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BookZone - The Beautiful Game?

By: Elaine Deane
Date: 12/01/2005

ELAINE Deane reviews the book that takes the reader through a whole gamut of emotions as it highlights the dirty side of football.

Home > Features > 2005 Features > The Beautiful Game?

The Beautiful Game?
Searching For The Soul of Football
By David Conn

Published by Yellow Jersey Press ISBN No 0-224-06435-5

"The Beautiful Game?" on Amazon

Anticipation, disbelief at what the breakaway of the Premiership clubs caused, incredulity at the inaction of the game's governing bodies, fury at the control freakery of the Premiership's leading Chairmen, relief that clubs like Crewe and Charlton adhere to the old values and finally anticipation again when the honourable role of football trusts up and down the country becomes apparent

This book has been well researched and uncovers a whole host of information that I now feel I *ought* to have known about and appreciated and although David Conn doesn't appear to actively promote trusts, it becomes very clear going through it that integrity and credibility have been restored to the clubs where they have taken over although there is - as yet - to be real success on the pitch at most of those clubs.

David Conn's book was launched at the Supporters Direct Conference in London in October and I am fortunate to have a dedicated copy. The author comes across in real life as passionate, dedicated and totally committed to exposing the corruption throughout the game.

There are some pertinent questions asked and some memorable quotes throughout the book.

As early as Chapter 3 the reader nods in agreement at this:

"There is a legitimate question to be asked about whether doing well in your own small business, which tends to require the hard-headed pursuit of self interest, is a suitable qualification for running a football club, which serves its fans and community, let alone for occupying a senior position in the FA or leagues running the sport itself."

He then goes on to highlight the business dealings of various individuals who have great power in football and whilst much of what they do perhaps isn't exactly illegal, it's certainly immoral.

The saga of Arsenal's move to a new stadium isn't all that we have read in the tabloids either, it's been a real worry to local people and small businesses but has been ruthlessly steamrollered ahead.

The inside story of Hillsborough is also cause for great concern - especially as no-one has ever really been held responsible.

Conn tells us that there was some serious crushing on the Leppings Lane end in 1981 in an FA Cup semi-final between Spurs and Wolves when 38 people were treated for injuries including broken arms, legs and ribs. Yet Hillsborough officials were still touting it around as one of the safest grounds in the country because this 1981 crush caused by people arriving late never made any headlines. The ground didn't even have a valid safety certificate.

Letters from the FA asking to use the ground for semi-finals never even mentioned the safety of the supporters, it was all about money, 'safety' fencing and which seats - the best of course - would be reserved for the FA top brass.

In his report, Lord Taylor comments:

"As for the clubs, in some instances it is legitimate to wonder whether the directors are genuinely interested in the welfare of their grass-roots supporters. Boardroom struggles for power, wheeler-dealing in the buying and selling of shares, and indeed of whole clubs, sometimes suggest that those involved are more interested in the personal financial benefits or social status of being a director than in directing a club in the interests of its supporter customers."

Never have truer words been written! Look at these examples quoted:

"By 1997…… Manchester United's merchandising developed yet more lines of tat for sale, as their plc reached a turnover of £87.9m, more than 4 times its level six years earlier. The dividend declared earned Martin Edwards £393,059 on top of his salary package of £536,000 which included a £220,000 bonus."


"Ken Bates bought Chelsea for £1 in 1982 and in 1996 he floated the club on the Stock Exchange for smaller companies, the Alternative Investment Market. At the time more than 66% of the shares were held by a company called Rysaffe Ltd, based on the 18th Floor of a tower block in Hong Kong , on behalf of owners whose identities were never revealed. Shortly afterwards the shares were transferred to another company, Swan Management in the Channel Islands tax haven of Guernsey . In the 21 years he lasted before he sold a rebuilt Chelsea laden with huge debt to Abramovich for £17m, Bates never said who the shares belonged to except to deny they were his."

There are other similar stories cited at most other large clubs with off the shelf companies and offshore tax havens used to amass huge amounts of money for individual shareholders.

