Is it wrong not to want your club to be in the Premier League? Is it old-fashioned to just enjoy the game and be happy your club still exists?
In football, as in economics, all plans must deliver growth. The way to succeed is to get more – more points, more promotions, more trophies, more cash, more fans.
But, naturally, there are limits to what’s possible. Part of the reason so many managers last only a year is what I call the Chairman’s Fallacy – the belief common to every boardroom that it should be possible to finish at least one place higher than last year and that failing to do so is unacceptable.
For more football fallacies, visit this.
If even a seemingly modest ambition – like being two or three places better off – is widely shared, the majority of clubs will automatically end the season feeling like it was a failure. It’s a paralysing fear of being left behind and it’s generating chronic instability in the game.
All must have prizes
Some decades back, in one of the most high-profile performance art pieces of the 1990s, the KLF took their remaining earnings from the music business – one million pounds – and set fire to them on Jura. When that didn’t work, they took over English football.
Twenty years and many billions of pounds incinerated on transfers and wages later and the Premier League is now the most famous and long-running art piece in the world. But have we understood it? Have we learned the lesson that, while the TV money may seem to grow endlessly, the number of titles doesn’t?
I’ve suggested that the best way to stem the Big Six’s insatiable lust for fresh cash and flash spending might be to award the title jointly to every team in the top six. But even that wouldn’t solve the dilemma of access to the Champions League and nor would it create enough places in the Premier League to accommodate even half of the owners who, having bought a club, have cheerfully announced their ambition is to be in the top flight in short order.
“Everybody has won, and…”
We fans are no better. The most damaging phrase in modern football is: “He’s taken us as far as he can.” This claim, which is rolled out after almost every sacking, is a giant ball of mistaken assumptions, the most important of which are that it is managerial performance, rather than club finances, that is the primary determinant of success and that clubs have no natural upper-limit on their league position.
I first noticed this line of unthinking when Alan Curbishley parted company with Charlton after a series of late-season collapses robbed a group of complacent fans of the European football they had come to believe was their due. I mention this not because I take pleasure in Charlton’s awful current predicament, but because no matter how many times a club fires an ok manager, or is sold to someone with an inverse relationship between the depth of their pockets and their football knowledge, a decent proportion of fans can be relied upon to hail the decision as evidence of the club’s ‘ambition’.
‘Ambition’ is a curious word, one that modern football frequently uses, unknowingly, as a euphemism for ‘greed’. The idea of being satisfied with your club’s performance on- and off-field is as archaic as being satisfied with one’s material possessions was in the 1980s. Football is still living the laissez faire fantasy of the pre-Crash era when people who couldn’t spell Schumpeter, let alone had actually read him, invoked ‘creative destruction’ to justify orgiastic capitalism.
Entering this murky world are Forest Green Rovers, a small but venerable club currently gearing up for their first ever season of league football. The press splashed this good news story across the back pages, largely disregarding the grumbles of non-league fans who point out, rightly, the enormous financial support the club has received from their wealthy owner. (They have reported debts of more than £5m and have lost more than £2m in each of the last two seasons for which figures are available.)
Having freshly purchased promotion for his team, the owner has plans for a £100m ‘eco park’, which includes a conference centre and a new 5,000-seater stadium – the world’s first to be built from wood. It’s notable that many fans who rail against the multi-billion pound vanity projects despoiling the top of English football seem quite relaxed about the unselfconscious showiness of employing Zaha Hadid’s firm of architects to design a lower league stadium, albeit one that will be the smallest in League Two.
Perhaps this is a good thing, though? A sporting statement that small can be beautiful; a deliberate rebuke to modern football?
Well, only if you don’t recognise the relationship between club size and catchment area. Liverpool, for example, are straightjacketed by Anfield, despite it holding 54,000 people. Forest Green, by contrast, aren’t turning anyone away at the gates.
Forest Green Rovers and Liverpool unveil their Wembley suits.
