Examination of Witnesses

Football Governance Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 14 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Ian Mather and Sharon Brittan gave evidence.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

Q We will now hear from Ian Mather, the director of Cambridge United football club, and Sharon Brittan, the chair of Bolton Wanderers football club. We have until 3 pm for this session. Will the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?

Ian Mather:

Hello. I am Ian Mather, and I am the director of Cambridge United. I was on the board in 2018, and prior to that I was a solicitor in private practice for 35 years. In that time, I spent a period doing insolvency work, which was good training for looking at football. I became chief exec in 2019 on an interim basis while we did the change of ownership, and we moved from 705 owners to one. That was meant to last for a season but then covid hit. I stayed for another season, and then we got promoted, so I stayed for another one. I have a good insight into how the world of football works and the economics of football.

Sharon Brittan:

Good afternoon, everyone. I am Sharon Brittan, the chairwoman of Bolton Wanderers football club. I came into football five years ago, having only been in the game from the perspective of being a fan of Burnley football club all my life. I had not worked in football before. Prior to that, I worked in industry, which I still do alongside football.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q Thank you, both, and good afternoon. Do you believe it costs more to remain competitive in League One this season compared with previous seasons, and if so, by how much? What are the reasons behind that, and what are the long-term effects that they might have on your club?

Ian Mather:

I can give you a real-time answer to that. We are currently at the point in the season where contracts come to an end and we renegotiate new contracts with players. Without giving you the names of individuals, the pressure is on for a 30% pay increase for players who have been under contract for two years. That is a sense of entitlement. Where is that coming from? It comes from the level of money in the football league above us, which has a wash-down effect.

I will specifically address the point of parachute payments: if you pump £100 million into the top of the pipe, that is bound to start appearing at the bottom. Therefore, the pressure on us, as a League One club, is ratcheting up each season. We were in League Two in 2019-20, and every year since we got promoted, the owners are being asked to pay more money. We have a brilliant lead owner, Paul Barry, who is absolutely Cambridge United through and through. He went to Seattle and made money through a business, but he loves Cambridge and will be there any time he can be. His mum and his brothers are season ticket holders, and he supports the foundation in Cambridge.

As Cambridge United, we are in one of the poorest parts of Cambridge. If you follow the inequality of the UK, the Gini coefficient says that Cambridge is the most unequal city in the country. We are in the poor bit, and our owner really wants to do what he can to help that community, and we do loads. However, the effect of consistently having to put more money into the hopper to have any hope of staying in League One—and then staying in League Two—is just more and more pressure. The risk is that it affects the owner model, which is broken. If our wonderful owner were to move on, which is unlikely—it is more likely that his heart gives out under the pressure—who will replace him? In 2019, 2018, we were looking at alternative buyers for the football club, because Paul was not sure at that stage if he could commit the whole lot; I would describe them largely as tyre kickers and property speculators, and we had had enough of those.

The club went into administration in 2005 because it was badly run, but a lot of people out there are interested in owning football clubs for the wrong reasons. We have an owner who really wants to own it for the right reasons, but increasingly revenue does not equal cost, and that gets bigger and bigger and bigger each year. On your point, if that carries on, eventually it is our owner or some other good owners who will say, “I cannot do it any more.” We then populate our football world with owners who are not motivated in that way.

Sharon Brittan:

Can I give you a bit of preamble before I answer your question, if that is all right? I came into football five years ago for two reasons: one, because I love the game, and two, because I wanted a platform to do good. Having worked in industry, I wanted to come into football and run a football club the way that I work in business, which is by having the right people in the right way doing an honest, transparent job and coming together as a team and about the impact that that would have on the community.

I cannot explain the pitiful situation that I walked into at Bolton Wanderers in 2019. The previous owner had left the club—I cannot even say on its knees, because it was beyond that. There were staff and people in the community who had not been paid and were eating from food banks. People had not paid their mortgages or their rent. Their mental health and wellbeing, which I do a lot of work in, were beyond catastrophic. I have seen at first hand the impact of having the wrong owners at football clubs and the effect that that has on the community. I have worked with Rick Parry over the last five years, and I cannot stress enough that the owners’ fit and proper persons test must be stringent.

