Football's Financial Fair Play investigated

IN West London and Munich, there was only one number that mattered.

IN West London and Munich, there was only one number that mattered. After all the ups and downs, the forks in the road and the false dawns, it has taken 67 years for Chelsea to ascend to the point of Champions of Europe.

In the North East we looked on with envy, perhaps secretly relieved that Newcastle had already fallen just short of the gold standard fourth place. But yearning, perhaps, for the sort of success that the Roman revolution has eventually delivered to a club that once travelled north for routine hidings.

The number 67 had greater significance than you would perhaps imagine, though. £67.7million was the loss recorded by the Blues in the last financial year – an eye-watering number that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in the corridors of power at Uefa's Swiss headquarters.

In the year that European football's governing body started counting for Financial Fair Play, England's two top prizes were scooped by Abramovich's plaything and a Manchester City that has been bolstered by £1billion of investment from the Middle East.

Chelsea claim that they are heading towards the break-even figure, but the financial records don't really tally. They cut the loss by just £3million in the last 12 months (it was £70million last year) but that barely covers the annual wages of the man who rolled home the winning penalty in Munich to defeat the Bundesliga's finest.

What a challenge to Uefa's commitment to financial fair play it is that the winners of their marquee tournament are one of the biggest examples that success can be bought. For that is the secret to Chelsea's Roman revolution – spend a rich benefactor's cash, pile debt upon debt while he continues to be entertained and watch the titles and accolades mount up.

Peering on enviously from the north, Newcastle and Sunderland will wonder whether it is worth the kind of re-modelling that is going on at our clubs.

It has been a few years now since either of the North East's big two managed to outbid Chelsea or Manchester City for a transfer target and it will probably be a great deal longer before they have the financial clout to compete with them off the field either.

While Mike Ashley has a substantial personal fortune, he has little desire to plunge it all into football. It is understandable and a huge part of the reason he has privately resolved to make the club self-sustainable. Publicly, one of the declared reasons for that is the Uefa financial fair play rules that should allow clubs like Newcastle and Sunderland – large in scale, support and reach but without a benefactor with access to oil reserves – to shave some of the advantage the sugar daddies have had.

But still, we wonder. Back on April 1 Alan Pardew voiced concerns that had already been given an airing by Arsene Wenger, who leads the one Champions League qualifier that would be certain of getting a licence to play European football next season.

Pardew said: "I saw a worrying report which said that the big clubs are beginning to manoeuvre around (financial fair play regulations) with commercial deals and ways of finding a loophole.

"Of course they're going to have finance to throw at that in any shape or form that they want, and it might become even more unbalanced.

"That is something that the authorities need to look at and keep an eye on. Where we sit, we fit in quite nicely with that. Your Napolis and Athletic Bilboas, who have a great chance of winning the Europa League. (Against) clubs like that, we could come to the fore.

"But it needs to work and I'm not sure they have got it all nailed down."

Those fears will have been brought into sharper focus by events in Bavaria over the weekend. It would have been a particularly rich irony if Chelsea's win had denied them access to the money-spinning Champions League.

A senior Newcastle source has indicated that the current numbers at St James' Park are nothing short of spectacular, given where they were a few short seasons ago.

The very heavy insinuation is that United are heading for a profit in the next set of financial results. At one point it was a tidy one, latest indications are that it could be quite a sizeable one. But we have reached a summer crossroads where Newcastle – the general consensus seems to suggest – need to buy new players. The indications given to The Journal are that United will only do that if they sell enough players to balance the books in compliance with the forthcoming Financial Fair Play rules.

It is the same at Sunderland, where wage levels are the big talking point.

Faced with a need to break the cycle of promotion and relegation, the Black Cats convinced sceptical players with lucrative wage packages.

