Can We Ever Get Back to the Top?

Can We Ever Get Back to the Top?
September 3, 2012 Chris Rowland

By TTT Subscriber James Keen (jimtheoracle).

In my view there is an elephant in the room …

We find ourselves in uncharted water. Off the map. Here be dragons. The club is struggling to find its place among the elite. Last season’s attempt to top up what we had failed, and the team cemented its place outside the top four. That’s not where we want to be obviously, but to an extent we need to cut our cloth accordingly.

We all want to see Liverpool winning championships again. We all want to see the team imperious in Europe and attracting the best players. But there is a  real possibility that we can’t get back and compete. We are 20 years down the road of mismanagement and poor investment. We are 20 years down the road of falling behind Manchester United. Whereas for most of the last 20 years we have had Manchester United in our sights, the landscape has changed irrevocably. Whereas Ferguson only had to wait for one edifice to fall before he could make United the best team in the country, Rodgers now has to compete with Chelsea and Manchester City as well, as well as a resugent and well-run and financed Spurs, Newcastle and Everton.

Arsenal fans complain that they haven’t won anything in several years but the club is solvent and well run, and they are a few years away from paying off the Emirates and then they will own their own ground outright. But they are not going to win the league. They cannot spend like the mega clubs and neither can we. It is going to take a lot of time to build up the revenues to the extent that we need them to if we are to compete – if we can get there at all.

We are so far behind in terms of money and investment that even sorting the books out and getting the revenue up is taking many years to sort out. It has become quite clear that simply buying the club and clearing the interest payments was nowhere near enough to sort out the dysfunction and ugliness of the club over the last few years. It stands to be repeated, it will take years to undo all of the problems left by Messrs Hicks, Gillett, Purslow, Parry, Moores and Broughton. In the end the board managed to sell the club and I believe we are better off for it, but we are going to have to forget the title, certainly for the foreseeable future. But we might have to accept that it is gone for another generation.

If FFP has teeth then we may stand a chance of competing at some stage in the future. If it doesn’t and Chelsea and Manchester City continue to spend with impunity, then I wonder if it is going to be possible to win the league again at all. The authorities are so free market-orientated in their thinking that they accept anyone who wants to invest in football clubs. Coming from American sports, FSG must have had a heart attack when they realised how relatively unregulated and chaotic British football actually is. But the situation is mirrored across Europe. Real Madrid and Barcelona are allowed to run at a loss, the local Spanish governments seem to turn a blind eye to their largesse and the clubs can maintain and extend their dominance over the rest of Spain. In Italy the Morattis and Agnellis have for years bankrolled the biggest clubs in Italy, and they have been joined by Berlusconi, and the billionaires have made it impossible for even the Roman clubs to seriously compete anymore. Juventus were relegated and still returned to be challengers in the blink of an eye and now title winners again.

The elite of European football is shrinking and is unlikely to willingly open itself up again. When the “big four” ruled English football in Rafa’s era, people complained that it was a closed shop and boring. Well the amounts being spent have ballooned and we have discovered just how much the Premier League costs in the modern era. About £1.1 billion. The era of the billionaire owners bankrolling clubs to whatever extent they like is in full swing. The problem is a handful of rich, capricious men hold all the power. They can decide to keep spending and maintain the artificial position they have created or they can walk away causing untold damage to the club a la Malaga. [And have we already forgotten Leeds United? Ed]

From our point of view there clearly does need to be some equalisation of the financial playing field, because at the moment we can aspire and should aspire to be Arsenal. Because despite the doom and gloom around the reality of the club’s present, we are at least assured that we will have a club to support in the coming years. We came perilously close to losing that two years ago.

There is though one chink of light, a silver lining nestling near the Bavarian Alps. The German giants Bayern Munich show how a well run, commercially intelligent club can increase revenues and employ commercial partners to pay for a new ground and to take care of payments. They have massive corporate investment and own themselves entirely. Although they have stock it is not publicly available stock and the club owns and runs itself. They are 4th in the last Deloittes revenue table, £118m ahead of Liverpool and even £70m ahead of Arsenal in 5th place.

Bayern have been run like this for years and reap the reward of their business acumen. The caveat to all this is that they are pretty much the national team of Bavaria and as such does occupy a special place in that region. They monopolise German football and can generate revenue that the other clubs can only dream of.  Although from a stability point of view Arsenal are our obvious touchstone, my concern would be that they are a club with a smaller global stature than us. Bayern seem to me to be on our level in terms of reputation and familiarity to the global fan base. But we have to look seriously at these possibilities if we are serious about attempting to challenge ever again. Because although it is only three years since Rafa nearly won the league, the environment has reshaped itself around us and might never change again.

It is possible for a club to generate enough money without debt to compete, but it is going to take years to see the results.

Which isn’t what any of us want to hear, but it’s a reality we might have to get used to.