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Are Football Club Owners Sucking the Life Out of the Game?

Are Football Club Owners Sucking the Life Out of the Game?

Newcastle United fans protest over club owner Mike Ashley

A regular talking point on the terraces or down the local boozer for that matter, particularly where the older generations are concerned, is how drastically the game has changed. Players going down to easily, yellow cards for seemingly innocuous challenges and players protesting, surrounding the referee – “well you wouldn’t have seen that in my day” as the saying goes.

Furthermore, whether it’s the price of a matchday pint, ‘overpaid primadonnas’ or players in their mid-twenties moving to China, there’s always an issue that causes consternation among the matchday fans.

But spare a thought for loyal supporters of Bolton Wanderers for example, who, will surely be grumbling more than most. The days of Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro and Iván Campo are long gone, as the club now spend their time yo-yo-ing between the Championship and League One.

The first team page on their website shows just seven players, and two of them are goalkeepers (and you thought your team’s squad needs strengthening). They’ve even have had to cancel recent friendlies as said players were refusing to play.

As of July 17th, the players released a statement claiming that club owner Ken Anderson had not paid them for 20 weeks. This is a football club that, although not the most fashionable, have been a fixture in the top two divisions over the past few decades. The club of Nat Lofthouse, of Eddie Hopkinson.

It might be a sorry state of affairs at Bolton, but poor ownership is not an isolated occurrence in football. Over at Newcastle United, Champions League-winning manager Rafa Benitez departed the club to join Dalian Yifang.

The ex-Liverpool, Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss’ replacement? Steve Bruce, the 58-year-old swapping Sheffield for St. James’ Park. Until this year, the Magpies’ transfer record was the £16.5m spent to bring Michael Owen to the club in 2005.

In a bastardised transfer market that has lost all sense of reality since Neymar’s astronomical move to PSG, that was frankly embarrassing for a club of Newcastle’s stature. £16.5m doesn’t even get you, Kevin Wimmer, anymore.

In a classic case of ‘Mike Ashley has got to be trolling us’, he let Benitez break the transfer record on Paraguay forward Miguel Almirón.

As soon as Bruce – famous for signing such legends of the game as Emile Heskey, Nikica Jelavic and Fraizer Campbell – arrived, he granted a £40m transfer for Brazilian forward Joelinton.

Joelinton, while a promising 22-year-old, scored just seven league goals for Hoffenheim last time out, erstwhile Leicester City reject Andrej Kramarić the German side’s more successful striker.

Throughout the last few years of English football, there have been numerous examples of poor decision-making from owners and directors.

Massimo Cellino, in a bizarre state of affairs, plucked Dave Hockaday from non-league obscurity to manage Leeds United in 2014.

There was the sacking of Sam Allardyce at Blackburn Rovers by new owners Venky’s in 2010; the arrest of Birmingham City president Carson Yeung in connection with money laundering a year later; the rebranding of Cardiff City from blue to red by owner Vincent Tan in 2012 – they had no idea, and fans were the ones left to pick up the pieces.

Life might be comparatively better at Arsenal, even if supporters do have to break the bank to buy a season ticket – in 2017-18, the cheapest was £891.

Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has been on the receiving end of criticism and calls to stand down from a number of Gunners supporters this summer, over a perceived lack of investment.

There’s no doubt that Arsenal aren’t exactly the best-run club in the Premier League, losing Alexis Sánchez and Aaron Ramsey on free transfers, and struggling to shift the likes of Mesut Özil, reportedly on £350,000 a week.

A club who can afford to drop £75m on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and £52m on Alexandre Lacazette are charging fans ridiculous amounts to see their idols play, and fans aren’t seeing a consistent recruitment strategy in return.

Having said that, they’ve made a couple of astute signings this season; midfielder Dani Ceballos on loan from Real Madrid is a solid addition, as will be William Saliba when his loan back to Saint-Étienne ends.

Will this be enough to satisfy Arsenal supporters though, as they see the progression of rivals Tottenham and the sheer quality of Man City and Liverpool?

Compare this to the German Bundesliga, where what is informally known as the ‘50+1 rule‘ is in place. Clubs, and subsequently their fans, have to hold a majority of their own voting rights – or else they cannot take part in the league.

With such a high fan presence at board level, they don’t have to choose between going to the football and doing the weekly shop. Bayern Munich are one of the most successful sides in Europe, perennially knocking Arsenal out of the Champions League, and a season ticket at the Allianz Arena cost just €140 last season.

When Bayern were fielding Philip Lahm, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, Arsenal were hellbent on making it to fourth place and finishing above Spurs.

Believe it or not, there are some owners in the UK who do actually know how to run a club. Take Liverpool, who have well and truly come out of the awkward period which saw Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers at the helm.

Alongside the A-list signings of Virgil van Dijk, Mo Salah and Alisson have been astute buys in the form of Scottish left-back Andrew Robertson, a £7m steal from then-relegated Hull City, and James Milner picked up on a free transfer from Manchester City.

Had it not been for the phenomenal side assembled by Pep Guardiola at Man City, Liverpool would have comfortably won the Premier League last season, alongside the Champions League. With a winning combination of star quality, youth and experience, it’s fair to say that the Reds are back on the up under owner John W. Henry.

Wolves have – as much as it pains this Birmingham supporter to say – also benefitted from owners who have the golden combination of money and know-how.

By signing just about every Portuguese male aged from 18-35 in recent years, they managed to finish as the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League in 2018-19, just their first season back in the top tier.

But even that achievement won’t top the one of Leicester City, who won the Premier League in 2016, hovering around mid-table ever since.

The outpouring of love and support after chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha tragically lost his life in last year’s helicopter crash is a testament to just how well-regarded the owners were at the club, in the city, and in the football community as a whole.

Running a football club is not an impossible task. Many have succeeded, developing a strong rapport with supporters and investing in the team and facilities, and they give us a sliver of hope for the future of football.

But what can be done about those who are failing? The Owners’ and Directors’ Test, supposed to ensure that only people ruled ‘fit and proper’ can run clubs, is clearly not fit for purpose.

We might be past the point of no return, as more clubs than not appear to have strained relationships between owners and supporters. At this stage, there needs to be a drastic change for the benefit of everyone involved.

Adam England is a freelance journalist who contributes to numerous publications. Follow Adam on Twitter for more insight and comment @garageflowrr

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