It helped Roy Keane to establish Sunderland in the top flight, and Steve Bruce to take the club onto the next level but it has created an unsustainable wages-to-turnover ratio of nearly 76%. That must be tackled, according to senior Black Cats sources, and new signings can expect more creative, incentive-led contracts. You suspect that means they will be out of the running for the biggest free agents on the market this summer.

For all the talk of financial fair play consolidating the European elite, we need it here in the North East.

Both clubs are now set on a course of complying with it and it should aid the efforts of both to shorten the gap between the Champions League elite and the rest – if Uefa actually enforce it.

That means they must be prepared to ban the 2012 European champions if they don't drastically reduce their reckless expenditure. So congratulations from all of us in the North East, Roman – but perhaps we'll be fighting you from an equal footing in the future.

FINANCIAL FAIR PLAY – THE RIGHTS AND WRONGS OF THE NEW RULES

What is it? It is the brainchild of Uefa chairman Michel Platini, who wants to level the financial playing field among Europe’s clubs and crack down on unsustainable, debt-laden clubs. He says 50% of Europe’s top division clubs are in debt and wants to put that right. It is a set of regulations devised by Uefa to ensure that clubs don’t put their long-term future in jeopardy by spending more than they earn in pursuit of success.

What does it mean? From 2013-14, clubs throughout Europe must balance their football-related expenditure. This will be based on information from the 2011-12 and 2012-13 accounts – so effectively Uefa has already started looking.

When does it come into force – and are there any loopholes? The season after next – 2013-14. However, Uefa will allow “acceptable deviation” for the first two seasons, which means clubs will be allowed to record up to a £25million (45million Euros) loss until 2015-16. And here lies the complication – Uefa say the clubs may be given leeway if they show a dramatic and overall trend towards reducing losses, but don’t quite break even. It is also worth noting that only expenditure on wages and transfer fees counts. Spending on youth development, community projects and stadium infrastructure will be be excused.

What has the reaction been? Critics have argued that it will consolidate the power of the European elite, because rich benefactors will no longer be able to pump funds into a club that could not sustain those costs without them at the helm. They say Manchester City’s fairytale rise will never be repeated – and that it will become even more difficult to break into the elite. Proponents see it as a long-overdue sea change in the way football is financed – encouraging sustainability and bringing the crazy spending of a few elite clubs back into line.

What are the punishments for clubs who fail to comply? Uefa insist that they will enforce the regulations and the most serious sanction is banning clubs who flout the rules from European competition. Other punishments include fines and withholding prize money, but the threat of a transfer ban was dropped in November 2011 on legal advice.

How are clubs trying to come to terms with it? In theory there are only three ways: cut costs, increase revenue or a combination of both. In practice, a few different routes have been taken. Clubs like Newcastle have sensed the way the wind is blowing and attempted to reduce wage costs, improve revenue streams and reduce the percentage of wages to turnover to make the clubs more sustainable. Others are looking to improve revenue with huge new sponsorship deals – such as Manchester United’s training kit deal with DHL – while some looked to get all of their spending done before the new rules came into force. Manchester City’s incredible spending spree since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover makes sense, as do the wages they have paid out. Up until the end of the 2014-15 season clubs will be allowed to exclude the cost of wages of players signed before July 2010.

And are there any other ways? Some fear that clubs will find a way around it and Sir Alex Ferguson murkily speculated that Manchester City’s owners could provide houses in Abu Dhabi to make up a shortfall in wages. It remains to be seen how Uefa would police such a deal. Huge sponsorship deals are also under the microscope. Manchester City’s remarkable £400million stadium sponsorship deal with Etihad has come under scrutiny because the airline is controlled by club owner Sheikh Mansour’s half-brother. It certainly won’t be coming to court, anyway. The top clubs all signed an agreement that the new regulations comply with EU law in March, which effectively rules out a legal challenge to the rules.

Where do we stand at the moment? Of next season’s English Champions League qualifiers, only Arsenal would qualify for a licence. But Uefa has praised Manchester City and their support for the regulations.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer