Bury FC were expelled from the Football League this week due to financial difficulties. Bolton Wanderers could be the next team to go.
Bury FC Collapse – Bolton On The Brink
The year is 2019. Premier League football clubs are all guaranteed a minimum income of around £100million per year. The average Premier League player earns about £2.5million each year. Some footballers at the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United can earn five, six, seven times that. And yet Bolton Wanderers and Bury FC have spent all this season on the brink of collapse, both having started the campaign with a 12 point deduction because of their financial plight.
Bury finally fell off the precipice and were expelled from the league this week, the first to be so dismissed since 1992, when it became apparent they could offer no financial guarantees that they could start playing games again and seethe season out.
Bury had yet to play a game in League One this term, all five thus far postponed by the Football League, while they also surrendered their place in the League Cup, about the only thing they do have in common with Liverpool given Jurgen Klopp’s attitude to the competition. Late last week, a takeover looked as if it might save them, only for that to collapse at the 11th hour, and from there, it appeared inevitable that the axe would ultimately fall.
Most damning was the verdict of C&N Sporting Risk, the company who had looked into the takeover. They walked away, saying that they could not proceed, quoting years of “systemic failure” at the club had left it rotten to the core and saying that they would make their findings available to the Football League for them to use in an attempt to build more robust governance regulations in future.
Sympathy for the players
While there must be huge sympathy for players, employees and supporters, as far as the club goes, it must therefore be tempered by the fact that have clearly reached the brink of catastrophe through poor management and overspending.
For Bolton, there has been another stay of execution, 14 days left to negotiate a sale and save their club. That they survive to fight another fortnight seems surprising given earlier this week, they’d looked in an even worse position than Bury, for although they had fulfilled four of their fixtures – by playing little more than their youth teams and conceding five goals in each of their last three games – only on Monday, the administrator currently presiding over the wreckage said that the club could begin the process of closing down this week.
Bolton have long been rumoured to have spent their decade of Premier League years up to 2012 spending the following year’s TV money in advance. If that’s so, once they dropped off the perch, there was never going to be any easy repair of that position. They’ve got two weeks left to try.
In the light of that – and let’s not kid ourselves that Bury and Bolton are isolated examples – surely it’s time for football’s authorities rethink how they govern the game. Things like Financial Fair Play have clearly had little success in controlling spending at any level in the game, while the “fit and proper person” test that supposedly weeds out anybody unfit to run a football club seems to be working about as well as every other political process across the world at present.
Small Clubs Struggle
We must surely be at a point where spending caps, salary caps and a requirement to live within your means must come into force, but that alone cannot be enough for it will merely create a sealed in elite, inured by the money they receive from the Premier League.
This is where it gets tricky of course. For smaller clubs to live within their means – and to appease supporters who want to see their side heading up the table – they are going to need more help and in truth, it doesn’t look as if its forthcoming.
When Burton Albion boss Nigel Clough argued at the start of the season that more of the money that comes into the Premier League should be spread throughout the game, he was dismissed by many as a crank or a heretic. Yet he’s right. If the game is going to flourish at the bottom end, the clubs where plenty of big English names got their start, they are going to need better payments from the top.
Those are called “solidarity” payments, but there’s precious little solidarity within a game where the rich simply want a bigger and bigger slice of the cake. Again, that is further complicated by the fact that, unlike in many American sports for instance, there is an international as well as a domestic agenda to deal with. If the Premier League clubs don’t pay the top dollar, players will head to Barcelona and Juventus where they do.
Then again, given this summer the Premier League’s clubs spent £1.4billion in transfer fees, perhaps some kind of transfer levy might be part of a solution. If say 10% of that were levied and made available to the Football League clubs, that would be something like £2million each, heading off any such demands for a wage cap.
There is a further lurking danger though. The seemingly inexorable rise and rise of TV money for the Premier League has slowed, all but stopped. They’ve squeezed the lemon til the pips squeak and from here, it’s more a question of maintaining rather than increasing income.
If you happen to be Manchester City or Chelsea, maintaining isn’t enough. You need to be forever feeding the beast more and more, for its appetite is insatiable. All of which certainly rules them out of volunteering any more money for those at the bottom of the pile – doesn’t football sound just like real life sometimes? – but it increasingly edges them towards that persistent idea that just won’t go away.
The European Super League. And if that is the end game, little wonder that in the corridors of power at Old Trafford, for instance, they couldn’t care less what is happening a dozen miles down the road at Bury and at Bolton. They reckon they’ve got bigger things to worry about.
Dave Bowler is the author of ‘The Magic of the Cup‘ series of books exploring the great FA Cup teams of years gone by – WBA 68, Arsenal 71, and Liverpool 74.
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