Coming home to roost – Column
Tuesday, 24th Oct 2017 22:43 by Clive Whittingham
The result of the Financial Fair Play arbitration for the 2013/14 season has been revealed, and it’s gone against QPR. For now, that doesn’t mean very much.
In the short, and perhaps the medium term, today’s ruling by the arbitration panel that the Financial Fair Play (FFP) fine levied against Queens Park Rangers for their overspend during the 2013/14 promotion season was not unfair under competition laws, nor disproportionate, doesn’t change much at all.
QPR will lodge an appeal against the decision by the end of November, starting a new period of limbo similar to the one we’ve lived through for the last two and a half seasons. QPR will continue trying to get their house in order, trying to comply with the new (revised) FFP rules, trying to build a competitive team on the field in an over-heated transfer market and so on. No money will be paid out, no transfer embargo will be in place, and the process will not be quick. This could drag on for another two years. Given that the Football League don’t want to levy a fine of this size against a member club and risk bankrupting it, and QPR certainly don’t want to be paying a fine of this size, it’s reasonable to conclude the only people winning here are the lawyers, who now have another 18 months+ work coming their way.
Uncertainty is lethal in business and finance, and for the people who work at QPR in the ‘everyday’ jobs and salaries, as opposed to the rich footballers who will always be able to find another club, this situation will be troubling and, seemingly, never ending. But, for now, it’s business as usual, though one would hope the wholly unjustified criticism of people like Les Ferdinand, Lee Hoos, Ian Holloway and others who’ve been left to clean up the mess that was made before will now be set in the correct context. QPR are in a tight spot. Not a tight spot you escape from by changing the manager again or signing an extra bloody centre back.
Let’s try and answer some frequently asked questions here…
The fine relates to the 2013/14 season in which QPR were promoted to the Premier League via the play-off final at Wembley. The FFP rules at the time said clubs couldn’t lose more than £8m in a season and QPR posted financial losses of £9.8m that year – down from £65m the year before. They were able to do so only because the board agreed to write off/pay £60m worth of losses as an “exceptional item” on the accounts. So, in actual fact, the club lost just shy of £70m that season and with the Football League not having the ‘exceptional item’ work around that’s the number the club was judged by. Clubs were fined for losses between £8m and £18m, and then pound for pound on top of that. The amount QPR owe is reported as high as £58m, is probably somewhere lower than that, but definitely north of £40m. It will be the biggest fine levied in the history of sport, topping the £32m the McLaren F1 team was fined in the 2007 Spygate scandal.
It is worth pointing out that the rules only came in in 2012, and QPR had committed to contracts and transfer fees before that and couldn't just tear up those deals. But that season Harry Redknapp gave first team appearances to 39 players. He presided over a squad with a wage bill of £77.3m for the season, the highest amount ever paid by a second tier club in the history of football in this country. A wage bill just south of £80m paid on turnover of £38.6m. For comparison, the Derby County team QPR were fortunate to beat in the play-off final had a wage bill of £13m for the season. It was a flagrant and deliberate breach of the rules. QPR simply ignored them, gambling that they would return to the Premier League.
Having done so, they moved out of the jurisdiction of the Football League. Leicester and Bournemouth have both also breached FFP in order to try and win promotion, but have stayed up and can therefore meet their fines with Premier League money - Bournemouth paid their smaller one under the new rules, Leicester are contesting their one under the old rules. Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday are currently gambling in a similar way. Blackburn and Forest did previously, didn’t win promotion and were subsequently placed under transfer embargoes.
Obviously £58m is an unworkable and disproportionate fine. The rules have since been relaxed and changed, so clubs cannot now lose more than £39m over three seasons, and if they do the fines are less punitive. But QPR breached the old rules. While it would make sense to apply the new rules retrospectively, to do so would invite action from Forest and Blackburn who were also embargoed under the old set up. Blackburn, in particular, went from a team with Tom Cairney, Rudy Gestede and Jordan Rhodes up front to the shambles we saw relegated last season.
QPR will appeal through the courts on the grounds of proportionality. Simply put, you cannot legally impose fines on a business that threaten the existence of the business itself. So you can fine HSBC £1.4bn because it can afford it, but you can’t fine the local Spar Shop the same amount for the same offence because that would put the business under. A fine of £58m for a business of QPR’s current turnover, the club will argue, is disproportionate. The league themselves probably don’t want to enforce it, but at the same time need to protect themselves against action from other clubs punished under the rules, while maintaining its position as a lawmaker for its own competitions.
It is, in short, a right mess.
