A lot of accusations have been levelled at Arsenal fans recently, claiming we are a spoilt bunch of ingrates who have no right demanding better from our team. We are told we should be happy where we are because things could always be worse. I do not go to games any more, partly because modern-day prices are a rip-off, but when I put myself in the position of Arsenal season ticket holders I came to the conclusion that, if I spent that kind of money for admission, I too would be incredibly demanding.
Two decades ago, Rupert Murdoch staked the success of his fledgling satellite TV business on paying £300 million for rights to the newly formed Premier League. Since then Sky has remained unchallenged in its dominance – and the sums of money are much larger – but there is a possibility they could be out-Skyed by companies looking to establish new technology in our living rooms.
One of the League's more enduring messes, at Plymouth Argyle, has seemingly reached a resolution. The local businessman James Brent's takeover, agreed at the end of October, brings an end to a saga that lasted far longer than it should have. Brent will now take ownership of Argyle, while the city council has agreed to buy and rent back the club's Home Park ground.
US Ancona 1905 were founded at the turn of the last century by a local who returned from a stint working at the docks in Liverpool, hence their red and white kit. They have appeared in Serie A twice, most recently during the 2003-04 season (with Goran Pandev, Dario Hübner and Dino Baggio among their ranks), though they dropped straight back into the second tier with a miserly 13 points from their 34 games.
In Scotland it seems even the legal system must be Old Firm-centric. Celtic decried an Edinburgh Sheriff Court jury when the case of a Hearts fan assaulting their manager, witnessed live on TV across the country, was found not proven. Two weeks later, however, the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court, redressed the balance by exposing the threat of Rangers going bankrupt in the very near future.
When Harry Redknapp brought Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to Portsmouth for £1.8 million in 2001, detractors spied a case of commercial considerations taking precedence over footballing ability. Sure enough, the Japanese goalkeeper departed under a cloud less than two years later after a series of hapless performances that saw him lose his place to the 42-year-old Dave Beasant.
As the Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday players run out at Bramall Lane this month the rivalry in the stands will be as volatile as ever. United's directors and executives, however, will be welcoming some familiar faces from across the city, having spent their summers locked in negotiations.
Having suffered jibes that they are the "Pride of Singapore" for several years now, the news that Manchester United are to be floated on that country's stock exchange would seem to be entirely appropriate. Mystery surrounds the precise sums involved in the supposed IPO (initial public offering) and the move seems to have baffled the financial press. Some are asking whether having won four titles out of five and reached three Champion League finals in five years, the Glazers believe the club have reached a peak. There are also suggestions that they have been tipped the wink about Sir Alex Ferguson's imminent departure. But it may simply be that they are once again looking to milk more from the United cash cow.
Of particular interest to supporters is the final destination of these funds. This summer Liverpool and Manchester City spent fortunes in the transfer market, with City in particular seemingly able to lure United's transfer targets with huge salaries. So fans are entitled to wonder if some of this money will be used to strengthen a squad now containing young, promising but as yet unproven talent.
The initial answer would appear to be no and that the windfall could be used to pay down a portion of the £400 million debt that costs the club £45m a year to finance. Then there is the question of the £250m "acquired" from as yet unknown sources to pay off the high-interest PIK (payment in kind) notes last year and the ailing nature of the Floridians' other businesses, which has led some to suggest that the funds may be earmarked for "personal profits".
Optimists may point to this being the beginning of a long exit strategy for the owners and, of course, any flotation weakens the Glazers' hold on to the club to a degree. Learning from the failures of United's last period of public ownership, fan groups are already talking up the possibility of buying a stake, even if the £2 billion valuation of the club may make that prohibitive. At the very least, any flotation would also lead to higher standards of transparency and the prospect of holding some sharper Glazer practices to account.
It is clear, however, that supporters have had an impact on the way the Glazers run the club. There's little doubt that the "green and gold" campaign affected their strategies – prior to the protests they seemed hell-bent on double-digit ticket-price rises and taking profits as and when they saw fit.
Ever since the furore surrounding the bond prospectus, the Glazers seem more interested in placating fans, whether by freezing prices or being seen to act in a more conciliatory fashion.And while they have steered clear of selling stadium-naming rights, they have sought to sell advertising and/or corporate space on just about every other asset the club owns. It remains to be seen whether this constitutes good business or financial desperation.
The restraints on the manager remain. The club have slashed the players' salary bill by £10m. Research by Andersred (andersred.blogspot.com) claims that the departures of Wes Brown, John O'Shea, Gary Neville, Edwin van der Sar, Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves, and their replacement by Phil Jones, David de Gea and Ashley Young, means a net saving of £205,000 a week. In an era when Manchester City, in particular, are intent on buying success by offering eye-watering salaries, United's stance should be lauded. But the fear remains that a lack of quality in the squad will tell over the course of the season.
