Monday, 13 June 2011

The Return of Stability

The off-pitch tensions at The Racecourse this Summer have distracted us from a remarkable fact. It’s been an unusually stable close season on the playing side, and Dean Saunders deserves a lot of credit for that.

This is the first time, since the idiotic decision to sack Denis Smith turned a disappointing season into a chronic five-year tailspin, that we’ve had stability in the squad. Every close season since then, and at least three January transfer windows in between, have seen the squad completely ripped apart and the manager start again.

Obviously the main cause of this recurring nightmare, as players spin rapidly through the revolving Racecourse door, was an astonishing recklessness on the part of the board. Honestly, how could they allow this to happen? It certainly prompts you to ask questions about the decision-making processes at work at the club.

Take for example Brian Little. He was given free hand in January 2008 to bring players in to save the club from relegation to the Conference, and took full advantage by bringing in an astonishing thirteen new players. Of course, the rescue mission failed dismally, but he was not only allowed to continue in his post, but to rip the squad up and start yet again in the Summer! It must have been a remarkable conversation when Little went cap in hand to the board to ask for permission to rip it all up and start again:

“I’m sorry that I didn’t keep us up chaps, but I’ve got a plan that will get us straight back into the football League again! You know those players I told you would save us four months ago? Can I get rid of the lot of them and buy in a completely new squad?”

“Why, of course Brian! Here’s a bottomless pit of money; help yourself.”

Stop me if I’m wrong, but if I was running a business and a middle-manager got me to spend lavishly in January to back his project, then came back in May having failed and asked me to do the same again, I’d tell him to get lost! Surely the logical answer to Little’s question would have been “You wanted these players, make them into a decent team!”

With Dean Saunders also allowed to completely dismantle his squad in three of the first four transfer windows of his tenure at The Racecourse, is it any wonder that the squad has been massively instable? And don’t even get me started on the financial implications of paying the wages of numerous players who were surplus to requirements, not to mention the pay-offs for those we got rid of. You won’t find much sympathy from me over the spiralling running costs the club has been incurring.

As time has passed, I’ve been inclined to forgive Saunders his shake-ups of the squad though. After all, he inherited a dysfunctional unit from Little, and had to make changes. By the time he arrived, a pattern of decline which had already seen us collapse to our lowest ever league position was already established, and it took something special to turn it round. It’s tempting to look back and see Saunders as a lone figure on a runaway rollercoaster, desperately trying to apply the brakes. Yet he has done so. Last Summer he rebuilt once more, but prudently, and the squad he put together then is still pretty much intact now. At last there’s stability on the pitch, and that’s the best way to set ourselves up for a promotion push. It’s yet another reason why the success of the WST’s bid to take the club over is crucial; now we need to match that stability in the boardroom.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Save Supporters Direct

How alarming that, just as negotiations to turn Wrexham into a fan-owned club reach critical mass, the rug’s being pulled from under one of the WST’s most trusted sources of advice.

The decision by the Premier League to withdraw £1.2 million of funding from Supporters Direct is a bizarre one if taken at face value, but as we all know, taking the people who run football and footballs clubs at face value is a mug’s game.

There’s no question that the comments made on Twitter by SD’s chief executive Dave Boyle were unwise and in bad taste. It’s equally plain that they were the comments of a private individual, though, and not purporting to represent the body which employs him. Would a hairdresser lose her job if she posted that Jordan’s a tart at the bottom of a story on The Sun’s website?

The argument that the SD board’s response to Boyle’s comments was inadequate, leading to the conclusion that they’re not fit to distribute the cash responsibly, is not only completely nonsensical (what influence would my reaction to a workmate’s comments in the pub have on my handling of my bank account?) but was also drawn suspiciously swiftly, as the FSIF admit they consulted only one member of the Supporters Direct board, and rushed to make their judgement public before SD could hold a board meeting.

In reality, the Prem clubs are withdrawing their funding because they don’t support SD’s aims. They’ve clearly been corralled into offering the money because the public and political wind is blowing in favour of more fan ownership, but it simply doesn’t fit in with what the clubs’ owners want. They want docile consumers who stick their hands mindlessly into their pockets to fund the clubs, but have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, nor any desire to influence it. The business model they aspire to isn’t Barcelona, it’s Tesco.

