Is football about spending or sport?

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City in the Premier LeagueManchester United 8, Arsenal 2; Tottenham Hotspur 1, Manchester City 5 – two eye-catching results from this week's Premier League programme which also raise some points about the finances of the modern game. I discussed those points with football consultant Alex Fynn.
The rise of Manchester City in particular has raised the question of whether the sport is dead, replaced simply by a rule which says if you spend more, you win more. But while City's rise has been very rapid indeed, and this argument appeals to the romantic purist in most fans, it comes with provisos.

Buying success is nothing new – even before Jack Walker's millions helped Blackburn Rovers to the league title in 1995 England's top clubs had splashed the cash to buy the best. And as a Spurs fan, still in pain after Sunday's result, I can hardly complain about clubs paying top money for players.

Man City are different

City are different because, as Fynn observes, "We've never seen a club spend so much, so quickly to such effect". That has left a bad feeling in the mouth of their competitors but, says Fynn, "they are pursuing the only strategy available to them". That led us to discuss the model each club pursues.

At Manchester United, the club's board puts its trust in manager Alex Ferguson. And no manager has done more to earn trust than Ferguson with his record of success. The club does have huge debts, but it has the ability to generate huge income, something that has become possible because of a sustained period of success over decades.

This summer, says Fynn, United's board backed the manager by allowing him to buy his transfer targets early and settle them in. And those transfer targets were part of a strategy of combining home-grown youth and established stars to achieve the blend needed for success.

Arsenal in focus

At Arsenal, the situation is different – and it is one Fynn has written extensively about alongside fanzine editor Kevin Whitcher in the acclaimed study Arsènal: the making of a Modern Superclub, which has just been reissued with updated material covering events up to the start of this season.

"Arsène Wenger is a brilliant manager who has had too much delegated to him," says Fynn. "He has been allowed to assume more power than just an employee and the board has taken a back seat." Fynn believes this has meant his mistakes in believing youth without experience can succeed, plus not strengthening his coaching staff, have led to the club's current problems.

He describes the recent sale of Samir Nasri to Manchester City as "a wake-up call to a board that has put too much faith in a genius of a manager." Wenger wanted to keep Nasri, but the board said it did not make business sense to keep a player who wanted away and who they had received a big-money offer for. And, says Fynn, the board were right.

Fynn believes Arsenal can get back on track if the board challenges the manager more and especially if they adjust a wage policy which perhaps pays younger players too much while not paying the competitive level of wage that would attract the kind of established stars the club needs.

Trouble at Tottenham

At Spurs, the problem is that there is not a good working relationship between manager Harry Redknapp and chairman Daniel Levy, reckons Fynn. For Spurs, Levy is the boss and Redknapp an employee – "Redknapp proposes, Levy disposes" is how Fynn describes the relationship.

Tottenham's current difficulty is that the two men can't work out a proper relationship. But, says Fynn, "the buck stops with Levy because he is in charge". Spurs, however, do have a significant financial disadvantage as their stadium is smaller than United's and Arsenal's and they don't have a benefactor who is prepared to spend what City's Qatari owners do.

At City, the club is pursuing a simple policy, says Fynn. "The more you pay your players, the more success you have". He says it is easy to prove the correlation by looking at the evidence of which clubs have been successful in the recent past.

Is the sport dead?

If this is the case, I asked, surely football is no longer a sport – simply a matter of signing the biggest cheque and buying success, much more than this ever was the case. But Fynn puts a convincing argument in response, saying it's the nature of the relationship between coaching and spending that has changed.

Taking City as an example again, he says that the club tried to buy success under previous bosses Sven Goran Ericsson and Mark Hughes, but they "weren't used to handling those sorts of stars". Current boss Roberto Mancini, on early evidence, is very comfortable doing so.

Looking across Manchester at United, there's also a manager who can add coaching expertise and man-management skills to an ability to identify the correct blend of youth and experience which means that the club's financial firepower can be used to best effect.

At Arsenal, a club which is prepared to pay high wages if not transfer fees, the manager failed to identify the correct blend or to bring in the coaching support that could produce the best results. And at Spurs, the inability to pay the highest wages combines with the lack of cohesion between the board and manager to produce a situation where the club can't consolidate its gains.

Whatever happened to Chelsea?

So what we are seeing is a situation where a club needs the financial muscle to attract the best – and this means by offering high wages if not necessarily high transfer fees – in order for coaching expertise to be used most effectively. For further proof, look at Chelsea.

We've not mentioned Roman Abramovitch's club so far, and yet only a few years ago it was posited as the epitomy of all financial evil. The club has achieved success, but it has not sustained it because of the frequent changes of manager – all it seems down to the owner's whim.

So does this mean City will dominate for ever? We both agreed it did not. "They will need a decade of unqualified success to rival Manchester United," says Fynn. "And the club will never be bigger than United, Barcelona or Real Madrid."

Those clubs are generally recognised to have built their success on the pitch, and the level of their success cannot be denied. But they have recognised that, despite the distaste many football fans have for the word, building a brand is key to success and they have used their history to build.

The business end

"Football is still a sport," says Fynn, "but it's a sport with a fundamental business nucleus." Looked at this way, it could be said that City are making the game more competitive by breaking the cartel – because the success of world football's big three cannot be replicated elsewhere.

It's easy to be disillusioned by the influence money has on football. And I still mourn the passing of cycles of success. Once Huddersfield Town, Wolves and Preston won trophies, success for Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa ebbed and flowed and a side such as Nottingham Forest could get promoted, win the league and become champions of Europe in consecutive seasons.

That looks almost impossible – at best – now. A kernel of a sport remains, but for sporting prowess to be brought into play, the financial requirements are higher than ever. Perhaps all that can be said is that it's football, but not as we knew it.

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