Spurs – What’s The Point of a Football Club?

We the fans clasp the precious heritage and soul of our club in our hands. In a mixed up muddled up shook up world, we and only we provide continuity and unstinting commitment. Players and managers come and go. They may kiss the badge or effectively trample it underfoot, we hold it close to our hearts. We will be back next week.

In the build-up to big games, the media turn to us to validate the significance: the atmosphere builds, the ground is rocking, the town is alight. Not literally, presumably. Yet in the cold light of day, we will be told that football is a business. Be realistic – make money in order not only to be viable but also to compete in the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred, some would say mythical, Next Level. No one is quite sure where that is or how to reach it, but we’re on our way. Teams field weakened sides in cup competitions because the bigger prize is to climb one or two  greasy steps to mid-table mediocrity. Supporters kvetch about ticket prices. Crowds drop but that’s fine, as long as the drink is flowing in the corporate lounge. Success on the field is no longer the only goal. So what, exactly, is a football club for?

Until comparatively recently, there was a relatively straightforward answer. Each club was a private company run by a small board of directors who certainly controlled and probably owned the vast majority of the strictly limited shares. Well over 90% of the income was generated by fans coming through the gates. Those gates may have been ancient and rusting but the directors didn’t to need waste money on oil, let alone on any facilities inside the ground because the fans would come to see their team regardless. More success on the field, the fuller the terraces.

In the last 25 years, the number of stakeholders in the club, any club, has increased. The main newcomer is the shareholder because most of the big clubs are now public companies. Spurs were forerunners as Irving Scholar made us the first club to float on the Stock Exchange.

Now, when key decisions are made, as with any public company the interests of the shareholders must be taken into consideration, and that means profit. The composition of the board is different too. Directors are co-opted for their skills and influence. Most significantly, Tottenham Hotspur PLC is owned by ENIC, the English National Investment Company. The clue’s in the name – they need a return on that investment. Finally, football clubs still attract overbearing egos to their cosy boardroom, hoping to bask in the particular fame and glory that only our wonderful game can bestow. However, they are also doing what they do best, nose down on the trail of the filthy lucre. Alan Sugar is hardly revered for his achievements at Spurs, but despite a lack of success on the field and below capacity crowds, when he cashed in his chip he trousered a profit estimated to be anywhere between £25m and £35m overall. He saw an undervalued public company with assets and the capacity for growth.

Other stakeholders have elbowed their way into consideration. The F.A. always had a role in governing the game but it has been unceremoniously shoved aside by the all-conquering Premier League, whose aim is to generate as much money as possible for its members, rather than for the game as a whole. Sky TV is so close to the Prem, if we kicked the League up the backside, Murdoch would get concussion. The very fixture list is governed by their requirements. It’s the same in Europe. After a make-over, the revered European Cup, the ultimate prize, now rewards league failure with a lucrative and unnecessary group stage, so everyone has more chances of thrusting their noses into the trough.

This brave new world has distorted our priorities and our language. In the past, defining ‘success’ was easy enough – win something, if not, finish as far up the league as possible with a decent cup run thrown in for good measure. Now, success can mean other things. The prospect of winning a trophy, certainly of advancing as far as possible in a cup competition, is secondary to Premier league survival. The surprise is not that sides field a weakened team, it’s that anyone is surprised. Finishing fourth in most sports is finishing nowhere. In football, it opens the door to Aladdin’s cave. We fight, mewl and screech in the pursuit of also-ran status.

These issues apply to most top clubs in the country but at Spurs, recent events have thrown them into sharp relief. Setting aside the rights and wrongs of a move to Stratford, the debate created lines of battle. The Olympic site was the best decision in terms of the club’s finances, according to the board. Increased capacity and better infrastructure at an allegedly lower price was in the best interests of the club, as Daniel Levy put it. Many fans thought differently – it wasn’t in their interests, playing far from home, in another team’s territory in fact. Many would have gladly sacrificed the sanitised plazas with their cafes and leisure park and a trip on the Jubilee Line for a proper rebuilt football ground in our spiritual home, no matter how difficult it was to get a decent pre-match cappuccino.

In the long run, so the argument went, financial stability and  increased income benefits us all because this can be re-invested in the team. However, it also means better dividends for shareholders and the club is a far more attractive prospect for potential buyers, should ENIC wish to sell, bearing in mind that the object of any investment company is to maximise the return on its investment.

In the debate, the name of another stakeholder was taken in vain, the local community. In the desire to get planning permission for the NDP, much was made of the improvements it would bring to a run-down area of London. As soon as that permission was granted, the people of Tottenham were unceremoniously and ruthlessly jettisoned, having served their purpose. Now all that mattered was money.

