Supping With the Devil

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We’re always happy to publish new voices here at the Pie at Night, and that’s even more important in our current situation.  Here @PeteReece gives his views on where we are now, but advises us to keep an eye on what comes next? 

Disgraceful. Scandalous. Corrupt. Incompetent.

These are the more printable adjectives being used to describe the EFL’s performance. Within four weeks they approved the sale of Wigan Athletic to Next Leader Fund, only to deduct 12 points from the club when the approved owners refused to put the agreed money into the club and put the company into administration as a result. Just four weeks later. What a shambles.

The Blame Game

When a crisis strikes, everyone looks for someone to blame. Football fans have always been adept at finding fault and at Wigan, we’re especially good at it. Whether it’s Kal Naismith for daring to enter the field of play or Paul Cook for not listening to Daz from Ince, we know how to do it.

So, the EFL are now rightly getting it in the neck from us and much of the football world, for their unusually high level of bungling and their farcical “fit and proper person” test.

Is it really the whole story though? To what extent can the EFL actually prevent the “wrong” people from taking over clubs? And, here’s the thing, do we really want them to?

Fairytale or Nightmare

Seduced by the supposed link between money and success, we fans always dream of glory and don’t mind how we get it. Multi-billionaire owner with links to human-rights abuses? Don’t mind if I do. Just watch you don’t trip over your wallet on the way in. Spending loads of money on the team with no prospect of ever paying it back? Oooh, go on then.

Maybe I’m being too unfair on us fans. Yes, we do have a penchant for big money transfers, especially on deadline day. (Look at the £000s on that!) But is it too much to expect owners to behave responsibly? No it isn’t but on the other hand we don’t really want them to, do we? Who wants to break even every year if it means a life slumming it in the lower divisions? Who wants a well-run club when you can have one that breaks the bank every transfer window?

Potential Buyer

Which brings us back to the current predicament. Yes, we do need a buyer and pronto.

Best case scenario? Dave Whelan MkII appears over the horizon with his oodles of dosh and suddenly realises that what he’s been missing all his life is spending it all on little Latics. This Moolah the Magnificent asks for nothing in return, only the pleasure of clearing our debts, spending wildly and sitting back to enjoy it while we march up the divisions, eventually winning the Champions League in say, 2025?

(Spoiler alert: owners rarely give money to clubs. They lend it to them or provide guarantees to borrow money. Even Dave Whelan didn’t always invest money in Latics. He often lent it, usually at 0% interest and with no repayment date. Actually very generous but not what most owners do.)

Worst case scenario? Another owner like IEC i.e. one that doesn’t give a flying fig about Wigan Athletic, the people at the club or anything apart from their own interests, wealth and power. Think it can’t happen? Think again.

Powerless in Wigan

What’s to stop that happening really? The administrators are not there to pass judgement on a prospective buyer. They are just there to find the best person possible to meet the club’s liabilities which means in practical terms, the person with the most money who convinces them that they will spend it. The next hurdle (set at 3mm off the ground) is the EFL’s fit and proper person test. ‘Nuff said.

And realistically, what do we think the EFL can do? Imagine that they know how the owners are going to behave five years down the line? Or even four weeks. Imagine if someone offers squillions for the club and promises to invest squillions more but the EFL put a block on it, saying they doubt the prospective buyer’s intentions, what is Daz going to say to that?

Football and we, the supporters, are addicted to the high-octane football fuel of money. We love it being spent and if someone says they have a lot of it and “it’s all for you”, we go all gooey-eyed.

The truth is that football is not set up to prevent bankruptcy or inhibit the poor running of clubs. What takes priority is the legal structure of clubs i.e. that they are companies limited by guarantee. The directors of those clubs can do anything they like as long as it is legal, including, with the approval of a majority of shareholders, selling the companies to whom they please. And this is the nub of the issue – football in this country, since its inception as a professional sport, has favoured the company structure. And whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Dave Whelan owned Wigan Athletic. He could sell to whoever he wanted. IEC did the same. We, ladies and gentlemen, have no say in the matter.

Power and Prestige

“But, in Germany ….”, I hear you cry. Yes, in Germany it is different with their 50+1 rule where there is a club membership structure and the members have the majority in decision making at the company level. However, some of the clubs are saying they can’t compete with that model and want to change it to a limited company or PLC structure. “It will bring in new investment”, they say. “Success and glory are just within reach if we will only take this opportunity.” You know the spiel. And there are plenty of fans who agree with them. All they are interested in is whether Hannover can rub shoulders with Real Madrid on a regular basis. So, let it rain money.

Except, where does the money come from? Who provides the money? And what do they want in return? Dave Whelan wanted very little (okay a knighthood would have been nice) but IEC wanted the attention of the Chinese Head of State in order to curry favour for other business deals. How many owners want to run a club because they have been a fan like us and can’t think what to do apart from lavish money on their beloved club? If they have the money, then they either want more money, power or prestige. Running a club properly is not high on their list of priorities.

  • So, if or when we do get new owners, watch out for them
  • paying themselves huge dividends on the back of asset sales
  • loading the club with huge debts to pay the purchase price back
  • lending the club money at a huge rate of interest
  • having no interest in football at all
  • and of course, spending madly with no plan to pay it back.

Within Our Means

I said the best case scenario features Moolah the Magnificent. However, if we’re all to keep our sensible heads on and resist the temptations of the shysters out there, the best case may be that Dave himself returns. This time however, it will be without the bulging wallet. If Dave were to clear our debts, probably by an asset sale, spend some time stabilising the club and then hand it back to Sharpie with instructions for Latics to live within their means, probably in mid-table in League 1, that might be the most secure future for us.

But who wants security when the devil comes calling?

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