We’re not really here
The ruling in the Everton case doesn’t mean the Premier League is corrupt, but by adding to the sense that what we see is not what we get it provides further proof that it is unfit to regulate.
Manchester City facing 115 charges of financial irregularity, Chelsea facing an investigation into suspicions of financial irregularities, Everton deducted 10 points for financial irregularities – who can now argue that governance and regulation issues aren’t engaging football fans? But the 10 points the Toffees have lost are not the only ones being missed.
Much of the response to each of those cases has been a predictable mix of whataboutery and partisanship. There are many positions being taken without the consequences being thought through. And behind it all is a growing disillusion with the game as it seems we are watching the slow rollout of a form of financial VAR in which everything we think we have seen is checked and revealed to be not what we thought.
If the Premier League took the action it did against Everton to show that, really, it can regulate itself, it has succeeded only in underlining rather than undermining the case for an independent regulator. But there are tough questions fans must confront too.
Much of the reaction to Everton’s punishment made the mistake of treating the case as the same as the ones facing Manchester City and Chelsea. The important difference was that Everton admitted a breach of financial rules, while Manchester City and Chelsea are still under investigation.
What did Everton do wrong? The full wording of the ruling against Everton has been published on the Premier League’s website. In brief, the club made a large number of foolish financial decisions which led to a breach of the Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR), and also deployed some questionable, and changing, assumptions about the definition of particular spends under accounting rules.
The accusation, deployed on a huge scale by enraged Everton fans, that the decision means the Premier League is “corrupt” is not only incorrect, it is unhelpful to the wider argument for proper regulation. Everton breached a rule – the club has admitted it. The Premier League has established that is the case and imposed a punishment. Acting to enforce rules that have been agreed by everyone is exactly what those calling for reform want the Premier League to do. So arguing that when it does so it is “corrupt” doesn’t help the argument for reform.
It may be possible to argue the punishment is disproportionate, as the club has. Everton fans may have been better advised to take that tack. The 10-point deduction is the biggest imposed by the Premier League, and has been levied because Everton overspent by £19.5m in the 2021/22 season. To assess the proportionality of the punishment, consider this list:
• Coventry City were docked 10 points at the beginning of the 2013/14 season because the club was about to go into administration.
• Bury were docked 12 points in 2019 for insolvency. The club subsequently went out of business.
• Wigan were docked 12 points as a result of entering administration during the 2019/20 season.
• Derby County had 21 points deducted in 2021/22 for breaching financial rules.
• Luton Town were docked 30 points in 2008/09 for multiple financial irregularities.
None of those punishments were imposed by the Premier League, but it is useful to see them as context to provide some kind of benchmark. On that basis, it may be possible to argue that fewer than 10 points should have been deducted. The Premier League is reported to have “unpublished guidelines” that specify a six-point penalty, plus one for every £5m above the permitted overspend limit. Again, it is possible to argue that the calculation of the penalty tariff is flawed or unfair. But, given the details of the Everton case, it is also perfectly possible to argue the punishment is in line with those imposed elsewhere in the game.
If you want the detail, Swiss Ramble has produced a forensic breakdown of the financial mess Everton got themselves into. This detail includes some information that needs to be borne in mind when citing Everton’s good intent in admitting transgressions. The Commission that decided on the penalty makes reference to material being supplied by the club being “materially inaccurate” and says the club was “less than frank” with some of the information given.
It's important to specify that the club is not accused of being dishonest, more that the quality of decision-making was not what it should have been. That observation can be applied to the decisions made by the club over quite some period. And yes, it was the club’s decision to ‘fess up, but could this have been prompted by a worry that all this would come out during the sale process currently in play? What’s for certain is that fans who were once justifiably demonstrating against the poor decision-making of their board have now turned their attention elsewhere.
It cannot be seriously argued that Everton did nothing wrong. And the club itself isn’t arguing that. The sound and fury seems to be about the comparative severity of the fine.
