Money matters

No romance without finance

April 22, 2009
By Phil Holland
(Archive)

Imagine a world where neither the Glazer family nor Messrs Tom Hicks and George Gillett had anything to do with Manchester United or Liverpool.

EmpicsMalcolm Glazer's takeover at Man Utd would not have been allowed had hew recommendations been in force

That utopian dream world for some supporters could have been a reality had new recommendations from the UK's All-Party Football Group been introduced ahead of the controversial debt-laden takeovers at Old Trafford and Anfield.

This week the parliamentary group, which comprises 150 MPs from the House of Commons and peers from the House of Lords, called for stringent new rules to prevent prospective owners saddling clubs with exorbitant levels of debt, and for loans from wealthy owners to be classed as debt and not largely ignored.

The All Party Football Group rose to something approaching prominence in 2004 when it published its first report into football and its finances; a Whitehall reaction to the seemingly endemic culture of financial mismanagement in the game - which had led to a worrying trend of clubs narrowly avoiding oblivion by going into administration.

The MPs' main recommendation was that football in the UK needed to take a long hard look at itself and gets its house in order.

There were calls for tighter corporate governance, greater redistribution of wealth and for clubs to remember and respect their historic role as community assets at a time when globalisation had transformed many into world renowned brands.

Despite some scepticism that the body was little more than an opportunistic vehicle allowing MPs to earn political capital, the All Party Football Group enjoyed modest success, chiefly seen in the Football Association's decision to introduce a Fit and Proper Persons test for prospective new club owners.

Now, five years on and after another year-long inquiry into the health of the game, (and having claimed that ''much of the game's corporate governance structure is opaque and does not reflect the best examples of British business''), the parliamentarians have published their second report.

This time around the headline-baiting recommendations from the MPs have been to call for the existing Fit and Proper Persons test to beefed up to allow football's authorities to test the financial fitness of business plans ahead of any takeovers. The idea being to try and discern whether the intentions of potential new owners are viable and, crucially, to prohibit prospective new owners from leveraging debts on the club to fund their takeover, as the Glazers did at United and Hicks and Gillett did at Liverpool.

EmpicsAmbramovich: "A team that at the moment I don't recognise."

The parliamentary group also want loans from owners or directors to their clubs to be considered as debt leveraging, which would cover the situation at Stamford Bridge where Roman Abramovich is basically footing the bill for Chelsea's considerable costs with what amounts to an interest-free loan of £339.8m - a loan he is perfectly at liberty to call-in at any time and which, given a perfect storm of circumstances, could prove ruinous to the club.

The All Party Football Group deserves credit for tackling issues which are of great concern to many fans and for drawing parallels between football and the financial world which, as we've seen, left to its own devices collapsed as a result of its own avarice.

It is tough to argue that the Parliamentary report is wrong in pointing out ''ludicrous levels of borrowing'', arguing that loans such as Abramovich's to Chelsea amount to a form of ''financial doping'' or that ''severe financial imbalances'' exist as a result of savvy investors' involvement in the game.

However, now, just as five years ago when the MPs published their first report, the elephant in the room is the fact that the body has absolutely no legislative power whatsoever and is therefore unable to implement any of its recommendations.

While its only hope of affecting change is by applying pressure to the rule makers at the Football Association and Premier League, the All Party Football Group cannot escape the criticism that it is little more than a political talking shop.


Until last month's The Damned United football has never really been able to lay claim to having a truly good film.

While Escape to Victory holds a place in many hearts, deep down we all know it's rubbish; Sly Stallone has no idea what he's doing, for all his star quality Pele can't act, and so fat was Michael Caine that his shorts deserved a nod for the best supporting role.

EmpicsEric the postman meets Eric Cantona in the new movie "Looking for Eric" set for release in June.

1939's The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is more curio than entertainment, and as for the Goal! movies the less said the better, suffice to say they tried and failed to capitalise on football's zeitgeist.

But, like buses, you wait ages for one and two turn up almost simultaneously.

Hot on the heels of The Damned United, which succeeded both commercially and critically, comes a slightly more existential piece of footballing cinema, starring and co-produced by the sport's most famous exponent of philosophy since Albert Camus pulled on a keeper's jersey.

Looking for Eric tells the story of a divorced, depressed postman in Manchester who is helped back from the brink by visitations from Old Trafford legend Eric Cantona. While the film looks likely to include a certain amount of introspection and navel-gazing the trailer suggests the themes of inner turmoil and despair are offset by some typically dry Mancunian humour.

Directed by award-winning Ken Loach, the movie is being tipped as a potential Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival; though that early hype could be explained simply by Cantona being French and Loach having won the coveted award in 2006 for The Wind That Shake the Barley.

Nevertheless, while US sports can boast movies like Field of Dreams, Any Given Sunday, Friday Night Lights and The Last Boy Scout (OK, that last one maybe not so much) with The Damned Untied and Looking For Eric, maybe football will soon be able to boast a brace of decent celluloid showings.