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Football League chairman: The exclusive interview
Q. Accrington Stanley came close to going out of business last year. Was that a concern?
GREG CLARKE: The situation is that economically things are difficult.
No-one has a lot of money and whatever they have they don’t want to put into football. Banks aren’t keen to lend to football clubs and it’s always nip and tuck.
A few clubs get close to the edge. Accrington were a bit close last season, they’ll be different clubs a bit close this season.
Luckily we’ve only got one club in arrears at the moment to HM Revenue and Customs because the rules say if you’re in arrears you can’t sign players.
Clubs don’t like being told they can’t sign players so they tend to pay their bills. We’re always working with a few clubs who have problems and last year it was Accrington’s turn.
Q. Do you monitor each club’s situation with tax?
A. We do two things, we monitor them but HMRC also tell us.
If they say, 'These guys aren’t paying', we phone up and say, 'What’s going on, boys? You know that if you don’t pay this, we’ll have to put a transfer embargo on you'.
Miraculously, nine times out of 10, HMRC gets paid.
Q. Are you happy with Stanley’s finances now?
A. Yes, but I’m not au fait with week-to-week financial situations. I just know that it’s difficult at most clubs.
It’s not easy for them, even in the Championship. If you’re playing well you get a few more fans, if you’re winning less, people are worried about whether they’re going to have a job and they tend not to buy an away shirt.
Q. Burnley recently announced a £14.4m pre-tax profit. Are you encouraged by those results?
A. The chairman there, Barry Kilby, is a very sound businessman. He didn’t go crazy when they got promoted to the Premier League.
He ran the club well, sadly they were relegated but they are not one of the clubs that have found themselves in a huge crisis. They are focused on the long-term well-being of the club.
I was in their boardroom the other week for their game against Doncaster Rovers and had a long chat with them.
Barry and his people are running that club well so I’m not surprised that they’ve made a profit.
Q. Are Burnley a good example for the rest of the League?
A. They are a good example in that when they went up to the Premier League the most important thing wasn’t Premier League success, it was the long-term survival of the football club.
It is never smart to bet the future of the football club and they didn’t do that. They said, 'Okay, we’re investing but if it doesn’t turn well and it looks like we’re going to get relegated we’re not going to throw all our money at trying to survive in the Premier League. We’re going to retain our funds and make sure the club is healthy in the longer term'.
Barry said that was what he is going to do, he did it and they now have a competitive team in the Championship.
The Burnley fans have had their day in the Premier League, they’ll get it again and they’ve had it in the past. I walked down the Bob Lord Stand back in the good old heydays of the 1970s when I was a boy and Burnley were a big team.
They were a big team last year and they’ll be a big team at some point in the future. That is the thing - well-run clubs who play a long game and stay in business for the long term tend to get their turn in the top league. It comes around again. So good luck to them.
Q. Stanley have had four transfer embargoes in the last year or so, and Burnley also had two a couple of seasons ago. Are you happy with the current regulations?
A. You don’t own a football club, you are a custodian of a heritage. People who own football clubs tend to get a bad rep but the large majority of them put a lot of money into preserving their local football club and we should admire those people.
My view is that the rules of football should be biased in favour of the long-term health of football clubs, not the short term. So what we’ve tried to do is make sure there are no rewards for excessive spending.
Football is a volatile business and sometimes things get difficult. It’s very difficult to explain to HM Revenue and Customs why a club who is in debt to them can still buy footballers.
Realistically speaking, the club is skint, not to put too fine an economic word on it. I’m not a great believer in big words. If we’re struggling to pay policemen, firemen and nurses, and keep hospitals open, the state should not be subsidising football clubs.
We have the rules in place to make sure that football clubs are encouraged to pay their bills on time and run their businesses sensibly. We can’t always achieve that but we do our best.
Q. Are you concerned about clubs like Stanley who have had so many embargoes?
A. I don’t want to pick on Accrington. The guys who run Accrington are probably working really hard to keep a small club successful in the Football League with small crowds and a little ground, trying to extend their ground to 5,000. It’s hard.
It’s not a case of Greg Clarke has a tablet of stone that he’ll hand to chairmen and say, 'Just do that and it will all be okay'. They are doing their best.
Every now and again they get a little bit close to the edge and we have to say, 'You can’t do this or you can’t do that'.