The case does not prove the Premier League – which we need to remember is not a separate body but a company composed of 20 member clubs – is corrupt, but what does need to be questioned is its ability to act as a regulator. Of the three cases currently under investigation, information on one (Manchester City) has been uncovered by a computer hack, one (Chelsea) from a newspaper investigation and one (Everton) from the club itself. A case of Inspector Haven’taclouseau, maybe, but further proof surely that letting 20 clubs regulate themselves is not going to end well.
Now the Premier League has acted, it has created more problems. Establishing a tariff of a 10-point deduction per violation means that if Manchester City are found guilty of all 115 violations the club will be deducted 1,150 points. That is extremely unlikely to happen, but if it doesn’t those cries of corruption will only get louder.
Imposing a points deduction for offences that occurred in another season also raises tricky questions over competitive balance. Then there’s the not inconsequential matter of the potential for Leeds United, Southampton, Leicester City, Burnley and Nottingham Forest to seek compensation from both Everton and the Premier League. Leading sports lawyer Nick DeMarco has drawn attention to a ruling by David Philips KC finding those clubs may, in principle, have a case.
What all this provides ample evidence of is a broken system that cannot and should not be regulated by a body controlled by the 20 bodies that are to be regulated. Let’s remember that good regulation should not be primarily about catching and punishing offenders but about establishing a framework in which transgressions are much less likely to happen.
But what of the fans in all this? I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument that points deductions punish the fans, who will stick with their club through thick and thin, more than they punish the owners who are temporary – and also stand to make any financial gain. But I also have sympathy with the fans whose clubs are negatively affected by other clubs breaking the rules. And it’s difficult to have any sympathy at all with fans who have welcomed owners and money with open arms and no questions asked when it looks as if they would be propelled to the top, only to protest loudly when things don’t turn out like that.
This isn’t a partisan point. Unfortunately I think most fans of most clubs, including mine, would welcome the worst of humanity if they thought it would win them trophies. A few would object, but they would be drowned out and abused as ‘not real fans’. And journalists asking questions would be targeted. It’s true we don’t get to choose who owns our clubs, but we don’t have to roll out the red carpet or do their dirty work for them.
The sad fact is that the lack of effective regulation has created a situation in which clubs are used as pawns in bigger games, unsustainable business practices are incentivised, too many fans have lost sight of what our game could and should be, and where two of the four most successful clubs in the history of The Best Football League In The World are suspected of achieving that success unfairly.
Could it be, to coin a phrase, that we’re not really here? The sense that the playing field is not as level as it should be, that outcomes are decided not by what we see but by what those running our game and our clubs would prefer we were unaware of is fuelling disillusion and stoking anger.
An independent regulator with proper powers is the only solution to English football’s troubles.
Attacks on journalists for saying what people would prefer they didn’t are nothing new. But recent years have seen a growth in football journalists being monstered for daring to be critical of elements of the game that should concern everyone who really cares about it.
Some of that is a product of a social media age which encourages the ramping up of controversy and unpleasantness. But too many fans seem to think supporting their club means uncritically supporting the people who run it, and that trying to silence critics is a legitimate expression of support.
Fans of Manchester City and Newcastle United have been among the worst offenders in recent years, but I’m not naïve enough to think that any set of fans would be different in similar circumstances.
In some cases, threats and personal details have been posted online. Massive pile ons have been organised, the effect of which you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve been on the end of one. I’ve seen a leading member of a fan organisation who should know better openly wishing one journalist critical of his club loses his job, and other fans urge their club to ‘financially ruin’ the same writer.
It has to stop. Fans should think more of themselves than to allow rich owners, oligarchs and nation states to use them as agents of sportswashing. More need to join the dots between the issues they don’t like within the game and the people wielding the power. More need to realise that being a fan doesn’t require signing up to the principle of ‘my club, right or wrong’.
A final roundup of recommended football reads on Substack. I’ve already mentioned Swiss Ramble’s unrivalled financial analysis, but also check out Ian King’s Unexpected Delirium, Tony Evans’ Political Football, and Chris Nee’s High Protein Beef Paste.