Good of the game

** The below is a chapter from a book I am currently writing. I am looking for representation; if you are interested I am on twitter @RobFrancis82 **

I: Accrington

When mounting debts led to Accrington Stanley resigning from the Football League in March 1962, it was rare for football clubs to find themselves at real risk of liquidation. So Accrington’s fall from grace would have come as something of a surprise, particularly as they were in rude health just a few years previously.

In April 1955, over fifteen thousand showed up at Peel Park to watch Stanley battle to a 2–2 draw against York City, with both sides chasing promotion to Division Two. Accrington finished the season as runners-up, missing out on promotion by four points, and under manager Walter Galbraith, they would finish no lower than third for the next four seasons. With Stanley in the midst of another promotion battle in 1958, the directors decided to buy a new stand. This new stand could house nearly five thousand fans and appeared a bargain at £1,450. However, when agreeing the purchase, the directors had failed to account for the expenses of dismantling, transporting, and rebuilding the stand, which reportedly swelled the bill to ten times the original cost.

This expenditure had to be met by reductions in playing costs. Disgruntled, Galbraith resigned at the start of the 1958/59 season and Stanley struggled to adjust to life in the new de-regionalised third tier. Relegation to Division Four followed in 1960, as crowds began to dwindle and players were sold off to plug the financial holes. It didn’t help. Gates slid to 2,000, and in December 1961 Accrington were put under a transfer embargo as they owed £3,000 to other clubs.

The Football League began to inquire about the club’s financial position in February 1962, and in desperation the board brought in Burnley chairman Bob Lord to advise, who concluded that the situation was hopeless and Accrington should resign from the league. The Stanley directors sent a letter of resignation to the Football League, before news of Accrington’s plight spread and offers of financial support started pouring in; one man reportedly brought his life savings of £10,000 to the ground. A second letter was sent to the league requesting that the resignation be withdrawn, but Football League secretary Alan Hardaker claimed that precedent meant he had no choice but to accept the first letter sent and remove Accrington from the league.

It seems a bizarre decision on Hardaker’s part, when Accrington believed they had sufficient funds to complete the season, and the league certainly had other options than simply ignoring the second letter. Hardaker’s autobiography makes no mention of the only club to resign from the Football League in his twenty year term as secretary, but he does state his belief that the game “is a great co-operative, and if everyone stuck together and worked together there would be almost nothing that could not be achieved”, while bemoaning football’s “great confusion of priorities”.

Refusing to entertain the prospect of Accrington Stanley being saved remains a mystifying choice. Perhaps part of the problem was the inadequacy of the League’s organisation; Hardaker describes an institution clearly unfit for purpose when he took the top job in 1957. Further, there was no real precedent for what to be done with a club in such a financial mess. There was simply no established process for an understaffed and amateurish governing body to follow. Nowadays, by contrast, football administration is rather more professional, and, sadly, is rather more well-versed in what happens when clubs are on the brink.

It is commonplace to point the finger at the Premier League for all that is wrong in football today. To look at how inequality has grown in the game in recent years, at how trophies are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, at clubs lower down the pyramid struggling to survive whilst the elite few gorge themselves on lucrative television and sponsorship deals, and to assume that all of this began with the breakaway league in 1992. It is a tempting narrative, but the Premier League was more a step on a journey already well underway in football than a complete break; more accelerant added to a blaze than the spark which started the fire.

While the story of football insolvencies really begins in earnest in the early 1980s, with famous old clubs such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bristol City, Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough finding themselves in serious difficulty, some of the reasons for why the game has got into such a mess date back even further than that. To understand more about football and its financial context, we need to start by reaching back in time.

II: Sunderland

When Alan Hardaker took up the Football League reins in 1957, one of the more interesting items in his in-tray was an anonymous letter, alleging irregular payments at Sunderland. At the time, rules stated that players would be paid no more than a wage set by the league, which by the late 1950s was £17 per week. The maximum wage rule was introduced by the FA in 1901, to keep the competition equal and stop players from being able to sell their talent to the wealthiest clubs. At the time the maximum wage was imposed, the level was set at around double what a skilled tradesman was paid, but by the time Hardaker opened his inquiry into Sunderland, the rule was looking outdated and unfair. Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan hailed the increasing affluence and rising living standards in July 1957, famously declaring that Britons “have never had it so good”. Yet the growing wealth meant that footballers’ wages had begun to fall behind the average worker; every weekend, thousands of supporters attended matches to cheer on players who were earning less than them. Further, club chairmen were under pressure from abroad, as European clubs realised that players could be tempted away by the promise of wages far above what could be commanded in England. Eddie Firmani moved from Charlton Athletic to Sampdoria in 1955, earning £100 a week, and John Charles famously swapped Leeds United for Juventus, where he finished as Serie A’s top scorer in 1958 and won three league titles.

Given this context, it was well known that players would on occasion receive under-the-counter payments from clubs, and on occasion regular offenders would be punished. But after going through Sunderland’s accounts, Hardaker could find nothing untoward and was about to give up on the allegations, when his eye was drawn to a pencil note on the draft accounts, asking “where do I post this?”. The item in question was a sum of a few thousand pounds for straw. This was not uncommon at the time, as some clubs would cover their pitches with straw in inclement weather. Still, Hardaker called on his brother Ernest, chairman at Hull Rugby League Club, and asked whether £3,000 was a reasonable amount to pay for a winter’s worth of straw. “Blow me,” Ernest replied, “for that, we’d manage for twenty-five seasons”. Some digging revealed that Sunderland had been paying contractors for straw they knew they would never receive, then upon delivery of a smaller amount they would get the difference back in cash and pass this on to their players. Sunderland were fined £5,000 — the biggest fine ever issued by a club — and some of the directors were banned from football.

In a different time, this may have been the end of the matter, as this was certainly not the first time that the FA had flexed its muscles over clubs breaking the rules around pay. Just four years after the wage ceiling was introduced, Manchester City went to Villa Park for their final league game of the 1904/05 season, needing a win to have any chance of taking the title. After the final whistle blew on a 3–2 home victory which ended City’s dreams of silverware, a confrontational game spilled over into fighting, with Villa captain Alec Leake coming to blows with one of the visiting players. The FA launched an investigation into the violence, which exposed a wider scandal; Leake claimed that City forward Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game. Meredith denied all charges, but was found guilty in a closed inquiry and banned for a year. Furious with what he saw as Manchester City’s failure to support him through the case and subsequent suspension, Meredith retaliated by revealing the club’s practice of paying players above the maximum wage. When the dust settled, seventeen City players and the manager were fined and suspended, and the club were forced to sell their players at auction on top of facing a hefty fine.

After returning from his ban, Meredith was instrumental in setting up the Players’ Union, which met for the first time in late 1907. This footballers’ trade union sought to remove or relax regulations on wages and transfers, but a threatened strike in 1909 fizzled out; the FA made minor concessions on union recognition and bonus payments, but the maximum wage remained. The Players’ Union continued lobbying with little success, even finding themselves forced onto the defensive in the 1920s as the league cut weekly wages on the recommendation of the clubs. But in 1957, when Alan Hardaker decided to pursue Sunderland players for accepting illegal payments, threatening them with expulsion from the professional game, he met with resistance that grew into something far bigger than some extra bales of straw.

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Around the same time Alan Hardaker was taking charge at the Football League, in November 1956 Jimmy Hill was elected as Chairman of the Players’ Union. Hill played as a forward first with Brentford and then Second Division Fulham, and alongside Johnny Haynes he helped fire the Cottagers back into the top-flight in 1959. He was to attack his new union role with the same gusto.

When Alan Hardaker sought to punish six Sunderland players for receiving under-the-table payments by banning them from the game, Jimmy Hill recognised it was his duty as PFA Chairman to defend them, but also, he perhaps spotted an opportunity. Hill knew that the practice of illegal payments was widespread, and so he spent a week frantically driving around the country, gathering signatures from as many players as he could find who would admit to accepting wages above the maximum. Hill managed to get over 250 signatures and presented them to the League, arguing that to single out these Sunderland players when they were clearly not the only guilty footballers was manifestly unfair. The saga ended with the six avoiding playing bans, and even the lesser penalties were overturned on appeal in 1962, but it also gave a shot in the arm to the cause of abolishing the maximum wage; if the practice of illegal payments was so prevalent, clearly the wage ceiling had become untenable.

In 1958, Hill rebranded the union as the Professional Footballers’ Association; a name more in keeping with how Hill saw footballers, as professionals in the entertainment industry rather than blue-collar workers. This was one of Hill’s arguments against the maximum wage; footballers were highly skilled, in a profession where employment was highly uncertain, dependent on fitness and form, where players would be looking for another career by the age of forty. Their market equals were television and theatre — Hill pointed to footballers in the late 1950s such as Johnny Haynes and Bobby Charlton being paid to advertise products, where the market would decide their worth, and asked why the same was not true for football. He was not asking for an increase to the maximum wage in line with rising affluence in society; he was pushing for abolition. Hill was fortunate that his opponents seemed rather keen to play into his hands.

Perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, in 1958 the Football League’s Management Committee suggested that its member clubs might want to consider a significant increase in the maximum wage, from £20 to £25 per week. This was resoundingly rejected, and the clubs also refused to sanction the Management Committee to negotiate with players on their behalf. Some of the wiser chairmen reportedly confided in Alan Hardaker after the meeting that this was a huge mistake, and from the clubs’ point of view, this would certainly be the case.

After struggling to arrange a meeting for some eighteen months, the PFA finally managed to discuss the situation with the League Management Committee in December 1959. Jimmy Hill made his complaints, which by his account fell on deaf ears, but the League did agree to raise the issues with the club chairmen. The New Year brought a couple of minor concessions from the clubs but no movement on the substantive points, and so in February 1960 the PFA referred the whole matter to the Ministry of Labour. Discussions continued through the year, until November, when an Extraordinary General Meeting was called for the League Management Committee to put some of the ideas around wages and other points to the club chairmen.

Hill was nervous at this point, fearing that a commitment to a higher maximum wage could slow any momentum building behind the campaign to abolish the wage ceiling entirely; a decent increase in weekly pay might have been enough to take the sting out of the situation and secure the players’ backing. As it turned out, he didn’t need to worry. The clubs’ offer was obviously thin gruel, with more tinkering around the edges, but the key issues left unaddressed; this meagre proposal electrified the PFA’s campaigning, with players seeing the clubs’ decision as a slap in the face. The Management Committee continued to urge compromise, with the clubs beginning to give ground around Christmastime once notice was given of the players’ intent to strike. But the chairmen had left it too long by this point, the players refused to give ground, and the maximum wage was removed in January 1961.

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More than the issue at hand, the maximum wage abolition also brought to the fore two very different points of view around how the game should be run, in a microcosm of how British society would change over the second half of the 20th century. Alan Hardaker was instinctively a universalist, believing that the good of the league should be placed ahead of the right of individual players to earn whatever the clubs would pay. In his autobiography, Hardaker writes that he didn’t think “many of the men responsible for the decision even remotely saw the harm it was going to do to League football”. Noting that the number of players registered with Football League clubs fell from 3,500 to 2,500 over the twenty years following abolition, Hardaker states that “freedom is a word with two faces”. His understanding of how football should operate was Keynesian, of a piece with the British post-war settlement, seeing the League as a “great co-operative”.

Hill saw matters in a very different way. During a meeting in 1957, when Football League President Joe Richards began a sentence with “For the good of the game, I suggest — “, Hill reportedly cut him off by saying “We’re not interested in the good of the game. We’re only here to talk about our members”. This would have been anathema to Hardaker, but Hill’s outlook neatly anticipated changes in Britain.

Hill was a moderniser and an innovator. As well as getting rid of wage ceilings, he established players’ freedom of movement once their contracts had expired, and was instrumental in bringing in three points for a win and replacing goal average with goal difference, in order to encourage more attacking, exciting play. Hill believed that football was not a co-operative but a commodity, one which should be subject to free market competition just like any other. At Coventry City in the 1960s he helped overhaul the club, introducing the first colour matchday programme, first electronic scoreboard, and pre-match entertainment, as well as pushing Highfield Road towards becoming the first all-seater stadium in English football.

Football clubs and the matchday experience being products in the marketplace may be self-evident today, but it would have seemed an alien concept to football fans attending matches in the 1950s. The removal of the maximum wage introduced an element of financial competition between clubs which the League had always previously been keen to avoid, on the grounds that it would lead to great inequalities within the game. Hill’s success in 1961 was a big step on the road towards the Premier League and the game as we know it today.

III: Kettering

Scrapping the maximum wage inevitably began to drive inequality within the game, as better-supported clubs found themselves able to outbid teams with smaller fan bases. But there were other factors pushing football in the same direction. One consequence of rising post-war affluence was that the proportion of households with a car grew from 15% in 1951 to over 50% by the end of the 1960s. This, along with the development of new roads, allowed bigger clubs to draw supporters from further afield, whilst draining fans away from smaller towns.

