There are many tales across Europe of fallen giants and mythical football clubs that captured the spirit of ‘the beautiful game’ only to disappear or flounder under the tide of time. Ajax of the early 70’s, Stade Reims in the 50’s and IFK Göteborg in the 80’s. I grew up following one of these teams as they reached seemingly impossible heights and painfully inevitable lows. Yet before I was born Leeds United were spoken of in the same sentences as these aforementioned greats. During the 60’s and early 70’s, under the tutelage of Don Revie, Leeds went from parochial no-hopers to a European power house sporting players like Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Jack Charlton whilst overcoming the likes of Bayern Munich (if justice were done) and Barcelona. I am afraid to say that those were different days and the Leeds United of present are a mere shadow of what once was.
Recently Leeds’ ignominious years in England’s second and third tiers were made all the more ludicrous due to the purchase of the club by Italian corn magnate Massimo Cellino. I will start with a disclaimer that, according to the FA at least, Cellino is a stand-up individual with little of disrepute to his name. In reality he is a corrupt businessman of laughable superstitious practices. Highlights of his reign at the Serie A club Cagliari include sacking 36 managers in 22 years, rechristening all seats numbered 17 as 16b and ordering the team to play ‘home’ games 1000km away in Trieste after their stadium and its mooted temporary replacement were found to be unsafe; local boy Antonio Gramsci would not be best pleased. His takeover at Leeds was briefly held up by an Italian court case over the non-payment of taxes on a yacht resulting in it being blocked due to failing the Football League’s ‘fit and proper persons test’. A mere week later however Cellino successfully appealed the verdict via an independent QC due to the fact the Italian legal system only publishes explanations for its verdicts 90 days later. This in effect supplies the football league with no evidence as of yet with which to bar Cellino, and therefore the appeal had to be upheld. The test as a result is quite clearly not fit for purpose. Vincent Tan at Cardiff City and Munto Finance at Notts County are perhaps two of the more notable examples of the test’s redundancy in England, yet there are many more. Craig Whyte’s purchase of Rangers in Scotland deserves a special mention also.
Yet as much as it is no surprise that governing bodies who are embroiled in scandal after scandal seek only to rubber stamp fresh financial injection into their leagues, it is perhaps more ominous that fans too often applaud the arrival of these individuals with as much gusto as a returning Olympian. Cellino’s investment at Leeds has been hailed as a new dawn, the seventh new dawn at Elland Road of the 21st Century by my count; each of Portsmouth’s four owners of the 2009/10 season were applauded at Fratton Park on their arrival, and I wonder how secretary of The Federation of Hearts Supporters Clubs John Borthwick now feels after describing the arrival of Vladimir Romanov at the club as “a defining moment in the history of Heart of Midlothian Football Club”. He certainly was not wrong. Perhaps to their credit, Craig Whyte’s purchase of Rangers was met by suspicion and requests for a detailed financial plan by fans, though this may have had more to do with that which went before than any inherent sensibility at Ibrox. Suffice to say, he was still allowed to buy the club and the rest is history.
The footballing men
These purchases are often little more than predatory capitalism. Investors see an ailing club with a loyal, some might say blind, fan base and as is their nature they seek to turn the club over rapidly, either by achieving short term success or by obtaining further investment. Any fan that still believes in the ‘white knight’ investment of the likes of Jack Walker, Blackburn Rovers’ local lad done good, has clearly been ignoring the footballing landscape for over 15 years.
The very tribalism of football inculcates this culture as opposed sets of fans clamour for wealthy individuals to buy out their club in order to best their rivals. In Glasgow, supporters of Rangers and Celtic celebrate their counterpart’s potential collapse (Celtic in the early 90s and Rangers post-2012) with a vigour rarely seen for any political cause. Now of course, there are deep seated social and pseudo-historical reasons for this divide yet in essence such animosity is a prime example of a worrying kind of vitriolic working class division, an example you will witness in equal measure in Milan, Madrid, Athens and Manchester. When we ponder the eternal question ‘cui bono?’ the answer is simple: cowboy investors and fluid capital does, not the fans, nor the staff and certainly not the local communities.