So to react so dramatically to Boyle’s comments appears suspicious; the action of a body which doesn’t want to offer funding and was waiting for an excuse to withdraw the cash to come along. If they stick to their promise to award the money themselves to individual schemes as they see fit, they’ll be able to control the sort of supporters’ organisations that get funded. I’m sure there’d be lots of publicity stunts to help out nice, polite, non-aspirational groups that have no intention of rocking the boat, rather than grass roots organisations which want to have a voice. No doubt, before distributing their largesse to the peasants, the Premiership clubs would consult club owners to see if the group was friendly or not; can you imagine the reference the Wrexham Supporters Trust would have got if Geoff Moss and Ian Roberts had been asked for one?

Before the funding promise was reneged upon, "When Saturday Comes" wondered whether something was up, suspecting there might be a suspicicious motive for the Daily Mail suddenly jumping on Boyle's comments a full fortnight after they'd been made. They wondered whether the story had been planted in the paper by bodies looking to discredit the upcoming publication of the Select Committe Inquiry into the governance of football to which Boyle had given evidence. It looks like it was also a cynical prelude to the withdrawal of funding.

Of course, I might be doing the Premiership a disservice. Despite the fact that its most obvious function is to make money at any cost, perhaps it does have a conscience, and that's why they couldn't possibly imagine funding a group that could employ someone who says unpleasant things. Maybe they do care about doing things the right wat, despite the fact that it was willing to compromise the integrity of its own competition by adding a 39th game abroad in order to make money (try telling Wolves that would be a fair framework if, having survived on the final day on goal difference, they were then told the 39th round would see them play Manchester United for a third time, in Qatar, while Birmingham would get to play West Ham in Dublin!)

So maybe the Premiership, in making this stand, is showing its moral side. Maybe we stand at the dawn of a remarkable era of honest leadershi in the game. It would make a nice change if the Prem made a stand against greed, theft, dishonesty and hypocrisy: here’s just a small, random selection of the sort of morally ambiguous or downright unconscionable behaviour it doesn’t punish or prevent:

  • Portsmouth were allowed to play in the Premiership under the following squeaky-clean fellows: arms-dealer’s son Sacha Gaydamak; Ali al-Faraj, whose claims to be a billionaire didn’t stack up, and who put convicted fraudster Daniel Azougy in charge of the club; and Sulaiman al-Fahim, "close friend" of a man with accusation of human-rights abuse and fraud, Thaksin Shinawatra. Hang on, isn’that the Thaksin Shinawatra who owned Manchester City in the Premiership?
  • Two days before signing Robbie Keane from Liverpool, having publicly stated his liking for the player, Harry Redknapp complained: "I don't know why Rafa Benítez gets so upset - it's strange. I just said Robbie Keane's a terrific player, but he belongs to Liverpool. It was never a goer." Then, on deadline day a year ago he said: "I thought it was April Fools' Day with some of the players we've been linked with. We're not doing anything today." By the end of the day he’d bought Raphael Van der Vaart!
  • Frank Lampard became the standard-bearer of a new £75m child obesity campaign, stating "You're never too young to get fit". Then he signed up as the face of Walkers Crisps, telling those obese kids to augment their salad butties: "Any sandwich is more exciting with Walkers!"
  • West Ham boss David Gold claimed, a month before he sacked Gianfranco Zola that he “has been through hell and back. But he knows he is part of West Ham. We couldn't ask for any more. I'll be asking him what he needs from us for next season."
  • Rio Ferdinand was paid £2.4 million in wages while he was suspended for eight months for going shopping instead of taking a drugs test by a club which supported his failure to do the test.
  • And don’t get me started on Joey Barton.

Hopefully the government, which has supported Supporters Direct, will prevail upon the Premier League will reconsider, and SD have already stated their intention to reapply for funding. Hopefully The Premier League’s Chief Executive Richard Scudamore will be reminded that it was less than a year ago that he made a commitment to fund the body; in the meantime, join the Save Supporters Direct Facebook group, work that #SaveSupportersDirect Twitter hashtag, and do your bit to show the Premier League that the little man does have a voice.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Beware The New Crawley

I'm going to allow myself the luxury of thinking about football for a bit, although it's patently obvious that what happens off the pitch is of infinitely more importance.

