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Neither a borrower nor a lender be

As Shakespeare's LORD POLONIUS advises us in Hamlet:
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry"

‘Bubbles, borrowers and lenders'. Where do the regulators and our government stand in all of this gloom and doom? Our PM Gordon is spreading the word that this recession is nothing to do with him and that it was just a case of ‘I just happened to be standing in the wrong spot when the s**t hit the fan'. But is that right? Surely, there is a responsibility angle here. It happened on his watch.  Can Gordon just plead he wasn't responsible, and that it's an international problem? Surely governments have the responsibility to set up and monitor regulators who in turn are there to protect the consumer. Is it OK to let people borrow to the max one moment, and then let us in on their little secret that we, our children and our children's children will spend the rest of their lives paying for the mistake of not taking the responsibility to monitor mountainous levels of debt? 

There will be few people in football that shed a tear at the decision to dock Southampton Football Club (SFC) ten points for its failure to balance its books. Just as there were few tears shed about Lehman's - all bankers are greedy, so it serves them right. Right? 

"Rules are rules, you broke 'em." "If you can't do the time, you shouldn't have done the crime." Both well-worn yet applicable phrases and it's hard to disagree with either. But maybe, just maybe, it's the rules - or rather the failure of the application of these rules - that is wrong. 

Many of you know that I am involved with FRSGlobal who develop systems to maintain the ‘rules' that regulators and financial institutions use to understand whether they are being too greedy or not by taking too big a gamble with other people's money. Plus, I am a fanatical SFC supporter and have been all my life. Is there any connection between the two apart from the fact that 2009 has been a pretty rotten year so far? I think there is, let me tell you why. 

The first question one needs to ask is about the rules themselves. Are the rules bent or inadequately applied? In terms of SFC the rules appear to be so far out of whack as to be rendered totally and utterly without merit. With regard to financial regulators it's not the rules that were wrong but whether anyone bothered to apply them. 

The idea of penalising football clubs that exceed their credit limits and fall foul of administration might seem like a recipe for enforcing prudence. Only, it's 2009. Debt has been encouraged for the last ten years. The Taylor report insisted on a change to modernise all seated stadia. But it didn't tell the clubs how they were going to pay for it. Plus, very few clubs have been able to live within their means since the European Court of Justice's decision (Bosman) 14 years ago, which heralded the rise of the superstar footballer replete with his superstar salary. 

First to the sacrificial altar was Leeds United. But what was their real crime? Ambition. 

A desire to compete with the ruling elite - the big four: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and of course Manchester United - saw them plunged into financial meltdown when the on-pitch results ceased to matter as much as the off-field ones. It was a wake-up call. But, as usual, football's governors, or should we say regulators, slept right through it. 

What was their solution?  Blind acceptance that a Russian oligarch was good for business and that any amount of funding from wealthy foreign ownership was preferable to the alternative - football clubs trying to live within the economic uncertainties of the day. The truth is that without heaps of leveraged debt or the enormous pockets of some far-flung 'industrialist' or entrepreneur, football clubs cannot compete fairly in a model based on prudence. 

Wasn't the original aim of the League's rules to deter football clubs from competing unfairly? Isn't that the level playing field that professional sports in the States seeks by limiting the amount of money paid to superstars, and by introducing draft picks and spreading the revenues from TV across all clubs not just the wealthy few? 

The most successful football club in Britain is also its most in debt. I read recently that later this year Manchester United will have to pay £75million simply to service their borrowing. It makes Saints' (SFC) modest debt of £4million seem almost inconsequential, doesn't it? That the debt in question at Manchester is ascribed to the Glazers and their business empire somehow makes it OK. Just as the enormous debt that Chelsea really owes Roman Abramovic is OK. Just as the collateral used to raise the finance to buy Liverpool is OK. That West Ham's parent company finds itself in administration is also OK.  Mind you, where they're concerned anything goes, eh Carlos (Tevez)? 

So what are the alternatives? Find a wealthy backer, or give up hope of competing. Not quite the same as working for the good of all its members - which is what a league of gentlemen used to mean. But then, the Football League ceased to be gentlemen years ago, as their disgusting treatment of the fans of Luton Town shows only too well. Let those who committed the crime walk free (the Directors of the club), but serve a sentence on the innocent (the football supporter).  Fairness and equity are alien concepts of a bygone era, it would seem. 

Seems a lot like Gordon's message doesn't it? Don't like the medicine? Well it's your fault not mine, I just happened to be in charge. Gordon can let Sir Fred walk free but we have to pay. 

Today it's the turn of Southampton Football Club. Tomorrow it will be another provincial club. When will the league (regulator) help rather than penalise? When will those who run the league take a look at its membership and step in not to penalise, but to make things right? When will the Football League start to address the massive imbalance in wealth distribution that makes wealthy ownership of a medium-sized football club the only possible solution to survival? Clubs forced or encouraged to invest in modern stadia - Leicester, Coventry, Derby - and deprived of the media income on which they relied, are struggling. We are all struggling.

What should we do? Pay the players less and we'll be relegated. Charge the fans more and they'll stop coming. Emigrate? 

Tragedy? Not really. Avoidable, you bet. 

Proper regulation is not about penalising the few but providing oversight that prevents bubbles happening. 

Oh and when Gordon decides that he isn't superman and can lead the world out of financial recession, and starts to address the problem of boom and bust properly which is why we elected his party, maybe we can get back to a world where we are not just measured in terms of the amount of debt we have and can actually watch a football match where two sides are evenly matched and not one dominated by four clubs. 


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