Even the wealthiest and most efficiently run outfits are scrambling for answers during the COVID-19 pandemic but for clubs like Bolton Wanderers, this unseen iceberg seems especially dangerous.
Football Ventures hadn’t yet hit 200 days in charge at the University of Bolton Stadium by the time the game was placed into lockdown and all cashflow was effectively stopped in its tracks.
There was already ample evidence during that short spell that they were learning on the job and that their plans had changed as they discovered more about the club they bought out of administration. But what now?
Where does this crisis leave the ‘football restructure’ which was being pushed by ex-Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, acting as an advisor to the board, and the newly appointed head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix?
Those two men will unquestionably be central to the first big challenge, that of striking an accord with the first team squad to reduce the biggest expenditure – players’ wages - in the short term.
The lack of available accounting data means we cannot estimate what wage bill Football Ventures inherited from the administrators nor what they added over two transfer windows. But the fact they have properly engaged with the players and the PFA in recent weeks sets them apart from the previous owner, who failed to do that even in times of relative calm.
There is a general feeling within the game that once immediate issues such as players furloughs or wage deferrals are solved, weightier long-term ideas should be put immediately on to the table for discussion.
It seems likely that football’s economy will be altered significantly by the pandemic and the prospect of playing behind closed doors for an undetermined length of time. As such, salary caps must be an option which is seriously considered this summer to give football an opportunity to mend itself.
It might sound rich coming from Bolton Wanderers – a club whose history is flecked with financial peaks and troughs. But to use Football Ventures’ own words: “It’s important we support each other during these times” and, with that in mind, there has to be a collective push from football club owners to put in place some proper strategies to safeguard the game, starting with its greatest expense.
During 2011, 2013 and 2015 Bolton spent more than 90 per cent of its turnover on player wages and not since 2007 have the financial accounts shown an outlay of 60 per cent or less.
Ironically it was during the happiest times of the club’s Premier League heyday – when global stars like Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Ivan Campo reigned supreme – that Wanderers looked financially prudent on paper, and even then, just so long as Eddie kept his wallet handy.
This last few years in particular, Bolton supporters have had to adapt to a very different reality. Now it’s time for the rest of the game to do the same.
Financial Fair Play may have won a few high-profile battles but, in general, UEFA’s attempt to curb overspending has been virtually unenforceable, with two new loopholes found for every one that is closed.
In Leagues One and Two, the Salary Cost Management Protocol has been equally difficult to get right – lest we forget Wanderers’ last foray into League One and the rules they exploited - but the need to create a tighter set of rules has never been greater.
The new EFL chief Rick Parry has talked a good game thus far. The league has taken a battering in recent times for its perceived passiveness during Bury’s demise and an owners and directors’ test which hardly seems fit for purpose. That organisation, as much as the clubs who serve it, has to be a primary driver if the game is going to change for the better.
Football must use this opportunity to rid itself of one of the prime reasons for inflated transfer fees and wages, the summer and winter transfer windows.
Why not go back to the days before 2002, a time when Davies and Phil Gartside had pledged that Bolton would never over-extend their finances to keep their seat at the top table. Football changed, their outlook changed, and quite frankly the lunatics started to take over the asylum.
Removing the transfer window – or at least restoring the old boundary with a month of the season to play - would allow clubs to freely buy and sell players when their cashflow dictated.
Jim White might have to leave his yellow tie in the closet and our own transfer deadline day blog may become a fond memory of the past, but football would at least get a chance for its wounds to heal.
And why not go a step further and restrict the amount of money which is being sucked from the game by agents?
If the days of the Super Deal are dead, then surely the days of the Super Agent should follow?
Broadcasting companies have certainly not been immune to the losses incurred during the last few weeks and subscriptions for Sky Sports and BT have been paused en-masse. Even before the lockdown there were signs that the next big TV deal would not be as big as the last and that the Premier League bubble was starting to deflate, if not actually burst. COVID-19 might have been the sharp pin that everyone was fearing.
The lockdown has forced football fans – and journalists – to look back to the past for inspiration and talking points, and it has been a pleasure to reconnect with some of the famous names of Wanderers’ past and hear their stories from the days when football somehow still felt in control. So faced with such an uncertain future it seems entirely right that we should look to what worked in the past for some inspiration.
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