It doesn’t mean they are bad people. They are people trying to keep their local football club alive and I tend to go the extra mile. I want them to keep their football club alive. We at the Football League aren’t neutral arbiters. We don’t just sit there saying, 'Well, if your football club lives, good, if it dies, that’s tough'.
Our job is to keep 72 clubs in business and try to have the rules that encourage them to do it the right way.
Some of them step over the mark now and again and we have a sensible private conversation with them and they move back in the right direction usually. But we have to have those rules to make sure that it’s fair.
I have been to see more than 30 football clubs since I took over six months ago. I do two or three games a week and I try to get round the clubs.
We at the Football League aren’t some faceless bureaucrats. We are part of the team trying to make sure football is successful and the more we know what’s going on in the real world, the more help we can be. It’s just a general chat to ask, 'How’s it going, how are you trading, what can you see, what’s going on, what are you concerned about, how can we help?'.
The more we know about the day-to-day problems facing the game, the better we can prioritise our time to help fix them.
We are a real democracy. We are run by the football clubs, for the football clubs. Four times a year we have a general meeting when they all come along and vote on all the big issues.
We genuinely try to fulfil their wishes and ambitions. Sometimes it’s not easy to get 72 people who have the same opinion so we help them coalesce about how to manage wage costs, what to do about some of the big safety issues facing the game and things like that.
But you tend to find out by listening to people what they think is important, and then our job is to go away and try to build a consensus about what is important.
Q. You have been speaking to Stanley about trying to get their ground up to 5,000 capacity. The deadline is December 31.
A That’s one of the basic rules of the game – you’ve got to have the ability to get 5,000 fans in the ground and they’ve struggled. They’re talking about temporary stands and this, that and the other.
But we’re sympathetic. They’re working hard to achieve it and they tell us they’re going to have it done by Christmas.
Q. If the work wasn’t done by December 31, what would happen?
A. The rules are that you can’t play in the Football League unless you’ve got this, but are we in the business of trying to find ways to throw clubs out of the Football League? Of course we’re not. We want to find ways to help clubs succeed, not fail.
So, yes, we’re going to keep whipping them, because that’s our job, but we want to find a way to help them get there.
Q. There is a lot of talk about salary caps. What are your views on that?
A. I’m a big fan of managing costs down in football. We spend too much.
There is a salary cost management protocol in League Two, which has been improved this season.
That means they cap their wage budget at 55 per cent revenue. That means they cap their wage budget, not individual player’s salaries, so we don’t tell them what they can pay any player.
We just say that if you cap your wages as a percentage of revenue, you probably won’t go bust. The financial health of League Two has improved over the years as they’ve made that bite.
League One are shadowing it, which means they’re putting it in place and measuring it all without the penalties. They’re seeing how it goes, it’s just an experiment.
he Championship are looking at imposing the same system as the Premier League with what’s called the financial fair play rules, meaning that you’re not allowed to lose more than a certain amount of money over a certain period of time. The only way you can actually achieve that is not paying your players too much money. It’s a different way of achieving the same result.
My personal belief is that we in football have to get our player wage budgets under control if we’re going to improve the long-term chances of survival of football clubs. Can we solve all those problems overnight? No. Do we need to work together with the PFA, the League Managers’ Association and everyone else to achieve that? Yes, we do because the stability of all football clubs is in the interests of the fans, the players, the managers, the owners and the game.
We’re making progress down that road. I am not outspoken on this issue, I just believe in working quietly behind the scenes to achieve better financial stability for the clubs because then more clubs will survive and fans will be happy.
Q. Do you envisage a 55 per cent salary cap being introduced in the Championship?
A. I don’t know what the number will be but the only way of the Championship moving towards more financial stability is to reduce the amount of money they spend on their squads. How and when they achieve that, we’re talking about. I don’t expect it to be this season or next season, but in the end I believe we will achieve better control of our costs.
Q. Blackburn Rovers are not in the Football League after maintaining their place in the Premier League for 10 years. Can Football League clubs still sustain a place in the top flight?
A. If you’ve got a huge global brand like Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea, you’ve got access to sponsorship and revenue that people like Blackburn don’t get. It’s always going to be harder for the little sides. When we don’t have room for the teams like Blackburn, it’s going to be a worse Premier League. I like to see clubs get promoted and hang on in there.