I was taken by this quote from friend of the site Shaun Harvey, the league’s somewhat hapless CEO who’s previously overseen the descent into administration of both Bradford City and Leeds United, today. Harvey said: “This decision vindicates the approach of the EFL board in defending this challenge. The board will continue to enforce our rules on clubs to protect the interests of those that do comply.”
Now that raises a philosophical question for me, easily dismissed as an embittered QPR fan moaning because we’ve fucked up, which absolutely isn’t the case as I’ll come to shortly. Ours was a flagrant, deliberate, breach of the rules of the league. It wouldn’t be fair if one team suddenly got to treat every corner they were awarded as a penalty, and nor is it fair that the whole league has abide by one financial limit but once club decides that’s not really for them.
But what is financial fair play for? What are we trying to achieve here?
Is it to make the competitions fairer? To stop the financial doping of certain clubs at the expense of others? Well, clearly, no it’s not. Is it Chelsea, with their laundered Russian oil money, and their 40 players out on loan, and their trophy-laden youth team that never has a hope of playing any first team football at all and exists purely so other clubs can’t have them, that breach FFP? Is it Manchester City, and their construction of football’s equivalent of the Death Star in a derelict bit of East Manchester, sucking in players from all over the world with no intention of ever playing them just so other teams can’t have them, financed by a repressive Arab regime? Is it PSG, another front for a politically abhorrent Middle Eastern gazillionaire, buying players for £198m a time? No it’s not.
The teams that breach FFP and get rinsed for it are QPR, Blackburn, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, Bournemouth. Little clubs, middle of the road clubs, trying to better themselves. It doesn’t make the competition fairer it makes it more unequal. The teams with the Champions League football, the shirt sales, the Johnny Come Lately supporters and the oil money are rewarded and become more powerful, to the detriment of the national team and everybody else. Anybody who even attempts to compete a little bit, or even to get up and play in the same league as them, is hammered.
So, is it to protect the clubs from themselves? Stopping some rich idiot coming in, splashing cash on players, failing, leaving the club to collapse into administration? Officially, yes. The Football League are jolly pleased that a spate of clubs collapsing into administration, of which Harvey was CEO at two, has abated and point to that as success. But how is fining a member club that’s actually got its house in order and started to behave properly £40m+ safeguarding its future? What’s more dangerous to QPR? A rich foreign bloke chucking a load of money at it, failing, writing that debt off in whole; or a league turning up when the club is doing the right thing but skint and demanding £40m? Does this fine, if successfully levied, mean that QPR will now breach the current FFP rules they’ve worked so hard to comply with?
What’s a bigger threat to a club, doing what Tony Fernandes has done at QPR, or what the Oystons have done with Blackpool, or the Venky’s at Blackburn, or Sisu at Coventry? If you’re genuinely interested in safeguarding clubs, in protecting them from themselves, how can you sit idly by while that stuff is going on? Have a functional Fit and Proper Person Test, and have a rule that says owners are not allowed to leverage debt against the club if their spending spree all goes to shit, and that’s a safeguard.
We’ve all got our own hate figures from that period in our club’s history, and they’ve all played a part in this.
Mark Hughes. Mr “This Will Never Happen Again While I’m Here”. Who left Fulham, a secure and over-achieving Premier League club because they “didn’t match his ambition”, subsequently turned down Aston Villa because he thought he was in with a shout of the Chelsea job, and then waltzed into Loftus Road like we should be grateful to have him. “He interviewed us as much as we interviewed him” the utterly mindblowing, infamous comment from the club’s owners at the time.
His appointment, the ousting of Warnock, the destruction of the team Warnock had built and won promotion with, the sheer arrogance of what followed was the start of all this. QPR, everybody’s second favourite club, suddenly chucking cash around and giving it the Bertie Big Potatoes routine. Dumping, and that’s what it was, the perfectly adequate, promotion winning goalkeeper they had on less than £20,000 a week, replacing him with one who wasn’t as good on north of £50,000 a week, and then a fortnight later casting him aside because an even bigger name, a Brazilian World Cup keeper no less, had become available for £100,000 a week rather summed it up. Taking your spend on goalkeeping from £25,000 a week to north of £150,000 a week in the space of a month without improving the quality of your goalkeeping. That’s really something. Giving Hughes carte blanche to stock the club with his mates (Mike Rigg front and centre) and scrape together whatever toads his “special advisor” Kia Joorabchian had festering on his client log.
That is where this began. It saddled the club with an awful squad it couldn’t possibly afford, it condemned it to a certain relegation, it changed the image and the fabric of the club for the worst, it alienated it from its most loyal supporters, it drove an enormous wedge between those in the stands in those on the pitch, it tore the soul out of the place.
