English Football

Cap the non-league budget….somehow

notesI was in Denmark two weekends ago, and in a lunchtime session with a trio of prominent football people, one of whom won a European Championship medal, we moved on to the subject of players’ wages.

When I asked how far down the Danish pyramid players receive wages, they informed me it is just the top two levels. The Danish FA would not have it any other way. Don’t forget this is a country in which clubs in financial trouble automatically gets relegated three levels. Basically, top level to non-league in one foul swoop. Serves you right, is the message.

The result is that, broadly speaking, common sense prevails, and that’s something that British football, and non-league football is not devoid of criticism, could do with a shot of. When I told my lunch partners that some clubs who attract sub-200 crowds have been known to pay out around 32,000 Danish Krone a week (that’s around £4K), they laughed so much they nearly choked on their pickled herring!

And while this stupidity goes on, and everyone knows it does, nobody does anything about curing a madness that causes “boom and bust” all over the country among non-league clubs. Some people try to nurture an image of non-league football that just isn’t totally accurate. Yes, the clubs rely on butchers, bakers and candlestick makers to run and administer them on a voluntary basis, but the players at some clubs are earning bucketloads of money – filthy lucre that the clubs can’t really afford.

They talk, repeatedly, about unfair playing fields in football, but this is a scenario that has always existed. The clubs with money get it because they have bigger crowds, better fund-raising or a bigger wallet backing them. It is in every club’s gift to do the latter, but that’s what creates the unlevel playing surface at this level, and it’s only ever a short-term fix that doesn’t always work.

What’s the solution? Well, we could start with introducing a little transparency into the equation, making clubs’ finances a little more visible and accessible to the people paying to watch the game week-in, week-out. Bring the fans on the inside, make them part of the governance of the club – make the club accountable to the fans. I’m not advocating the sort of scenario that tried to exist at Ebbsfleet, because anyone who thinks that football can become a “People’s Republic” is mistaken. But having fans as part of the process may help put the brakes on when normally rational business people start to let their heart (or indeed, ego) rule their head.

One way of trying – and it could be a thankless task – to introduce some sort of sanity to the subject of footballers’ wages, is to bring in a “wage cap”, based on genuine reported income at each club. It doesn’t have to be granular – in other words, limits don’t have to be (although it makes sense) applied to individuals – but it should be applied to clubs’ overall playing budgets.

Introduce a pre-season ruling that clubs’ playing budgets are declared before a ball is kicked, along with a pro-forma balance sheet for the campaign. Then, introduce a mid-season check that ensures the club is in line with expectations. Furthermore, and importantly, implement a system whereby only a determined percentage of a club’s overall income can be allocated to the playing budget, hence ensuring that monies are set aside for debts, utilities, wear and tear. In other words, run the damned thing properly!  And if a set of directors flaunt the rules and the club goes to the wall, ban them from being involved elsewhere. How many more repeat offenders do we really need?

There needs to be more financial controls forced on football clubs. Whenever a club gets into trouble, invariably it’s someone else’s fault. Very rarely does the club hold its hands up and cry, mea culpa. I have heard fans complain that, perish the thought, creditors want their money back. Then you hear some bemoan the fact that “the local council didn’t help us” – but why should they?, at the end of the day (as the old football cliché goes), a non-league club has only a couple of hundred devotees but a local council serves thousands and thousands of residents, most of whom do not care much for the local football entity.

It is up to the clubs to run themselves properly, and that means making sure the finances are in order and they live within their means. Until we get universal adoption of prudent and logical financial planning, car crashes will continue to happen on the A-roads of football. Because it is hard to achieve doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. We need a non-league form of financial fair play!

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