This conflict has always been there. Once it was a walk or bus-ride to the club for most spectators. These days, fans come from far and wide and whilst they bring business to local traders, they also bring disruption and traffic chaos. The anti-Stratford lobby looked to local MP David Lammy for support but he has a duty towards his constituents, not the likes of you and me. I was talking to a Spurs fan who has lived in the area for many years. Despite the much-publicised community work and appearances of the players in worthwhile local projects, he is scathing about their lack of genuine commitment to N17, saying the club has little or no connection to the locality and no genuine interest in the issue.

I believe the club has a duty to the community of which it is a part, regardless of whether it increases gates. The activities that do take place are valuable and should be extended. There’s the education project that brings football and education to local children and to those with disabilities, plus charity donations and the support of a football team for homeless people.  Long may this continue, and should become a primary goal of the club, one of the benchmarks against which success can be measured.

My definition of success for the club is an organisation that has sufficient financial stability and the resources to function at the highest level of performance. Finish as high up the league as possible, and win something. This is not the be all and end all, however. The pursuit of profit and success on the filed at all costs must be mitigated by a sense of responsibility towards two other key stakeholders, the fans and the local community. If this means redistributing a proportion of our income or keeping a lid on ticket prices, then thinking twice about paying vastly inflated salaries, so be it.

Football and footballers are routinely vilified as poor role models for the young people who are in thrall to its charms. Watching my 11 year old grandson on a Sunday, their enthusiasm is infectious, However, there’s this one kid who hurls himself to the ground in agony if an opponent so much as touches him, others who mimic precisely bizarre gestures of open-palmed innocence if the ref blows against them. Ashley Cole brings a rifle to his workplace yet he’s free to play a few days later because it’s a vital game, one where one manager refuses to follow the rules that apply to all his peers and talk to a camera.

Football has a different, better message to deliver. Clubs should embrace the opportunities they have and exercise some social responsibility to their fans and their community and if this means success on the field or in the boardroom is harder to achieve, that’s fine. In fact, the League is so awash with money, this would cost but a fraction of their resources. Clubs can be role models too, of a organisation that understands its priorities, sticks to decent values and does the right thing. That would make us feel more part of what’s going on and ensure the club’s future by looking after the people who truly matter.

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20 thoughts on “Spurs – What’s The Point of a Football Club?

  1. Excellent as always.
    My pieces like this always end with me getting angry at the “modern game” and hating football for the rest of the day.
    It is a brave new world, and more damage is yet to come, midweek FA cup, no replays, seeded rounds… THe greatest club competition in the world just being thrown aside for the riches of the few.

    I, like many, appreciate the financial stability that ENIC have brought our club, but also fear the next steps and next owners – who will appear from India / Russia / China with a container full of cash and a football club at top of the shopping list.

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    • Thanks Simon. We can rant together one day soon. The ‘modern game’ has a lot to answer for but despite it all, I enjoy watching Spurs more than ever, they are precious to me. Here, I tried to resolve a few ideas lingering from the stadium debate in a realistic but positive way.

      Regards,

      Alan

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  2. Will it take a player to actually kill someone before he gets sacked in today’s greedy, win at all cost game?

    Good work Alan.

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    • Lee Hughes did kill someone, of course, was sacked but is now playing again. He”s served his time, so that’s fair enough, but having been in their position myself, the victim’s family must be hurting.

      Regards,

      Alan

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  3. Firstly let me congratulate you on a well written and thoughtful piece. The sentiments by and large you couldn’t fail to agree with, but the glaring omission I feel is that we as fans have created this monster by haranguing chairmen into buying players on excessive wages and for exorbitant fees. It’s us that make the demands as I cannot believe any sane businessman would actually buy such a fragile commodity without outside pressure. Now the demands of European league football have destroyed our traditions, as fourth place is now the Mecca because it provides the kudos and finance necessary to pay for and attract top players. Hard facts I’m afraid, but the mirror is sometimes far more revealing when you’re looking for a scapegoat

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    • Essexian76

      You can accuse the fans of a lot of things, in the case of Spurs fans, you could accuse some of them of betrayal by choosing success over the heritage and soul of the club. You could also accuse the fans of apathy and blind loyalty by accepting the status quo rather than refusing to pay for overly expensive TV subscription and match tickets (as the fans in Germany do, where the game retains a feeling of football for the fans), but I don’t see how you can accuse them of being responsible for the greed of others.

      The gate receipts now only constitute a quarter of the revenue, more money is made through people watching the PL outside the country than in it.

      The PL itself is a corporate company in which each of the 20 clubs is a shareholder. These shareholders understand that the more successful the top clubs are in the PL and CL the more money comes their way through greater demand for TV rights. If you want to blame anyone for the commercialisation of football, where TV companies are pandered to and the fans are simply seen as an endless stream of revenue, blame the chairmen of each club.

