The government can’t keep out of anything. Last week we had the spectacle of Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, walking out of a meeting with football’s Premier League seriously unhappy that they have rejected his proposals for a revamp. He wants money redistributed from the Big Four (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United) to the other Premiership clubs, he wants smaller playing squads and he wants quotas of locally-produced players in teams. More widely, he thinks the Premier League, the FA and the Football League should look at governance, financial regulation and debt.
At present, there are no proposals to legislate. But we have seen before that the government often faces private businesses with the mafia-style alternatives of “do what we want or we’ll make you do what we want”. So leading clubs should be worried by this latest intervention by Mr Burnham – allegedly an Everton fan (Everton being one of the clubs which might expect to gain from these proposals, incidentally).
Why should government be involved at all? According to a spokesperson, “the Government has a duty to represent the views of football supporters… and we believe on these issues we are speaking with the grain of football opinion”. Well I’m a football supporter and they haven’t asked me. The Premier League is the world’s most successful league, a great English export-earner – and it has become so by allowing market forces to operate, by having an open-doors policy for players and for investment from all over the world. So what’s the problem? Well, it is of course a focus of envy, that powerful emotion which politicians love to tap into.
Actually I’m not personally the biggest fan of the Premiership, and constantly point out that the top league is just the peak of a huge pyramid of clubs. The Championship – the next league down – attracts bigger crowds than most European top leagues, and below that there are three more national professional leagues. Scotland also has four professional leagues. In addition, however, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have upwards of 500 semi-professional teams, the most vibrant football culture in the world.
If Mr Burnham really wants to help, he might consider the difficulties faced by some of these smaller clubs – the football equivalent of SMEs. As with small firms in other sectors, the government is less than helpful. The latest issue revolves around the minimum wage. Many lower-league teams – say those in the Highland League, the North-West Counties League or the Western League – pay small amounts to players, say £30-50 a week. Players are happy to receive this little extra to their pay from day jobs and value the privilege of playing in well-organised leagues, in front of appreciative, if small, audiences. There is always the dream that they will be spotted by scouts from bigger full-time clubs – and this does happen to some lucky part-timers every year.
Now, however, it appears that HM Revenue and Customs has decided that these payments breach minimum wage laws. All players should be paid the minimum wage for every hour they “work” for the club, including training, playing and travelling in the team coach to games. This can easily add up to 15-20 hours a week during the football season, meaning of course that no player could be paid less than about £100 a week. Cue major financial problems for little clubs with gate and social club revenue of perhaps £1000 a week.
A far cry from Old Trafford, the Emirates or even Everton’s Goodison Park, but if Mr Burnham wants to so some good for football he should stop worrying about fixing something that isn’t broken and instead talk to his ministerial colleagues about applying minimum wage laws with some common sense.