Because there’s stability of ownership.
Nostalgia is form of psychic defence mechanism: the inexorable attachment to the mistaken belief that things in the past were better gives us mental shelter from the awfulness of the present. Thanks to the internet – where all new technologies are pioneered by pornography, popularised by hipsters and then polluted with presenile reminiscence by the middle-aged public – nostalgia is better than it’s ever been. For football fans, in whom nostalgia rises to the level of a mental disorder, it’s doubly so.
And thank God, because without it I’d have to care about Alan Pardew nearly headbutting someone. I’d have to have an opinion about the remarkable success of the Southampton youth academy. I’d have to give real thought to Demba Ba. And why would I want to do that when I could be thinking about Ian Culverhouse?
I’ve spent enough of my life in pubs talking about football that they ought to qualify as a place of work on my CV. And yet I’d never heard of the Ian Culverhouse Game*** until Guardian journalist Barry Glendenning tweeted this:
For people of a certain age, nothing else need be said. To know who Ian Culverhouse is is to immediately know we’re playing a word association game that involves naming footballing journeymen of the early 1990s. Even the choice of player – Norwich’s dependable right-back – is so obviously correct as to need to explanation; no one has ever argued that he was a massively underrated talent who, but for Gary Stevens and Lee Dixon, would’ve been capped many times by his country. He was the epitome of memorably pleasant mediocrity from an era when grounds were tin-roofed toilets, pitches were bomb sites and players appeared to be only slightly better that you might have been had you had access to some better coaching at school.
Unlike musical nostalgia, which tells you that music died when you were 18 and that nothing can ever sound as good again, footballing nostalgia tends to a perverse celebration of the reassuring stability of the unremarkable. The not famous, the not brilliant, the solid, the triers and the underachievers, the not quite rubbish.
The early 1990s was a golden age of averageness with a special flag-bearer called Norwich City. The game is named after Ian Culverhouse, but it could just have easily been any of his team-mates: Goss, Crook, Bowen or any of the defence that, with Culverhouse, made the Canaries’ team sheet read like a business card from Norfolk’s leading firm of solicitors: Ullathorne, Butterworth and Polston.
If this sounds like a dig at Culverhouse or his contemporaries, it’s really not meant to be. With every response to Glendenning’s tweet, the wonderful memories came rushing back.
I tweeted a few responses, but stopped once I saw what I regarded as a game-endingly brilliant answer:
Gloriously foolish as it all was, after a while it started to feel like a memorial for forgotten footballers. Ian Ormondroyd, Jan Stejskal, Torben Piechnik, Steve Chettle, Nigel Jemson, Craig Hignett. All of them hardworking pros who had good careers, who are fondly, if infrequently, remembered by at least one set of fans and who never earned in a year what Wayne Rooney makes in a week.
Sadder than that was the recognition that I found it hard to imagine playing the same game 20 years from now with Hugo Rodallega or Shola Ameobi or Ben Watson or Lee Cattermole. I mean how could you? They’re not people, not real ones; they’re Premier League players. You can’t love something to which you feel no human connection.
Football today is a business afloat on a sea of cash, dragged from its moorings and driven by trade winds far from its home port. On deck, surrounded by hangers-on and with Steven Gerrard at the decks spinning Phil Collins, players, managers, chairmen and administrators sun themselves at the pool party, unaware that, when the wind drops, they have no idea how to get home.
Such is the fate of any sport that loses its connection with solid ground.
‘Put your hands in the air! But slowly, so I don’t think you might be about to hit me.’ (© wetribe)
For much of the first half of the 20th century, Detroit was America’s fourth largest city. In 1950 it had 1.8m people – more than one per cent of the total US population. But, by 2010, following decades of decline, its population had collapsed to 714,000. Within its city limits, an area the size of San Francisco has been abandoned. I’ve been to San Francisco and there’s a lot of it. It’s the kind of massive hole usually only found behind England full-backs in important games.
No one, of course, did more to build Detroit than Henry Ford and his family. His son and one of his grandsons both ran the company, while another, William Clay Ford, Sr., sat on the board of Ford for 57 years. Most interesting, from our perspective, is what William did in late 1963: he bought the Detroit Lions, the city’s NFL team. Paying $4.5m – somewhere about $33m in today’s money – he owned the team for the final 51 years of his life before he died, aged 88, in early March 2014, and his shares passed to his family.