Football in the UK changes people’s lives. We have the ability, as owners of these football clubs, to make change, give people hope and help them. More so than ever now, even since I came into the football club, people have very difficult lives, and it is about not just money and what we must pay in League One as the salaries, but the impact that the whole football pyramid has. That is why the financial distribution must be fair to give us as owners the opportunity to continue the work that we are doing. I still go into Bolton on a Saturday afternoon and have grown men crying to me, “You saved our football club. God, my family and you are up there with what you have done.” It is not just for the 300,000 people in Bolton: there is a wider impact than that. As good owners, a good owner will work with another good owner to ensure that that extends out further.

I am sorry that I am outspoken, but I work in an honest, transparent way with a good, clean heart, and people need to do the right things. This is a pyramid. It is not just the Premier League: it is the Premier League, the EFL and the National League. It is a travesty that it has got to the stage where all you very important, hard-working people must be involved and spend your time dealing with this when the football authorities have been unable to resolve it themselves. I am sorry to go on, but I have been at the heart of it for five years, and I am passionate about where this is going. The pressure has got higher and higher and higher in terms of what we must spend to remain sustainable.

Bolton is a big club, but I love sporting jeopardy; I think it is brilliant. I think the pyramid is absolutely brilliant. The promotion and relegation all add to the excitement, but the financial distribution will make a difference to every single club, regardless of its size. We have to seriously consider this if we get promoted on Saturday. I am a custodian of the football club—that is clear. This football club is owned by the fans, and to keep fans happy is a full-time job. I have to trust the fans—I work with them, I am there day to day, on the ground, with the fans on a Saturday afternoon. I also think that British owners understand English football—I was brought up in English football from zero to now—but we are losing that as well. That is another conversation, but we are losing that as well. But yes, it does cost more and more.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q I have one more question, but first a brief supplementary. Thanks for both your answers, but given the experience in Bolton in the past five years that you outlined —I think you used the phrase “dire circumstances”—what more could the Bill do to support your club in those circumstances?

Sharon Brittan:

All I would like the Bill to do is to bring in—it is just about doing the right thing. It is not even complex. That is what baffles me; it is actually relatively simple to do the right thing. Let me give a brief example: I have five original investors in Bolton Wanderers, who have bought into this journey and have done incredible things, supporting me as the chairman all the way. If we get promoted this Saturday, if we get into the Championship, everyone—our fans—will say, “It’s incredible, marvellous, wonderful—just fabulous!” and we will move into a world where it is not a competition any more. How can we compete with the clubs that have come down from the Premier League and have the Championship payments?

I am hugely respectful of money. I would have to go back to our investors to say, “We need £20 million a season to try to be competitive”—but we would not really be competitive. If you look back over the past six years, the chances are that you will see that the three that have come down, because they have the parachute payments, go straight back up. I want to go higher up the pyramid; the higher up the pyramid I go, the more good I can do for this country, the more impact I can have and the more I can help people who are less fortunate and who need help.

For me, the question is: do I get to the Championship? I have to be responsible to my investors. I have to be responsible to the fans who, if we are not competitive, will not be happy. When I moved to Bolton, the fanbase was finished, it was over, and now we get 25,000 coming to the home games, so you can see the impact of running a club properly and where that gets you to. But my dilemma is, do we continue in the Championship when we know that it will cost us £20 million a year? That £20 million a year could be put to doing other, really good things. I have to be a responsible human being and decide, “Do we want to remain there? Do we want to take that risk?” but it is impossible to take that next step.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

With respect, we have many questions, so may we have brief answers?

Ian Mather:

I have a very short response: we need better financial distribution, and rules that bite to stop money being wasted through the game, so real-time regulation.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Ceidwadwyr, Bolton West

Sharon, as the local Member of Parliament representing Bolton Wanderers, I just want to say that the transformation for local communities has been absolutely phenomenalQ —

Sharon Brittan:

How delightful to have you here to endorse what I am saying!