Then this, speaking of the loss to venture capitalists when Sheffield Wednesday ran into trouble:

"In venture capital you win some, you lose some. Elektra, also a venture capital firm, did a similar deal with Derby in 1997, paying £10m for 25% of the club. In the expectation of a fat profit when the club feasted on the Premiership plenty and floated a couple of years later. Elektra were similarly disappointed(to Charterhouse at Sheff Wed)

Derby were relegated in 2002 owing many millions to the Co-op Bank, run up on overspending on players to try to stay up in the Premier League. Eventually the Bank appointed Receivers who sold the club to a three man consortium - John Sleightholme, Jeremy Keith and Steve Harding financed with a £15m loan from the anonymous ABC Corporation based in Panama. That faceless offshore entity whose owner is unknown, now has a mortgage on Pride Park which had been one of the brightest new homes of footballs 1990's recovery."

There are whole chapters devoted to the chaotic situation at Bradford City and to the near death of the Football League's oldest club, Notts County. Both of these clubs were saved at the 11 th hour simply by the dedication of the supporters who had formed trusts. There are similar stories relating to York, Bury and many other clubs from below the top two levels.

Bigger clubs also suffered from relegation from the Premiership - Leicester , Leeds, Forest and Ipswich as well as Derby and of course Sheffield Wednesday.

The FA Council has recently been restructured - Conn tells the reader how this came into being and how the powerful clique circumnavigate it by resorting to what amounts to blackmail.

However, the restructured FA still has no places for supporters, for anyone from ethnic minorities and certainly none for any women! As Conn comments, it's as if the game stopped its evolution three decades ago - except when it comes to ceding power to the major clubs of course.

David Conn's book is certainly not ideal bedtime reading because the facts it reveals cause headaches and depression, but it is a revelation in exposing all that is so wrong with the game today and just a few glimpses of some things that are right.

Anyone that belongs to a supporters' trust, that believes that fans should have more say in the running of their game and believes that football clubs should be an essential integral part of the community they serve, should read this book and digest the lessons to be learnt from the dedication of a few individuals who have made a difference.

Finally, who is to argue with these words from Spain?

"No less a figure than Florentino Perez the elected - yes, elected - President of Real Madrid, arguably the world's most glamorous club with its firmament of star players, the 'galacticos', told the Observer in June 2003 that while he is a workaholic businessman who has made a great deal of money in the construction industry, Real Madrid is different, more than a business:

No-one believes in plcs more than I do. I've got one that is very big in the Stock Market. But football, when you really come down to it belongs in the sphere of human emotions. Real Madrid is a kind of religion for millions all over the world. You can't have that in the hands of one individual. It's as if the Catholic Church belonged to one person. It wouldn't be right."

Yet in England where the game began we have to put up with it. Our clubs - we still call them clubs for sentimental old time's sake or to kid ourselves - are bought and sold like fertiliser companies, picked up for plaything or profit by one man, consortia, merchant banks. Roman Abramovich told the BBC he sniffed over top clubs in Spain - Real Madrid and Barcelona - but couldn't buy them because they are still membership clubs. Here, all were available.

If ever any book convinced me that the plc model is wrong for a football club is was David Conn's research and findings.

Membership clubs - co-operatives - run democratically by the members must surely be an option for the future and perhaps football trusts should start to look at changing the laws in the UK to allow clubs to be legally operated in this way if circumstances permit.

There is a lot of food for thought in this book but in 50 years time we might hopefully look back in horror at the governance of our game in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and agree that this book was a milestone in highlighting the need for change. END

Elaine Deane is the chair of the Rams Trust. This article is published with her permission.

Note: Ged, of West Ham, in his review of the book said;

"David Conn's book is eminently readable. It gives a fan's perspective and respect to the issues discussed. It has villains, but it also has heroes, fans like you and me, the sort of people that make me believe that no matter what happens to my club today, there will still be something there tomorrow."

See also "Reminiscenses of Grimsby Town FC" on Amazon

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