Bale (1989) shows that in 1951, the four big north-west clubs (Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City and Manchester United) recorded 40 per cent of the annual football attendance, a figure that swelled to 50 per cent in 1961 and 66 per cent a decade later. At the same time the big city clubs were taking a larger proportion of crowds, the total number of spectators coming through the turnstiles was falling. Attendances peaked in the 1948/49 season and then, barring a couple of blips, steadily declined until the 1980s. Increased wealth, mobility and leisure opportunities meant fewer people heading to the football on a Saturday, and the lower divisions were being squeezed most of all. One enterprising non-league club had an idea of how to plug the financial gap.

Derek Dougan is probably best known for his goalscoring exploits with Wolverhampton Wanderers, helping the Molineux side to the UEFA Cup final in 1972 and a League Cup triumph two years later. Like Billy Meredith and Jimmy Hill, Dougan was also a union man, and like Meredith and Hill before him, he would help shape the game. Dougan served as PFA Chairman for eight years from 1970, and it was during this time that he joined Southern League Premier Division side Kettering Town as player-manager and chief executive. After negotiating with a local business, his players took to the field against Bath City in January 1976 with “Kettering Tyres” branded on their shirts. This was the first shirt sponsorship deal in England, reportedly worth “four figures”, and the FA was quick to demand its removal. Dougan took away the final four letters, claiming that “Kettering T” was just the name of the team, but the Football Association saw through the clever ruse, threatening a fine if Kettering continued to disobey.

FA Secretary Ted Croker was resistant to the principle of shirt sponsorship, fearing that sponsors would only be interested in clubs who regularly appear on television. Just like Alan Hardaker before him, Croker worried that increasing commercialisation would not be for the good of the game. And just like Jimmy Hill, Derek Dougan didn’t give up. The following year, backed by Bolton Wanderers and Derby County, Kettering’s bid to change the rules was accepted by the FA. Liverpool became the first top-flight club to agree a shirt sponsorship deal, with Hitachi in 1979.

Reds chairman John Smith predicted that shirt sponsorship would soon become the norm due to football’s financial struggles, which had become more acute in the light of a European Commission ruling in 1978 overturning a long-standing FA ban on foreign players. Two of Argentina’s World Cup winning squad, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, made their debuts for Tottenham Hotspur that autumn; suddenly England’s top clubs were competing to recruit not just the country’s finest players but the world’s.

The introduction of shirt sponsorship was not all plain sailing. Both the BBC and ITV initially refused to show highlights from any matches which featured branded shirts, and so clubs were required to don unsponsored kits when their games were going to be shown. Coventry City aimed to get around this problem by incorporating the logo of their sponsor, Talbot, into the design of their strip in 1981, but the Sky Blues found themselves effectively blackballed by the broadcasters as a result.

The highlights of Aston Villa’s 4–1 win over Brighton in October 1980, a result which sent Villa top of the league, were never shown, because Seagulls manager Alan Mullery refused a request to have his team play in sponsor-free shirts, leaving the news cameras unable to film. But eventually, as part of TV contract negotiations in 1983, the television companies and the league accepted the reality of shirt sponsorship. This would prove to be a very lucrative new revenue stream for football, but, as Ted Croker understood, advertising space which would be seen on television or by large crowds was much more valuable to companies wishing to promote their brand; shirt sponsorship would further drive the growing financial inequalities in the game.

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The same year saw some other major steps towards a more financialised and more unequal national sport. In the late nineteenth century, the FA allowed all professional football clubs to form private limited companies, but restricted the level of profits which could be distributed to shareholders, as well as preventing directors from drawing a salary or being able to profit from a club being wound up. This was later codified as Rule 34 and the intent was clear; football clubs were there to serve the community, not to make money for its owners. This rule lasted until 1983, when Tottenham Hotspur announced their intention to float on the London Stock Exchange, and asked the FA whether they could form a holding company in order to get around those restrictions on dividends; certainly, removing an upper limit on the amount that could be paid to shareholders would be a big boost for the flotation. The FA failed to defend the principle that Rule 34 was there to establish, and let Spurs get on with it. Tottenham Hotspur PLC, the holding company, listed in October, rendering the decades-old constraints on dividends and director salaries immediately irrelevant.

The driving force behind Tottenham’s share listing was Irving Scholar, a property developer, entrepreneur, and lifelong Spurs fan. Scholar, who joined the Tottenham board in 1982, was part of a wave of new directors in the early 1980s who were to transform the way football clubs were run. Previously, the role of a director or chairman at a League club was understood to be more like a custodian, putting something back into the community, ensuring the town has a team to be proud of. For sure, individual directors may not always have lived up to these ideals, but this was the ethos. The entry of entrepreneurs and businessman keen to apply the logic of the marketplace to football played a big part in smashing this culture. The contrast between the old world and the new is best summed up by Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood’s belief that David Dein’s investment in the club was “crazy”, that pumping money into football was “dead money”. Dein clearly had a better idea of where football was heading; he has since seen a fantastic return on his initial investment. David Dein first bought into Arsenal in 1983. Martin Edwards became Manchester United chief executive a year earlier. Ken Bates picked up Chelsea for £1 in 1982. Along with Irving Scholar and others, these new directors saw football clubs as any other business, subject to the rigours of the free market, with a loyal customer base which could be turned to a profit. The idea of sharing revenues in an egalitarian way made no sense to owners who saw other clubs as commercial rivals, and the big clubs began to lobby against redistributive measures currently in place.

Up until 1983, the gate receipts were shared equally between the home and away teams, with a 4% levy accruing to the League and then being split evenly amongst all ninety-two clubs. This helped level the playing field, but with rising transfer fees and players’ wages and falling attendances, the wealthy clubs were increasingly reluctant to cross-subsidise smaller teams, and so the gate sharing was scrapped, with the match levy being cut to 3% in 1986 before disappearing entirely upon the advent of the Premier League. Getting to keep all their gate receipts was certainly a victory for the big clubs, and one which represented a significant cost for teams in the lower leagues, but the big prize was television.

