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.