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July 2020
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Red bull II

By Tony Attwood

Here is an interesting situation.  A lot of smaller clubs are now in financial difficulty.  Some of the Premier League clubs are sitting on significant cash reserves.  Two giant groups have established themselves in terms of buying up clubs to create a worldwide network: The City Group centred on Manchester City and the Red Bull group.  At the very least one Premier League club is in difficulty having already spent part of next season’s TV money before the virus hit.  I suspect several others are in the same situation.

So what happens next?

There is a fair number of clubs in the lower leagues that are struggling.  They might just pull through on their own, they might get money from a new investor, or they might attract the attention of the City Group or Red Bull.

And there is a problem with the clubs in the lower tiers for the behaviour among wannabe clubs in the second level of English football is for some of them to throw everything they have and then a lot more at promotion, and then spend it again as they try to stay up.  Not all do this – Norwich City is a notable exception – but many others do, spending more and more and more in order to try and cling onto the Premier League position.

But ultimately these clubs can’t continue and they need to sell players or have more and more loans from owners – or find another owner.  But at this moment there are not that many people left who think that those clubs that don’t make it to the top are just badly run.

What’s more quite a few potential owners are going to be licking their wounds after the virus clears up, and they might be less interested in throwing money at a football team.   And this is where the real risk is that clubs will not be able to pay their players wages or their suppliers.

Indeed it has already happened, as Macclesfield Town and Southend United both failed to pay the wages of their players recently.  Other clubs are teetering on the edge.

Just how much clubs are willing to risk in order to get up into the top division can be seen by the fact that the only club that the Daily Mail could find in the last two years in the Championship for which results were available, which made a profit, was Rotherham.

So while it is true that many of the Premier League clubs have either got reserves enough to continue, or can quickly find a new investor, this is not true for all the clubs, nor for the clubs in the next tier.  Some sort of shakeup is bound to happen.

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The problem is that the drive to re-start football in England comes from the Premier League, and it is a drive to shore up their existing finances and to start making money again – not a drive to look after all of football.

I suspect therefore that we might well see the emergence of several more groups like the Manchester City collection of clubs and the Red Bull groups.  And the problem there is that if this does continue, ultimately club groups will become the order of the day.  Because money always wins in capitalist societies, these groups will take over.

In earlier times in English football there was no “big four” or “big six”.   The big clubs could have significant support but could nonetheless sink to the second division, (Tottenham H and Manchester U were visitors to the lower levels I seem to recall, Manchester City went from being champions one season to relegation to division 2 the next) while little clubs could visit the higher realms.  Northampton Town and Wimbledon, clubs with tiny grounds, made it to the top league, while Aston Villa found themselves in the third tier and Wolverhampton Wanderers I seem to recall even made it to the fourth division.

We are used to Arsenal being in the top division – but in staying in the top division for 100 years Arsenal is unique, no one else has come near that – and it is interesting that in order to cope with that achievement, other clubs were forced to make up fanciful stories about Arsenal having bribed their way into the first division.

But I suspect that with this new style of football ownership, that will be a thing of the past.  From here on, at least for a while, the mighty will only fall when bought by a maniac owner who turns out to be a con artist.  Now what are the chances of that?

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