Those who continue to be sceptical as to the purpose and involvement of the Supporters Trust in Swansea City or any other football club might wish to reflect on the latest developments in the Leeds United saga of woe and financial misadventure. Sadly, it seems, little changes.
For those who haven’t followed the tale that has carried as many headlines in the financial sections of the broadsheet press as the sports pages of the red-tops, the news continues to amaze and draw breath for all the wrong reasons. Despite the sale of most of the prize assets of their playing staff, Leeds remain around £79m in debt, near enough the figure they allegedly owed prior to the big sale. Apparently this is because Leeds didn’t actually own many of their star signings but leased them via a finance company in arrangements not dissimilar to those used by many offices for their photocopying machines. The irony will not be lost on those of us who have long suspected that Mark Viduka is about as mobile as the average Xerox machine, but arguably not as useful.
The consequence of this trade in second hand playing equipment is that Leeds do not receive the entire proceeds of sale, and it seems as much as 60% of any fee received may not necessarily go to the club. Take out the inevitable agent’s cut and players “loyalty bonus” (Hah!) and it seems that the boost to club coffers from a £10m sale would represent the sort of loose change that would not keep a Gascoigne in lager for more than a couple of nights. Some forensic accounting might show where all the money goes in such deals, and who are the makers. One thing that’s certain, and that it’s not the fans, the people who give the clubs their hard earned cash.
Whilst it may be that the hapless Prof MacKenzie is starting to turn the ship around, whether this will be too little too late will be a question that will be any bit as interesting as the identity of this seasons Premiership champions. Certainly the sins of the past are likely to come back and haunt the Yorkshire club’s fans for years to come. Relegation, a distinct possibility on Leeds current form, could yet unleash the collapse of another house of financial cards. If so, the very real possibility of AFC Leeds, or some such other fan construct joining AFC Wimbledon in the lower reaches of the English pyramid cannot be discounted. After all, if Fiorentina can go from Champions to glorified works team league so quickly, why not Leeds?
When BBC Radio Four’s business correspondent put it to MacKenzie that the past conduct of affairs had been incompetent, the venerable professor did not demur. Yet the designer of football’s variation on the Titanic has seemingly walked away, if not exactly untainted then with a very nice pay-off and back into another football boardroom. It emerges that Peter Risdale’s reward for incompetence was a golden handshake of some £380,000. If the average person had shown such ineptitude at work they would probably have faced summary dismissal. A professional person might be facing legal action for professional negligence. Yet it says much about modern Britain, and in particular British football, that inability to perform adequately in the boardroom (or in some instances on the field) can frequently earn high rewards.
With exquisite timing, Risdale also chose this week to unveil the takeover by his consortium of Barnsley. Whether he is investing his pay off, or fronting further borrowing one would be very nervous if an Oakwell regular. Already Risdale has been talking the talk, promising exciting times for his new toy whilst promising that money is available to buy players. The situation is reminiscent of the final scene of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” where Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, serving time for having failed in one pyramid scam on Broadway, are seen busily selling shares in another
How do the likes of Risdale get away with it? The answer lies partly in the ethos of contemporary corporate Britain, but also due to the almost complete lack of regulation in the ownership of football clubs. Many feel the time has come for a “fit and proper person” test to be applied to prospective owners. Certainly at Swansea we have had reason to rue the lack of interest taken by the football authorities in the nature of the people taking control of clubs. Whilst such a rule would not be without difficulty, surely it is time for football to acknowledge that it’s laissez-faire attitude to such matters has become outdated. That a man whose erstwhile employers regard as having presided over financial incompetence is allowed to walk immediately into another boardroom in the same week as his former club admit to being in water that is not so much hot as pirhana infested seems crazy.
Those who defend the status quo will say that if the likes of Risdale had not come forward that Barnsley might have died. However, this ignores the real alternatives. One look across the county to York reveal a club run by the supporters trust and budgeted to survive as a viable self financing business. Naturally, this will be hard in the short term, although York, like Lincoln before them are confounding the conventional tipsters gloomy predictions. As football’s financial chickens come home to roost one suspects that these clubs will be more than interesting anomalies.
At Swansea the Trust has no current ambition of assuming total control of the club, and as long as the Swans remain in the hands of co-owners who are genuine supporters this is unlikely to be necessary. However, the presence of the Trust on the board ensures that individual directors cannot run financially amok without scrutiny, whether for personal gain or due to misplaced ambition. If for any reason the black storm clouds should ever gather again the Trust can do their best to ensure that the interests of the club are not being prejudiced. That is both their raison d’etre and their legal duty.
Those who remain cynical as to the concept of the Trust should ask themselves a simple question. Would you prefer the likes of Leigh Dineen in the boardroom, or the Peter Risdales or Tony Pettys and their ilk? The Trust may not be perfect, and one might disagree with individual aspects of policy, but their presence on the board just goes a little way to ensuring that the skies shouldn’t fall in on us once again. If they do, we will be forearmed with the knowledge of precisely what is going on in OUR club.