You will often hear people say that football clubs are businesses and have to be run as such and I don’t dissent from that view. But don’t be kidded that the majority of clubs are run like normal businesses which primarily exist to make a profit. And don’t forget profit doesn’t mean somebody rich making more money. It can be used to reinvest in the club’s facilities for example.
Most clubs are losing money and in the case of the Football League more than half the clubs are spending more on wages than they make in income as they chase the dream of Premier League football. It is a bubble waiting to burst and cannot be sustained. Covid has only added to the financial problem. All of this is despite the introduction of profit and sustainability (P&S) rules.
In a normal business there is a board of directors (some with an executive role but most not), a chief executive, departmental managers and staff. The board of directors will generally approve a business plan and associated budgets and it will be the primary role of the chief executive and their management team and staff to deliver that plan to the budgets set. The culture of the business and the way in which it communicates and markets itself is very much a key role of the board, the chief executive and the management team.
Football clubs in the main operate to a completely different set of rules. In the modern–day game, you have an owner or owners above the board of directors and in some cases, there is either no board of directors or a very small number. Some owners will decide to have no board because they don’t really want other people’s opinions as they take view that it is their money that is funding the football club. That will of course be money made in a business in which they have serious expertise and not football. Many owners will acquire a club in a wave of optimism and depart in a wave of despair. David Sharpe, formerly of Wigan Athletic, has spoken eloquently on the subject. In my view having directors with different skill sets and a diverse range of views makes for good decision making. Don’t forget a football club has a myriad of businesses within one business – retail and conference and banqueting for example are specialist areas of operation.
Many clubs do not operate to a formal business plan and run things almost from day to day. In terms of structure the football manager or head coach has far more power than those responsible for running the business. The manager more often than not reports directly to the owner and they make the biggest spending decisions the business will make, largely based on results at any given point in time. On most occasions the owner will back the judgement of the manager and not ask any searching questions in the way a company would on key investment decisions. The priority is often immediate need and not based on a plan for the future development of a first team squad.
The style of play of a team is almost singlehandedly dictated by the manager and you will hear most owners say they favour an open attacking style of football, but the actual style of play is the opposite. Have a look at what was said when new owners went into Nottingham Forest, Sunderland and Wigan Athletic (and there are more than just these three) and look how their stated plans have worked out to date.
Owners will say they want a cup run, and the manager will then field a weakened team and the club will shut large areas of the stadium sending out a message that the cup game is not important. Fans will respond by non–attendance and opportunities to show case the club let alone earn TV income and exposure for sponsors are lost.
If results are good, owners and boards say nothing but if not, the frustration endured ultimately leads to a parting of the ways with the manager and the club starts again. Often when the manager goes the entire football staff follow him out of the door at some significant cost and the process begins again. The stats show most clubs take only short–term decisions and do not have a medium to long-term plan in the way a normal business would. 25 managers have departed already this season. If some supporters had their way that number could easily reach 50.
One thing you can be sure of is that for the majority of clubs nothing much will change, and clubs will continue to discard managers at an ever-increasing rate without really ever examining the root causes of failure. The next manager will they believe put everything right and generally speaking supporters will think that too. The team is not fit enough, and the players are not good enough the new manager will often say.
My days at the coal face in football are now behind me but I believe there is another way to operate in football that breeds success, but you won’t find many owners and managers signing up to everything that makes that happen and in an industry where managers are fast becoming as good as their last result you can probably understand why that is.
Peter Varney is the Executive Chairman and CEO of Integral Sports Management Ltd
(Image – Getty Images)