signs in the wider world of growing resistance to corporate greed which I hope are infectious and spread to the world of football.

  8. I completely agree. It’s reached the stage where one of the promoted teams (and its usually the one that gets promoted via the play offs) automatically becomes my second favourite team. It was Hull two seasons ago, Blackpool last and for me it’s the Swans this time.

    The same old hackneyed and cliched battle of the giants at the top of the PL holds no interest for me. Come the end of the season the play off games in the Championship are the highlight of the season for me. Forget the European Finals these days.

  9. It’s why Blackpool was such a breath of spring last season and why I’m loving what Norwich is doing. No superstars, no huge bankroll, just a good attitude, a real work ethic and an entertaining style of play. That’s the REAL beautiful game.

  10. That’s a great point you make Joan. For many years the financial aspects of football have been increasingly controlled by the big clubs. The “big six” wanted the PL to control TV revenue, which came hot on the heels of the changing ruling which allowed home sides to keep gate receipts and not split. The grossly devalued FA Cup and League Cup are the result of the greed of the fat cats who draw more and more money out of European football, which at the same time has begun to tarnish for the majority of the football public. The fans no longer count for anything, if indeed they counted for much before. Gate revenue is no longer the lifeblood of football. TV revenue and merchandise are.

    It sickens me when you point out to some people that the current way that football operates is killing clubs such as Notts County and Tranmere Rovers, Aldershot and Bradford. These clubs are part and parcel of what football is in England, and frankly I am far more concerned with the well being of clubs like this than I could ever care about the so called big guns. Less than 15 years ago Man City were in the third tier. Through merit, and now money they sit at the top of the pyramid. Denial of the opportunity to compete fairly is part of the mandate of the top clubs and their cartel. Protecting their position is all that matters to them. The only way that the fans can really make a stand would be to stop going to games at all; effectively go on strike, and to cancel the TV subscriptions.

    The current PL is something that Thatcher must love, because its focus is on money making, and is completely without empathy for the game itself which has made all these things possible. It’s also the very reason I have such contempt for it.

  11. To predict that changes in the way that the game is run will lead to its ultimate demise is perhaps a little extreme Ian. Forgive me for that. However, despite the fact that we are told that the game is better to watch and more family friendly, blah blah blah, I have to say that I still yearn for Roker and the terraces, as well as the cameraderie that went with it. I still miss the opportunity to laugh at the calamitous play of the likes of Armstrong and Owers etc. Is it better these days? Supposedly, but I don’t enjoy it as much and I sadly expect that I will enjoy football less and less. I know that this is very much how Bill feels from comments elsewhere. “Progress” isn’t everyone’s progress and it doesn’t guarantee that things get better.

  12. The Thatcher government excelled at mooting the most outrageous ideas so that when they then brought in something slightly less outrageous people were relieved. Maybe they’re softening us up for something else. Although I agree with chatnoir that football is resilient it can only stretch so far. A lot of people on here have been saying that it wouldn’t take a lot for them to stop going to matches. If something like this were to happen, hopefully there’d be a mass protest by supporters, and if enough people stopped going the PL would have to take notice.

  13. I think football is more resilient than we give credit.

    In 1966 when the wage cap was demolished, popular prejudice said this would be the end of the beautiful game. I mean, players being paid £100 a week? Ridiculous; *can* you imagine…

    When Trevor Francis was sold for £1m, again popular prejudice said this would be the death of football. That was in 1978, and football is still going strong.

    It’s a funny (and sad) thing to have such an integral part of one’s culture flogged about the world. I can understand the frustration of Man United or Arsenal or Liverpool supporters who feel their clubs have lost their local identity. I can sympathise with Man City and Chelsea supporters whose clubs have recently been deluged with (sometimes foreign) glory supporters.

    But the Premier League (and we may speak of La Liga and Serie A in the same breath) is a commodity now, whether we like it or not.

    We were the first big league to allow foreign owners, but in the last few years Americans and Arabs have taken charge at some massive continental clubs (Roma, PSG, Barcelona). It’s intriguing to watch their situations play out.

    I’d be surprised if in the next few years UEFA did not convene a meeting where this issue was discussed, actually. Ian Ayre may be a pompous arse, but he’s not wrong about the huge money-making potential of certain European clubs across the world. La Liga is at present struggling with the issue of television rights, as foreign distrubution is almost exclsuively dominated by Real Madrid and Barca.

    If salary caps are to be re-introduced, it really ought to be a European initiative, otherwise the PL could lose much of the best talent (Brits included– being born in the home nations doesn’t make one allergic to avarice!) to leagues that will pay their exorbitant salaries.

