Sunday, 17 July 2011

Football is just a business, isn't it?

For years I've heard people around me constantly slating the beautiful game that is of course, football. Originating in England the sport has flourished since the 1800s and although the game has changed considerably since those days, football has always been firmly fused in the hearts of British people. Its no surprise then that today football in England is a multi billion pound industry.

It was inevitable that Football was going to head in the business first, sport second direction, its an ideal global platform for some of the worlds richest powers to flaunt their wealth. You don't have to look very hard to see why owning a football club might be an attractive prospect for a businessman. Merchandise, tickets, television deals, sponsorships, sales around the ground, it all adds up to serious money. A stadium holds 40,000 people who each have a pint of beer before the match on a Saturday. Charge them £3.80 for that beer and you've made £150,000. Over the minimum of 19 games you play at home that's £2.8million on beer. That's before you even take into account the £40 they've paid for their ticket and the shirt they're wearing. Its big business and I can't blame anyone for wanting a piece of it, I mean, I would.

The best club owners and chairmen are the people who remember that football is still a sport. Business has no place on a football pitch just as football has no place in a boardroom.

I've always thought a good chairman will look after the administrative side of the club, the money, the sponsorship, the stadium. A manager is hired to run the squad, the players. Hire the right man in this position and you're onto a winner. What happens on the pitch influences your turnover at the end of the year. So it pays to bring the best in.

I've always thought that the front of a football club is the badge, the manager and the team. While the chairman will inevitably be a known name too, it's bad news when they're in the news more than their team.

In 2007, the Newcastle United fans were beginning to lose patience with chairman of the time Freddie Shepherd, it was time for change. Enter SportsDirect tycoon Mike Ashley.

Upon becoming the owner of Newcastle United (having paid a cool £134million), Ashley made several moves to win over the notoriously demanding Geordies including re-hiring Toon legend Kevin Keegan as manager, sitting in the terraces with the fans and even appearing on television downing a whole pint of beer in a Newcastle United shirt. To some extent he appeared to be succeeding in his aim at the club, but it wasn't long before he started showing signs of another plan for Newcastle. Dennis Wise, another Londoner, was drafted into the 'Director of Football' position at Newcastle. This unprecedented appointment sent confusion ringing around St. James' Park. As a Chelsea player, Wise was not one of the fans favourites so it seemed a peculiar move introducing him to the boardroom. The fans were starting to ask questions, the Ashley/Wise 'Cockney Mafia' were becoming unpopular and fast.

This was the beginning of Mike Ashleys money making scheme at Newcastle United. He would buy in previously unknown, dirt cheap but genuinely good players and make money off them. Sebastian Bassong was bought for £500,000. He was sold for £8 million following the clubs shameful relegation.

He didn't stop there.

The sacking of manager Chris Hughton, the selling of Andy Carroll and club captain Kevin Nolan, the ill-treatment of '2010 Fans Player of The Year' Joey Barton, the freebie signings and of course the appointment of 'Yes-man' Alan Pardew concrete the fact that Ashley is building his empire to a very strict, financial specification. Was Hughton too ambitious? Was he going to ask for too much money? Was Nolan cost effective? More money? What about Andy Carroll? Ashley flew him to Liverpool in his own helicopter. Says enough. As for Joey Barton, I sincerely hopes he manages to stay at Newcastle United, but if he must leave, do it next season for free.

Ashley invested a lot of money in the club but now, his only priority is to recover his investments. It's a football club, not a discounted clothing store. He's disappeared off the radar and is controlling from HQ (located in London most probably) the one way flow of cash into his pocket. Newcastle fans are going to have to get used to the idea that Newcastle United is nothing more than Mike Ashleys cash cow. Don't bother getting too attached to Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa or Sylvain Marveaux because they'll be sold in January for £12 million a piece to Liverpool.

Ashley is an example of how money is ruining football and I'm not referring to players wages. They may be running round in gold plated Calvin Kleins and writing off a Ferrari weekly, but the Barclaycard Premiership is still the most exciting, most watched league in the world.

The problem is that football is just a business to the people in charge. There are a few chairmen left in the top flight that still truly do it for the love of the game. But look at Ashley, The Glazers, Sheikh Mansour, Fenway Sports Group, Abramovich. Of course some people are never going to complain: Manchester City fans, Chelsea fans etc but where's the fun in being able to buy anyone you want?

I just hope that other chairmen don't follow in Ashley's steps because I don't want to see the best league in the world turn into nothing more than a talent breeding ground for Europe.

I know I'm probably just feeling sorry for myself because my teams closest rivals are looking more ambitious than we are, but I guess I'm finally starting to accept that football is nothing more than a business now, and that is has been for several years now. Forgive me though, where is the last place you look? Under your nose.

Next season? I'll be supporting Whitley Bay FC.

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