There are clubs up and down this island called Everton, Cove Rangers, and Taff’s Well because, originally at least, they represented a sense of community pride in the footballing prowess of the young men and women who lived and worked in those areas. Investors play on these connections, casting glances at prominent community figures and supporters trusts in order to lubricate their ascension to the status of Abramovich level demi-gods. They have their photographs taken with club legends and reinforce the idea that without their investment the club would have ceased to exist. At Leeds United the infamous Ken Bates claimed he would buy back the stadium and castigated the previous owners as irresponsible, claiming they were not ‘footballing men’. Nine years later Cellino is saying exactly the same. It seems to me that ‘footballing men’ like Bates and company are the last thing any club needs. What we require is democratic control and a philosophy which sees the club as a community asset, an inalienable asset that will nurture talent and provide entertainment for generations to come.
Friends in strange places
One of the great contradictions of British football, from a socialist perspective at least, is that were we to seek a sustainable model of large scale professional sport management we would be best placed to find it in the U.S.A. The Green Bay Packers of the National Football League, that’s football with helmets and plenty of pizzazz rather than Bovril and hooligans, are owned by the local community. Equally they are a non-profit organisation, and have strict rules in place to prevent any individuals from taking ownership of the team. Not to mention that the NFL itself has a salary cap, revenues are shared between the members of the league, and college players are initially allocated via a draft system which weights selection order in favour of the worst performing team of the previous season. Imagine for a moment how different the Scottish Premiership might look under these rules. As tribal actors seeking to bludgeon other clubs upon the jagged rock of relegation this might not seem appealing but as football fans, and by that I mean lovers of the game and the 11 vs. 11 of a Saturday afternoon, such a prospect is tantalising.
Many now look to the German Bundesliga as a progressive example of sensible club ownership within Europe. Foremost among the league’s policies of sustainability is the rule that all clubs must be 51% owned by the club’s members, a rule the league has stuck by despite sporadic challenges from some of the largest revenue generating clubs. Further to this the Bundesliga has consistently been the most financially solvent league of the major European competitions, whilst having the highest average attendances in the world. A fact not hindered by the league’s commitment to affordable ticket prices, a concept which has now become almost utopian in the upper tiers of British football. All this has been achieved whilst the league’s top two contested the most recent European Champions League final and in so doing supplied a wealth of fantastic players to the German national team. Whether in the long run this system will be able to resist the financial clout of clubs like Bayern Munich who are quickly becoming the world’s best team remains to be seen, but as a starting point the results achieved in Germany are very promising.
Coming back home
We can look to the likes of Chester F.C and A.F.C Wimbledon as notable success stories closer to home, yet at the top similar examples are virtually non-existent. Even with the advent of fan controlled clubs the structure within which they operate remains staunchly geared towards the accumulation of talent and wealth within a select elite. In England the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) will mean that the wealthiest Premier League clubs will have the right to cherry pick the best talent from the lower leagues for a fraction of their potential market value. Not only do we have rampant capital dictating the focus of the top clubs, but the very bodies set up to protect the local and national game at a lower level are disdainfully restructuring it in order to drain those unable to defend themselves of their prized assets. This represents a microcosm of globalised capitalism itself but it is a magnified form of it, one which acts as a feeding frenzy for the ultra-rich.
What we need are not songs and idle online rants regarding which team has the birth right to be successful, we require debate on the terraces, airwaves and message boards pondering the question of how fans can exercise influence over their clubs so as to make them accountable to the real shareholders – the people who attend matches and tune in to their broadcasts week after week. There is no easy solution to this problem, and given that football governance at a national, continental, and global level is rife with corruption the prospects of any top-down reform are slim. This is why intervention must come from below. Fans must ‘vote with their feet’ as the saying goes, and refuse to countenance insane ticket prices that cater only to the wealthy and masochistic. We must form collectives and pressure organisations that seek to hold the football associations and club hierarchies to account. Most of all, if we do nothing else, we must cease our adulation of big money investors and hold fast when the choice is presented as corruption or doom. There will always be a club as long as there are fans, and there will still be football long after the well of dirty money has run dry and the investor’s private jets have flown away.