According to a recent BBC article, football is being used as “a vehicle for laundering money”. Yet the notion that what is essentially a cash-rich business was previously squeaky clean seems laughable.
In the 1970’s my Dad would take me down to St Andrew’s where crowds never seemed to look as small as they were advertised. Often we looked at a stadium three-quarters full, only to hear an attendance figure that would draw ironic laughter from supporters. “It’s for tax reasons,” my Dad would say with a wry smile.
Sponsorship deals, interest-free loans and money for inflated refurbishments were also ways of transferring money from what were often considered dubious sources, through various clubs’ coffers and back into the pockets of wealthy benefactors. Often, one suspects, with little or no tax having been paid.
There’s probably an argument that in today’s environment of intense media scrutiny and with tighter and tighter financial controls being placed on clubs, the game is cleaner now that it ever was. If we questioned the origins of the wealth of many businessmen, never mind those involved in football club ownership, would we be completely comfortable? Or would we shut up and accept the benefits that increased wealth undoubtedly bring our clubs.
Although money does not guarantee a successful football club, few would doubt that it helps. Some notable examples in recent history bear this out.
Manchester United, always a rich club, were injected with finance during the 1980’s and were continually the big spenders. It bore fruit when a certain Mr Ferguson used the cash more wisely than his predecessors.
Jack Walker’s investment into Blackburn Rovers helped transform them from a mid-table second division club to Premiership Champions.
Sir John Hall’s efforts and the talismanic presence of one Kevin Keegan turned Newcastle United from a team hurtling towards the old third division to one that almost took the title from Manchester United. Yet Mike Ashley will testify that money does not always maketh the team. Peter Ridsdale and most Leeds United fans will probably concur.
Yet would fans of any of the above, confronted with the news that investment money had been used as a tax dodge, or had come from dubious sources, have called for the board to be sacked and their benefactors banished? One would doubt it.
Manchester City are the latest in a long line of clubs preparing to take the Premier League by storm. Millions upon milllions of pounds will no doubt be spent in the hope of a return. If they win the Premiership, City will command more commercial revenue, create a bigger worldwide brand, sell more replica shirts, license more products an increasingly greater share of football’s pie – just like their neighbours and rivals.
Portsmouth seem destined for a wealthy Arab owner too. It seems football clubs have become the height of ‘Sheikh Chic’ of late.
But who cares if any clubs dodge a bit of tax? If we get just one moment of glory, just one story to tell our grandchildren, if we can say just once “I was there” then it’s a sin most fans will turn the a blind eye to.
Most owners, as they were in the past, are schoolboys at heart, toying with glory. A football club is and always will be a rich man’s plaything. Football is big boy glamour.
The only danger is that in their fervour to add finance and prolong their dreams, they risk pricing out the very people who give it the addictive atmosphere – the fans.
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