As it turns out, for all Ford’s loyal stewardship of the team, Detroit’s success on the field broadly matched that of the city: continual decline with occasional flickering but unfulfilled promises of a renaissance. Despite this, last year, Forbes estimated the Lions’ value at $900m – which is the kind of return on investment that would impress even the financial tweakers of the Premier League. It’s also exactly the same estimated value that Forbes assigned to Chelsea, a money-pit that Roman Abramovich brought in 2003 for $230m and, depending on who you ask, has since shovelled at least a further $1bn–$1.5bn into.
‘Pour in a load of Kežman, then top it with Schürrle and seal it with Matić.’ (© Fons Heijnsbroek)
But Chelsea, atypically for club recently acquired by foreign owners, may argue they have succeeded under Abramovich. Money has been poured in but, notably, the club have won some things: FA Cups, Premier Leagues, a Champions League. Grudging admiration too, sometimes, but not hearts.
In the old days, football chairmen used to see generations of fans and players come and go; respectable old men opening the turnstiles for ruddy-faced young vandals and thugs in the hope some working class communal activity might help them develop into men of character. Now it’s the opposite. Impeccably behaved, well-heeled, middle-class men watch from the stands as the directors’ box becomes a reputational chrysalis, cocooning very hungry oligarchs who’ve grown fat on the wealth of their nation and are now ready to spread their wings as respectable members of the global yacht-set.
Such as been the focus on the Big Clubs of English football that the sheer scale of ownership transfer is easy to miss. Every single Premier League club has changed hands at least once in the last 20 years. In March 2014, the average length of ownership was just 7.6 yrs. Imagine that: national institutions, with histories of 100-plus years, being got shot of faster than a first wife. Of the 20 Premier League clubs, only eight could currently be said to be owned by people with a close tie to the club or local area. And one of these wants to change his club’s name to Hull Tigers.
Stability. Rollover for full caption. (© Charanjit Chana)
In the Championship the picture isn’t much different. Again, the average ownership period was 7.6 years, with ten clubs being owned by locals – a figure barely better than the Premier League. Of the 24 clubs, just two – Middlesbrough and Blackpool – had been owned for 20 years or more by the same person, although an honourable mention must also go to Wigan, with Dave Whelan having already clocked up 19 years in charge by then.
In other words, only seven per cent of England and Wales’s 44 biggest football clubs haven’t changed hands in the last 20 years.
Compare this with the NFL, where the average team has been owned for more than 34 years by same person or family. Only 11 of 32 franchises (34 per cent) changed hands in the last 20 years, with ten of 32 (31 per cent) owned by same person/family since the team’s inception. And, contrary to the image of NFL teams as being the wholly-owned toys of rich men, 18 of 32 teams (56 per cent) are owned by people or families with significant local ties. Incredibly, three teams – Pittsburgh, Chicago and the New York Giants – currently have an third- or fourth-generation owner.
Continuity – as in the case of Detroit – doesn’t guarantee success, but, across a whole sport it’s vital. Who is there to set norms, enforce unofficial discipline and speak for the past and the future of the game if its team owners are largely absent and frequently changing? Who will be willing to suggest – or able to sell – the notion of collective, long-term thinking and investment in the future of the game?
The incredible shenanigans at Leeds over the last few years have focused attention on the much derided Fit and Proper Person Test to which owners were supposed to be subject. In fact, though, the FA, Premier League and Football League did away with that some years ago, replacing it with the Owner’s and Director’s Test.
This recently lowered bar means that a prospective owner needs only to have no unspent criminal convictions in a narrow class of offences and no footballing conflicts of interest (there are a few other football-specific things governing match fixing and broadcast rights, but they needn’t detain us).
Crucially, the ‘test’ is a simple, self-certified, three-page form that takes less time to complete than a customs card at an airport. It’s how money-launderer Carson Yeung, unjustly convicted businessman Alisher Usmanov, disgraced former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and others got their hands on treasured community assets.
‘I’m about 6-3, short blonde hair, no criminal convictions and very, very trustworthy. Promise.’ (© Richard Riley)
Once you’ve done that you’re good to go. It’s regulation with an almost Dennis Bergkamp-esque lightness of touch, and yet another manifestation of the pervasive political dogma that wealthy business leaders – and only wealthy business leaders – will save us, if only democratically accountable officials would abandon discredited ideas like public service.
As Matthew Stewart, author of an insider account of management consultancies, wrote: ‘when Jesus is compared with a CEO, it is Jesus who is thought to gain by the comparison’. Hull owner Assem Allam spoke for the frustrated toddler inside every bloated plutocrat when, on being informed that the FA might veto his proposal to change Hull’s name, he said, ‘No one on earth is allowed to question my business decisions, I won’t allow it.’ Not even Jesus, presumably.
