Playing the Game
There has been criticism for some time that today professional football is run as a business; winning is everything because it brings in the money. If that means boring or aggressive behaviour on the field, that’s hard luck on the punters who have paid to come and watch. No longer do butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, because of a real interest in the game, use some of their accumulated profits to support the local team with no expectation other than that they should do well. Apart from a few exceptions like Elton John who still funds Watford and looks for no financial return, those who now invest in football clubs do so for profit. If a club is successful, with regular gates in excess of 25,000, there is money to be made. Obviously there is only room for a few at the top and with talks of a Super League the atmosphere might get even more rarefied.
Then a new way of making profit was discovered. Crystal Palace sold part of one of their terraces as a site for a supermarket. Although, after hostile publicity, they “consulted” their fans and decided not to go ahead with a suggested merger with Wimbledon. they are also getting rent from Charlton FC whose fans were not consulted on the move from the Valley, and many of whom consequently voted with their feet. After all, shareholders expect to make a profit; players’ and staff wages and running costs have to be paid. Television and changing lifestyles mean the days of mass attendances at all but a few clubs are gone. According to the March 1987 issue of the consumer magazine Which attendances have dropped from 33.6 million in 1957 to 16.5 million in 1987.
Recently there has been a well publicised, much more cynical effort to milk the game. Third Division Fulham were in a bad way in May 1986. Its chairman. Ernie Clay had sold the club’s movable assets – its players. He also agreed with Kilroe, a property development company, that part of the ground should be used for building luxury flats with a guarantee that football would continue on the ground. Still £6 million in debt, he sold the club and ground as a going concern to another property developer Marler Estates, whose David Bulstrode became chairman of the club.
Shortly after taking over Bulstrode assured a meeting of supporters that Fulham would remain at Craven Cottage for two or three years although his company did intend to build a new stadium and eventually develop the ground. By assuring the local council of this, he persuaded them to refuse permission for the Kilroe partial development, the obligation for which Marler had taken over in the deal.
There can’t be many people who don’t know what happened next – a sudden announcement, only weeks after that undertaking, that Fulham were to be killed off in a merger with another local club. Queens Park Rangers, whom Marler had just bought. Presumably QPR’s ground is not at present suitable for development although the BBC are due to build new offices nearby – perhaps then a hypermarket will seem more profitable on the site than a First Division football club! The Fulham ground at Craven Cottage would be completely built over in a luxury development.
But even property development whizzkids are not infallible. Bulstrode had overlooked two things. The first is the peculiar affection in which Fulham – that unfashionable and not particularly successful club – is held, even by many who have never been there. The second is that, if changes are to be made in Football League structure, they must be agreed by the League management – in effect chairmen of the major clubs, who have their own axes to grind.
The Players’ Union saw the proposals as the thin edge of the wedge, throwing players out of work. So the League, the FA. and the Players’ Union lined up with irate supporters of both clubs. Here was a story good for the media; not many could resist the banner headline FULHAM SOLD DOWN THE RIVER. Apart from demonstrations a protest meeting was called at Hammersmith Town Hall. The deputy leader of the Labour Party thought it a good platform on which to join the local MP Nick Rainsford and various football notables. Nevertheless, apart from the local council’s promised refusal to grant planning permission for the development, Marler still thought they’d get away with the basics of their plan and prepared to ride out the storm.
But then, to defend himself against accusation of a sudden sell-out. Jim Gregory the present chairman of Queens Park Rangers stated he had been negotiating with Marler since September 1986. This threw an entirely new light on the matter. Not only was Bulstrode clearly shown to have lied both to the council and to supporters, but his co-director at Fulham, Robert Noonan, as well as the chairman of Walsall FC Terry Ramsden, had in the past few weeks considerably increased their share-holding in Marler. Marler’s share price rose dramatically on the announcement. But insider dealing is the current dirty word, signifying the unacceptable face of capitalism. Previously unmoved Tory MPs suddenly expressed concern for their image and the silence of Sports Minister, Dick Tracey even worried his colleague David Mellor. Suddenly Bulstrode began negotiating, his only expressed condition is that the buying consortium must be genuinely interested in football and guarantee the continuation of the club. But quite clearly they’re all playing a quite different game to football.