Despite almost identical, emphatic starts to the season, the contrast between the local rivals could not be greater. City look like a club in a desperate hurry, with pressure beginning to be exerted from the top and UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules forgotten in the rush for trophies. United would normally sit this season out; they are team clearly in transition with a new goalkeeper, defence and midfield to accommodate, and it remains to be seen if their free-scoring start is illusory.
Nevertheless, the fact that the manager continues to deliver, regardless of the considerable financial obstacles put in his way, remains one of the more remarkable stories in recent football history.
From WSC 296 October 2011
Debate over the size of transfer fees is part of football, but an increasingly endangered part. Players now – certainly at lower levels – are increasingly sold for "undisclosed" amounts. Clubs, players and agents are within their rights to withhold the relevant figures but this trend is also short-changing fans.
AFC Bournemouth reputedly received £1 million from selling striker Danny Ings to Burnley recently, but the fee – like that of six other players sold over the past year – was undisclosed. Estimates suggest debt-free Bournemouth will eventually earn £3m but manager Lee Bradbury is bringing in free transfers and loans.
With club accounts repeatedly delayed, Cherries fans are split. Chairman Eddie Mitchell is either praised for righting a debt-laden ship or decried as an asset-stripper. The situation works in reverse too. Driven by an ambitious chairman, a club splashes out untold sums on players for undisclosed fees, then the chairman disappears as the club collapses. Those left picking up the pieces are often the fans, who – if transfer fees had been disclosed – could have queried their club's spending much earlier.
Transfer fees are lodged with the FA and available in club accounts but the figures quoted are often an amalgamation, and few lower-league clubs voluntarily make any financial details available anyway. FIFA-licensed agent Faizal Khan explains: "To aid cash flow, it may be a transfer fee of £20m is paid in instalments over three years with a player in exchange and other benefits. The £20m deal may only be £7m in cash today and be made up of instalments, player bonuses, a high-profile pre-season friendly and lump sums after the player makes international caps to, in time, all add up to £20m.
"To not rock the boat, it is sometimes best not to disclose everything. If the selling club publishes that they sold a player for £20m yesterday and do not spend near £20m in that transfer window on replenishing the squad, some fans will go beserk."
That creates pressure on managers and owners, but the most thick-skinned of the latter simply carry on regardless, particularly in the lower divisions where there is less focus. "Figures are reported in mainstream media and you get that figure from people close to the deal, like the buying or selling club or the agent," says Nick Harris, chief sports news correspondent at the Mail on Sunday and editor of sportingintelligence.com. "Sometimes those figures are accurate, sometimes that are very wide of the mark. Premier League clubs will be scrutinised as more journalists are asking questions, but in the second or third division, if the local papers don't have the will or the power and the owners don't want people to know, there's not a lot you can do."
Since October 2010, clubs transferring players internationally must lodge details – including fees – with FIFA's Transfer Matching System, which was used for 2,451 international transfers in the first transfer window of 2011. The combined transfer value of those deals was $320m (£197m) and FIFA estimate more than 4,000 clubs use a system that is bound by Swiss data protection laws and confidential.
With FIFA mired in allegations of corruption and the debacle of the failed England 2018 World Cup bid, there is an urgent need for more transparency in football. The Football Supporters' Federation (FSF) recently launched a campaign to make the game subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This, however, would only apply to governing bodies rather than clubs. "We haven't got a policy on disclosing transfer fees, but it's something most fans would want to see," says Michael Brunskill, FSF director of communication.
The FA and Football League do not have policies on disclosure of transfer fees, while Premier League spokesman Dan Johnson says: "It's down to individual clubs and some feel it is commercially sensitive so choose not to. Also, it's sometimes a case that what the buying and the selling club wish to present are slightly different variations – adding in or not taking account of various clauses such as appearance, international or success payment triggers in the contract."
Even the most blinkered fan must appreciate that disclosing how much money has been paid out or received during a transfer window is not conducive to good business. If a player is attracting interest from a club flush with cash from a big sale of its own, a bigger fee will be demanded.
In the longer term, annual disclosure of money spent during a season would at least give fans greater clarity on what is happening to their club and some of their money.
From WSC 296 October 2011
You would be hard pressed to work out what a gnome dressed in a Mansfield Town home kit has to do with former Stoke and Swansea striker Paul Connor. Saying that, the link between Oxford United's Jake Wright and a crested mug could be considered to be equally confusing. But both footballers have been direct recipients of creative financing as fans turn to new and increasingly innovative methods to fund players' salaries.