ONE OF the most talked-about aspects of non-league football is the wage bill. Some clubs talk their budget up while others play it down. But mostly, the playing budget is shrouded in mystery.
In some countries, declaring your budget for the year is a requirement. In France, for example, it is well known what each club is paying out to its players. In non-league circles, nothing is sacred, but nothing is official. Secrets are rarely kept – inter-club or intra-club – and rumours constantly circulate about the wages of that top centre forward, the amount of money being thrown-in by a benefactor or the sum being paid to a club’s star player in the car park after the game by a sympathetic sponsor.
Back in the 1960s, a non-league club president spoke out of turn about the practice of “cash in boots”, referring to the illegal payment of money to so-called amateurs. This became something of a national scandal and hastened the end of “shamateurism”. At the same time, the club president was lambasted for being a “whistle blower” when all he was doing was telling people it how it is. He was a broken man – “a man without friends” according to the local press. But what does that tell us about football and about society?
Today’s non-league game has a growing movement of engagement, bringing in all corners of the community. We want stakeholders, causes, social responsibility – all the buzzwords you like. But are non-league supporters being given proper access to a club’s mechanism? Do they know where their money is going? Is it being managed properly?
Non-league football is, unlike corporate game at the highest level, all about community value, or at least it should be. It has to be standard practice, for example, that supporters are part of a club’s management committee. They do, after all, represent the single biggest body involved with a club.
Moreover, they should be informed about the ownership, structure and financial status of their club. This doesn’t mean a set of fictional accounts that bear no relation to reality, or indeed what is filed with HMRC, but the facts – income streams, expenditure, playing budget and a forecast of where the club is likely to be in 12 months’ time. There should be no “pie in the sky” anticipation of a glorious FA Cup run, no ridiculous player bonuses that cannot be factored into the equation, but hard facts, conservative numbers and a culture of living within means.
It’s not just for the people on the terraces and in the stands, but also for potential sponsors, who should be interested in where their patronage is going and how their money is being spent. In fact, it also makes sense to have the odd sponsor on the management committee of a club, perhaps acting in the guise of a supervisory board for the club’s benefit.
I was once told that “you meet a lot of great people in non-league football, but also a lot of ne’er do wells.” The man that told me this is long dead and was a sponsor of a local club but withdrew his backing because the club in question could not produce the necessary accounts in order to satisfy him that his money was not going down the drain. As it happened, the money did go down the toilet and he never put another penny into that club.
It would be nice to think that non-league clubs are better run than they were 30 years ago. There are supporter-run clubs today that have strong principles and that has to be the way ahead. There are clubs that have a very visible social contract and that has to be encouraged. Some do communicate their financial position, but it should be among the top priorities for every non-league club that wants to build an asset of genuine community value – and surely, that has to be among the goals for any outfit?