When Match of the Day launched in 1964, it was hardly welcomed by the clubs or the Football League. The prevailing belief in football at the time was that putting matches or even highlights on television would deter crowds; the identity of the first game to be shown was kept under wraps until 4pm so as to not deflate the attendance. In the event, only 20,000 tuned in to watch highlights of Liverpool’s 3–2 win over Arsenal that evening, fewer than went through the turnstiles, though this was in part because the programme could only be picked up in the London area. Interest grew significantly in the wake of the 1966 World Cup, but the money involved was still fairly trivial; the BBC paid just £3,000 for the rights in 1964/65, and broadcasting revenue was split equally between all league clubs. ITV and the BBC carved the highlights up between themselves through the 1970s and 1980s, and the broadcasting deal struck in 1983 guaranteed regular, live, top flight English football for the first time; ITV showed matches on a Sunday afternoon whilst the BBC experimented with a Friday evening slot. The 1983 deal was worth £5.2 million over two years and again was shared out evenly, so each club took around £28,000 per year as a result. Negotiations for the next deal did not go as smoothly.

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By the mid-1980s, English football was in a dreadful state. A lack of investment going back decades had left grounds crumbling, dirty, and unsafe. Hooliganism was rife; 81 people were injured in one of the worst domestic incidents, when an FA Cup Quarter-Final between Luton Town and Millwall in March 1985 was marred by rioting. And May of the same year saw awful tragedies at Heysel, Bradford, and Birmingham. Unsurprisingly, all of the above factors made football an unappealing prospect, and attendances, which had been declining for decades, crashed to an all-time low. Given this context, it is perhaps understandable that when the time came to agree a new television deal, the broadcasters and the Football League were miles apart in terms of the value they were willing to place on the arrangement. Broadcasters were unsure about the game’s commercial appeal, whereas the clubs were desperate for money.

Talks broke down, and as a result, no matches or highlights appeared on English televisions at all in the first half of the 1985/86 season. This caused considerable stress up and down the league; smaller clubs were missing out on a hugely important source of income, and the top teams were under pressure from advertisers who had expected their brands to be in front of the nation every week. Canon, the League’s sponsors, threatened to renege on paying the full amount of their arrangement due to the lack of exposure. In the end a solution was cobbled together for the remainder of the season, allowing football to return to screens from January 1986.

The next television deal, agreed in April, was to prove significant. Chairmen from the big clubs, who bemoaned low attendances, a ban from European competition, and ever higher players’ wages, flexed their muscles. Philip Carter (Everton) and John Smith (Liverpool) were amongst those pushing for change, pointing out that it was their clubs the fans wanted to see on television, and so they should take a larger slice of any broadcasting income. The threat of a breakaway league was dangled over the talks if the big clubs were not given what they wanted. Playing hardball worked; as well as the reduction in the match levy to 3%, the 1986 arrangement saw a break from the long-established norm of sharing money out across the league clubs. Now, 50% of television and sponsorship revenues would be given to the First Division, 25% to the Second Division, and 25% to the rest. Two years later, the next deal saw further concentration of broadcasting income. Whilst the sums were an improvement on 1986, as BSB also put in a bid, driving the price up, this time three-quarters of the money went to the top-flight clubs.

In the run-up to the next set of broadcast negotiations in 1992, it was clear vast sums would be flooding into the game. England’s performance at Italia ’90 had rekindled public interest in football, and satellite television was about to become a big player. The big teams desperately wanted to maximise the amount of cash heading their way, especially in the light of the Taylor Report requiring expensive redevelopments to make grounds all-seater following the tragedy at Hillsborough, and so the top-flight clubs decided that the time was right for a breakaway league. Inexplicably, the FA sanctioned the move, seeing this as a way of strengthening their position at the expense of the Football League, rather than focusing on the good of the game as a whole. The new Premier League would keep all the money from the deal, with Sky’s winning bid coming to £304m over the next five years. As for the Football League, the match levy was to disappear entirely, and the clubs would be bought off with a derisory £3 million between them, around the same amount that each Premier League club could individually expect to receive every year from television. The financial gap, which had been steadily growing for years, was about to become a chasm. In the same year that the glitz and glamour of the new Premier League was beamed into homes across the country, both Maidstone United and Aldershot went bankrupt and dropped out of the Football League.

IV: Leicester

When Charlton Athletic beat Sunderland 7–6 on penalties at the end of an extraordinary play-off final in 1998 to win promotion to the Premier League, the Guardian claimed that the victory was worth £10 million to the south-east London club, due to the increased revenues available to top-flight sides. The Championship play-off final is frequently claimed to be the most financially significant match in football, and the amount said to be at stake has spiralled over the years; West Ham United’s win over Blackpool in 2012 was worth £90 million, and Tom Cairney’s goal which sent Fulham up in 2020 supposedly netted the Cottagers £170 million. Less talked about is the downside. For every club that hits the jackpot, there will be those who lose out; if sides heading for promotion could look forward to earning hundreds of millions of pounds, teams moving in the other direction would have to cope with a massive hit to their revenues. One of those clubs was Leicester City, who in 2002 were sliding out of the Premier League and into deep trouble.

The late 1990’s were heady days for the Foxes. Martin O’Neill oversaw promotion from the Championship in 1996 and followed that up with four consecutive top ten finishes in the Premier League. Leicester also won the League Cup twice, in 1997 and 2000, a feat which also meant they qualified for the UEFA Cup. O’Neill departed for Celtic in the summer of 2000, and after a middling season under Peter Taylor, 2001/02 was disastrous; just five league wins all season meant the Foxes were relegated with four games still left to play. Leicester had a squad full of players on Premier League wages but were about to see their income reduced to Championship levels. Worse, in summer 2001, with City happily ensconced as top-flight regulars, work had begun on a new 32,000 seat stadium, not far from the old Filbert Street ground. A year later, the stadium was ready, but it now needed to be paid for by a second-tier club. And not only would Leicester miss out on Premier League broadcasting income, they wouldn’t even get what Championship clubs had all been promised. Having agreed to a £315 million deal with the Football League to show live matches for the three seasons from 2001/02, ITV Digital found itself unable to pay, and was liquidated late in 2002. Sky Sports picked up the rights to show Football League matches for the next four years, but at a much lower price. As many clubs had set budgets and agreed contracts assuming they would be receiving the television money, the collapse sent shockwaves through the Football League; within one year of ITV Digital going into administration, twelve clubs had followed suit, one of which, in October 2002, was Leicester City.