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Ceidwadwyr, Bolton West

I have some sense of this already, but does the Bill go far enough to empower the regulator in the distribution of funds?

Sharon Brittan:

As things stand, the EFL would like to have some areas of the Bill looked at. I will not go into the detail, but I have a request. To me, Rick Parry, with what he has done over the past five years, is a man who has led an organisation in the right way. I am sorry, but I do not think that the Premier League have done the same. I would say that to them—anything I say, I will say to the person’s face; I do not talk behind people’s back and I do not gossip. Rick Parry has done a superb job. I have read through the Bill and we have talked through the areas where he thinks that the Bill needs to be amended. It is important that those areas are understood and agreed, and the amendments made. At the moment, the Premier League are not working with us, so if, after going to all this effort to get the Bill, we do not get the Bill quite right, it will cause further problems. I would like to see a Bill go through that is absolutely effective, so we can all move forward in a really excited way with our football pyramid. Football is global, and there is so much good we can do for this country, for the world.

Ian Mather:

This Bill is really good in many ways. A lot of work has gone into it, and it is a thoughtful Bill, but there are flaws. One of the flaws, to answer your point, is the inability of the regulator to act if he or she sees that something is happening that makes football not sustainable. We are going to have the state of the game review, which definitely needs to be done quickly. Let us say that the state of the game review says that parachute payments, to pick an obvious one, are bad for the game. At the moment, it requires the EFL or the Premier League to trigger the backstop powers. You might say that the EFL would definitely do that, but actually, with the voting structure in the EFL, it might not. There are powers within the Premier League to coerce and influence clubs in the EFL so that that backstop might not be triggered. Why create a power for a regulator but not give the regulator the power to intervene if he or she definitely sees something is wrong? I think that is a fundamental flaw in the Bill.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Ceidwadwyr, Bolton West

Q This point will be brought to a head this coming Saturday. We do not know what the result will be—we can have our wishes—but most people on the outside will think going up a league is a phenomenal success that we should celebrate, whereas actually, it brings a bit of trauma, doesn’t it?

Sharon Brittan:

It absolutely brings trauma, for the reasons that I gave before. I have to behave as a responsible human being, and it is whether I can then go to my investors and say, “Would you like to commit £20 million a year?” The reality is that you will fail. I want to be progressive every season, because like I said, when we are progressive, that gives me a bigger platform to do good. In the Championship, however, because of the parachute payments, it makes it almost impossible.

Photo of Chris Green Chris Green Ceidwadwyr, Bolton West

Q When we think about good business, with you coming in with those cultures and values from a healthy business environment, and that culture shock when you come into football, this is the divide that the football regulator Bill ought to be bridging.

Sharon Brittan:

I completely agree. May I just say that in football, generally it can be a non-trusted environment? I have a football manager who has stayed with me four years and who has turned down three jobs in the Championship that would have given him three times his salary. I have a CEO who has stayed with me three and a half years. I have built a team of trusted people, because we are working in a culture where everybody has bought into the journey to where this football club is going. You can see that after five years, we are a differentiator in what we are doing in Bolton, and if more football clubs worked in that way, I am absolutely positive that it would enhance the economy and life for the 65 million people who live in this country, and beyond. I am on a mission.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

I want to focus on the point you just made. Obviously, Bolton had a terribly difficult time. If this Bill had been passed five or six years ago, would it have stopped Bolton getting into that mess, or is it that the financial distribution would still be needed to change the world in such a way?Q

Sharon Brittan:

It is a very good question. Football has—or has had—a habit of bringing semi-maniac types of people to the table. I think it is driven by ego. In those situations, it comes down to the fit and proper persons test. The previous owner at Bolton spent £180 million. He was a very good man, but a huge amount of that was spent trying to get out of the Championship. If you have someone who is hellbent and comes in just wanting to spend, I do not know if you can actually stop that, per se.