    But as I say, I cannot envisage a point where the FA would allow relegation to ended; I really can’t.

  14. I think there should be a cap on the number of foreign PLAYERS in the premier league. With the influx of foreign owners comes the cash needed to buy costly European stars who edge out of the team their English counterparts. Man City is an extreme example, but I think its true, for example, that Adam Johnston should be playing regularly in the PL instead of mostly benchwarming. This affects our National team.
    Don’t some baseball leagues have a cap on the number of foreign players? I think so.
    We could also consider a transfer fee and wage cap. Then the day might come when we can’t actually predict at the start of the season who will be 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place.

  15. Can’t believe they would allow such a development.I for one, would stop going to football matches if it happened.

    I always thought it likely the top PL teams would eventually leave and set up a European Super League of some sort.The European Championship is ceratinly losing some of its lustre(eg games like Chelsea v Genk).

  16. The obscene money that is thrown around in the Premiership these days almost guarantees that worst-case-scenarios eventually come to pass – everything from individual players, such as Gyan, who move around like shits that pass in the night, to clubs (or at least club owners) who, with the TV companies backing them up, come to believe that they’re bigger than the game itself.
    Like Jeremy, I have no faith in the FA to veto a move like this if sufficient owners decided they really wanted to end relegation. I see two possible scenarios following:
    One is that it could backfire on them in making the season far less meaningful. With no vested interest in seeing their club stay up or go down, a significant number of fans might start staying away.
    But what would be more likely, I think, would be an increase in the number of brand-name teams, such as ManU and Chelsea, attracting supporters from around the world with no real knowledge of or interest in individual sides or players (other than the so-called superstars) but who like wearing the gear and attaching themselves to the brand. (This was brought home to me a few years ago when I visited Singapore and one of the first things I saw was a large store devoted to ManU merchandise. It was obviously flourishing.)
    The Premiership would become an expensive – even more than it is now – irrelevancy. Scant comfort to the real fans who would be robbed of something absolutely fundamental to the sport: meaningful competition.
    But that’s not something the accountants take into consideration.

  17. Thanks for your kind words Hilary. although I’m far from convinced that anyone is really aware of the consequences of foreign ownership if they find themselves in a situation where collective action to overturn promotion and relegation actually becomes possible. Any owners seriously contemplating such a move are hardly likely to be shouting out their objectives from the rooftops. I would inclined to take Scudamore’s assurances with a pinch of salt (chat noir) as we live in times where rapid change is the norm.

    We all know too, that what the PL big hitters want, then the PL big hitters get. The constant ebb and flow of promotion and relegation is arguably the real competition within the structure of the professional leagues as the silverware in the higher echelon is the preserve of a select cartel. Wigan weren’t even in the league at all 35 years ago and look at them now. The opportunity to rise through the ranks through merit must remain even if the rest of the whole show is now a plutocracy.

    To think that a top division would remove the opportunity for clubs to reach the pinnacle of the game through hard work and talent is unpalatable. I look forward to seeing the return to the top division for the likes of the two Sheffield clubs (who I have a real soft spot for). Wasn’t it great to see Blackpool return albeit briefly and to see Hull take points off the big guns in their first ever season? I get sick of seeing Chelsea and Man Utd etc.

  18. Thank you Jeremy, for such a clear explanation of this situation. I had seen reference to this proposed change, but hadn’t understood the impetus for it, nor its real significance. This idea is very worrying and as you rightly say, would kill the English game.

    Hard to know what the implications of the current international economic crisi will be for football here. Many of these foreign owners could pull out and it maybe ultimately that football returns to its community roots, albeit perhaps without brand Man U etc. That is obviously an optimistic and perhaps naive view. There will inevitably be significant changes of some kind should the economic downturn continue.

  19. Interesting reading.

    Re: the Richard Bevan announcement, though, Richard Scudamore recently issued a firm denial that there was any sort of ‘foreign plot’ to cease promotion/relegation.

    He told the BBC: “I have an open dialogue with all of [the owners] and I am probably in the best position of anybody to understand where the clubs are at and what the mood is and there is not one of them is contemplating that [proposal]. A vague reference to American owners – I have spoken to them all and they are appalled at the idea they’ve been dragged into scaremongering around this idea of no relegation.”

    Scudamore admitted that the scrapping of promotion/relegation was something that a few of the owners had discussed, but not necessarily with a view of implementing it here.

    Also worth noting that whilst 14 of the 20 clubs are needed to approve any changes to the structure of the Premier League, the FA has the power to veto. And frankly, I cannot conceive of a situation where the FA would allow this to happen.

    But as I say, it is an interesting situation. And with the profligation of American owners, this issue seems to rear its ugly head at least once a season.

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