The world of football finance……by Robin Van Persie….
Last week that well known international financier, Robin Van Persie, went public with his concern about the way that Arsenal are being run with the publication of an “open letter”. Well done Robin. Now, if you could find some time to call Angela Merkel to discuss the Euro crisis, and then send an email to George Osborne and get the UK out of recession, we’ll all be truly grateful. Who’d have thought it- not only are you a wizard with the ball at your feet but also a Wizard of Wonga. Isn’t it a shame you aren’t Greek- not only do they need some financial help they could also do with a goalscorer. Mind you, I suppose they still had more success than the Netherlands at the European Championship-perhaps your next open letter should advise Arsene to replace you with Dimitris Salpingidis?
Footballers, just like the rest of us, have a right to their opinions. I, for one, am not party to the view that they should- for example- stay away from social networking and only speak at pre- arranged press conferences where they deliver anodyne statements about whether they think their team might win a match/promotion/the World Cup whilst actually saying precisely nothing of interest. Some of them- David Hunt and Ben Smith spring immediately to mind- not only use social networks responsibly but actually often have something worth saying and express it with a level of articulacy that many journalists fail to match on a regular basis. But perhaps Robin has gone a little far this time. Unless, of course, one of the few football clubs that has managed to deliver sustainable success without spending beyond their means deserves to be derided for poor financial planning.
If Van Persie had simply come out and said that he wanted to leave Arsenal as he wanted to win more trophies, fair enough. Footballers have relatively short careers, and as a top footballer it is quite understandable that he wants to maximise his medal winning opportunities. He’s a player in demand. If he ends up in Manchester or Madrid and next season has a League Title or a Champions League winners medal to show for his endeavours, who will say he was wrong to move on? Not many of us could honestly say we’d turn down that kind of opportunity. Arsenal fans might not like it, and many would undoubtedly expect a level of loyalty from their team that they’d perhaps be loathe to demonstrate themselves were they in the same situation, but at least it would be straight forward. Instead, however, we have a situation where a player attempts to win public support for his stance by speaking directly to the fans- or, to use his own vernacular, “you guys”- and suggest that the club have made a mistake with their financial strategy. Perhaps this is a deliberate ploy. It means that if he does get his move to a club supposedly more likely to bring him the medals he craves he won’t be accused of disloyalty- after all, he isn’t leaving because he no longer loves the club, it’s just that the club refuses to bring him the success he deserves. Given how many Arsenal fans- and the media- have derided Wenger’s failure to buy success, particularly over the last season, he’s playing to a largely converted audience. Alternatively, if he doesn’t get the move he’s angling for and has to play for another year, he hasn’t alienated the supporters. A win-win for RVP. A lose-lose for AFC?
The most successful English teams in terms of picking up baubles are undoubtedly the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea. Two of these are playthings of the rich and are unlikely to have ever achieved their recent success without the enormous (and otherwise unsustainable) investment they’ve had. The other has debts of around four hundred and twenty million pounds. Luckily I don’t have to try and work out how they will ever meet financial fair play rules- I don’t have the financial knowledge of a Maynard Keynes (or perhaps a Van Persie)- but thinking about it gives me a headache. The next most successful? Perhaps the team that continually qualifies for the Champions League every year whilst playing entertaining football in front of full houses and without spending hundreds of millions of pounds they don’t actually have? Who may that be, Robin?
Now I’m not an Arsenal fan. My footballing world tends to begin and end with CTFC. And yes, success is relative. As a Crawley Town fan I’m chuffed to bits with the success we’ve had over the last couple of years but I’d still have been happy with mid table obscurity and financial solvency. The fact that we seem to have managed both success and financial solvency- even if partly through selling our two best players last season- makes me overjoyed. But am I the only one who thinks it bizarre that RVP can criticise the financial planning at one of the most successful clubs in the game to a general consensus of agreement? And am I the only one who thinks that sometimes football fans- and players- have over ambitious expectations?
Back at Crawley Town, our manager Sean O’Driscoll recently mentioned the financial constraints he’s under. He didn’t do this in a way that suggested complaint, he was simply being matter of fact about his budget, and all power to him. His predecessor used to do the same, regularly, but as I always believed he was a skinny man wearing a large money belt I generally failed to take him seriously. The truth is, however, that our budget should be relatively low. It needs to reflect our income. Whilst our average crowds have risen by more than 300% over the last few years, and it’s wonderful to see the stadium perhaps three quarters full on a regular basis, we’ve still got one of the lowest average attendances in our new league. Teams that don’t cut their cloth to suit their means tend to end up like Leeds United, Portsmouth or Glasgow Rangers. Or perhaps, closer to home in footballing terms anyway, Darlington- whose incompetent (and I could use stronger words) owner spent money they didn’t have on a great white elephant of a stadium and who are now reduced to ground sharing with my hometown club, Bishop Auckland.
Over the last couple of seasons CTFC have spent, sold and prospered. They’ve expanded the ground- and indeed are still making improvements. But they’ve still received much criticism from some quarters- particularly when selling Tyrone Barnett. They’ve now closed down the Under 16 section of the Academy to focus solely on the youth team, which saddens me- whether this is simply down to financial prudence or the introduction of the disastrous (for lower level teams) EPPP scheme, or perhaps both, I’m not sure. But whilst I’m sad, the idea of throwing away good money would also make me sad, and given the recent memories of our last brush with financial disaster my main reaction is one of relief that they’re counting the pennies and planning accordingly. There has been some criticism of this, perhaps from the same people who criticised the club for being, “A Selling Club” earlier in the year. Well I may have concerns about the planning, but if the sums don’t add up, the decision has to be the right one.
We, like Mr Van Persie, are all entitled to our opinion. As supporters we’ll be around far longer than any player, owner or Chief Executive, and we are customers who invest our money and as such should expect to have our views heard. After all, as a customer, if you don’t like the product or the service, you can take your custom elsewhere- though of course our loyalty to CTFC is far greater than it would be to the likes of Tesco because we have an emotional attachment. We also have the right to expect good financial planning and complain if otherwise. But we also need to have an element of realism- the kind of realism that our dear friend Robin seems to be missing. Every club at our level is a “Selling Club” as it’s a major factor in financial solvency. To quote Dickens, specifically the glorious Mr Micawber, “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen, nineteen, six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”.
If we want the club to spend more, it has to make more. If it spends money it doesn’t have, we know where we’ll end up. That means that financial success equals getting more people into the ground, selling more merchandise (though it must be said that if I was a fashion advisor I’d have asked for the removal of the white section of the new home shirt, as I’m far too fat to wear a white band), selling more beer (“boozers alley”- currently being built to link the Bruce Winfield Stand to Redz Bar- might help with that) and maximising commercial opportunities- without spending more on wages than we can afford. We, as supporters, need to help wherever we can. From a CTSA perspective that might be about making money to invest into club/community initiatives, providing labour where we can, taking people to away matches etc. For the average supporter that might be about not abandoning the team if we lose a few games at our new higher level, and promoting the club to our friends and family and bringing them along. But it might also be about remembering that, unlike Robin Van Persie, we are (with perhaps the odd exception) not experienced financial experts. And to thank our lucky stars that Kyle McFadzean hasn’t written any open letters.