Ian Mather:

Can I come in on that point? I think real-time monitoring would have been really helpful with a lot of the problems we have seen with football; Bury was a really good example. You look back over time and you think, “Well, that wasn’t very good. In fact, it was terrible,” but that was years ago. Actually, the ability to look at what is happening in real time is really important.

I know one of the criticisms is that that will be an expensive item for small clubs. As a small club, our turnover is £7 million. Let me put that in perspective for you. We have a Man City supporter in the room; Erling Haaland earns about £7 million in eight weeks. That is equivalent to our turnover. Nothing in this Bill causes me any trouble at all about form filling or submitting accounts. If you want to see our accounts—they might be four weeks out of date, but that is as much as you are going to get—our cash flow forecasts, forecast profits and losses, which are done every month, or our business plan, that is not a problem. I would not buy the argument that this is all cumbersome and difficult, because it just is not. That sort of monitoring would have helped to prevent problems like Bolton, Derby, Bury and a whole lot of other clubs experienced..

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

Q You have described your situation at Cambridge, with an owner who is philanthropically putting a lot of money into your club. Where does a club go to if that suddenly stops?

Ian Mather:

That is a really great question, and one that would keep me awake at night. There would be lots of people who would want to come in and own Cambridge United. We get approaches all the time, and we just bat them off like flies, because none of them is particularly well motivated. When we last looked seriously, in 2018, there were a lot of poor owners. I know that some went on to other places, and I bet those clubs wished they had never seen them. Their interest was in property and profit, not in football.

Sharon Brittan:

People go into owning football clubs for the wrong reasons, which we discussed earlier. That is why you have to have people who go into owning these football clubs for the right reasons—people who understand that the responsibility that goes with these clubs is enormous. I invite any of you to come to Bolton Wanderers and see what we have created. The work that goes into it is non-stop, every day. If you cannot deal with stress, you should be nowhere near owning a football club.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Ceidwadwyr, Chatham and Aylesford

Sharon, your passion is obvious, and I am sure that if the Clerks could craft an amendment to the Bill to have you cloned, we would all support it. Ian, you sort of answered this question, but I will ask it again: there has been a lot of scaremongering about the impact of the Bill and some of the unintended consequences—the duplication and so on—but is there anything in the Bill that you fear? That question is to both of you.Q

Ian Mather:

The thing that I fear is that it does not work in key places. On the parachute payment clause, protecting that does not work. I know that Rick has made the point, but I would endorse it: we are not against the concept of parachute payments if they are right. I do not believe that they are right, but let’s have a state of the game review and find out whether they are right, or whether they are an impediment to fair competition in the football world as we want it. But do not then hamstring the regulator so that it cannot deal with that problem, if indeed it is a problem.

The problems here are few: they are about who can trigger it, the parachute payments and how often you do a review. Those are the key issues. It comes down to the money. The other bits in the Bill, such as those about protecting heritage, are really good. We were looking at introducing a golden share in Cambridge United to give fans protection against things such as stadium moves and so on, but the Bill probably makes those redundant.

Sharon Brittan:

Tracey, what you said about unintended consequences is really interesting. I have looked at the situation closely, and I like to look at both sides of the story, so we get a clear, honest picture from the Premier League side and the EFL side. I do not even understand unintended consequences; I cannot work out what he is referring to, unless I am missing something. I can understand the EFL’s argument, which is very clear and concise. From the Premier League’s point of view, I have so far not been presented with anything or read anything that has made me think, “What they are saying actually makes sense.” They have put together a very weak argument —I do not think there is an argument—and have conducted themselves poorly. I do not think they have presented themselves in the right way. They are arrogant. They think they are an island, on their own, sailing off and forgetting that 14 of the clubs in the Premier League have come from the EFL.

On how the pyramid works together, we loaned two players over the last two seasons. Both of them—James Trafford and Conor Bradley—went back to their respective football clubs, and they are absolutely flying in the Premier League and talking about their time at Bolton Wanderers. I could bring players to the table who will say to you that they have never worked in such a culture. People need to work in the right culture to bring out the best in them. There is enough stress in the world today.

