Roman Abramovich’s 2003 takeover of Chelsea heralded an era of foreign investment in the Premier League. Since then, obscene wealth has poured in thick and fast from across the globe, completely transforming English football. Russian billionaires, Arab royalty and American businessmen seem to be the antithesis of English football’s working class roots, but many fans have embraced them, enjoying their club’s new-found success. Although corporatisation is mainly associated with the ‘big’ clubs, the past fifteen years have seen the majority of Premiership and Championship clubs give in to the temptation of external investment.
Those clubs which cannot attract big money are often at the mercy of British businessmen, who promise to revive them with considerable cash injections. Clubs accept takeover bids in the false hope that they will be able to remain competitive in the Premier League or Championship. However, there are very few British businessmen who can compete with colossal foreign investment. With a few notable exceptions, the Premier League table consistently corresponds to the monetary value of each club’s squad. Manchester City’s is currently worth around £1bn while Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United and Arsenal’s squad values all exceed £500m. Meanwhile, recently relegated Huddersfield’s squad totals just £100m. Generally speaking, the more a club spends in the transfer market, the more likely it is to be successful on the pitch. Beyond the transfer market, big investment allows clubs to splash out on facilities which attract world-class players and dedicate funds to keep them at peak performance. The sort of money pumped into top flight clubs by foreign investors creates an insurmountable chasm for smaller outfits. Left-behind clubs can realistically aspire to a good cup run, a respectable mid-table finish, or even just survival. Many would-be fans of smaller clubs defect to their more glamorous counterparts, unable to resist the allure of superstar players, Champions League football and a genuine shot at the title.
But make no mistake, the domestic businessmen who take over English football clubs are not the plucky underdogs in a patriotic David and Goliath fight against big capital. They are motivated by the same arrogance and greed as overseas investors. The only difference is that they often have comparatively modest assets and are therefore more likely to run into financial difficulty. Wealthy owners repeatedly demonstrate callous disregard for the club’s fans, its staff or its history. Their desire for profit above all else runs clubs into the ground, rendering once-proud clubs a shadow of their former selves.
No stranger to financial difficultly, Bury once again find themselves in crisis and at risk of being consigned to the footballing history books. After going into administration in 2002, Bury have continued their habit of borrowing and over-spending. Shockingly, Steve Dale’s 2018 takeover of the club was accepted by the EFL despite him reportedly failing to show that he had the funds for viable ownership. In recent days, Dale made his profit-motive very clear after refusing an offer to save the club as he deemed it not high enough — despite a letter from the club’s staff imploring him to accept it.
Bolton’s owner Ken Anderson took sole control of the club in 2016, yet in 2005 Anderson was disqualified from being a company director for several years after eight of his companies went into liquidation. The insolvency notice stated that he ‘sought to divert…funds by depositing them into a personal bank account in his own name and invoicing in the name of another connected company’. Anderson’s murky financial past indicated that he may bring the club to the brink of ruin, but he became de facto owner after his takeover of Sports Shield ousted then-owner Dean Holdsworth. The ease with which Anderson was able to take ownership of Bolton via an external company should serve as a stark warning to others.
It is no surprise that many clubs who have encountered financial difficulty are based in post-industrial, economically declining towns. As well as Bury and Bolton, clubs like Morecambe, Oldham, Accrington Stanley, Rotherham and Halifax have all experienced record losses within the last decade — with many at risk of, or having gone into, administration. These small towns, whose cash-strapped councils are struggling after years of government cuts, have little development potential with which to entice overseas investors. In comparison, cities that are already in the throes of gentrification offer abundant investment opportunities with the promise of high returns. Large cities also attract fan bases with more disposable income. Sadly, much of the original working class fan bases of big city clubs have been priced out, but the young professionals, jet-setting businessmen and tourists who frequent London and Manchester are more than happy to pay for the novelty and exclusivity of elite football. Meanwhile, the low-waged populations of less affluent towns simply cannot afford to pay the best part of £100 to see their team play (a seat on the halfway line for a big game at the Emirates will set non-members back £97). All-told, for those whose goal is to accumulate extreme wealth, football clubs based in large cities are a much more attractive investment. Investors with higher spending power cream off these big city clubs and smaller, domestic investors pick off the small town clubs, leaving them more vulnerable to mismanagement and subsequent financial difficulty.
Supporting your local team has never been as important as it is now. Just a few miles from Bury and Bolton, in another North West post-industrial town, Burnley is a shining example of a sensibly run, financially stable football club. Burnley is one of only a handful of British-owned Premier League clubs and, unusually, they do not have a majority shareholder. The club has a strong relationship with its fanbase and would think carefully before undermining this relationship by accepting unsuitable investors. In 2018, director Brendan Flood said that by accepting external investment, ‘you give up some of your control and your identity…If that ever was an opportunity at Burnley we’d do it while maintaining our identity’. A club’s fans are integral to cultivating its identity and so the stronger the fanbase, the more likely the board is to take into account their response when making influential decisions — particularly at smaller clubs.
To prevent more English clubs suffering the same fate as the likes or Bury and Bolton, the FA must bring in measures to make big buyouts more difficult — if not impossible. The Bundesliga offers an example of how clubs can remain competitive without succumbing to the corrupting force of big capital. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke consistently hold their own in the Champions League yet abide by the German FA’s 50+1 rule. The rule stipulates that a club must hold a majority of its own voting rights to ensure that members (and not external investors) maintain overall control.
The 50+1 rule isn’t the only admirable initiative in German football. After Euro 2000, the German FA drafted a 10 year plan, confronting its problems head on. They invested heavily in grassroots football, adopting the approach of the wider national schooling system which combines academic and work-based learning. In German youth academies, the social, educational and psychological development of young players is considered as important as nurturing their footballing talent. Now, with a 2014 World Cup win under their belt, German football boasts one of the most impressive networks of youth academies in the world —academies which have produced the likes of Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer.
It is worth noting that the Labour Party made a handful of football-specific pledges in its 2017 manifesto, including a promise to ‘put fans at the heart of their clubs — by legislating for accredited supporters trusts to be able to appoint and remove at least two club directors and to purchase shares when clubs change hands’. Although this would not prevent takeover by external investors in the same way that the 50+1 rule does, it does at least give fans a modicum of control in the running of their club. Understandably, many fans want to keep politics out of football. However, the involvement of big business and the sheer volume of cash in modern football has already politicised the game beyond fan control. It is time that we, the fans, lobbied for changes to resist and reverse the corporatisation of English football before we lose it forever.
Re-published with permission.