A liar loans process of the kind that first inflated and then exploded the American housing market, almost destroying the world economy, is applied to club ownership. How soon will it be before English football goes the same way, with corruption, criminality and the boundless vanity of the wealthy destroying the Premier League? ‘Not too long, I hope’ is the answer I come up quite often these days, especially if I’ve been playing the Ian Culverhouse game.
So what’s to be done? Enquire after the sources of wealth? Licence owners? Demand proof of their good intentions and a non-refundable deposit of hundreds of millions of pounds in the event a club should be left destitute?
With defeatism now a British national sport, it all sounds impossible. But, as always, what’s lacking is not a workable solution but the willingness to look for one. Nothing’s impossible if responsible people apply their minds to the problem.
Take the NFL, for example, where buying a team a great deal more complex than getting your hands on a second-hand football club. Unlike the Premier League, where you have only to find someone who will sell you a team, the NFL constitution specifically mandates that the NFL commissioner himself must investigate any potential sale and pass it fit.
Only then does the really interesting bit kick in. Article 3.5B of the NFL constitution states, ‘All sales, transfers, or assignments, except a transfer referred to in Section 3.5(C) hereof, shall only become effective if 7 Article III approved by the affirmative vote of not less than three-fourths or 20, whichever is greater, of the members of the League.’
In other words, having enough money to buy a team and avoid prosecution only gets you so far. You also need to persuade the commissioner and at least 24 team owners to okay you.
‘I need people to vote for me? How much does that cost?’ (© Dragan Tatic)
Imagine what it does for a sport to have a long-lasting, mutually approved set of owners. However rich and powerful they are as individuals they have no choice but to spend time together, to hear each other’s point of view, to get on and to cooperate. Over time it creates, even among some of the nation’s most avaricious people, a culture of custodianship. These owners also appoint and pay the commissioner from their own pocket to run the game and, every few years, they hammer out a deal with players on revenue sharing, employment rights and other administrative issues.
Compare this to English football, whose national association has all the vitality of a leukemic dog, whose European and global administrators are staggeringly corrupt and whose Premier League is a nest of mutually distrustful, sub-Machiavellian coup plotters.
This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t have its share of problem owners. Indianapolis’s Jim Irsay, who’s partial to drunk-tweeting and prescription medications, is famously the troubled son of a troublesome father (his 2014 arrest for drink-driving led to the NFL suspending one of its own owners, banning him from any contact with his own team – training ground and stadium – for over a third of a season).
Meanwhile, Dallas’s owner Jerry Jones could give any recent Premier League chairman, even Mohamed Al-Fayed, a lesson in egomania and eccentricity. Unlike Irsay, though, who inherited his team, Jones bought his and persuaded the other owners to have him. And why? Because while they may wonder about his brashness, they recognised he could help drive the NFL forward. His business acumen was critical in unlocking the mega-money TV deals that have transformed the game in the last few decades.
Even when you’re in the NFL owners club, you can’t relax. Unlike the Premier League, with its entirely hypothetical powers to kick out clubs run by unfit owners, or UEFA with its amusingly empty threats of Champions League exclusion for those not playing fairly financially, the NFL constitution has teeth. In the 1990s, for example, the NFL forced the scandal-hit owner of San Francisco to cede control of his team for a year, before later surrendering it to his sister in 2000.
This year it seemed like it might happen again, this time to Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, a billionaire whose legal troubles would’ve impressed Nile Ranger. In 2013, only months after becoming an NFL owner, he found his service station empire placed under FBI investigation over an alleged fraud worth up to $35m. Haslam had bought the Browns from Randy Lerner, another billionaire who’d inherited the team from his father. Sick of running an unglamorous, perennially under-performing team in a run-down, unloved city, Lerner had made a fresh start at Aston Villa. Haslam’s business, meanwhile, cut a deal with the FBI and no criminal charges were pressed.
‘You’re going to stop me playing in Europe? Oh really?’ (© Mark Freeman)
Even allowing for the occasional rogue owner, the NFL system is far from perfect. Perhaps the biggest strike against the NFL is that it has repeatedly allowed owners to move their teams, usually for financial reasons – something for which there is no defence. And, by that I mean there should be no defence under international law, and prosecutions in The Hague should be considered for offenders.
Community groups and charities are also specifically barred from owning a club, ruling out the kind of ownership model many older football fans dream of. Green Bay – the Barcelona of the NFL – are the only collectively-owned team, but they have a special exemption owing to the length of time they’ve been structured that way. Legally this is known, charmingly and entirely appropriately, as ‘grandfathering’.