The first duty of an owner
Sustainability is the word at the heart of this all. Forest Green’s development into an environmentally friendly club have been widely documented – and I applaud their efforts. I have no doubt that, ecologically speaking, Rovers will become football’s first sustainable club. But this is not the kind of sustainability that matters in football.
The club want, eventually, to be in the Championship. And that means that, even if their new stadium were full every week, the club’s revenues would depend almost entirely on TV money, leaving them at a massive financial disadvantage in a division where the average attendance in 2016/17 was just over 20,000. In other words, the club could only survive at this level by having a series of managers who can outperform their budget every year.
And that just doesn’t happen in football. Being an extremely well-run club doesn’t provide anything like the competitive advantage that it does in other sports for the simple reason that, in any given division, there will be a huge disparity between the highest and lowest wage bills. According to football finance analyst SwissRamble, in 2015/16 the highest wage bill in the Championship was QPR’s £41m. The lowest was MK Dons’ £8m – less than a third of the eleven highest spending teams. Milton Keynes went down, of course, and, with 21st and 22nd placed teams Charlton and Rotherham, they formed three of the five lowest spending teams in the division. (Bolton finished dead last, but their wage bill wasn’t available at the time of SwissRamble’s calculations.)
Being a well-run or an ambitious club, then, is not the same as being a sustainable one. No matter how business-like you are, you can only defy the financial gravity of football for so long. And, with FFP rules making it harder for owners to buy their teams an advantage at the top levels of football, all ‘ambitious’ fans should remember this basic point: If the plan for making your club sustainable is ‘TV money, sponsorship and an interest-free loan from the owner’, then you don’t have a plan.
Even if Forest Green could reach the Championship and stay there for a few years, there is a serious question about if they could ever generate enough organic growth to pay off their already huge debt to their owner. (A debt that’s likely to increase substantially as the club breaks ground on the stadium and pushes for further promotions.)
Rovers’ home is Nailsworth, a large village with a population of 5,800. The modest-sounding capacity of its proposed new stadium is similar to its current one, but the aim, presumably, is that better facilities and league football will raise attendances much closer to full capacity every week. (Last season it was rarely above half-full.) There is also an option to raise the capacity to 10,000 should this become feasible.
But even this looks massively ambitious to me. Reports in the week prior to Forest Green’s Wembley play-off success against Tranmere suggest that they sold somewhere between 3,000-4,000 tickets. For the most important game in the club’s history.
It’s often been noted that Blackburn have, on occasions, managed home turnouts which implied over a quarter of the town had attended games. This is nothing compared to the task facing Forest Green which, if they’re to become genuinely financially sustainable, will need to create new football fans on an unprecedented scale in an area of low population density.
Excluding the two London clubs (Orient and Barnet), the average size of towns hosting clubs in last season’s League Two was over 120,000. (If London clubs were included, it would be higher.) The smallest town represented in League Two last season was Morecambe which has a population of nearly 35,000 – six times that of Nailsworth.
If only fans were as easy to generate as renewable electricity.
So where will all these new fans come from? The nearest town of any size to Nailsworth is Cirencester, population 19,000. The nearest towns with more than 100,000 residents are Cheltenham and Gloucester. Cheltenham, which is about 20 miles from Nailsworth, has its own team already in League Two. Gloucester, meanwhile, which is a few miles closer, has AFC Gloucester. (They too play in Cheltenham and, being in the National League North, are just two good seasons behind Forest Green.)
The nearest biggest city is Bristol, population 450,000. Which explains why the proposed new stadium will be sited right beside a junction on the M5 – a relatively easy drive from north Bristol.***
Bristol, of course, already has two teams, with north Bristol being Rovers territory. It is not, I think, being cruel to say that neither team is regarded as having the fan base big enough to make them a Premier League team in waiting.
By way of comparison, look at AFC Wimbledon. Despite selling out their temporary home every week in League One, and being poised to move back to their spiritual home in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, the club are only planning, initially, on building an 11,000-seater stadium – up from 4,800 at Kingsmeadow. This well-run club recognises that you can’t compete with just 5,000 paying supporters, but, equally, that you can’t simply magic new ones out of thin air – even in a densely populated area filled with wealthy young professionals.
Take your instinct by the reins
So Forest Green’s stadium will go up. But what then? Rovers are an interesting club, but I hope they’re not banking on their green credentials proving a significant draw for fans. Look, for example, at the different reaction to the awarding of World Cups to Russia and Qatar, both with repressive regimes, both implicated in bribery and both using slave labour-like construction conditions. The award of both are monstrous, but the vastly greater reaction to Qatar suggests to me that football fans are somewhat selective in their outrage and are rather more bothered about the temperature, and Qatar’s status as football minnows, than they are about the utterly repellent bidding and construction process. Results trump ethics every time, even in the hipster parts of Bristol (of which that fine, liberal city has many).
Artist’s impression of the new Forest Green stadium.
Other generally sceptical people give the owner a pass because he’s a local lad with a passion for his community. But you can kill a club with kindness as well as with neglect.
What he’s planning looks to me like a modern fairy story where a king builds an outsized palace to show his excessive love for his queen, dooming her to wander the lonely halls endlessly. Some gifts, even those given in heartfelt love, can be ruinous.
There are plenty of examples of how deep pockets and good judgement have led to on-pitch success, but we should never stop asking: “What happens to the club if the owner dies, gets bored or otherwise calls in the debts? And how will it be run in 20 years?” In my view, we should look equally askance at owners who buy titles and those who seek to grow their teams too quickly. Not least because football won’t always be like this. The TV money won’t keep growing exponentially. The billionaires will find new ways of projecting soft power or laundering reputations. The tide will go out eventually.
But even if it doesn’t, even if the plan somehow works – and the fans of Forest Green don’t see their team bankrupted by ill-judged generosity – then it’s others who may suffer. The fear of every hard-pressed team is that, when a successful club nearby expands, some of their fans will bleed away. That’s why, in part, Leyton Orient were so unhappy with West Ham moving to the former-Olympic stadium. At a stroke, their giant neighbour was halving their distance to Orient, leaving them just 2 miles and many thousands of fans closer to Brisbane Road.
And, beyond that, there’s a bigger issue still – bigger even than sporting equality: justice. When we fans demand success – success at any price and especially success paid for not from fans’ pockets – we ignore that promotions, cups and titles are zero sum games.
If you buy these things, you rob all the other teams trying to earn what they have honestly. All the players giving everything for what may be their one shot at league football or a medal or the title or European football. All the managers running themselves into the ground with stress, knowing even finishing as runners-up could be enough to get them the sack. All the fans, working hard to pay for their tickets, yelling their team on and desperate for one little sniff of success. All of them are robbed when we let teams buy their way to success. It’s corrosive to the soul of football.
So, yes, let us criticise the owners of Chelsea and Manchester City, Leicester and Forest Green Rovers – all of whom bought their success in one way or another. And, yes, let us criticise the owners who promised success – at Birmingham and Blackburn and Wolves – but haven’t yet delivered it.
But only if we can first say this: “More than anything, I want my club to survive and to earn everything it has honestly.”
If we can’t, then truly we have forgotten the first thing we are taught about sport as children: it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.
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.
*** That’s right, the self-proclaimed “greenest football stadium in the world” is to be built next to a motorway junction and will aim to generate extra car journeys, the vast majority of which will burn fossil fuels, producing emissions that are harmful to human health and will contribute to global warming.
In fairness to Forest Green, when I emailed them about this, they do recognise the problem and say they’re “looking to develop new bus routes [with Stagecoach], [new] cycle routes and [to] improve pedestrian access,” as well as working on ways of “encouraging fans to use public transport and increase car occupancy” both at the current and new grounds.