Yet, fast forward to Easter Saturday 2003, and a 2–0 win against Brighton and Hove Albion meant that the Foxes secured promotion back to the top-flight at the first time of asking. How had Leicester managed to turn their season around in such short order, from administration in October to promotion in April? Although it probably didn’t feel like it during the winter of 2002, City had been extremely fortunate with the timing of their financial crisis, for two key reasons. First, the rules around tax bills for companies in administration had recently changed, and second, the administrators’ approach to Leicester’s case meant that Micky Adams’ side were far less affected on the pitch than they might otherwise have been. It is worth exploring each of these in a bit more detail, as both of these points had important consequences for football’s financial framework.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, a company falling into insolvency would typically lead to one of the main creditors appointing a receiver, a firm of accountants whose objective was to realise the value of the creditor’s investment by taking control of the firm and selling off assets. Once the receiver had completed this work, the directors regained control of whatever was left, but very often this was enough to render companies unviable. Following concern that this system was working for creditors but not for employees, entrepreneurs, or other stakeholders, and amidst economic crisis, in 1977 Jim Callaghan’s Labour government formed a committee to make recommendations for the UK’s increasingly outdated insolvency law. The Cork Report, named after the chair of the committee, was published in 1982, and many of its proposals made their way into law in 1986 as part of the Insolvency Act. The changes were an attempt to make the focus of insolvency law less on securing value for creditors and more towards rescuing struggling companies; two notable introductions were the new Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) and administration procedures. A CVA is a repayment plan agreed between an insolvent company and its creditors, whereas administration is a procedure where the management of a firm is replaced by an insolvency practitioner, whose duty is to rescue the company, or get the best result for the creditors if this is not possible.

In a recognition that the 1986 reforms did not go far enough, the Enterprise Act (2002) went further in promoting rescue culture, but it also made a change which would have significant ramifications for football insolvencies. Up until the introduction of the Enterprise Act, insolvent companies would have to pay their tax debts before they got around to other creditors; “Crown preference” meant that debts such as VAT, income tax and PAYE had to be settled in full, whereas often other creditors would only receive a fraction of what they were owed. The Enterprise Act removed this preference, so that the tax man would now have to wait in line with all the other creditors of failing companies. Leicester City’s insolvency in 2002/03 was the first time this law change was tested in English football, as the Foxes offered to pay the Inland Revenue only a tenth of their £7 million debt, with additional sums contingent on their future performance. The loss of Crown preference was bad news for the tax man in any event, but it was even more grim in the specific case of English football. With the introduction of the Enterprise Act, when football clubs went into insolvency, tax bills were not just relegated to the same level as other creditors, there were now some creditors who ranked ahead. This was due to the Football Creditors’ Rule, which stipulates that when a football club goes into administration, any football creditors such as players, other clubs, and the League itself must be paid in full. Any other creditors — tax authorities, but also small local businesses, other club employees, St John’s Ambulance — would typically only recover a tiny amount of what they were owed. The removal of Crown preference meant that HMRC would become increasingly hostile towards the Football League and its clubs in years to come, of which more later.

The second slice of good fortune Leicester City benefitted from in 2003 was the complete lack of sporting sanctions applied to any clubs falling into administration. When Nick Dargan was appointed to oversee Leicester’s insolvency, the Foxes were near the top of the table and looked to have a good chance of making an immediate return to the top-flight. Dargan could have significantly reduced the club’s wage bill, and raised money to pay off debts, by selling off members of the squad, many of whom had been playing in the Premier League just a few months previously. Instead, he reasoned that the best solution for creditors and the club was to keep the squad together for a tilt at promotion, which was achieved in April. By this time Leicester had reached an agreement with their creditors to reduce their debts significantly, exited administration, and been taken over by new ownership.

While Leicester players celebrated with fans in their new stadium, not everyone was quite so enthused. Birse, the construction firm who built the ground, were left £7.5 million short of what had been agreed. The East Midlands Ambulance Service never saw the £16,000 Leicester City owed them, despite the Premier League millions pouring in. Many other clubs in the division were unhappy too. Sheffield United had finished one place below Leicester, and when the sides met at Bramall Lane just days after City’s promotion-securing win against Brighton, Blades boss Neil Warnock complained in the matchday programme that Leicester had won promotion immorally. Warnock believed that the rules needed to be tightened to stop football directors using administration as a cost-free way of writing off their debts; otherwise clubs who were well-run financially would find themselves at a huge disadvantage.

Neil Warnock was certainly not alone. At a meeting of the 72 Football League clubs at the end of April 2003, by coincidence at Leicester’s Walkers Stadium, there was widespread support for punitive action against clubs who go into administration; in a show of chutzpah, the only dissent on this point came from the hosts.

V: Wrexham

From the 2004/05 season onwards, points deductions would be applied to clubs in administration; a ten point penalty in the Football League, and nine in the Premier League, a point fewer as there are fewer matches in a top-flight season. The first team to fall foul of the new rules was Wrexham, in December 2004. The Welsh club appealed on the grounds that the collapse of ITV Digital which helped to push them into administration was an unavoidable or unforeseeable circumstance, but the sanction was upheld, and the ten points meant relegation to League Two at the end of the season.

The points deduction rules were tightened after farcical scenes on the final day of the 2006/07 season. Wrexham, still in League Two, and still reeling from a long battle with an owner who tried to sell their ground from under them, hosted Boston United. Both sides were in real danger of relegation. The visitors would lose their place in the Football League unless they won, whereas a draw would be enough to guarantee Wrexham’s safety. Boston were in a sorry state financially, reportedly with debts of around £1 million, and the players had not been paid for three months. The great escape appeared to be on at half-time, with the away side a goal to the good, but a penalty early in the second half brought Wrexham level, and then with three minutes remaining, the home side took the lead. With Boston 2–1 down in a game they had to win to stay up, the directors, assuming relegation was now an inevitability, moved quickly to enter the club into a Company Voluntary Arrangement before the match ended.

The timing was crucial, as by putting Boston into administration before the season ended, the points deduction would apply in a season when it would make no difference to United’s fate; a ten point deduction when you are already relegated is not much of a punishment. Wrexham added a late third to seal the victory, and the Football League brought in a rule to suspend any points deductions to the following season when administration is entered into after the fourth Thursday in March.

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It was in the wake of ITV Digital’s collapse, and Leicester’s escape from both administration and the Championship, that English football began to think about appropriate regulatory, fiscal and governance frameworks for a game ever more awash with money. A “fit and proper person” test was introduced in 2004 which, for the first time, aimed to provide clubs some protection from unscrupulous owners. Many new criteria for club ownership were set, including preventing anyone with unspent criminal convictions for acts of dishonesty or previous convictions for fraud from taking over a football club.

