Despite the financial turmoil – wiser heads might say reality – that has crashed down on the sport over the past 12 months, the hopes of fans, players and investors continue to require clubs to wield the cheque book even when the coffers are empty.
And it seems that all those who should know better – from banks to investors to the finance directors of the clubs themselves – appear happy for this suspension of credibility to continue.
Not so many years ago clubs could spend freely, safe in the knowledge that if they hit the financial buffers a white knight would come riding in to save them. But there aren’t many white knights left these days. Local boys made good whose last remaining ambition is to own the club they have supported since they stood on the terraces as a lad are now rarer than a Roy Keane fan.
As a result, most League clubs are in hock to two competing interests – their bank and Sky TV. As one football finance expert puts it: ‘The sport has sold its soul to television.’
Stories of players out of work and the fact that more and more clubs are being run by administrators suggest that it was the collapse of ITV Digital that ushered in football’s own year zero.
The company’s failure to honour its £180m contract has undoubtedly had a catastrophic effect on the game, forcing the finance directors of football clubs to rebuild their cost bases from the bottom up.
Nationwide clubs have been hardest hit and have had to introduce cost cutting initiatives, which has directly resulted in a record number of players being told they were surplus to requirements before the season began this month. Only Murdoch’s millions stand between many clubs and financial ruin.
But in all the reports of doom and gloom during the close season no one has asked the finance directors themselves what they thought. That is until this week.
In partnership with football adviser PKF, Accountancy Age has spoken to 22 of the 55 finance directors working for clubs in the English Premiership, the Nationwide League First Division and the Scottish Premiership. Every finance director was invited to participate, with interviews conducted over the telephone by an independent research company.
It is the most comprehensive survey of football finance since the ITV Digital debacle blew up.
The findings make for grim reading.
It is clear many FDs are aware of football’s grim plight though in many cases they seem at a loss when it comes to tackling it.
And for once it’s not just the money men who know the score. Hundreds of players have first-hand experience of the squeeze too. ‘It has been a horrendous time,’ says former Burnley player Lenny Johnrose. ‘I’ve never known it quite as bad as this in all my years in the game. I knew the financial situation at a lot of clubs would not make it easy but I didn’t realise that things would be quite this bleak.’
Johnrose, a 32-year-old who only a couple of months ago was a member of Burnley squad trying to win promotion to the Premiership, did not have his contract renewed this summer. Despite having played 300 League games, Johnrose is one of so many players without a club at the start of this season.
‘I thought it would be difficult for a lot of young inexperienced players who had little or no first team experience or for older players who were 34 or 35 years old,’ he told the Professional Footballers’ Association website givemefootball.com.
‘But as it has turned out it has been tough for everyone out of contract because clubs just do not have the money to take on new players.’
For many clubs the normal yardsticks by which a season is judged – trophies, promotion and so on – no longer apply. This year, simply surviving has to be the goal.