Q. Burnley are one of the first clubs to be helped by the new parachute payments, which now last for four years. There was some controversy when the payments were increased - are you happy with the level of money that goes to relegated teams at the moment?
A. I was one of the people who wasn’t too fussed about that. There were people within football, within the Football League and within the Football League board who had really deep concerns.
But to me, what the parachute payment did was make sure the clubs coming out of the Premier League could pay the players they had because when the revenue falls and they’ve got long-term contracts in place it’s going to be a problem.
When you look at it, the people received parachute payments at the minute aren’t the clubs at the top of the Championship. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
We can all have our opinions but if every year the three teams who go down go up again, you’d have to say there’s something wrong there. But at the minute it’s not looking even close to that.
Look at Middlesbrough, they’re fourth from bottom, and Hull are down at the bottom. The guys at the top, Cardiff, Swansea, Derby, none of those guys are receiving parachute payments. So I think it’s achieving its objective of making sure that teams who go down don’t go bust.
I don’t worry too much about it stilting competition. In the end you want to believe that your team have got a chance of winning something. There are 17 teams in the Championship who don’t have parachute payments and they’re doing okay.
Q. You have been on a regional tour taking in Preston North End, Accrington Stanley, Crewe Alexandra and Stockport County. Are they an important part of your job?
A. What we’re trying to do is make sure that the Football League team get out and around clubs to listen. Our decision making has to be embedded in reality.
It’s a bit like a politician, if you spend your whole time in Westminster, what do you know? You’ve got to get out around the estates, the working men’s clubs and the shopkeepers to find out what’s really going on. That’s what we try to do, to feel the real pulse of football.
Q. At Stanley there is currently a dispute between three people over the ownership. Can you mediate in that situation?
A. We tend not to because in the end our job is to look after the football club. There are mediation and legal remedies available, and I’m involved in one club at the moment where discussions are going on between different owners and different creditors, and we’re trying to find a way through it all to resolve the situation.
But when you’ve got 72 clubs, there are about 60 people in the Football League and they do things like arrange the referees, do the television deals, make sure the sponsorship is in place and all the other stuff, we don’t actually have a lot of time to do all the other things.
We tend to focus on what our job is and let club owners sort out all the other stuff.
Q. For clubs like Accrington, they find it expensive to travel long distances to away games. Has there ever been a thought of regionalising League Two?
A. Regionalisation tends not to have much of a following among fans and owners, because actually they want to play the best teams they can.
Yes it’s a pain if you’ve got Torquay and on a Tuesday night you’ve got to go from Accrington nearly into Cornwall in some cup game maybe, that’s hard.
But whenever you talk to people who own clubs, they want to play the best teams, they don’t want to play the local teams. It’s a practical solution, but no-one wants it.
Q. Burnley striker Chris Iwelumo said recently that he felt more professional footballers should be allowed to become referees. Do you agree with that?
A. The hardest job in football is the referee’s job. I make decisions and if I get nine out of 10 right I’m a hero. If a referee doesn’t get 99 out of 100 right he’s a villain.No-one sits there looking a club owner, the chairman of the Football League or the chief executive of the Premier League and replays every decision 100 times on television.
Anything that brings the best referees to the game is a good thing. I think the standard of refereeing in this country is excellent. Could it improve? Of course it could. But the problem is it’s a very specialist occupation.
What I like at the minute is younger and younger referees are coming through, because the sooner they referee at the top level, the more experience they get and the better they’re going to be.
The big problem is if you play until you’re 33 or 34 and then try training to be a ref, it’s different being a ref than being a player. So if you start learning the refereeing game in your early 30s you’re not going to be much good until your early 40s, because it takes 10 years to learn anything that’s hard.
So, yes, of course there is room for ex-players as referees, but I don’t think it is the one solution.
The solution is to identify really good referees early and get them into the top level and let them start learning on the job.
Q. The Europa League and the Champions League have brought in an extra official behind each goal. Could that happen soon in the Football League?
A. We at the Football League like to see ourselves as innovators. When UEFA and FIFA ask for people to try out new technologies and approaches, we will always put our hands up because we think any game that is forward looking should be looking to innovate and try to be better.
So we want to take on new ideas and if that’s one of them, we’ll have a go.
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