Despite this, and unlikely as it seems, a self-selecting group of rich, largely white, largely older men, seem to have managed to look after a sport better than a much more democratic, open system. For all its principled flaws, it’s just one of those things – like the BBC – that works and that is better than any known alternative. Not least because it’s a form of governance – a collective of owners and a strong players union constitutionally bound to cooperate – that, unlike the notionally democratic structures of UEFA and FIFA, is able to withstand the corrosive impact of bribery, personal fiefdoms and the entryist power of new money.
It may well be, of course, that the model isn’t replicable; that is rests on a culture maintained by a handful of decent people who are on a lucky streak of good commissionerial appointments. One day, perhaps, the barbarians will overrun the NFL as they have football. (I first wrote this chapter before the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, became embroiled in a row over the appropriate punishment for domestic violence. Having established a reputation as both a talented administrator and a strong defender of the NFL’s image – and having frequently handed down harsh punishments for player misconduct, even if no legal charges had been pressed – Goodell inexplicably gave a weak punishment to a player after he was caught on camera knocking out his then girlfriend. In the outcry that rightly followed, Goodell than handed down a stronger punishment – an indefinite ban – only to have this struck down on appeal when the Commissioner was shown to have misrepresented his actions. The takeout of all this? Every sport needs a great administrator – a strong, imaginative person who understands the moral – as well as the business – implications of his or her decisions and who believes that firm (even harsh) punishment should be applied to player transgressions, whether they occur on or off the field. But it also needs a strong constitution, term limits and the ability to remove someone who, no matter how great a job they’ve done for the game, is now compromised.)
All of this is not to say that many old-time Football League club chairmen weren’t also creeps and crooks, of course. But at least they were local crooks. The kind of people more likely to bankrupt the local printworks or overcharge tenants for repair work rather than, say, laundering £55m of triad-linked criminal proceeds.
With respectably mediocre clubs like Leicester or Reading or Cardiff being run by the viciously rich, football is like watching the donkeys on Blackpool beach being saddled for the Grand National by supermodels. They’re all too old and broken-backed for it all; too clapped out and worn down.
And so am I. I don’t want change. I miss Doug Ellis, for heaven’s sake. I miss Robert Chase, Peter Swales and Bill Archer.
Local derby, 1965. (© John Wright)
At bottom, the shameless embrace of their new feudal overlords by fans of Manchester City, Chelsea and the like comes from the idea that you will be a happier football fan if your team wins more. This is a seductive but completely false notion.
In the short-term, yes, it may prove so. But when winning becomes all your team does for you – when it no longer provides cultural capital, local identification, reinforcement of the self – then it becomes just a brand to be bought into, stuck with and, eventually, inevitably, abandoned. In future, we will change our football clubs like we change mobile phones.
And why, in all of this, would anyone – sane or otherwise – want to own a football club? An NFL team, sure: they’re hugely profitable. (And this is real profitability, by the way, when income comfortably exceeds all outgoings, not the Premier League version of financial management where you’re doing well if wages are below 100 per cent of turnover and you don’t have to dress up a subsidy as sponsorship. None has gone bankrupt recently. And by recently, I mean, well, never.)
But a Premier League club? Few turn a profit – the Glazers aside, who made out like bandits when buying Manchester United. (It will be interesting to see how much money Manchester United deliver to their shareholders in future. Will history judge the Glazers to be investing geniuses or, like Carlos Queiroz, John O’Shea and so many other others, mere golden egg collectors; innocent bystanders in their own success who just happened to be around the ever brooding Sir Alex Ferguson in his awesomely productive prime?) And certainly some of the most egregious owners – Abramovic, Usmanov, Mansour – are clearly not profiting.
So, why else? Because you love the club and the town and you want to give something back? It does happen: very honourable mentions to Steve Gibson and Dave Whelan. (Two mentions of the word ‘honourable’ in one chapter in connection with Dave Whelan. That’s how we used to see him.) But what if you’re not from Middlesbrough or Wigan? Perhaps you want a club like you want a Lamborghini car or a Patek Philippe watch; because that’s the thing for rich people to have. The losses it makes aren’t a business failure, they are just the cost of running a toy, like the price of fuel for your private plane. It isn’t supposed to make money – it just feels nice to own.
The best-case scenario, then, is that our football clubs are owned by effete billionaires too addled by wealth to find any real meaning in their lives. The worst case scenario is that our national game has become a crucial part of the image laundering strategy of thieves and thugs.