Should the WST takeover come to fruition, it's encouraging to see that they feel the budget already agreed with Dean Saunders is realistic and can be honoured. While all bets would be off if the takeover doesn't take place, the fact is that I'm cautiously optimistic after hearing the WST's initial assessment of the situation.

So, if they do take over, what are the prospects for next season? Dean Saunders hoped that Luton would go up in the play-off final, as they have more money behind them than AFC Wimbledon (the excellent Stuart Hammonds had an interesting article in the Non League Paper the other week where he compared his predicted league table at the start of the season, based on the clubs' budgets, with where they actually finished. His prediction was uncannily accurate: Luton had the second biggest budget as I recall, we had the fifth, but AFC Wimbledon were the biggest climbers, as they had the fourteenth largest budget in the division!)

I've got to say that, although I follow Saunders' logic, I'm not too bothered that Luton are still in our league, though. Their parachute payments end this season, so their spending will surely be curbed. And anyway, were they actually better than us last season? They finished just three points clear of us and got past us in the play-offs because we froze in the first leg. I didn't see anything to particularly scare me from them last season to be honest.

In fact, until the last few days I thought that, if we were able to keep hold of most of our squad and make the odd judicious addition, we'd be serious contenders for the title. After all, the artificial impact of Crawley's spending is no longer a factor. However, I fear we might be up against another side which is willing to spend beyond it's means to go up in Fleetwood. The Lancashire club's got even less history and support than Crawley, as last season was their first in the Conference and they struggled to attract decent crowds despite reaching the play-offs. However, when you've got money sluicing in from other areas that doesn't matter, at least in the short term.

They were bankrolled in the Conference North, when they gazumped us for Anthony Barry, they spent lavishly on a side last season which was capable of playing very attractive football, and already this summer they've splashed out for a big name striker in Crawley's Richard Brodie, not to mention outbidding us for Andy Mangan.

Also, in contrast to Luton they did impress me last season. They out-played us at The Racecourse and although their winner in the return match was offside, they looked dangerously swift on the attack and we never looked like scoring past them. If they address the rather cumbersome nature of their central defence, which was torn apart in the play-offs by AFC Wimbledon, they'll be the team to beat next Summer.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Waiting Game

My problem, I suspect, is I draw too much of my knowlege of business from watching "The Apprentice". Alan Sugar seems value an ability to operate in a straghtforward manner and get a deal done. Clearly it's a simplified version of reality.

Obviously, I didn't assume the WST would take Wrexham over with a click of their fingers when the Poole bid collapsed and it was announced they were in negotiations with the club's owners. My suspicion, though, was that it would be the trust's honesty which might make the deal impossoble.

Let's be frank: the trust are the only body throughout all this mess who have been straightforward, transparent and realistic about the process. They don't shoot their mouths off or make promises they can't keep as they alone understand the concept of having a responsibility to the supporters of the club. Therefore, I suspected that, should their due diligence reveal a black hole in the finances, the deal would flounder. After all, they're aware they can't squander the fans' money and therefore won't make silly commitments.

However, before that situation could develop, we've run into a different problem. It would seem that simply getting their hands on the books to determine whether they have any nasty surprises in them is no simple matter. Part of me wonders whether this is just a natural part of any business deal, especially a complex on like this one. But if that's the case, why have accountancy and law firms with experience in the field apparently felt the need to let it be known that progress is slow?

The elephant in the room is why would people who want to sell their business be tardy in handing over the books? The best case scenario is that it's an innocent mistake, and as we're talking about a company which doesn't pay its taxes or its employees wages on time, I suppose that's a possibility. Not a best case scenario to fill your heart with hope though, is it?

However, the other possibilities hardly bear thinking about. The only thing I feel confident about is that the WST board will do what is right once they have all the facts in front of them. I'm bracing myself for the terrifying possibility that they'll conclude the terms of this deal are unacceptable.

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