Appointing Harry Redknapp as a survival specialist to try and salvage the situation was a decent idea. Keeping him on for a Championship season when it failed was not. A lazier, more disinterested effort in managing a team you will never see. I found it remarkable when Redknapp dipped back down to this level with Birmingham last year, as he was so unashamedly and openly bored of it when he was in it with us. Predictable results at St Andrews, and indeed at Loftus Road where the scouting of opposition teams was so non-existent even a team with QPR’s resources that season regularly needed a double half time substitution to get it into the shape it should have been beforehand.
Redknapp, who left pre-season training and other such trivialities to Steve McClaren, set about the original sledgehammer and nut situation in typical fashion. QPR added Charlie Austin to a squad that already had two strikers – Andy Johnson and Bobby Zamora – on north of £50,000 a week. When Austin got injured (for six weeks, dislocated shoulder) in January, Redknapp was allowed to sign not one, not two, but three more Premier League strikers to cover him – Kevin Doyle was moderately useful, Will Keane was too much too soon and not very good as it turned out, Mobido Maiga was absolute fucking dog chocolate. Oguchi Onyewu, a defender with 69 USA caps, was recruited to sit on the bench as cover and not make a single first team appearance – as if Max Ehmer couldn’t have done that. Javier Chevanton, 22 caps for Uruguary, likewise. Yossi Benayoun, recently a Champions League player, came in for some reason.
For the play-off final at Wembley QPR had the likes of Andy Johnson, Benoit Assou Ekotto, Tom Carroll, Ravel Morrison, Keane, Maiga, Jermaine Jenas, Benayoun and Shaun Wright-Phillips contracted, salaried, and not even in the matchday squad. Just imagine the money that represented. In all, 39 senior players made a first team appearance for QPR in the season that this punishment relates to.
Redknapp said he was “thinking about what golf club he’d get a membership at” when it looked like Rangers were going to lose regardless, then kindly did us the honour of staying on after all for the Premier League. Again, a mistake, he should have gone there and then. Instead a final chance of establishing ourselves at the top table was comprehensively blown, due in no small part to his disgusting attitude to the away matches. That condemned us to what now looks to be a permanent return to the second tier, and probably a stint in the one below that, and crucially back into the jurisdiction of the Football League.
Phillip Beard, the CEO during all of this, is also worthy of mention. An executive of any sort of worth allowing his business to spend £80m on wages on a turnover of less than half that. If only for the current incumbent back then – look what Burnley have done, to their team, to their club, to their bank balance, given the same opportunity we had. If only we’d had Lee Hoos back then. QPR have missed the opportunity to establish themselves at the top, invest in the infrastructure of the club, set everything up for the next generation not once but twice. The club have nothing to show for enormous outlay, all the money earnt by the club under Neil Warnock, Amit Bhatia and Ishan Saksena has gone and we have nothing left. We’re in a far worse state now, and it’s all gone. And it was all on his watch.
But this is Tony Fernandes’ boat, and captain must go down with his ship. The idea of a naïve foreign owner listening to the advice of industry experts like Hughes and Redknapp and getting his fingers burned may or may not carry water. The idea that he backed his managers like no other owner would and was punished for it, likewise. But let us not pretend that this isn’t what Fernandes wanted. When QPR signed Ji Sung Park, whose legs had gone, they paraded the signing in front of Asian journalists at a press conference at the top of the Millbank Tower, everybody in an Air Asia hat.
Fernandes, and Tune, wanted a Premier League football club for the kudos and marketing potential it gave their business in Asia. They wanted the big names, the transfer deadline day trolley dash, the red Air Asia baseball caps on TV, the QPR liveried plane. They wanted Park, and Barton, and Bosingwa, and Granero, and Cesar. They wanted them all, they wanted to show off. Hughes, Redknapp, Beard, these are chancers who took more than fair advantage of the situation. All three should be remembered and reviled for their role in this. Next person who says “at least Redknapp won us a promotion” needs to get in the fucking sea. But they were fulfilling the remit given to them.
It was Fernandes’, and Tune’s, strategy, and always has been. We were all excited and swept up in it at the time, so it's easy for us to say with hindsight, easy for us to say when it's not our money on the line. So far, through loan write offs, Fernandes and his investors have absolutely carried the can and credit to them for that. If this legal process does eventually end with a fine north of £40m, then they must pay it. Not the club. Not in the form of a loan or debt. Just pay it.
The buck stops with them, and so should the fine.
The Twitter @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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