In the April 2003 meeting of Football League clubs which endorsed the principle of docking points when teams go into administration, also on the table was a wage cap of sorts, which was introduced in League Two (i.e. the fourth tier) from the 2004/05 season. The Salary Cost Management Protocol (SCMP) set a limit for each League Two club’s spending on players’ wages and bonuses, calculated as 60% of “Relevant Turnover” plus 100% of “Football Fortune Income”. The former refers to normal operating income such as ticket sales, matchday revenues, television income and so on, with the latter including money generated from cup runs, transfer income, and cash injections from owners. The SCMP was on a purely voluntary basis to begin with but became a formal requirement for both Leagues One and Two from 2011/12, with the spending limit reduced to 55% of Relevant Turnover in the fourth tier. The SCMP continues to the time of writing, and despite claims that it has been a success in restraining lower league wages, the demise of Bury FC in 2019 indicated some weaknesses in the regulations. The “Football Fortune Income” component allowed wealthy owners to bankroll a team, but should the owner at any point become unable or unwilling to inject more money, the club could be left stuck with a wage bill far too large to be covered by its “Relevant Turnover”.

As club after club in the lower divisions fell into financial crisis in the early 2000s, it would be untrue to say the Premier League did nothing. Some money was provided for youth development, and “parachute payments” were given to clubs dropping out of the top-flight. These payments were a double-edged sword; for a sensibly run club, these payments could be used to help adjust to the big drop in income following relegation from the Premier League. However, parachute payments also meant that the spending power of recently relegated clubs was much higher than other teams in the division, and so it must be tempting for directors to use that financial advantage by throwing everything at getting straight back into the promised land. Other second-tier sides resented the warping effect of the parachute payments, which placed them at a huge disadvantage before a ball was kicked, and put pressure on them to spend beyond their means in order to compete. In 2007, with the Premier League clubs looking forward to a new £2.7 billion television deal, “solidarity payments” of around £30 million per year were offered to the Football League and gratefully accepted, but when the Premier League advanced a new offer three years later, clubs in Leagues One and Two were unhappy. Lower league chairman felt that the new payments schedule was too heavily weighted towards the Championship and could effectively create a Premier League Two by stealth; placing a chasm between the second tier and the rest. The Premier League responded by throwing its weight around as only a capricious benefactor can; telling the Football League to take it or leave it, and reportedly threatening to cut off solidarity payments entirely if the clubs did not approve the arrangement. Without much of a choice, a majority of Football League chairmen voted in favour.

If the Premier League weren’t unduly concerned about Football League clubs going to the wall, HMRC certainly were. It wasn’t just Leicester City who made use of the Football Creditors Rule and the loss of Crown preference in order to write off large amounts of tax debt. Ipswich Town repaid £391,000 of a £5 million tax debt. Leeds United managed to reach a settlement of £680,000 for a tax bill of £6.8 million. Crystal Palace exited administration in 2010 with an agreement to pay all unsecured creditors — including HMRC — just 1.9p for every pound owed, which looks positively generous when compared with Plymouth Argyle’s offer of 0.77p a year later. The amounts being lost to the public purse were significant enough for the taxman to test the legality of the Football Creditors Rule in the courts in a series of challenges which proved unsuccessful, despite a parliamentary committee recommending the rule should be abolished. The rule also led to HMRC becoming more aggressive in its pursuance of football debts, issuing winding-up petitions to clubs failing to meet their obligations.

The situation was improved somewhat in 2015, as Football League clubs approved changes to the Insolvency Policy. As well as an increase in the points deduction applying upon administration to twelve, any club leaving administration would be required to pay all creditors at least 25%. In even better news for the taxpayer, the Finance Act 2020 restored Crown preference from December of that year, allowing HMRC to jump back to the front of the queue when creditors were being paid. It remains to be seen what impact this may have on football insolvencies, but it may blunt HMRC’s determination to chase down struggling clubs.

VI: Portsmouth

After making an overall profit in 1997/98, the Premier League clubs collectively made losses for the next 16 years. Debt in the top-flight ballooned to over £3 billion in 2009, over ten times what it had been at the turn of the century. Premier League clubs Leeds United and Portsmouth both collapsed under the weight of loans they were unavailable to service, falling into administration and dropping down the divisions. Nor was the problem confined to England, with famous old clubs such as Borussia Dortmund and Deportivo La Coruña coming perilously close to the financial precipice. UEFA looked at 655 European clubs and found that more than half had reported a loss in 2009, with the total football debt across Europe amounting to £1 billion. Their response was to introduce a set of financial regulations for any club wishing to take part in its competitions.

Financial Fair Play (FFP) was introduced from the 2011/12 season and aimed to get clubs to only spend what they could afford; capping the losses clubs were permitted to report whilst the new system was being phased in, with a view to full financial sustainability over time. In broad terms, any “football-related expenditure”, i.e. wages and transfer fees, would need to be covered by TV, ticketing, and commercial arrangements. Spending on youth development, training facilities, or the stadium would be exempt. One upshot of these rules is that it would be much harder for a wealthy benefactor to bankroll a club to success. In 2005, Chelsea posted losses of £140 million as they won the Premier League; a future Roman Abramovich would be unable to achieve success so rapidly, as FFP places a cap on how much money can be pumped in to a club. The move to reduce clubs’ reliance on the largesse of owners is a good one. As Portsmouth’s experience shows, if that owner runs out of money or loses interest, the club is immediately placed in serious difficulty. But linking spending to income also brings its downsides in a game which has become so financially unequal. When higher league placings, cup wins, and participation in European competition all bring large financial rewards, the bigger clubs will, under FFP, always be able to outspend the rest. Further, the biggest clubs will be able to ramp their ticket prices higher and higher, knowing that they will always be able to fill the stadium. FFP may put the game onto a more stable financial footing, but it does also make it that much harder for clubs outside the elite to ever claim the biggest prizes.

Although the Premier League didn’t adopt the measures, every top-flight club in 2010/11 other than Blackpool applied for a UEFA licence, which meant committing themselves to meeting the criteria. Two years later the Premier League launched its own directives. One was a version of FFP rather more lenient than UEFA’s regulations — losses of £105 million were permitted over a three-year period as long as the owner was putting equity into the club — but unlike the UEFA rules, breaching these would lead to a points deduction. Another ruling introduced was Short Term Cost Control (STCC), which placed a cap on the amount clubs would be able to increase their wage bill by each year, which could only be exceeded by generating higher revenues from commercial and matchday income. In particular, it prevented income from big new TV deals flowing directly through into ever-higher player salaries; the dynamic Alan Sugar famously referred to as being like prune juice, with money coming in one end and going straight out the other.

