Terrace Thoughts 4, 09/11/18

That phrase they use, ‘in living memory’ – as in, ‘the worst floods in living memory’ or ‘the weakest subs bench in living memory’ or ‘the worst home performance in living memory’ – just how far back does it stretch? Because at my age, my ‘living memory’ goes back to last Saturday. And I don’t really want to remember, or comment on, Bromley.

So I’d like to start this week on a real positive note by congratulating Andy Wilson, and his fund raising team at Hartlepool United Supporters Trust, for organising the sold out Kevin Keegan dinner at the Borough Hall on the 16th. I’m sure that it will be a marvellous evening and will raise further funds for HUST’s HUFC and community focussed initiatives. Well done Andy – albeit I’m sure that we all hope that the funds that you are raising won’t be required in the near future.

The sold out Kevin Keegan dinner: by, you can interpret that phrase in many ways!

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking about the lessons that we can all learn from the situation at Bolton Wanderers (I should point out that Bolton is in no way in a minority in this regard!) and would like to make three simple observations…

  1. It’s easy for us all to get too caught up in the consequences/fallout and forget about the cure.
  1. Professional sports clubs will always look for advantages particularly when the financial rewards for winners at the top of the game are so high.
  1. Clubs should outlast owners and have their financial security protected. Sometimes, someone needs to say no.

There are ‘quick wins’ relevant to Bolton’s circumstances such as the insufficient power of the EFL to block changes of ownership or to restrict clubs’ ability to incur debt or pledge their assets as security.  However, taking an even broader view, it seems the problems at Bolton under the current financial fair play system can be simplified in two ways:

  1. The gap between what clubs are permitted to lose under FFP and actually do lose is too big – and, if the mess is too big, sorting it may be impossible.
  1. The consequences for owners who put clubs at risk aren’t sufficient to discourage them from doing so.

The difficulty is who would want to rob Bolton fans of their memories of playing in the Premier League and Europe under Eddie Davies’ stewardship? Likewise, not many Pompey fans would want to trade in their FA Cup memories. And show me a Poolie who doesn’t smile at the memories of the Hodcroft glory days! If we are too draconian in restricting clubs’ reliance on benefactors, do we prevent any fairy-tales: do we simply solidify the hand of the powerful clubs? Limiting spending also raises a whole host of other debates such as whether English clubs could still be competitive in European competition without the best players (didn’t we all take Pools to the European Cup Final on FIFA 16?) or whether we would reduce the global appeal of the EPL and the associated benefits, ranging from the benefit to the UK economy to money from TV rights that can be reinvested into grassroots etc. etc.

Although there are counter arguments to many of the points above, if for now we accept that clubs should be entitled to rely on financial support from their owners over and above trading income, then the attention turns to how we should allow this to happen without jeopardising a club’s future stability.

Of course, financial fair play is now in operation in UEFA competition, the EPL and the Championship, while Financial Cost Management Protocol has existed in League One and League Two for over a decade, with the National League operating its own form of cost control. But do these regimes adequately protect clubs’ solvency, especially in a change of ownership scenario? Who can realistically follow the ownerships of an Eddie Davies at Bolton, Brooks Mileson at Gretna, George Reynolds at Darlington or Glenn Tamplin at Billericay? Or Ken Hodcroft at Hartlepool? If the answer is next to no one then we have to accept that clubs and their owners cannot chase the fairytale outcome without adequate safeguards being in place to protect that club’s future if the owner decides to step aside. The Championship now have rules which oblige Owners to formally guarantee forecast losses over 3 years: why not incorporate this obligation in the rest of the EFL and National League rules?

However, if we are serious about preserving the famous histories of our clubs, should we not also look at imposing conditions on outgoing owners who have committed to expenditure beyond a ‘rescuable level’ to provide sufficient financial support to allow the club to return to a sustainable level of operation, so that its future is not placed in jeopardy following their departure?

Owners and supporters will never agree on everything but with an adequate safeguard in place at least it eliminates the worst outcome. The indirect benefit would be to enlarge the pool of potential bidders when a change of ownership occurs making the proposition more attractive: whatever people think about Ken Anderson and Dean Holdsworth there weren’t many other credible suitors because of what they would be taking on, and there was great pressure for a deal to be done. And haven’t we had some interesting characters at the door on Clarence Road over the years?

Facilitating a calmer transition will make for a more competitive bidding environment, with a focus on long term planning and celebrating and protecting club heritage, rather than focussing on avoiding the risk of insolvency.

Don’t we all need to look at changes in ownership with greater realism: with a reasonable level of expectation? And by ‘all’ I’m including new owners in this plea for pragmatism.

We’d love to see the FA and the leagues to work together to look at changes to club regulation in this light, so that the incredible generosity of investors such as Eddie Davies and Ken Hodcroft can benefit clubs, rather than it being the architect of their demise in an absurd way….

And this gets me to thinking about folk such as Ken Hodcroft, and the guys who followed him….

Was Ken, in a way, too good for Pools? Was the ‘bar’ set too high? What happens when a generous benefactor leaves a club and a new one cannot be found? I think of Pools. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. And I, like many, wonder if our club is still structured as if we were continuing to enjoy the largesse of those glory days: have we ‘cut our cloth’ appropriately?

And then I remember Gretna – how those fans have really gone from glory to nothing! What I wasn’t aware of until I started writing this is that Brooks Mileson was a devotee of grass-roots football, not just Gretna, and made donations to several football trusts, including Carlisle‘s United Trust, Dundee United‘s Arab Trust, Ayr United‘s Honest Men Trust, Dundee‘s Dee4life Trust and Berwick Rangers‘s Supporters Trust. Mileson was made an honorary vice president of the Stockport County Supporters’ Trust for the support and guidance he provided during their takeover of that club. He was also the president of Whitby Town and sponsor of the Northern League, and he failed in an attempt to buy Carlisle United, the team he supported. So, years ago he was supporting Trusts – what a top bloke! Ahead of his time.

Back to ‘in living memory’: in the ‘living memory’ of the younger Ashtons, Pools are now bad after years of some success in higher divisions, Neale Cooper, Jan Ove Pedersen, Eifion Williams, Cardiff and some great Cup matches. My ‘living memory’ goes far enough back to remember re-elections, Len Ashurst, Ken Hale, Peter Creamer, Alan Goad, Vince Barker……………………….

Clearly, in the ‘living memory’ of my kids, things have never been as bad as they are now – and I’m struggling, in ‘my living memory’, to argue with them – is this as bad as it has been at Pools?

Again, well done Andy – and thanks to you and your colleagues – keep up the fund raising work and let’s hope that, perversely, you’re wasting your time! But never forget what happened to the likes of Wrexham……….

More next week. Time for a pint. John

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