For Whom the Bell Tolls

As I write this, at half past nine on a wet Friday night towards the end of October 2010, it appears that Portsmouth Football Club might not be much longer for this world, at least not in their current incarnation. They’ve managed thus far to survive administration, winding up orders brought by the Inland Revenue, points deduction, relegation and selling almost all of their players worth a transfer fee, but it now appears the club’s attempts to leave administration look doomed due to the demands of their main creditor, former owner Sacha Gaydamak. Portsmouth FC have claimed this will result in the club being liquidated.

Over the course of the previous two years, many businesses, large, small, global, have gone out of business with the loss of thousands if not millions of jobs. Indeed, numerous members of the club’s non-playing staff have already been made redundant this year. If the club does go out of business, then a couple of dozen professional footballers will find themselves unemployed as well. Football has tended to exist in a universe slightly if not entirely detached from reality; problems that you and I, or any other company might face, don’t always manifest themselves in Football-land. Despite the raft of liquidations hitting the High Street in the last 18 months, so far only one senior club in England or Scotland has gone to the wall; Gretna. And this is despite the English Premier League teams being collectively in debt to the tune of billions of pounds.

There is a reason why football clubs can sustain these levels of debt to an extent; their fans, or a more accurate term might be worshippers. A football club will have a core fanbase that are psychologically addicted/besotted with the club, and can be guaranteed to pump cash into the club year after year regardless of what’s happening on the pitch (see John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood for an example). Other businesses won’t experience such brand loyalty from their customers.

There is of course the flip side; Twitter has been awash with messages of empathy and support for Pompey from fans of other teams, counting their blessings it’s not their beloved team hours from extinction, how sad it is such an institution will soon be no more and so on. I’m not sure I feel sympathy for Portsmouth though, despite being a Rangers fan, and having experienced my own club’s financial problems and heard mention of the dreaded ‘a’ word. While I mentioned earlier football exists in a slightly alternate universe, many chairmen, investors, fans, pundits etc appear to believe the game operates in an entirely different reality where the laws of causality don’t apply and reckless spending has no consequence. Portsmouth spend tens of millions of pounds on players in the seven years they were in the top flight of English football, despite having by far the smallest ground (and the lack of matchday revenue that represents). And while they did recoup some money in transfers, exorbitant first class footballer wages and existing debts appear to have racked up.

But what of ambition; surely it’s better to live one day as a tiger than 1000 years as a sheep? Perhaps; but if Portsmouth do go out of business, what will they have to show for it all? One Football League Championship trophy, one FA Cup win and a memorable Europa League draw against AC Milan. It’s not much, but it’s more than most other clubs will have to show for their own profligacy. No-one has much sympathy for New Labour, RBS etc. Football clubs have to face their responsibilities; we’re all in this together, as the Count from Sesame Street might say.

Perhaps I’m being unfair on Portsmouth; I do realise that most of their fans will have a healthy love for the club, and its liquidation will affect them deeply. It’s simply that I feel football has become a bloated, unmanageable mess and if the game is to survive, dead wood needs to be trimmed. If clubs are going to run themselves into the ground, I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. It’s almost certainly unavoidable as well, as today’s news of Wayne Rooney’s new contract terms suggests; how much longer can the English game sustain its current levels of spending?

In Scotland, it’s a different story. The 12 current clubs have been involved in talks about expansion of the current set up, to anything up to a 24 team league. Apparently the preferred number of clubs is…14. Yes, why bother? What’s the point? I’ve talked about the state of Scottish football in the past, and I don’t want to rake over old coals, but expanding the league by only two teams is a waste everyone’s time. The current SPL format features a split after three rounds of 11 fixtures, where the top six play each other once, as do the bottom six. The new proposal would be even more convoluted, in order to ensure that every other team gets to play the two Old Firm clubs as often as possible to maximise their gate money and so on. Dundee, last season one of the first division’s big spenders, have recently gone into administration. There is not enough money in the Scottish game, and far, far too many unambitious clubs in the Junior League, content to remain medium sized fishes in a tiny pond. And no, that’s not hypocrisy when compared to what I wrote about Portsmouth overstretching themselves earlier; there’s a difference between never removing yourself from your comfort zone and robbing a bank.

Scottish football has to be realistic and not shed a tear if any future club goes to the wall. And if they do, don’t replace them with another tiny club. Learn from nature, and remove the diseased parts of the game before they kill the rest. Before the bell tolls for every club.