Last season, Manchester City (owned and sponsored by the Abu Dhabi royal family, who preside over a regime criticised for nepotism, lack of personal and political freedom and widespread human rights abuses) faced Barcelona (owned notionally by their fans, but sponsored by the Qatari royal family…who preside over a regime of nepotism, lack of personal and political freedom and widespread human rights abuses). It was hard to know who to cheer for, but judging from the number of shirts you see worn in London parks on a weekend it’s clear that, at least for the moment, Barcelona washes whiter that Manchester City.
The massive turnover in team ownership has also created a toxic legacy for football that goes beyond obscene wages, bankrupt clubs and disenfranchised supporters. It’s poisoned our very notion of what acceptable behaviour is, promoting the idea that anything done at work in the pursuit of advancement is acceptable, no matter how tainted that money is.
Take Brian McDermott, the widely respected former Reading manager who was lauded for his dignified response to the insanity at Leeds. About his sacking, Henry Winter said:
He was re-tweeted hundreds of times and a number of other journalists expressed similar views.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Brian McDermott and I think he seems one of the nicest, most genuine and well as ablest managers in the game. But ‘decent’ is an interesting term to apply to McDermott or any other manager working for a flighty, demanding billionaire of questionable background and limited patience. Decent compared to their bosses, perhaps, but what of their own personal morality?
Brian McDermott’s CV is worth reviewing. He got his first league managerial job from Sir John Madejski, Reading’s benefactor who, when he sold his Auto Trader business, spent 18 months living in Malaysia, which had the side-effect of minimising his huge tax liability on the deal. This great patriot would later sell Reading to the man who fired McDermott: the son of a Russian oligarch. Unjustly dismissed after massively over-achieving, McDermott sought out the tranquillity of a stable club, accepting a role at Leeds, then owned by a Dubai venture capital firm. Later, he would be fired by an Italian fraudster who didn’t even own the club.
So this decent man, this bastion of footballing integrity, took a high-paying, high-prestige job with a basketcase club knowing that if it went wrong – if he got fired, if the club went under owing to its dodgy owners – he’d still get paid and, if it went right, he would be able to re-ascend the managerial ladder.
Why then are we supposed to feel sorry for him? If you work as court jester to a king, you shouldn’t count on getting a gold watch for long service.
McDermott was just the latest manager to take on a job with bad employers, safe in the knowledge that he, at least, would be fine. You may not think he did wrong, but only in a moral void of a sport would this appear an example of upstanding behaviour. What I’d like to hear about is the managers who turned down the jobs on the basis that clubs shouldn’t be run like that or they don’t want to pay their mortgage with the blood-stained money of dispossessed and impoverished people around the world. Not sure there are many left like it these days.
There probably weren’t in the good old days either, but then the stakes seemed smaller. Work for a hated football chairman then and the worst that might happen is you found yourself being booed in the supermarket while buying milk. Now, shake a chairman’s hand and you find yourself co-opted into a public relations campaign designed to win public acclaim for a class of robber barons whose wealth corrupts every country it touches, leaving behind it dictatorship, oppression and poverty.
So let us stop pretending that footballers and managers are one of us. They are prostitutes, as morally culpable for the actions of their gangmasters as anyone who works for a cigarette company is for spreading cancer.
‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible,’ said John F. Kennedy, ‘will make violent revolution inevitable.’ So, while we wait for the blood of the super-rich to run in the streets, let us turn our attention to saving football – for it’s not finished yet if we are brave enough to take radical measures.
Our best hope is the mooted European super league. Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City, go on, do one! Let us wave them off into the sunset and then, by stirring up the Football League to militancy, bring the rump of the Premier League to its knees. Beg for readmission to the league will be the message, or be cut adrift.
In the future all clubs must be, if not community-owned, then locally-owned by individuals or companies that are themselves wholly owned and tax resident in the UK. There must be a salary cap and a minimum number of homegrown, British players in every team. There must be a partial return to standing and generous concessions for youth season tickets.
And, above all, outside every ground in the country there must be a statue of Ian Culverhouse to remind us that one of the many things more important than winning is the preservation of our clubs as community assets to be reminisced fondly about by future generations.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.
*** If you want a simple definition of the Ian Culverhouse Game it’s this: it’s Mornington Crescent for obscure top-flight 1990s footballers – a comedy word association game where you take turns to name players and then someone ‘wins’ simply by mentioning Ian Culverhouse. The aim, though, is not to win, but rather to impress others by dredging up players who are only dimly remembered. A poor move, other than naming Ian Culverhouse too early, would be naming people who are too well-known – Matt Le Tissier, Chris Sutton, David Batty etc.