On unintended consequences, I would love to sit down with Richard and for him to explain it to me because I do not understand it. They are just words, and there is no substance or arguments behind the words. I have not yet come across a cohesive argument to which I can say, “Actually, that’s a fair point.” I am not going to talk about the numbers—we all know the numbers. In my opinion, that this goes back to greed, envy, jealousy and thinking about me, myself and I. I cannot comprehend how someone can view this through that lens when we are a football pyramid, and what we do as custodians affects this country and beyond. We should be cherishing what we have here.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

You have spoken so eloquently. I am looking at this from the perspective of my local club Reading, which has had very serious problems with the current owner. The previous owner was absolutely wonderful in creating a positive Q culture. My question is: how do we find more owners with the right intentions and motivation, and help them to play a bigger role?

Sharon Brittan:

I completely agree with that. Even in the five years that I have been involved, I have seen better owners coming into the game because the EFL has changed the rules. You cannot having a bankrupt owning a football club, and you cannot have somebody who has been struck off; the rules are much more stringent. I do not want to talk about the numbers, and I do not like talking about them, but the problem we have is that in five years we have put a huge amount of money into the football club. Any sensible businessperson probably would not do that, because they would look at it and say that it does not make any financial sense.

Ian Mather:

In direct answer to your question, I would say that it is the numbers. If an owner can look at a football club and think, “Broadly, if I run that club properly and well, with the income I get from running a football club and the sustainability payments from the Premier League, I can roughly break even. I may want to be ambitious and build a new stadium here, or improve the training ground, but broadly I can balance the books.” If you cannot balance the books, or worse, the books get more unbalanced each year, you are reducing the pool of people who can buy into being a football owner.

Sharon Brittan:

I agree with Ian.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Q I think I have to ask this, given everything you have said in your very compelling evidence. How has Ipswich Town managed to do what you called the “near impossible”?

Sharon Brittan:

Isn’t it fabulous? That is what I love about football: the near impossible can happen.

Ian Mather:

I would also answer it by saying that a North American pension fund has provided—

Sharon Brittan:

I did not want to say that!

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Q You are saying that they had external investment that helped them to compete? Obviously, Luton has gone from League One to the Premier League, as has Brentford. What is the secret behind that? Is it the ownership money?

Sharon Brittan:

The Premier League has allowed 13 of our precious 20 football clubs to be owned by Americans. Lose one more and they make the vote. How has that been allowed to happen? The Premier League stops the FA cup replays without even consulting us. How has that been allowed to happen? The Premier League is not fit for purpose, in my humble opinion.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Q But the three clubs I mentioned—Brentford, Luton and Ipswich—is it simply about owners putting in enough money to be able to compete, and without it they cannot? Is that really what has happened?

Sharon Brittan:

If this Bill goes through, I would love to fast-forward three years and see where Bolton Wanderers are. Then, you guys can see where a football club gets to when it is run properly in the right way, with the right people doing the right job in an honest, transparent and reasonably sustainable way. There is money, and obviously that helps.

Ian Mather:

It is largely to do with money.

Sharon Brittan:

But that is their good fortune.

Ian Mather:

And Luton has come down again. You need money to drive success, and there is quite a clear correlation between league position and how much money you have, which explains why Cambridge United keep on cheating relegation. We are roughly around where we should be, and it is about the money.

Sharon Brittan:

I am looking to get longevity of success; I am not looking to bounce around the pyramid. To get longevity of success, you have to create a culture that people buy into, so that they stay on the journey with you. So far, it looks like we are delivering, but we will see. I think that there are so many unscrupulous things that happen in football. Let us try to prevent those things from happening so that we can enjoy the game and the jeopardy.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Q I wish you well—I think you said the Premier League in three years for Bolton? I think that was the target you set yourself there for people.

Sharon Brittan:

Please do not quote me as saying that! If we get rid of the parachute payments, that might be possible. Thank you—I am really appreciative.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Llafur, Ealing, Southall

Order. I am afraid that brings us to the end of the time allotted for the Committee to ask questions. I thank our witnesses on behalf of the Committee.