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BOARDROOM PROGRAMME NOTES WITH STEPHEN BROWNE

3 September 2019

These programme notes were written by director Stephen Browne for the Huddersfield Town edition of Our Town.

Good afternoon.

Today we welcome a Huddersfield Town team that, like us, find themselves in a new division from last season. They may be without a win at the moment, but they also have had a tough start to the season playing some fancied teams with only the odd goal in it. We both know that collecting points is vital so it is sure to be a hard fought game.

Since returning to this league after a decade away, all of us on the Board are pleased with progress. Whilst we haven’t got the points we would like, we have been playing well with some exciting football against sides who will be there or thereabouts come May 2020. Of course, we know the season is long and will have many twists and turns - we are all used to that as Hatters! – so getting that first win gives everyone confidence that we are truly competitive in this league. The atmosphere created by supporters both home and away has been a huge factor so far, so thank you.

The start of the season is exciting for every football supporter - we get to see new signings, new ideas, new opposition, and in our case, a new manager. So all of us in the football world have watched in amazement as two sagas have progressed that involve two of our oldest football clubs and their supporters. Both Bolton Wanderers and Bury have different reasons for their current situations but both come down to the same thing – poor ownership leading to terrible financial management.

Since our dark days, no lessons seem to have been learnt. People from the highest echelons of football ownership and game governance have spent a decade staring at their navels doing, basically, nothing. In fact I would argue things have become worse – far more debt, far more volatility, far more uncertainty…even funding taken away from bodies that support fans and trusts. The gambles taken get bigger every season so it follows that greater scrutiny and transparency of financial matters would act to ensure both the integrity and the future of our game.

Financial

In fairness, there have been a couple of well intentioned but poorly executed rules voted through – for example Financial Fair Play (FFP). However, what message are we sending out when we say it’s ok to make a loss of up to £35m in a three-year period before there is any action? I would suggest that the majority of clubs in the EFL, including most of the Championship clubs FFP is aimed at, could never sustain such losses, thereby encouraging a boom and bust mentality instead of good financial behaviour.

Now don’t get me wrong, if a Club has a benefactor that is prepared to lose such sums then good for them and they should count themselves lucky. But there must be an enforceable responsibility that the said benefactor is not doing this as ’loans’ that could cripple the club in the future when the loans are called in, or is not ‘mortgaging’ future ticket sales or some other asset in a bubble that could burst, and are not using any such similar dodgy scheme or financial shenanigans.

It seems the EFL have done all within their current powers concerning the new owners of Bolton Wanderers and they must be commended for this, but we can only hope that this is enough. Those owners have reportedly shown proof of funds for two years, said that Bolton needs to be part of the community, and it must work within its means. If true, we wish them well and this could be a new era for Bolton Wanderers.

I’m sure there are many ideas that could be proposed that would improve the governance of the game and the security of clubs. Our very own CEO was a key player in ensuring the National League introduced rules so they had proof all clubs paid their HMRC debts every quarter, thus stopping HMRC/the taxpayer becoming the ’Bank of Football’ and often the largest unpaid creditor when things go wrong. This doesn’t stop a club from bad practice, but it is a small thing that helps pre-emptive action to be taken and the highest in authority to be alerted.

Since we found ourselves in the same position 12 years ago, whilst the rules haven’t changed effectively, it is very clear that the environment in which we operate is light-years away. There is far more competition for supporters’ hard earned cash.

Many sports and other forms of media/entertainment now compete with every club in the land and it becomes increasingly difficult to generate the income needed.

It has always been the view of LTFC2020 that we can only be sustainable if we are part of, and embedded in, our town. And that means those that govern our game no longer govern ’just’ the game - they have a massive impact on whole communities.

So, what have the EFL Board been up to - isn’t this all their fault and why don’t they protect communities and fans? Why don’t they assign rights to their ’Golden Share’ that gives them more say and more transparency?

Well, there’s an elephant in the room here. The EFL is not just a group of unbiased people who can decide on such matters and enforce them - a group entrusted to make the best decisions for the game as a whole and the EFL competitions. No, each league division is represented and every club has a say too. In effect, some of those who make terrible decisions in their own back yard have a say in the national game and the rules under which we and they have to abide! Will those same people vote for the measures needed to solve these problems? Whilst the people who work for the EFL may want to pursue a path for the greater good, all clubs have a say. Maybe, more independence at the EFL doesn’t have to mean loss of accountability but instead would lead to a competition built for the 21st Century.

I will surprise you here but actually I think the EFL is completely different to ’our day’ and is trying to do the right thing. Whilst the clubs have a say, the EFL also has full-time employees who spend day after day managing the competitions and helping clubs. These people have been providing all clubs with data showing the risks of certain decisions and certain business models for some time. They have been warning all clubs of the bad winds that exist and they will provide pre-emptive support to those that request it. Also, the EFL has a recently appointed Chair who fully recognises the effects of bad ownership on clubs, fans, and communities, and wants to solve the problem as far as is possible (remember, at the end of the day, any club or person can make a bad decision and all clubs are private businesses, so the EFL can only go so far). Rather than burying any heads in the sand, they do care and clubs and owners need to listen.

I do hope the EFL take this opportunity to think differently and propose some fair and practical solutions. If good and popular ideas are rejected by clubs and voted down then personally I would ’name and shame’. We pride ourselves on being a football family so let’s act as one. The 2020 Board resolved this week that the EFL will get nothing but support from Luton Town - the only thing more important than doing the best thing for Luton Town is doing the best thing for our national game.

Debbie Jevans and her EFL team have a huge task ahead of them and many sceptics to convince, but her heartfelt interviews this week told the same story we at Luton Town have been saying for over a decade. Fans up and down the country should wish her well and we hope all other clubs provide the same support and radical thinking as Luton Town will in making significant steps to solve these problems once and for all.

The news as I write these notes is that Bury have been expelled from the EFL and because we have all been there and felt very hard times we are all truly gutted for the fans of Bury, the employees, and the community. It is heart-breaking. If League football is ever to return to Gigg Lane, they have a long journey ahead of them but they must take heart from teams that have done exactly that. If the fans believe, they will return.

Today, we are going for our first home win in the Championship since April 2007 and we have a new unbeaten home run to start – so sing loud and proud and help the lads over the line!

COYH!


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