With the Football League struggling to keep in touch with the Premiership at one end, closing the door on the conference at the other, and coping with the fallout from the Chesterfield affair, chief executive David Burns speaks to Andy Lyons and explains how fans can expect the league to fight its corner
The Football League has vastly increased the amount of money it earns from TV, but the gap with the Premier League is still growing. What, if anything, can be done about that?
I don’t believe the gap can be closed. The TV deals that are struck are superb for football, and that money will be spent within the game. But while the financial gap grows on the income side, it also grows on the expense side, so the bottom half of the Premiership don’t have a great financial advantage over, say, the top half of the First Division.
How can the League act as a unified body when a significant number of its most powerful clubs don’t want to be in it at all?
It should be the ambition of every club, every owner, player and supporter to be in a higher division. The 24 First Division clubs all want to be in the Premier League when the season starts. Getting out of the Football League is a measure of success. Promotion and relegation is what drives football. People like to compare the English League with other leagues in Europe but the comparisons show why English football is unique. The Spanish league has just anounced an increase in total attendances in its two national divisions last season, up by five per cent to 121/2 million. But the Football League by itself has 131/2 million. The strength of the pyramid is built on promotion and relegation. If you start downgrading that, you alter the structure of football fundamentally.
You have been quoted as favouring the introduction of four-up, four-down between all the divisions. Surely it is unrealistic to expect the Premier League to agree to that?
I was asked on a radio show what was the most innovative thing that has happened in football. I replied that without doubt it was the play-offs and that if we were looking for something to improve football now, that would be to increase promotion and relegation. The only way we can bridge the financial gap is through playing success. It can’t be done by handouts. It’s a risk for the Premiership chairmen to vote for it, just as it would be difficult for them to vote to reduce from 20 clubs to 18. But it won’t be me driving it – it will be the owners of the clubs and supporters. Football is engaged with supporters now in a way that it hasn’t been before, because it knows that if you don’t engage with your customers, you lose them – Marks and Spencer being a classic case.
In the old days, a supporters’ club might get an office at the ground and help to fund a signing here and there but with the emergence of Supporters Direct and trusts it’s become much more sophisticated now. Clubs like Sunderland are making big comebacks because they’ve listened to their customers. I’ve been criticised by some supporters groups for saying “customer” instead of “fan”, but if we don’t engage people in football then it won’t survive because there are too many other things for them to do.
Given your support for more movement between the divisions, how did you feel about the League chairmen’s vote against two-up, two-down with the Conference?
The Conference chairman were shocked at the outcome of the vote. Two years ago, a working party of League chairman looked at the proposal and recommended in principle that it should happen, if it could be financed. This year the Conference asked a League club to put a motion up supporting two-up, two-down at the League’s AGM . A trick was missed in that the financial details should have been worked out prior to the new TV deal which we’re about to enter. In the hurry to get that wrapped up, the Conference issue was ignored, so what the Third Division chairmen were being asked to do, without any financial recompense, was to double their risk of losing the central income – roughly £350,000 a year for the next three years. The financial package, which had only been agreed a week beforehand, came over in a confused way and was perceived by those who were not in favour anyway as being a way around League regulations, so it failed. I said in my own address to the club chairmen that I hoped they’d vote for it and I still say that. The moral case is there but we have to bridge the financial gap. We’re hoping to find a solution between now and the next broadcasting deal in 2004, and it may still happen before then. In the meantime, I think the Conference is getting stronger. If the League was opened up to more clubs I think you’d see those eight or nine professional Conference clubs go very quickly to 15. The more times the Conference results appear on TV on a Saturday, the more people just assume that it’s all part of the same thing, so why not make it so?
Do you see any prospect of the bigger First Division clubs attempting another breakaway to form a “Premiership II”?
If there was a vehicle by which people could leave the League and generate more revenue than they get today, they’d take it. A Premiership II presupposes that the Premiership wants to have another division. I think it’s unlikely. The top end probably wants to have fewer clubs, the First Division to a man want to have more clubs in the Premiership in order to get in and stay there. There’s no real reason why the top division couldn’t get back together with the rest of the league if they could sort out how the revenue is split, which was the cause of the breakaway in the first place.
Pretty much 80 per cent of revenue is going to the top 20 per cent of clubs, and that’s the case in the Football League too. What extra money is going to fund a Premiership II? It could only be from TV and then you’d be looking at two rival broadcasters. If we assume that, then why would the Premiership want to help create a second division that would be selling its product to another TV network? One of the jobs of all those that work in football is to seek to reconnect the Premiership and the Football League. We can’t expect handouts. It’s more realistic to look at how the Premiership supports the Football League by participation in the Worthington Cup, which is a vital revenue source.
But many Premiership teams barely take the Worthington Cup seriously any more...
