Robin Sainty: Football’s house of cards in danger of collapse

Carrow Road - trying to balance the books like every other football club Picture: PA

Carrow Road - trying to balance the books like every other football club Picture: PA - Credit: PA

There has been plenty of speculation about the potential long-term effects of the current crisis and how the world will look once the pandemic is over.

Bury have already gone under ... who's next? Picture: PA

Bury have already gone under ... who's next? Picture: PA - Credit: PA

I suspect that very little will really change in our day-to day-lives, but I think that we are likely to see a very different footballing landscape, particularly if the battle to contain coronavirus continues for several months.

For years we’ve seen more and more money concentrated at the top of the game to be vacuumed up by ever-increasing wages, agent cuts and transfer fees while the TV companies call the tune in terms of when matches are played with little regard to the paying spectator.

However, for many lower league clubs what was already a perilous existence has now become life-threatening because so many have lived beyond their means for years and gambled on regular injections of cash from their owners, often local businessmen whose own businesses are now being hit by coronavirus.

Even before the pandemic we saw Bury FC go to the wall, while Bolton Wanderers escaped the same fate at the very last moment, and with the shutdown possibly extending into the summer it could push those clubs further down the pecking order that were already living hand to mouth into a terminal financial tailspin.

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At the moment football is, quite rightly, firmly on the back burner as clubs mobilise players and staff to support their local communities, and in the case of several Premier League clubs even make their stadiums available for NHS or foodbank use, but it is a financial house of cards that could soon start to exhibit signs of collapse.

With Premier League clubs being threatened with a reported clawback of £762 million of TV money if the outstanding games aren’t played as their paymasters, Sky and BT, demand their pound of flesh, we are seeing almost daily updates on what is becoming a rather unedifying battle over money at a time when people are dying. However, those clubs, including Norwich City, will be taking a financial hit but none is at risk of collapse.

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It is, however, the knock-on effect to the EFL, and beyond, which is the real concern, with a report in Tuesday’s Independent suggesting that up to 45 EFL clubs could be at risk of going out of business in the event of an extended shutdown of football.

The paper estimates that almost two thirds of clubs in the EFL are losing money and are therefore reliant on owner contributions to keep going, with some clubs in the Championship spending wildly to try to get to the promised land of the Premier League.

The EFL may have announced a £50m bailout package, part of which is an interest-free loan, but research published in the Daily Mail last week suggested that the biggest spenders in the Championship would get through their share of that in a matter of days.

What’s more, that EFL package includes an advance on the Premier League’s final solidarity payment of the season which is hardly likely to appear unless the season is finished, hence why the EFL clubs are vehemently opposed to it being voided.

For non-league clubs the situation grows ever more dire, with King’s Lynn, who were on course for a promotion that would put them one step away from League football, announcing a fortnight ago that they need to raise £100,000 to meet liabilities that would normally have been covered by gate receipts, matchday hospitality and social events.

Football has for decades carried out a financial balancing act because the fixture list and close season were known quantities, but suddenly clubs are in a state of limbo with bills piling up and no way of knowing when the crowds (and their cash) will be returning.

It’s a scary prospect now, but it could get much, much worse for many clubs.

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