Asterisk the gall
Football wrestles with integrity while Middlesex moves to Essex
Points deduction? Been there, done that as a fan. Crystal Palace docked 10 points for going into administration on Simon Jordan’s watch in 2010. My ire at the time was directed at our flamboyant chairman who sailed far too close to the sun, not the Football League. It’s the Premier League though that is currently copping Evertonians’ flack for their own 10 point reversal, perhaps because they’ve long since exhausted their anger at the club’s owners.
I can’t see Everton being relegated this season in spite of the club’s penalty for breaching the PL’s financial regulations, just as Palace clung on just above the cut-off line on the last day of the 2009/10 season. That won’t stop the asterisk angst on Merseyside and beyond though. Already two of the top four divisions in England have asterisks lurking below the current standings to denote points struck off for financial transgressions. Could there be a better way?
The independent panel that has adjudicated in Everton’s case is being criticised for a penalty that is deemed to be out of kilter with precedent punishments. There are also complaints about the deemed opacity of the regulatory process and the lack of a public scale of tariffs for various breaches of the financial rules that clubs are obliged to adhere to.
I’ve little sympathy with either complaint, while acknowledging the ire of the innocent - the supporters whose only say is to vote with their feet and stay away from the club they follow if they don’t like how it is run.
The last Premier League points deduction was way back in 2010, and the only one before that in 1997. In effect, the Everton case is establishing the precedent for future cases. It will only be truly unfair if equivalent or more egregious rule-breaking is not punished just as severely.
All eyes are now on Chelsea, whose new owners have dobbed their club in for Abramovich-era irregularities, and Man City, fighting off charges of 115 financial breaches.
There may, of course, be a formal disciplinary tariff schedule that is not made public for good reason. If a club knows up front what over-spending, say, or some non-financial breach of the rules might cost it in hard cash and/or points penalties then it could be tempted to weigh the pros and cons and take the risk of incurring a known punishment.
Major League Baseball has effectively recognised this dynamic and woven it into its financial regulations. Franchises may choose to bust the league’s salary cap and pay a Competitive Balance Tax - generally known as the ‘luxury tax’ - which is distributed equally between the players’ retirement benefits and those teams that operate within the overall cap. The New York Yankees have chosen to exceed the salary threshold and pay the tax in all but one year since the current system began in 2003. Nevertheless, they’ve only won the World Series once in those 21 years.
The closed leagues deployed by major US sports are fundamentally different from the pyramid system that operates in football pretty much all over the world. Where American regulations are structured to level financial playing fields, the existence of promotion and relegation means that open leagues need to balance incentives for ambition against the desire to maintain competitive tension. So the wealthiest get to spend more than the rest, but not by so much that results become foregone conclusions.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand why owners of sports teams will pay a luxury tax if they can afford it, or test financial boundaries in pursuit of glory. These regulatory constraints exist to uphold the integrity of competition (no-one wants to see asterisks), protect owners from their own folly, and save fans from the emotional trauma evident at Goodison Park on Sunday.
If fines alone are not sufficient deterrent or punishment, and points deductions mar the purity of a final league table, then perhaps the answer is a far lower threshold for directors and owners to be barred from football. If a club goes bust the administrators go in - just as in any industry. Why not extend the same principle to severe financial transgressions that distort the integrity of the game? Now that would create personal jeopardy for those in football’s boardrooms.
Trivia question: is Chelmsford: a) a city in Essex; b) a city in Middlesex; or c) both
The answer in cricketing terms is c), at least for 2024 with impoverished Middlesex CCC announcing it will play two T20 Blast fixtures at Essex’s Cloud County Ground. That’s 50 miles or the best part of two hours by road from Lord’s, although you could shave off half an hour travelling by tube, train and on foot.
Middlesex’s problems are peculiar to the county. It is only a tenant at Lord’s, which is owned by the Marylebone Cricket Club and whose members have little appetite for taking on the vicissitudes of running a county cricket organisation. And then there’s the long-running leadership black comedy that Middlesex members have endured and which has been widely reported in the media.
“All at Middlesex, the players and the staff, along with all at Essex, are excited about what this opportunity represents and we are looking forward to Middlesex competing at the Cloud County Ground this summer.“ MCCC statement
But their’s is only an extreme example of the existential challenge that all of the smaller first class counties face. Those without international fixtures or Hundred franchises to host live a precarious financial existence, heavily dependent on revenues generated by those two money-spinners, slivers of which are then doled out to them by the ECB.
There is a feeling in the game that the governing body would never let one of the 18 first class counties disappear. How long can that hold? If Middlesex CCC didn’t exist - and remember the county itself was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1965 - would anyone reinvent it?
If Middlesex was subsumed into Essex, would members make the two hour trek to Chelmsford, hop on the tube to watch Surrey instead, fall in love with the Lords-based London Spirit franchise in the Hundred, become sofa-bound Sky watchers, or drift away from cricket entirely?
Similar questions can be asked of pairs of cricketing counties throughout the land.
Not (just) now Lewes
The fan owners of community club Lewes FC voted in favour of an injection of private equity cash into its women’s team, but the putative investors and the club have this week dropped hands. This was the first live test of the value of a women’s football franchise in England. The team currently competes in the Women’s Championship.
Lewes is fiercely committed to equal treatment of its men’s and women’s sides, so one can see how the proposed investment from Mercury/13 might have tilted the balance within the club - but maybe that would be a price worth paying for a challenge to be mounted to a women’s football hierarchy that is increasingly dominated by men’s Premier League clubs.
I hope we won’t have heard the last of Lewes’ ambitious challenger plans.
Fancy a unique fan experience? You can book a 6-person beach hut to watch a match at Lewes’ Dripping Pan ground for £120