So far two clubs, Man Utd and Arsenal, have put out what might be called second-string teams. I’m delighted that they continue to participate and don’t seek to find a way not to be involved. Anyone who was at Watford early last season when they played Man Utd’s second-string will tell you that those United players were really trying and they whupped a team then in the top two of the First Division, 3-0. Arsenal only lost in the last minute to a full strength Ipswich side. Or, if you watched Man Utd and Sunderland, I don’t believe for one minute that United didn’t want to win that game. But ultimately in terms of the corporate direction of these clubs there is no glory in winning the Worthington Cup becaue their focus is on the Champions League. Liverpool may have a differet attitude next year too, but there will be others who will see the Worthington as a platform they can use to build success.
Do you think the number of professional clubs in the Football League is sustainable in the long term?
There’s this perception that Football League clubs lead a hand to mouth existence. But most make either a small profit or a small loss. Some will spend more because they believe that will get them into a higher division, some are more prudent and can succeed by developing their own players. In the Conference there are are eight or nine clubs organised on a full-time basis. Even if some of the 72 Football League clubs were to go out of business, there would be plenty of ready-made replacements. Football doesn’t appear to be attractive to financial institutions, yet we’ve lost only Aldershot and Maidstone in the last 15 years and we’ve seen two recent examples – Millwall and Watford – of clubs going to the market and successfully raising money, so there’s still some appetite for people to invest.
This season Football League matches will be played at various different times, including Saturday evenings, to accommodate television. Isn’t there a danger that this will alienate fans?
The TV companies are the biggest financiers of football so it’s reasonable that they should have a say in when they want games to be shown. It would be pretty shoddy of the football world to bite the hand that feeds it. Of course it’s imperative to keep people coming to matches, but we can get too preoccupied with finding ways to fill the stadiums. Clubs should be less dependent on gate income to survive, which means reaching new audiences who don’t, for one reason or another, go to football at the moment. ITV Digital, who will be running magazine programmes about each division as well as live games, don’t have the subscriber base that Sky have but they’re in competition with them now and that’s got to be good.
In the light of the problems at Chesterfield and elsewhere last season, is it time for the League to take a more active role in monitoring who is allowed to run clubs?
Football clubs are privately held assets that have a quasi public feel. A “fit and proper person” act is difficult. If you looked at certain people in charge of clubs who’ve actually done a good job, you might say, “Well, with hindsight, I’m surprised that so-and-so was allowed in at the time.” If you had to apply tests for a person wanting to buy a club you might have the League stepping in to say “Mr Smith can’t sell up to Mr Jones because we don’t think he’s really got the money”, or “Mr Smith has to do a deal with Mr Jones 2 even though he’s offering a lot less than the asking price.” What does Mr Smith do then? His solution might be to close the business, and that can’t be acceptable. We have to consider ways of licensing a club and put some constraints in that way. But I’m not in favour of the licensing system they have in Germany, for example, where clubs have to present budgets for the year ahead and can be demoted if the figures don’t fit. If you start fundamentally tampering with the league stucture like that you could well turn off vast numbers of people. Why does someone own a club? Because they can afford to, some for the right reasons, some not. Supporters usually spot the wrong one quicker than anybody else. The League’s responsibility is to do all it can to help the survival of clubs when they get into difficulties, which they will, because from time to time a conman will come along. The reason why conmen are successful is because they’re good at disguising their intentions. Darren Brown took Chesterfield, a previously well-run club, to the brink of extinction in six months. But at least some good came out of the Chesterfield saga, because the supporters now have control of the club.
When the League’s tribunal was asked to reconsider Chesterfield’s case, why did it not change the punishment of a nine-point deduction?
The charges were heard in reasonably quick time to avoid the situation that happened with Swindon, when the outcome of the championship and the play-offs was damaged. [Swindon were punished with relegation by the League in June 1990, after they had won the First Division play-off final.] An independent panel, made up of people with no connections to any other League club, was set up to hear the evidence. The hearings were carried out in private – though the press seemed so well informed about what was said you wondered how private it had been – and the panel came to a decision as a jury would. They didn’t have the power to deduct points, only to recommend a deduction. But the League board, after an informed and engaged debate, would not sanction what its own panel had determined. The panel had no new information to consider, though, so they returned the same verdict, which the League board had to ratify. What it all highlighted to me was that we need to have a disciplinary and regulatory framework for our clubs which provides justice. I believe that any such hearings should be open, not hidden away in a small room, because football has to be accountable. We’re debating ideas about this now with a number of people, not least the supporters’ associations. The League has already adopted the Companies Act regime, so that if someone is bankrupt or disqualified as a director of a company, they can’t be in control of a football club. Football has to regulate itself, because if it doesn’t that privilege will be taken away by the government, and that would be a mistake.
From WSC 175 September 2001. What was happening this month