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      • It’s fairly simple in my eye’s that I support Spurs the football team, I couldn’t care less if they’re in North London, Enfield or Essex for that matter. I dont care less about Tottenham as an area as I no longer live there. I no longer live there, because its a ghetto and unsafe. Tottenham Hotspur was once a community club reflective of its people, but that was long ago. The local community no longer care about the team and only see us as a bunch of morons who hand over huge wads of cash once a fortnight to keep their business solvent. Tottenham Hotspur give far more to the community than they get, back so its certainly not a reciprocal thing by a million miles ( or pounds). So in essence today’s football is all about money, the more you’ve got -the more chance of success, all this sentimentality about our traditions and history are nothing more than leverage for a bunch of devious politicians to exploit those who are blinkered by history and can’t see the future. I see eleven players in white shirts, not a stand with a huge post blocking my view or a Chelsea coloured seat. I see players coming in-not going out because if I wanted tradition and to support my local team, I’d have opted for Haringey Borough, who after all actually play in White Hart Lane. So the fans are not to blame for the current plight in your eyes? look up the word Professional when you’ve got a minute as no forces you to attend games, there’s no obligation on your part other than to pay an amount of money to watch your team, if you dont like it, dont pay! what could be simpler?

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        • Absolutely agree 100% – and I see no reason why Spurs should contribute anything to the “community”. They are a business. Does the company you work for contribute tot he “community”? For the vast majority I’d guess not – so why should Spurs be any different – especially in a community who as you say “only see us as a bunch of morons who hand over huge wads of cash once a fortnight”.

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  4. Thank you for a really interesting article – have been trawling it for Lola quote with no success – oh well… before my time! It is sadly a fact of modern society that with globalisation, faceless corporations and companies become increasingly removed from their immediate locality and their customer’s needs. Football is no different. We the fans who cry, laugh and curse our way through one season to the next are viewed as exactly that; customers or clients. To some degree modern football clubs take advantage of our lifelong support and passion. They are laughing as they have a ready made ‘brand loyalty’ as they call it in business-speak. We are not about to change tariff or change service provider if there is no on-field success.

    I feel a pang of guilt to have sat on the fence over the whole Stratford scenario. I guess after enjoying the scintillating football of the last season or so, I did not want a return to the mid-table average football for my beloved team. I thought a new shiny stadium would mean we could keep up with the Joneskis. In hindsight I am glad it fell through as it would not have been ethically right for Tottenham Hotspur, N17, Leyton Orient, West Ham or E15.

    Through my rose tinted spectacles I dream that ENIC and the various authorities involved take into account the social responsibilities you talk about, and find a solution to the current problems with the NDP.
    It would be nice to think that one day we will go to the new stadium in the heart of a regenerated and vibrant Tottenham, going to see a successful football club who went about things in the right way, and are firmly at the heart of their local community.

    Coming off my pink fluffy cloud with a bump, I think of my friend who recently posted his club’s profits for the last financial year on his Facebook profile – as if it was a measure of footballing success and a badge of pride.

    Really tragic that supporting a football team has come down to that.

    So I laughed harder than I usually would when Obafemi Martins scored that last minute goal on Sunday. I’m sure my friend wasn’t laughing, but he probably consoled himself with the thought of the gate receipts, television rights and his team’s ever-growing profit margins.
    Profit over people is not something that can just be levelled at football, though it must accept its part, it is more of an issue for society as a whole to think about.
    It is up to all of us to help precipitate the change we wish to see in our society.

    The future doesn’t have to be bleak.

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    • Less a comment, more a blog post. Really interesting back atcha.

      I didn’t sit on the fence re the OS because i allowed my heart to rule my head – in the end, that’s what the game is all about. Very different from how I am day to day. However, I fear the consequences of a financial meltdown or a takeover by someone who does not have the long term interests of the club at heart, so there’s a little bit of the hypocrite about me, for sure.

      Profit over people could sum up our society, and football is no different but there are other models, of successful organisations that do not go all out for profit at all cost. Like you, I’m optimistic that Spurs can be one of them.

      And the Lola quote begins the second sentence. I have no good reason for including it.

      Regards,

      Al

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  5. Just stumbled on your page whilst trawling for stuff on ENIC. Unlike most of your respondents I find little to agree with in your article. Tottenham owe the “community” no more than any other business. Should “Office Works” hold community days, or the local Shell service station? Of course not.
    And just because players are in the public eye, why should they be held more accountable for their actions than you or I? It’s the media that puts them in the spotlight, and to expect (usually ill-educated) people to behave in an exemplary manner is patently ridiculous.
    I do agree that the pursuit of also rans is a sad state of affair, but it’s just an indictment of todays society.

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  6. I’ve been surfing online greater than 3 hours today, but I never discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is pretty value enough for me. Personally, if all website owners and bloggers made just right content material as you probably did, the net will likely be much more useful than ever before.

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