The Premier League’s measures had some effect. Wages as a proportion of revenues fell from above 70% in the 2012/13 season to below 60% within a year and stayed at around that level for six seasons, when club owners decided they’d had enough of STCC and voted it out from the 2019/20 season onwards. The impact of this change remains to be seen, but players are likely to be the big winners.

The lower leagues have their own financial regulations. As mentioned above, Leagues One and Two have been subject to SCMP regulations since 2011/12, but the Championship is a different, and more troubling matter. English football’s second tier is highly competitive, with the huge prize of promotion to the Premier League, and all the financial rewards that brings, up for grabs. Further, given that some teams in the division would be receiving tens of millions of pounds worth of parachute payments, it is understandable that the league became something of an arms race, with chairmen willing to gamble huge sums for a shot at the big time.

A form of multilateral disarmament arrived in 2012/13, with the Championship’s version of FFP. Championship clubs were initially permitted to make losses of no more than £4 million per season, going up to £12 million if the owner was prepared to inject equity into the club, and the intention was to reduce these thresholds over time. Clubs in breach could expect to be placed under a transfer embargo, or if their overspending resulted in them winning promotion to the Premier League, they would be hit by a “Fair Play Tax” at a level commensurate with their level of overspend, which would be redistributed amongst Championship teams who had played by the rules. However, it didn’t take long for this regulatory framework to be tested to destruction.

VII: Queens Park Rangers

The final day of the 2011/12 Premier League season will be forever remembered for Sergio Aguero’s injury-time goal which brought Manchester City their first league title in 44 years, but fans in the away end were also celebrating that afternoon, as despite Queens Park Rangers’ late 3–2 defeat, Bolton Wanderers’ failure to win at Stoke City meant the London club had avoided relegation by a single point. QPR boss Mark Hughes promised that the club would never be in that situation again whilst he was manager, which turned out to be correct, if not in the way he meant; despite significant investment in players, Rangers took just four points from the opening twelve games of the following season, and Hughes was sacked in November. Harry Redknapp came in as his replacement, but couldn’t stop the slide into the Championship, QPR finishing bottom and 14 points adrift of safety.

During the 2012/13 season, whilst still in the Premier League, QPR recorded losses of over £65 million, with £41 million going on transfer fees and wages increasing by £17 million in a doomed attempt to keep their top-flight status. With the loss of broadcast revenue in the region of £50 million following relegation, there was no way QPR were going to cut their losses down to meet the Championship’s cap of £8 million per season. Nor did they even seem to particularly try; the wage bill at Loftus Road for the 2013/14 season was 195% of turnover. But the problem became the Football League’s when QPR beat Derby County 1–0 at Wembley in the Championship play-off final to secure an immediate return to the top-flight. QPR were now out of the Football League’s jurisdiction, and the Premier League had no intention of helping to retrieve any financial penalty the Football League wished to apply. For as long as QPR could stay in the Premier League, they could avoid making any Fair Play Tax payments.

As it happened, Queens Park Rangers only managed a single Premier League season, coming straight back down in 2014/15 in another unsuccessful top-flight campaign. QPR were again subject to Football League regulation and so at risk of being hit with the Fair Play Tax. But during their year in the top-flight, QPR had submitted their accounts for the promotion-winning 2013/14 Championship season, which reported a loss of just £9.8 million. This seemed rather suspicious given the huge losses in the 2012/13 accounts and the massive wage bill, and so it proved. The £9.8 million loss had benefitted from a £60 million “exceptional item” in the accounts. This item represented directors writing off £60 million worth of loans they had previously made to the club. This sounds like an expensive thing for the directors to do, but given that they probably never really expected the club to repay that loan, the write off was just converting largely worthless debt into largely worthless equity; QPR no longer owed the directors money, but QPR — which the same directors owned — had just increased in value by £60 million. In response to the League, QPR claimed that the “exceptional item” meant they had not breached the loss limits, and as a second line of defence, that FFP was unlawful anyway. The Football League disagreed, and the resultant case rumbled on for years; it was not until July 2018 that a settlement worth over £40 million was reached. QPR’s shareholders would have to write off £22 million worth of loans, pay a further £17 million in fines over the next ten years, and stump up £3 million in legal fees.

However, as with the £60 million exceptional item above, writing off the £22 million loans was less a punishment than a book-keeping exercise. All in all, QPR’s massive overspend in 2013/14 cost them some £20 million in fines, but it earned them many millions more in revenue from a season in the Premier League and parachute payments in the years after. Derby County, QPR’s opponents in that Wembley play-off final, have every right to feel that Rangers got off lightly.

By the time the QPR case had been settled, a new set of financial regulations had been agreed and introduced; from 2016/17 the Championship’s FFP rules aligned with UEFA and the Premier League, clubs were now required to keep their losses below £39 million over a three-year period. Perhaps more crucially, the new regulations had teeth. Whereas before the Football League could try and either fine clubs promoted to the Premier League or impose a transfer embargo, now points deductions could also be applied. The new financial loss assessments now needed to include estimates for the season taking place, so if clubs were hugely overspending, the Football League would be able to apply penalties during the same season rather than doing so retrospectively.

Not that the new regulations solved every problem. Another of the changes made was to remove any references to profits on asset sales from the rules, which meant that selling fixed assets could now count as a profit under the Championship’s FFP regulations. This has led to clubs such as Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Derby County selling their grounds to companies under the control of their owners, with the owners then leasing the stadium back to the club. This move has effectively allowed the clubs to report losses which do not breach the FFP threshold whilst still spending well beyond their means. Two days before the end of the 2017/18 accounting period, Derby County owner Mel Morris bought Pride Park via a company, Gellaw Newco 202 Limited, which was owned entirely by him and incorporated just nine days previously. Morris paid Derby £81.1 million for the stadium, which after allowing for depreciation and costs of leaseback, allowed Derby County to register £39.9 million worth of profit from the sale. Without this, Derby would have made total losses of £48 million over the three years to 2018 and would certainly have faced points deductions for the 2018/19 season.

While this asset sale manoeuvre may have been within the letter of the FFP rules, it led to real anger in the league. Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, whose team finished one point behind Derby in 2018/19 and missed out on the final play-off spot, was furious, demanding that the Football League take action against a club he believed were making a farce of the FFP regulations. Gibson even went as far as commissioning an independent valuation of Pride Park to prove the £81.1 million paid for the stadium was hugely overstated; Gibson’s valuation came in around £58 million below what Morris paid for it. The Football League brought charges against Derby County; for selling Pride Park at an inflated price, and for their approach to accounting for player registrations, but eleven months after the League opened proceedings, an independent panel found in favour of Derby.

Whilst it was a victory for the Pride Park club, there were bigger problems to be faced. The accounts to June 2018 show that for every pound Derby County were earning in revenue, £1.36 was being spent on wages. The club may have been able to circumvent the Championship’s rules on spending with the sale of the stadium, but that only papered over some rather disturbing cracks. Spending rules are there for a reason, and though loopholes might allow clubs to wriggle off the hook when it comes to Football League sanctions, doing so doesn’t help the underlying problems that the regulations are set up to address.

VIII: The Big Six

Despite the billions flooding into the game, and the ever-widening gap between the top teams and the rest, the big clubs have continued to demand a larger share. When the Premier League was formed in 1992, clubs agreed a formula for sharing out the income arising from domestic TV deals, which gave more to clubs finishing higher in the league and those appearing on television more often, but also made sure that every team in the division received a decent share. In contrast, revenues from international television were simply split evenly; at the time the amount was so small it wasn’t worth haggling over.

However, that negligible sum grew significantly, reaching £782 million by 2016/17, meaning international revenues were worth £39 million for each Premier League team that year. Just as in the 1980s, the big clubs had begun to express their frustration that, as they were the teams that everyone tuned in to watch, they should take more out of the pot. Under constant pressure from the “big six” (Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur), Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore finally brokered a compromise which secured the required two-thirds majority amongst Premier League clubs; from 2019/20, there would be an element of merit to the revenue sharing formula, although the differential between the highest and lowest earning teams would be capped.

The coronavirus pandemic presented another opportunity for power to be further tilted towards the top end of the Premier League. Football League chairman Rick Parry was desperately seeking money for his member clubs, who had all had to close their grounds to fans during the outbreak, in doing so losing out on one of their key revenue streams. Outside the top-flight, without the stellar broadcast deals, gate receipts remain hugely important, and players were having to be paid without any money coming through the turnstiles.

Progress with the Premier League had been minimal, so Parry spoke to the big six directly, who had some ideas of their own, this was “Project Big Picture”. These proposals leaked to the Telegraph, sparking fury from the Premier League, which had been left out of the loop. On the credit side, the plan suggested paying £250 million to the Football League up front, with 25% of future Premier League income being distributed downwards, and a further £100 million gift to the FA.

But of course, all of this benevolence would come at a price; the Community Shield would be scrapped, and the League Cup would either go the same way or be downgraded. Premier League clubs would be allowed to sell eight of their matches per season on their own digital platforms. Most critically, in a notable power grab, the current system of one-club, one-vote in the Premier League, with a two-thirds majority required to pass regulation, was to be replaced; instead, any six of the Premier League’s nine longest-serving members (the big six plus Everton, Southampton and West Ham United) would be able to pass, or block, any rule changes. This change would essentially render all other points in the plan moot, as it would give power to the big six to dictate terms to the league. Finally, it was proposed that the Premier League would be reduced to 18 teams. As with scrapping the League Cup, this change was presumably brought about to fit in with the widely expected move to a larger, and more fixture-heavy, European Champions League format.

Greg Clarke, the FA chairman, said that the principal aim of the discussions was “the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few clubs”, and also claimed that a breakaway league had been threatened as a consequence of the plan not being supported. This was perhaps not a hollow threat. Rumours of a European super league began to circulate towards the end of 2020, with talks apparently advanced enough for JPMorgan to have agreed a funding package. Less than three decades after the Premier League tore itself away from the Football League, it was facing a breakaway threat of its own. FIFA and UEFA poured cold water over the plans, saying any breakaway competition would not have official ratification, rendering any players and clubs who did take part unable to participate in tournaments under their jurisdiction.

In the event, Project Big Picture was unanimously rejected by the Premier League clubs at an emergency meeting a few days after the details leaked, although following further discussions, £250 million was still made available to Football League clubs struggling with the impacts of covid-19.

Outside the top-flight, financial regulation has continued to develop. The Football League followed the Premier League’s lead and relaxed its FFP rules for the Championship in response to coronavirus, with clubs allowed to take account of lost revenues or exceptional costs that are directly attributable to the pandemic, such as reduced gate receipts, or the expense of making their training ground covid-secure, although the rules are open to interpretation and have led to some confusion.

In Leagues One and Two, clubs voted to scrap the existing SCMP regulation in favour of a stronger “Squad Salary Cap” regime. This would restrict a club’s total spend on wages, bonuses, image rights and agents’ fees to £2.5 million a year in League One, and £1.5 million in the division below. This kind of regulation delinked the total revenues from total spend, meaning that wealthy benefactors could not simply bankroll a club to success, but more importantly it would aim to prevent cases such as the collapse of Bury in 2019, who were funded beyond their means by an owner whose money subsequently dried up and left the Shakers with a wage bill they could not afford. So, in the 2020/21 season, for the first time in sixty years, a hard salary cap was in place in the Football League, albeit applying to clubs rather than individuals. The PFA claimed that this cap was unlawful and unenforceable, and said that the Football League had not met their legal obligation to consult with the players’ union. An independent panel sided with the PFA in February 2021, concluding that the Football League was in breach of its duties, and the salary cap rules were withdrawn, the leagues reverting to the previous SCMP regime.

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It is notable that, despite the arguments taking on different forms in different eras, the fundamental principles being fought over in matters of football finance regulations remain broadly unchanged. The battle over the Squad Salary Cap echoes the debate over the maximum wage in the late 1950s. The big clubs demanding a larger split of international television revenues in the 2010s is an updated version of their lobbying for more domestic broadcast money throughout the 1980s. Threats of breakaway leagues by the wealthiest clubs is similarly nothing new.

The tug-of-war continues between two opposing poles; a collectivist view of football where the good of the game takes precedence even if it means significant administrative intervention, and an individualist approach where every player and every club is out for themselves and the game’s authorities intrude as little as possible. If these two poles are represented by Alan Hardaker and Jimmy Hill, it’s certainly true to say that since the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, free market arguments such as Hill’s have heavily dominated the following half-century, a trend very much in line with wider British society. But in recent years, with the financial gulf growing ever greater and the downsides of a laissez-faire approach becoming more apparent, the pendulum has begun to swing back in Hardaker’s direction, as the game’s governing bodies struggle to impose fiscal responsibility upon football. As financial regulation in football carries on developing in the years to come, these two distinct principles will continue to tussle; whichever comes out on top will go a long way towards defining the future of our game.

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I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.

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Rob Francis

I write blogs about the Labour Party, in an attempt to stop myself from screaming.