Buy to let

This month’s 25-year retrospective takes on the thorny issue of ownership at three contrasting clubs. Mike Ticher begins with Chelsea, unrecognisable from 1986 but difficult to love for very different reasons

In about 1996 I interviewed a pleasant man in a suit from Deloitte & Touche about its work on the finances of football clubs. He patiently took me through one of their early annual surveys, explaining why the industry was unsustainable. If clubs could not rein in players’ wages, there would be a disastrous crash within years.

Clubs did not rein in wages; nor was there a crash. They found vast new sources of revenue (or exploited old ones more effectively), were bailed out miraculously at the last minute, became objects of desire for fabulously wealthy individuals, skirted feeble rules on fit and proper people to be directors and generally muddled through.

One lesson of the past 25 years is that professional football clubs are almost impossible to kill off, no matter how implausible their accounting seems. Given Britain’s recent unhappy history with the concept of “too big to fail”, no one should be complacent about the future of clubs floating on bubbles pumped up by debt or generous benefactors. But history suggests most fans should not worry too much that their club will be extinct by the 50th anniversary of WSC. What should concern them more is the nature of their relationship with the club. That has been changed for good and ill by a variety of ownership options that no one foresaw in the late 1980s.

Until 1982, when Tottenham became the first club to be run as a plc, there seemed little alternative to the time-honoured British model of private ownership – what the Guardian referred to last year as “traditional, generally philanthropic, local owners”, but what Foul magazine characterised less enthusiastically in the 1970s as “pork butchers and scrap-metal merchants” with a narrow view of the game’s best interests.

Like so many other time-honoured British models – stadiums, training methods, media coverage – the arrangements that had served for decades were creaking and groaning by the 1980s. With crowds in freefall, many owners no longer had the means to prop up their local club, no matter how philanthropic their intentions. As a result smaller clubs in particular became vulnerable to a colourful variety of opportunists, self-promoters and asset-strippers, many of whom have featured with depressing persistence in WSC.

The hard-won gains of the supporters’ trust movement offer a plausible long-term model for those clubs – not one that can be instantly applied everywhere, but one that promises stability and much better avenues for fans to be genuinely involved in running their club.

But at the other end of the scale, fans now have the opposite choice: profound alienation in exchange for more or less guaranteed success. The American, Russian, Middle-Eastern and Asian owners of the dominant Premier League clubs (and Blackburn) are different from their 1980s counterparts in two obvious ways: they are foreign and they have much more money. Being from another country does not necessarily mean they are less sympathetic to what fans want – Randy Lerner seems at least as sensitive to that as Doug Ellis was. But in many cases it does add an extra tier of influence to fight through, so that fans have to address concerns to the local monkey rather than the overseas organ-grinder (no disrespect intended to Garry Cook).

The club I grew up supporting, Chelsea, have won as many trophies in the past eight years as in the rest of their history, thanks to the money of Roman Abramovich. Obviously that makes many older fans very happy, and draws in many more whose depth of attachment is yet to be seriously tested. But I found more modest earlier successes, even of the late 1990s, much more satisfying. There was still a thread that connected the club to its history, good and bad. It was there in some of the home-grown players and in the shared experience of the long climb back from the nadir of the early 1980s. In that sense, and that sense only, I miss Ken Bates.

Abramovich’s incontinent spending is clearly a problem for the balance of the Premier League. But nakedly buying trophies should also be a problem for Chelsea fans. Of course no one wins the League or Champions League without a lot of cash, but Chelsea (and now Man City) are different. They seem determined to break all other potential sources of positive identification. Man Utd have the continuity embodied by Alex Ferguson, Arsenal can point to their long-standing youth policy, Liverpool to the sense of tradition that made Kenny Dalglish an acceptable managerial candidate, even under new owners.

Chelsea are an extreme case in almost every way. Their fanbase has always been geographically and socially diverse, hard to mobilise and with weak links to the club. Imagine if any of the top clubs suddenly suffered a disastrous financial collapse (heaven forbid). Whose fans would be most likely to stay loyal and organise effectively to rescue the club? Almost certainly not Chelsea’s.

That gulf between fans and club has only widened in the Abramovich era. Under Bates, contemptuous though he was of fans’ views, at least you stood a chance of getting an idiosyncratic response. And for many years he had to worry about filling the stadium, which Abramovich does not.

Some campaigners suggested 25 years ago that fans would get more economic leverage over clubs if they acted more like consumers. That turned out to be wrong, partly because most fans will not defect to a different “product”, and partly because demand for football proved unexpectedly strong and extraordinarily resistant to price increases. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Chelsea, where there seems almost no potential financial penalty for treating fans in any way the club sees fit.

Perhaps most fans do measure satisfaction with their club solely by success on the field. If so, the Abramovich model will suit them fine. Nor is it obvious what realistic ownership alternatives exist at the top level. But maybe I’m not the only one who would swap all the silverware for even a hint of what Wimbledon have created.

From WSC 293 July 2011